Port Arthur is recognised as one of Tasmania’s top tourist attractions and it’s easy to see why. The small town owes its existence mainly to its former status as one of Australia’s penal sites and here, amidst stunning natural beauty, the fascinating story of Australia’s convict past comes vividly to life.
Hobart, located an hour and a half’s drive from Port Arthur, provides a convenient base for a day trip to the town. Named after the Lieutenant Governor of Tasmania between 1823 and 1837 George Arthur, Port Arthur was established as a timber station in 1830.
By 1833, the area had become a penal colony for criminals sent from Britain as well as repeat offenders within Australia. At its peak, more than 1100 inmates eked out their existence in this remote corner of Tasmania, sentenced to a prison considered quite progressive and ‘modern’ in the 1830s, when it was established.
During this period, prisoners were occupied by ship building, logging and brick making. The prison was later closed in 1877 and developed as a site for tourism, which continues to be the town’s lifeblood to this day. The imposing main prison complex was named as a World Heritage site in 2010 and continues to make history come alive.
Port Arthur is dominated by striking, World Heritage listed, 19th century convict prisons, which clash with the Tasman Peninsula’s natural tranquil beauty, making for a truly unique tourism experience.
Learn why inmates had to remain silent for months at a time at Port Arthur’s Model Prison complex, where the town’s convict past is proudly displayed. Take an easy-guided stroll through Government Gardens or check out the impressive timber and stone Convict Church.
Also worth a visit, is Point Puer, the British Empire’s first boys’ jail, just a short drive from the main prison where 3000 boys aged between 9 and 16, banished little ‘artful dodgers,’ endured stern discipline and harsh punishment in a bush landscape that has changed little over the years.
Look into the Coal Mines Site where nearly 600 inmates slaved for 12 hours a day in damp and dangerous conditions extracting low-grade coal at the extremely picturesque site just 24 kilometres from the main prison.
Explore the creaking ruins of houses, barracks and punishment cells or encounter an eerie apparition on the lantern-lit ghost tour. Finish the day by buying a ticket at the main prison complex and jumping on a boat to visit the Isle of the Dead. This tiny geranium-covered island is the final resting place of 1646 convicts, soldiers and civilians.
Spend at least a day or two exploring the rest of the exceptionally dramatic Tasman Peninsula coastline, including the marvellous symmetry of the Tessellated Pavement, the majesty of the sea cliffs and stacks at Cape Pillar and Cape Raoul, nature’s elegant architecture at Tasman Arch, the astonishing colours of Lime Bay and the mysteries of Remarkable Cave. Visit Port Arthur to take a walk through history.