In 1830, PORT ARTHUR was selected to host a prison settlement on the “natural penitentiary” of the Tasman Peninsula, its narrow “gate” at Eaglehawk Neck guarded by dogs. It was intended for convicts who committed serious crimes in New South Wales or Van Diemen’s Land after transportation; men who were seen to have no redeeming features and were treated accordingly. The regime was never a subtle one: Van Diemen’s Land Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur believed that a convict’s “whole fate should be… the very last degree of misery consistent with humanity”, though his aim was for “grinding rogues honest” rather than punitive punishment. The first 150 convicts established a timber industry, then Port Arthur became a self-supporting centre of industry, with shipbuilding, brickmaking, shoemaking, even agriculture. In a separate prison for boys at Point Puer, inmates were taught trades. Meanwhile, prison officers and their families enjoyed gardens, a drama club, a library and regular cricket.
After transportation ended, psychological punishment replaced physical. The Model Prison, based on Pentonville Prison in London, opened in 1852. Prisoners were held in tiny cells in complete isolation and silence, always referred to by numbers and hooded whenever they left their cells. The idea represented progressive penal ideas that let convicts contemplate their misdeeds (hence the “model” title), but by the time Port Arthur closed in 1877 it had its own mental asylum full of ex-convicts, as well as a geriatric home for ex-convict paupers. An excellent interpretive centre in the visitor centre provides detail on the prison’s history through artefacts and texts, and there’s more fascinating information in the older museum, housed in what was the asylum.
Popularized by Marcus Clarke’s romantic tragedy For the Term of His Natural Life, Port Arthur received visitors as soon as the prison closed, with guided tours offered by former inmates. Today, the Port Arthur Historic Site is the most popular tourist attraction in the state. It houses more than sixty buildings, some of which – like the poignant prison chapel – are furnished and restored. Others, like the ivy-covered church, are picturesque ruins set in a landscape of green lawns, shady trees and paths sloping down to the cove. The beautiful setting makes it look more like a serene, old-world university campus than a prison.Read More
Adventure on the Tasman Peninsula
Adventure on the Tasman Peninsula
While Port Arthur is the major attraction, the wild peninsula is worth a visit in its own right, especially for its bushwalks and superb south and eastern coastline. Some of the finest coastal features are around Eaglehawk Neck: just to the north of the superb arc of sand is the Tessellated Pavement, onto which you can climb down at low tide; and to the south, off the highway, a Blowhole which works in big swells, the huge Tasman Arch and the Devils Kitchen, a sheer rock cleft into which the sea surges. Much of this area is designated the Tasman National Park; the Tasman Trail is an exhilarating 16km coastal walk that starts from the Devils Kitchen and ends at Fortescue Bay, which has a good camping area (otherwise, the bay is 12km down a dirt road east off the Arthur Highway). The coastline south around Cape Huay (4hr return from campsite) is more stunning still. You can download walking notes for the Tasman Trail from the NPWS website. South of Port Arthur, walking tracks begin from Remarkable Cave: to Crescent Bay (5hr return), Mount Brown (5hr return) and Maingon Blowhole (3hr return). With your own transport, walks from Highcroft west to Cape Raoul and Shipstern’s Bluff (both 5hr return) are recommended.
For many visitors an eco-cruise by Tasman Island Cruises (daily 10am, Dec–May also 2pm; 3hr; $100; t03/6250 2200, wwww.tasmancruises.com.au) rates on a par with Port Arthur. A high-speed boat jets down the coast from Pirates Bay or Port Arthur, hugging the 190m cliffs and surging into sea-caves of the southern Tasman Peninsula – expect to see and learn about giant kelp, jellyfish, sea eagles, the seals on Tasman Island and, if you’re lucky, dolphins and even whales (usually late Nov, early Dec) – highly recommended. Full-day tours go from Hobart (from $165) and include visits to Port Arthur or the Devil Centre at Taranna; visit the cruise centre in Hobart on Franklin Wharf by Constitution Dock. Eaglehawk Dive Centre, 178 Pirates Bay Drive (t03/6250 3566, wwww.eaglehawkdive.com.au), offers dive-boat charters (equipment included) at low rates to caves, shipwrecks, kelp forests and nearby seal colonies, with an underwater visibility of 15–30m.