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.