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Published: March 2nd 2010
Day 299 - Day trip to Port Arthur from Hobart
Well we can’t be accused of sitting around doing nothing can we! It was another early start this morning so after a quick shower in the water tank amenities we were off towards Port Arthur.
The drive is just over an hour and the journey is easy in the early morning with little traffic on the roads.
Port Arthur is a place steeped in history, a convict prison from the 1800’s which has always created curiosity for tourists even in the early days. Sadly it was also the scene of a violent massacre in 1996 where a number of people were killed by a lone gunman. On our travels around Australia we’ve heard of ‘conspiracy theories’ about the later event and how the place is so eerie and unbalanced that people couldn’t stay overnight anywhere and just wanted to leave. We travel with an open mind and just hope to leave here wiser and more respectful.
Your admission ticket to the site includes a short cruise in the morning, two days access and a convict card so you can play the ‘Lottery of Life’. What with our
Ghost Tour booking for 9pm tonight it’s going to be a very long day trip.
The guided tour gets our day off to a good start, Sue is very informative, very jolly and we’re amazed at the sight in front of us. Today Port Arthur looks stunningly beautiful, the sort of place you would expect to find an ancient castle not a convict prison.
Sue gives us a great welcome as she describes the history to the site, a timber getting camp established in 1830 which was turned into a penitentiary in 1833 for repeat offenders transported to Van Diemans land from mainly Ireland and England, the regime was seen as a machine to grind rogues honest. It was a harsh place with cruel methods and experiments of what came to be known as asylums in later years. There was a whole community that lived within the settlement; military men with their wives and children, doctors, chaplains and hospital staff making up the total of 2000 people by 1840. With the exception of the convicts held in the Separate Prison, they worked producing, amongst other items, ships, shoes, clothing and bells. As we walk past the ruins of
the main prison, Sue is busily building us a picture of the discipline and punishment regimes that the inmates were ruled by. The prisoners rations of salt meat and flour were subsidised by additional vegetables they grew in their own gardens. In 1833 Governor Arthur confiscated the gardens stating that they were a privilege the prisoners should not be afforded, outbreaks of scurvy soon followed. One of the toughest jobs in the early days of the penitentiary was working in the flourmill and granary during 1845. Powered in two ways, a water wheel and a by convicts who drove the treadmill. It was a dreaded punishment which could result in severe injury and exhaustion.
136 separate cells at the bottom of the main prison were for those convicts who had to be separated from others, men under a heavy sentence. On the top floor dormitory, 480 better behaved prisoners were housed but in 1849 a new threat was established for them all. The Separate Prison was built further up the hill with an intention to ‘change the evil tendencies of the convicts minds’.
This is where Sue leaves us to begin our own wander through the site. She’s
given us the basic historical facts about Port Arthur and now it’s up to us to discover the rest.
When the Separate Prison was built it was following in the footsteps of the belief that physical punishment hardened the convicts and turned those of them that coped with the lashes into heroes. This new prison brought with it a new idea of reform moving from physical to psychological. In a quiet, ordered atmosphere there was nothing for the convicts to do but think about their sins and change. Either that or lose their minds perhaps.
The small separate prison cells were to be expected, even the individual exercise yards ensuring that inmates never got the opportunity to speak to anyone over their time in what was the ultimate in solitary confinement. Each new prisoner spent between 4 to 12 months in the Separate Prison, after which they were assigned to work outside somewhere in the settlement. The rules were read to each prisoner on arrival, there were hundreds of rules for them to adhere to but the most important one was that they spent most of their time whilst in prison in silence. The men were masked to
prevent contact with other inmates and even for the church service on a Sunday they stood screened from their fellow prisoners. Here however they were permitted to sing, and sing they did. It was the only time they could make a noise without the fear of reprisal.
Being someone that chatters pretty much constantly, living a life of imprisoned silence doesn’t bear thinking about.
We had yet to learn much about the reasons behind these men being sent here, surely most of them will be multiple murderers, serial killers, rapists. When we play the ‘Lottery of life’ a bit later we will find out.
At 11am we boarded the ferry boat for a cruise around the harbour. It takes us past the Isle of the Dead, the cemetery for Port Arthur during the convict settlement years. Over 1100 people were buried here, the lower half of the island reserved for convicts with few or no tombstones offering a marked grave. The higher side of the island was for civil and military graves, most of these will have survived over the years whereas many of the convict graves will have succumbed to the waters surrounding them.
Arthur didn’t just cater for men, it also catered for young offenders too - young boys from British slums who were unskilled, weak and could not be assigned as labourers. The Point Puer Boys’ Prison is a separate area within Port Arthur and one that we didn’t go to, a separate tour admission is required.
Putting all of the above points to one side just for a second, the view of Port Arthur from the boat was stunning today. The sky was beautiful and it looked every inch the historic English country house grounds. How deceptive looks can be.
After the brief ferry interlude we continued our journey through Port Arthur. The Commandant’s House, the hospital ruins, the policeman’s, chaplains and doctors residences are all of interest and further more darken the views of what this place once was. Smith O’Brien’s cottage stands on the hill behind the hospital, a beautiful looking cottage that housed a political prisoner from Ireland - William Smith O’Brien - in 1850. His crime was his fight for Ireland’s independence and for that he was sent to Port Arthur for 6 years having previously tried to escape from Maria Island. Alone in his
cottage of relative comfort he recorded in his diaries that he had ‘quite forgotten how to laugh’.
One of the last buildings we wandered through was the Asylum which now houses relics from the dark past. Here you can also look up any convict connections and guess what, Darryl’s past is clean. Who would have thought it …. but Sarah, well there lies a tale! Thomas Kettle, ring any bells Dad? He was in Port Arthur, we can’t tell in what capacity - convict, military, civilian - we don’t know where he was from or what years he was here but the records clearly show he was here. Better dig out the family tree when we get home!
We ate some lunch in the beautiful Government Gardens which lead down from the church. Our morning self discovery tour had come to an end.
We’d decided to get out and about for the afternoon, there’s a beautiful local area here on the Tasman Peninsula and we felt we should go see it. We will return to Port Arthur’s historic site later.
We drove out to the Tasman Peninsula and got quite a lot more than we bargained
for! We found our way first to Dootown, a collection of what presumably was fishing shacks years ago but are now holiday homes all with the word Doo in their name. There are, to name a few, Just Doo It, Love Me Doo, Much-a-doo, Did-geri-doo, Doo All, Doo Little, Doo-n-time, Wee Doo, Rum Doo and the much loved Doo Drop In! Beautiful!
The blowhole wasn’t on its best performance today but down on the jetty we found a chartered fishing boat that had just returned with its catch of Tuna. As we watched them gutting and sorting the fish we were delighted to be offered some for ourselves! What a beaut, good on you skipper Steve - fresh Tuna, chicken of the sea, we were more than pleased to take some off their hands. A Japanese chap was very happy to receive the heads, complete with eyes - he was welcome to them!
Our drive took us out to the Tasman Arch, Devils Kitchen then back through Carnarvon Bay and onto the place they call the Remarkable Cave. The steps down to it were remarkable, all 114 of them and what goes down must come back up!
As we drove back through what we considered to be the township of Port Arthur our thoughts returned to our unanswered questions regarding the massacre. We were reluctant to ask anyone where it had occurred, for such a small place it was painfully obvious that the event probably scarred everyone that lives here.
It was nearing dinner time and we found our way to the Comfort Inn which overlooks the historic site, we managed to talk the manageress in to a table for four and two meals to share between us. None of us needed a big meal, just something to keep the cobwebs away. While we were here I found a piece about the massacre, it answered all our questions. The atrocity had occurred, mostly, in the historic site itself and the memorial gardens had been created as a standing reminder to those that suffered and lost their lives. It was a part of the site that for some reason we had neglected to visit and completely overlooked it in the information that we’d gathered.
After dinner we put right our wrong and returned to visit the memorial garden. The site is virtually deserted now, gone is
the hustle and bustle that we saw earlier in the day with literally thousands of tourists pouring through. The garden itself is beautifully set out, very simple and calm. 35 people lost their lives on April 28th 1996, 20 in the first 90 seconds of the gunman opening fire at the Broad Arrow Café within the grounds. Today the café remains but in ruins, it’s unused and a cold reminder to the horror that shook the community to its core. Peace and Cherish, two words written on the wall of the water garden, both easily forgotten in the pressures of life.
Back inside we finally had a really good look around the Lottery of Life area where the convict cards we were given when we first arrived tell us the story of how ‘we’ (our particular convict) came to be here.
My convict card was of William Day, a 26 year old painter and glazer from Durham, England transported here for Bigamy in February 1830. William was sentenced to seven years transportation and sent to Port Arthur for repeatedly absconding from his place of employment. He was now on a journey into the unknown finally arriving after weeks
aboard a ship, at Port Arthur. For William Day though things on the whole were about as good as they could get. He was employed as a porter in the Commissariat Store and rewarded for his trusted position with payments of tea and sugar. He was never charged with any further offences whilst in Port Arthur and we can only assume that eventually he became a free man.
In contrast Darryl’s convict, Thomas Walker was a repeat offender of minor crimes - petty theft. He was a skilled seaman and put in charge of the Commandant’s boat. But rather than settling in his trusted role he planned an escape and together with seven others stole a whale boat. They were captured and Thomas was returned to Port Arthur but fell ill and died before he could stand trial. Had he been convicted he would probably have returned to Port Arthur to work in irons on the chain gang.
As the night closed in around us we joined the Ghost Tour which winds its way back through parts of the site by lantern light. It’s been a long day and the 90 minute tour is a bit much but
its good fun with lots of light hearted stories along the way.
It’s a long drive back to the caravan park but it’s been a good day and we’re really pleased we made the effort to travel to the Tasman Peninsula today. For us the experience had been a good one, a time to remember the past but look to the future.
Dar and Sar
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