Crime, Convicts and Cruelty

Community Highlights Oceania Crime, Convicts and Cruelty

There is just so much to see in Tasmania and the historical places offer a real insight into life in this convict colony - Port Arthur being the largest and most visited site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site at that. Covering 146 hectares on a spectacular location about 90 minutes drive south of Hobart it's still easy to see with the remaining buildings that this was a big community based on the management of convicted criminals as this old picture shows.

The most imposing building, the Penitentiary was originally a flour mill and granary built in 1845 but by 1857 it was converted to a prison with 136 individual cells on the lower level for prisoners of 'bad character' and an upper level dormitory housing 348 better behaved inmates.

After buying your ticket to enter the Port Arthur site you navigate the gift shop then select a card with a profile of a convict like this one. You can follow up on what actually happened to 'your' convict in the drawers in the gallery.

There's a section in the entry building that houses 'Returned Things'. Intriguingly there's a surprising amount of returned things! Such things are items that visitors have 'souvenired' as a memento of Port Arthur! Often these things have been accompanied by letters including such statements like "our tour guide gave me a brick as a souvenir" - yeah, right!!! As if the tour guides would be handing out the old bricks - it wouldn’t take long for there to be no ruins to look at if that actually happened. And the reason people return their souvenirs? Largely because of the bad luck they’ve experienced since acquiring said 'souvenirs'. Seriously that is how most of the letters go.
The entry ticket also includes a short 'cruise' which goes past the boatyard area and around the Isle of the Dead from where you get a great view of the whole settlement.

As your ticket allows you to return to Port Arthur on the following day we did just that. There's too much to take in to do it all in a day (more than 30 historic buildings), plus on day two I booked to go on a tour of the Isle of the Dead where you go ashore from the 'cruise' and 'enjoy' - if you could call it that - a guided tour. Back to the Isle of the Dead shortly. Let's look at how the civilians and convicts lived and worked here.


There were over 2,000 residents in Port Arthur by 1840. Buildings were constructed and furnished by convict labour. There was a school, a church, courthouse and various workshops as well as the prison buildings and civilian homes. The boat builders made 16 ships and about 150 smaller boats. Port Arthur ceased being a penal settlement in 1877 and shortly afterwards many of the buildings were dismantled for reuse, or later destroyed by bush fire. Today the remaining buildings vary from a few ruins to restored and habitable. The Commandant’s house is still in beautiful, intact condition.

The setting is even inspirational to the artistically talented - with this lady - who was with a group from Perth WA apparently - creating delightful mini pictures of the scenery.


As a fully developed settlement there was a definite social hierarchy and while the male community leaders were busy trying to rehabilitate prisoners, the wives looked after the children and apparently (according to a Port Arthur tour guide) occasionally enjoyed 'sassafras tea' brewed from Tasmania's black sassafras tree. Now sassafras has some interesting qualities - back in the days of this penal settlement it was enjoyed for its relaxing and somewhat hallucinogenic effects. So the ladies were often somewhat off their heads by the time the menfolk returned from a day's do-gooding! Sassafras was used for a long time as a drink but it has been found to also have carcinogenic qualities and is no longer on the afternoon tea menu.


But back to the real business of this place - punishment. This has been a difficult post to write because the available information on the lives of convicts here is confronting and upsetting. As mentioned in a previous post about the Cascade female factory prison crimes ranged from petty theft to violent murder but it's evident from reading all the information about Port Arthur that punishment was brutal, cruel and unrelenting regardless of the seriousness of the crime. One part of Port Arthur was the Point Puer Boys' Prison which was built to accommodate youths aged 14-17 but had boys as young as nine.

There was also a Hospital, the Asylum and the Paupers' Depot which are pretty self-explanatory. The Separate Prison was a new style of incarceration based on Pentonville Prison in London.

The authorities had determined that hard labour and physical punishment made prisoners more violent and more likely to reoffend so the Separate Prison operated with isolation, silent contemplation and anonymity. This was the start of prisoners being referred to by numbers not names and they worked in silence in their individual tiny cells for 23 hours a day. Even the remaining hour was spent in isolation. When prisoners attended a weekly service in the chapel they were made to wear hoods with only eye holes and were made to stand in what were really just tiny cupboards so they couldn’t communicate with fellow prisoners on any level. Despite these restrictions they evidently did manage to 'talk' to each other by singing their messages during the hymns!

There were many critics of this style of punishment - among them Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope.

Below shows an excerpt from the inquest into a prisoner suicide and an account of a young prisoner's state of mind by reformer Frederick Mackie - both of which really demonstrate the dehumanising effects of the Separate Prison.

The Isle of the Dead tour gave further insights into the demise of both convicts and civilians. But before I outline this part of the island's story you need to know that the traditional owners were the Pydairrerme people - an Oyster Bay tribe. Up until European occupation the indigenous people camped and collected shellfish here so the island includes a large shell midden. Covering just a hectare (or 2.5 acres) the island houses over 1,000 graves - there are just 9 headstones for 900 men on the lower level (as convict graves were not acknowledged by headstones) and a few dozen on the upper level. Access is via raised walkways to avoid walking on unmarked graves - it's extremely well done.

Causes of death included respiratory disease, malnutrition, dysentery, enteritis in addition to murder and suicide. There were also several drownings - often close to shore! Remember that these were mostly British people who couldn’t swim and if they fell out of a boat nearing shore for example they were weighed down by heavy uniforms in addition to not being able to swim - even those trying to help them often drowned too. Of 40 British military men buried on the Isle of the Dead, half of them drowned! William Doodie, a Senior Constable was one such drowning victim.

Death in childbirth was common too and there’s a grave for Harriet Chatfield who produced 13 children before dying aged 39 with her unborn baby inside her. Several of the headstones have an engraved rope edging - these were made by a carver named Pickering. As most of the convicts were illiterate there are many errors on the wording on the headstones, for example a young boy whose surname was 'McDavid' has 'McDivitt' on his headstone. Another (unmarked) grave belongs to James May who was transported for life to 'Van Diemens Land' in 1831 for body snatching. He died at Port Arthur in 1834 and was reputed to have been involved with the infamous grave robbers and murderers Burke and Hare in Edinburgh.

Back in the main settlement we visited the church buildings and gardens - such a contrast to the shocking stories on Isle of the Dead.

Finally before leaving Port Arthur another tragic event needs to be acknowledged. On 28 April 1996 a lone gunman killed 35 people using semi-automatic rifles. The majority of these murders took place at the Port Arthur historic site. The perpetrator received 35 life sentences without the possibility of parole. There's a monument and a memorial plaque for the victims in the gardens here. The Howard government reviewed gun laws following this tragedy - with a buyback scheme and the National Firearms Agreement being implemented. It was indeed a dark day in Australia's history.
On a lighter note, as we left Port Arthur we were delighted to see this innovative travelling rig in the car park just near our camper!


This featured blog entry was written by GraveNomads from the blog Big Lap of Oz.
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By GraveNomads

Posted Wed, May 22, 2024 | Australia | Comments