Prison Break at Port Arthur

Penitentiary, Port Arthur, TAS. © Tourism Tasmania & PASHMA

Prison Break at Port Arthur

Immerse yourself in the fascinating history of Tasmania’s ‘inescapable prison’.

If Prison Break was set in mid-19th century Australia, Tasmania’s Port Arthur historic site on the Tasman Peninsula would surely be the location. Separated from Tasmania by a narrow neck of land surrounded by shark-infested waters, Port Arthur was sold as the ‘inescapable prison’. But unlike today’s camera surveillance, guards and half-starved hounds guarded the only way out. 

Stroll the landscaped Victorian gardens, and you’ll find it hard to imagine this was once a reviled prison that held 1,100 convicts at its peak. Port Arthur began life in 1830 as a small timber station and from 1833 until the 1850s some of the colony’s most hardened criminals came here to work. Today you can examine their indentured handiwork on a forty-minute guided walking tour of the site’s many buildings, ruins and restored houses.

Follow the Convict Water Supply Trail past the reservoirs, aqueducts, mills and water wheels left over from the flour mill built in 1843. Explore the dormitory rooms, messroom, library and Catholic chapel of the penitentiary it was converted to in 1857.  Imagine the salty boat-building enterprise of the dockyards, which employed over 70 convicts at its peak. Walk through the wards, kitchen, baking room, laundry and morgue of the hospital built in 1841 and 1842. See the 80-cell Separate Prison, where prisoners were kept hooded and in silent isolation. Begun in 1848, it symbolized what was seen as a new, gentler approach to imprisonment, where psychological punishment replaced floggings. In reality, Port Arthur was just as brutal as other penal settlements and many of the convicts suffered mental illness as a result of isolation. In 1864 an asylum was built to house them.

You’ll see why many attempted escape. In 1842 convict bushranger Martin Cash and two friends escaped by swimming across the shark-infested waters, their clothes tied in bundles above their heads.  Cash told the tale in his best-selling 1870 autobiography The Adventures of Martin Cash. Not so successful was George ‘Billy’ Hunt, who tried to flee across the Neck disguised in a kangaroo hide. The hungry guards shot at him, hoping for roo meat for dinner. Which is when Hunt threw off his disguise and surrendered, receiving 150 lashes.

For many, the only escape was death. Today you can cruise to the Isle of the Dead, where everyone who died inside the prison was buried. Do a guided tour and learn about the convicts, soldiers and civilians who were a part of Port Arthur, their lives commemorated in the 1,646 graves. Or hear about their eerie apparitions on a lantern-lit ghost tour. Legends tell of cells with ghostly screams and empty rocking chairs that move.

Take a trip to Point Puer Boys Prison, the British Empire’s first boy’s prison. Around 3,000 boys aged between 9 and 16 were subject to Puer’s stern discipline and harsh punishment. Today you can walk amongst what remains of the buildings they built, all in a bush landscape little changed since the 19th century.

By the 1870s the number of convicts had dwindled dramatically, and those left were too old, sick or insane to be of any use as labour. The last convict was shipped out in 1877 and the site was renamed Carnarvon. During the1880s, people brought parcels of land and forged a new community in and around the old site. In 1895 and 1897, devastating fires ripped through the area, gutting many old buildings. Despite this, the township continued to grow, attracting many tourists fascinated by the area’s history.

Today you can be one of them, walking amongst the memories of a long-gone prison where freedom was a distant possibility. With a Convict Trail drive and regular coach services between Port Arthur and Hobart, you’ll have plenty of opportunities for escape.

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