Port Arthur – day 327

Unfortunately, the only free parking in Hobart is on the street between 6pm and 8.30am. Not a problem as we managed to find parking straight outside the YHA last night but slightly inconvenient as it required us getting up early when, quite frankly, we both just wanted to stay wrapped up in bed. After eating breakfast and making sandwiches for lunch, we headed to our rather lovely bright red Kia and headed onto the ‘freeway’ to Port Arthur Hostoric Site, which is considered to be one of Australia’s most important heritage sites and tourist destinations. The drive was quite lovely as we drove through the scenic Tasman Peninsula on the south east of Tasmania to get to the ruins of the former penitentiary. 

Using our YHA membership cards, we managed to get a concession price into the site – those cards are fantastic and have more than paid for themselves ten times over. Well worth the $25!! Treated ourselves to a guided tour of The Isle of the Dead too (also at a concession price). We where given a playing card each which corresponds with a convict that had resided at Port Arthur. As we had 45 minutes to wait until our harbour cruise and tour, we went into the museum to find out the fate of our convicts. Mine was from Cork, Ireland and was sentenced to transportation for stealing. Fortunately, my convict was a blacksmith so spent his time in a ‘decent’ job and environment within the prison. Jayne’s convict didn’t far so well… He was from Norfolk, England and he was also convicted of petty theft. He was given a job as a shoe maker and cobbler and spent his days making prison shoes until he was caught stealing again… He was then ‘demoted’ to the chain gang to chop and carry timber. A dangerous job as the logs were often dropped and men were crushed from the rolling trunks. We then went into the beautifully gardens and ground, including the reconstructed Commandant’s Garden which was originally planted in the 1850s, to explore the timber and stone church, constructed in 1836-37 and a lasting tribute to its convict builders. Built on high ground to overlook the convict settlement, the church could accommodate over one thousand souls at its services. The building was never consecrated, due to its use by prisoners of different denominations, but was representative of the authorities’ goal to reform the convict population through religion. The building was destroyed by fire in 1884 and has undergone repeated conservation work throughout the 20th century.Before we jumped onto the catamaran and started our cruise of the harbour. The MV Marana took us past the Dockyard, the Isle of the Dead Cemetery and the Point Puer Boys’ Prison. A really interesting cruise with the guide explaining bits about the islands that we passed and the history of the whole site, introducing us to the maritime history of Port Arthur.Jumping off at the Isle of the Dead, we began our guided tour which provided an insight into the live and deaths of some of Port Arthur’s past residents. The tiny island cemetery holds the remains of over 1,000 people, convicts and ‘free’ (guards etc), although there is supposedly space for over 2,000 bodies. Between 1833 and 1877 over 1000 people were buried on the Isle of the Dead. The island has two distinct burial sections; with convicts buried largely in unmarked graves on the low southern end, and the free and military burials marked by headstones up on the high northern end. The reason convicts were in unmarked graves was because they were considered criminals and, it was believed that, in their death they should be forgotten. After 1850, some of the convicts ended up with headstones but only if their family and friends could afford to purchase one. We got to hear the personal stories of convicts transported half way around the world, the soldiers who gave their lives to guard the prison, the men in positions of responsibility, and the families who followed them to the ends of the earth. The story of the convict tombstone engraver who made his friends (and partner in crime) tombstone the most ornate one in the entire cemetery was incredibly moving. 

Back on the boat, we made our way back to the port and were able to capture the iconic photo of Port Arthur before we began our free walking tour of the site which provided an introduction to the most significant parts of Port Arthur, giving us a great foundation to continue exploring the rest of the site on our own.Finishing the tour and heading over to the imposing ruin of the Penitentiary which was constructed in 1857 as a flour mill and granary. The flour mill and granary was converted into a penitentiary, capable of housing over 480 convicts in dormitory accommodation and separate apartments when the convict building became overcrowded. Flanked by the Watchmen’s Quarters, the building also contained a mess room, library, Catholic chapel, workshops and ablutions complex. The building was gutted by fire in 1897 and lay derelict until a conservation program began in the 1960s.

We walked around the various other buildings, including the reconstructed homes of important people. The building we both enjoyed the most was the Separate Prison. In 1848, harsh physical punishment within the prison was rejected in favour of punishment of the mind. Flogging gave way to solitary confinement and the Separate Prison was built at Port Arthur in 1850. Cruciform-shaped, each of the four wings comprised a central corridor flanked by rows of solitary confinement cells. Separated by thick sandstone walls, it was hoped that the convicts would benefit from contemplative silence and separation. So much so, the guards weren’t allowed to wear shoes or talk to each other when working so that the convicts heard no sound whatsoever. Even the chapel continued individual cells so no one could see each other. As we entered the Prison, a voice read out the Rules and Regulations of the Separate Prison as they were read to each man who was imprisoned here. It was also written on the wall, highlighting the strict solitary confinement that was ahead of each prisoner. Our echoing steps walked along the central hall to A Wing, and the cells where the men spent their days—sleeping, waking, working and eating. We then went into the narrow exercise yard, where we were surrounded by by high, imposing walls, revealing a sliver of sky – the convicts only link to the outside world.

We even tried the additional solitary punishment cell, used for convicts who broke the rules of solitary confinement (usually by making noise!). The cell was located through four doors, each one could be individually locked, and each inner wall was a metre thick – 4 meters to lock out every sliver of sunlight – when we each shut the other person inside, the darkness was so imposing. I couldn’t even last a minute inside, let alone 23 hours a day for a couple of days. Having already spent five hours wandering around the site, we decided to head to the Coal Mines Historic Site which was Tasmania’s first operational mine, established as a much-needed local source of coal, but also as a place of punishment for the ‘worst class’ of convicts. During its busiest years almost 600 prisoners with their jailers and their families lived and worked at the Mines. While the underground workings are no longer accessible, we were able to visit the picturesque ruins of houses, barracks, offices and punishment cells. As we explored the evocative unspoiled landscape, we were able to appreciate something of the isolation and hardship that the convicts had to endure.Knowing we had a three hour drive ahead of us to Coles Bay, we didn’t linger too long at the Coal Mines. Heading down the main road back towards Hobart, our sat-nav directed us down another main road to save us driving all the way to Hobart and back out again. Well, I say a main road… Within 5km the sealed tarmac road turned into gravel and then, slightly further on, dirt! Not exactly the same quality of main roads we are used to!! Seeing the funny side of being reduced to driving along this road at about 30km we kept a close eye out for wildlife as the side of the road was littered with roadkill. We came across loads of live animals as we drove for nearly an hour down the road – kangaroos, wallabies, possums and I even saw a Tasmanian devil but it disappeared easily before Jayne spotted it. 

A much longer drive than anticipated as, even back onto the proper main road, I was too worried about hitting anything to drive fast. Especially as I witnessed the car in front hit a possum. A slight difficulty finding the YHA due to confusing road signs, we grabbed our key that had been taped to the reception door and headed to our cabin (the hostel was closed for repairs). In a cabin with three others, a couple from Italy and a German girl, who were all huddled around a little electric heater whilst Jayne made pasta for dinner as I let my heart rate and adrenaline levels settle down!

Monday 29th August 2016

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