The Ten Commandants, Port Arthur, Tasmania

Last Updated on February 10, 2021 by Red Nomad OZ

Port Arthur Penitentiary from Jetty, Tasmania
Port Arthur Penitentiary from Jetty, Tasmania

There’s a million dollar view over Mason Cove from the failed flour mill when the conditions are right. As they were for me on this fine and sunny autumn day.

Penitentiary Walls, Port Arthur
Penitentiary Ruins, Port Arthur, Tasmania

I was outside.

It was warm.

And I was there by choice.

I was lucky. Those three factors aren’t always present on prison visits. They’re even less likely in a penal settlement as notorious as Port Arthur, Australia’s best known convict penitentiary on the Tasman peninsula, a 90 minute drive from Hobart.

Getting here at last had only taken … well, never mind how many years since I read about it. I was here now, so I slapped down the moral dilemma of whether or not it was ethical to spend money on being entertained by other people’s suffering and set off to enjoy myself.

Because that’s what you do in a World Heritage listed convict settlement, right??

Penitentiary from Commandant's House, Port Arthur, Tasmania
Penitentiary from Commandant’s House, Port Arthur, Tasmania

A Room with a View

Despite being surrounded by evidence of suffering and death, Port Arthur is strangely serene. Although it’s unlikely the blissful serenity OR the staggering scenery would have been quite so noticeable to the 600+ convicts locked up in the flour mill – converted into the main penitentiary after a failed attempt to provide the colony with its own flour supply.

Hospital Ruins, Port Arthur
Hospital Ruins, Port Arthur, Tasmania

Perhaps the better outlook enjoyed by the well-behaved convicts from their bunks on the 3rd and 4th floors above the lower level cells containing the hardened criminals was a small consolation.

Maybe the only one.

As a secondary punishment site for repeat offenders from all over Australia, Port Arthur was modelled on the ideas of prison reformer Jeremy Bentham as ‘a machine for grinding rogues into honest men’*. That meant an unpalatable cocktail of discipline, religion, training and punishment by solitary confinement.

The Governor's Gardens, Port Arthur
The Governor’s Gardens, Port Arthur, Tasmania

And all that grinding happened in an area with an annual rainfall of ~850 mm falling on ~190 days a year and maximum temperatures averaging below 15° C. That meant a LOT of cold, dismal days. No surprises about the high incidence of respiratory problems and rheumatic ailments.

Reflections from the Jetty, Port Arthur
Reflections from the Jetty, Port Arthur, Tasmania

Life at Port Arthur

Down here, with nothing much between the coast and Antarctica, a life sentence meant exactly that. At the narrow neck of land connecting the peninsula to the rest of Tasmania there’s a line of dogs. Around the peninsula are treacherous waters, massive cliffs and wild weather. Escape? I don’t think so.

View from Commandant's Verandah, Port Arthur
View from Commandant’s Verandah, Port Arthur, Tasmania

So was ‘enjoying’ the ‘killer view’ during what I KNEW would be a short stay with a departure time chosen by ME profoundly disrespectful to the 1100 convicts and settlers buried on the Isle of the Dead out in the bay?

Because this view was the last one they’d seen??

Whether yes or no, I’m in good company. Renamed ‘Carnarvon’ when the prison closed in 1877 after nearly 50 years – and TEN commandants (yes, that’s what my post title means!) – the township soon became a tourist attraction and the name changed back to Port Arthur.

Isle of the Dead, Port Arthur, Tasmania
Isle of the Dead, Port Arthur, Tasmania

As tourist demand increased, it’s been re-developed and restored into a key site of the 11 that comprise the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property.

And the tourists who keep rolling in aren’t just here for the fine bakery food up in the Port Café!

Guard Tower, Port Arthur, Tasmania
Guard Tower, Port Arthur, Tasmania

There’s a fine line between having a keen and inquiring mind and just being plain nosey. So the fascination my glimpse into this other world so alien, yet so much a part of colonial Australian history, gave me could go either way. Right? RIGHT??

Discovering Port Arthur

Church Spires, Port Arthur, Tasmania
Church Spires, Port Arthur, Tasmania

Exploring the Port Arthur site makes those history lessons of (not so) long ago real.

There’s the contrast between the convicts and the officers spelled out in the rough stone cells vs the comforts of the commandants house.

The massive government gardens where officers and their families could escape the taint of the convicts under their charge.

The Dockyard employing up to 70, where 166 boats both large and small were built.

The first juvenile reformatory in the British Empire where boys from 9-17 were educated at Point Puer, just across Mason Cove.

The church where up to 1100 people attended compulsory services.

And questions I’d never before thought to ask were answered.

Questions like what happened when a convict ‘lifer’ became too old or ill work – and thus earn their keep? And what happened if the harsh conditions tipped a convict over the edge of sanity?

Outlook from Gardens, Port Arthur
Outlook from Gardens, Port Arthur

They were housed in the Pauper’s Depot (self explanatory) or Asylum – now a Museum and Study Centre – although I didn’t find out what happened to those still alive when the penal settlement was closed. Is this the forgotten tragedy of this era?

Modern Day Tragedy at Port Arthur

But the tragedies that define Port Arthur sadly didn’t end back in the late 1800s.

Memorial Garden, Port Arthur
Memorial Garden, Port Arthur

The Memorial Garden built around the remains of the Broad Arrow Café commemorates the 35 visitors and staff killed and 19 wounded by a gunman in 1996. It’s a place to honour the ordinary people like you and me whose lives were brutally and senselessly lost or changed forever.

And a place to re-affirm that life is to be enjoyed and savoured.

The Penitentiary, Port Arthur, Tasmania
The Penitentiary, Port Arthur, Tasmania

I’m still not sure if ‘enjoy’ is the right word to describe my day in Port Arthur. But I don’t think I’ll be taking my freedom, choices and life for granted any more.

Have YOU been to Port Arthur?  Do you have family connections from Port Arthur??  Let me know in the comments below!

Everlasting, Port Arthur
Everlasting, Port Arthur

Want MORE?

Don’t take my word for it – make your OWN date with history and see it for yourself!  These cheap flights will get you started!

* Quoted from the Port Arthur Historic Site Visitor Guide, also used extensively as a reference for this post.

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  1. The Mason cove is definitely a million dollar view! I had no idea there was such a depressing history about Port Arthur and it’s no wonder so many people died from respiratory ailments. The conditions and situation is enough to scare anyone into behaving to not end up there.

  2. We have no family connection to Port Arthur, but we did have the good fortune to visit Tasmania during December/January 2013/2014. We did visit Port Arthur, and our experience has been powerfully relived through your post accompanied by magnificent photos. Thank you.

    1. It’s my pleasure to show it to you again, Wanda – so glad it brought back memories of your holiday. That’s one of the many reasons I blog – to re-live those experiences again myself!

  3. I spent three days there just over two years ago. I had a direct descendant spend about twenty six years there in the early 1800’s.
    I thought I had an idea of the history of Port Arthur from a lot of things I had read and from studying my family history, but nothing could quite prepare me for the overwhelming feelings of respect and appreciation I had for the place as I was leaving on the final day. The one question I still have to this day is to just imagine what it could have possibly been like for everyone who ever lived and worked there in such an isolated part of the world. I will go back again in the near future, just so I can simply wander the grounds and only begin to imagine what it must have been like to walk in their shoes.

    1. I wish I had been able to spend more than a few hours, Marcus – but NOT 26 years 😀 I would have liked to spend more time in the museum and some of the buildings – the renovations and upgrades are great, but I wonder if they haven’t ‘sanitised’ the experience a little bit too much?? When I tried to imagine myself there as a teenager with nowhere else to go even if I was allowed to leave, I couldn’t. They were certainly dark and difficult times. I’ll be back again sometime too – it’ll be interesting to see how a 2nd visit affects me.

  4. Your post resurrected the feelings I had when we visited Port Arthur a couple of years ago. Sad, haunting, should I enjoy a tourist experience in the face of so much suffering, and so much more. You brought it all back to me me. I can remember walking into Port Arthur (the back way from the caravan park) and being physically stopped in my tracks by the sheer force of the place, and if I was to be a bit ‘woo woo’ I’d say it was a very sad energy that engulfed me. Fascinating to discover what went on in those harsh days of penal reform, and even sadder to think about the terrible event in 1996. Great post Red, your writing is awesome 🙂

    1. I think we all felt the aura of sadness settling over us, Jo. It’s so sad that the brutality didn’t stop when the prison closed too. I ‘get in character’ when I’m writing about a place so I can re-live, and thus recreate – the experience. In a place like Port Arthur, that can be emotionally exhausting. So I’m glad you felt that too – it makes the effort of writing worthwhile 😀 back at you!

  5. It’s such a stunningly beautiful area, hard to believe it was once people by ‘criminals'(stealing a loaf of bread isn’t criminal in my mind when the bread is to feed a starving family); the buildings are magnificent.

    1. Whether or not you become a ‘criminal’ is (sometimes) a matter of luck and definition!! At its peak over 2000 convicts, staff and townsfolk lived there – it’s hard to imagine that! There’s over 30 historic buildings – they’re fascinating. Especially the stonework – until you realise the hard work it took to build by hand. I hope you can go there one day, River – there are LOTS of tours!

  6. It’s an amazing place down there.
    I can remember the roads that are not there now. My friend and I traveled to Port Arthur, slept in front of those ruins in my car in the early 60’s. So much has changed since then.

    1. I can’t believe you could sleep on site back then, M! I guess it’s a bit like having a campground (long gone) right next to Uluru! I bet the feeling was different back then too, without so much restoration or development. Do you have any photos of that trip?? It’d be interesting to compare!

      1. No I don’t have any photos unfortunately. Way back then my friend had a camera but not I. No digital cameras then 🙂

  7. Well, you have certainly taken me back six years to when hubby and I visited Port Arthur.
    And, yes, I enjoyed your tour here, Red.
    Your images portray its haunting – and haunted – beauty.

    We were there for half a day, and remained until late afternoon – I not wanting to leave – as the sun clothed the (already golden) buildings with a deep saturated golden light.
    It was magical.
    Yet, the reverence and serenity demanded one not talk far above a whisper.
    This seemed to be felt by the few other visitors around.
    There were no shouts or gleeful laughter so often heard in other tourism places.

    I was deeply moved also. Very much so.
    And, felt a definite “something” in certain places – especially at the Broad Arrow Café site.

    I desperately wish to return to Tasmania. And Port Arthur (esp’ the Isle of the Dead) will be top of my list – to spend from early morning til end of day.

    Thank you for the wonderful images of aged beauty, shadowed by a brutal past.

    1. It sounds like the time of day we visited was similar to yours, Vicki! We also lucked out with a nice day – if it’d been gloomy, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it quite so much. There was actually a large-ish group on our boat tour who were talking and laughing amongst themselves – nothing offensive, just normal chatter, but everyone else was giving them funny looks like they were being disrespectful. It really DOES have that effect, doesn’t it? I guess this is another of the long list of places where me might meet 😀

  8. It’s quite a long time since we visited and my memory is a bit hazy. I think the cafe had been demolished but the memorial not yet built. I also think we took a boat trip around the island. We found Port Arthur to be a very solemn and quiet place and I think the massacre was fresher in people’s minds then. Anyway, nice work and I learnt some new facts, such as it once having a different name.

    1. There’s still a boat trip around the bay, Andrew! It’s free with the admission price and it’s worth it just for the photos!! Not sure when the memorial garden was completed, but it’s very sobering to think that many of those killed were just visitors like me. I didn’t want to dwell on the massacre in the post, but it’s so sad to think of what happened on the actual spot where the garden is. ‘Reflection’ is an overused word imho, but it actually fits the ambience of Port Arthur (also imho)!

    1. Jo-Anne, I so enjoy reading your history based posts! The past is a fascinating – but sometimes scary – place, and Port Arthur shows that to be true. I hope you get to visit one day!

  9. They were very harsh times. My descendants on my maternal Grandfather’s side of the family were convicts in Tasmania and are apparently mentioned in the convict records at Port Arthur. I would love to see them for myself one of these days. My descendant was only 14 or 15 years of age when he was transported for theft of some bedding. He eventually obtained a ticket of leave and worked the land only to die at the tender age of 30 something from a snake bite. Like I said – very harsh times! I enjoyed this post tremendously, but I can understand why this would be a rather sad and eerie place to visit.

    1. Kathy, there’s a project at Port Arthur to document ALL the people who passed through it, in addition to the existing records kept there. It’d be even more fascinating with a family heritage connection – sad & eerie isn’t always a bad thing because it sets the tone for respect and appreciation of those who lived and died there. I can’t imagine being forced to the other end of the earth as a young teenager – our lives of relative comfort have made us soft 🙂

  10. I’ve a gt grandfather who spent time in-and-out of Port Arthur as well as about 4 years in Point Puer. How anyone survived Point Puer is beyond me … truly horrendous conditions. He was transported when he was 13.

    1. Hi Rosemary! Weird that Pt Puer is in the same location as the prison for the repeat offender/hardened criminals – although I bet the definitions of ‘hardened’ and ‘offender’ are a bit different today. I take my hat off to your great grandpa for surviving – it’s interesting that the info about Pt Puer from Pt Arthur makes out it’s a great example of reform because all the children were given an education!!!!! Thanks for sharing your family story!

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