Our “Tour de Tassie”


From Hobart it is a short thirty minute drive to the first stop on our circuit of Tasmania,  the village of Kettering, which lies to the southwest of the capital .  However we never like to make life easy for ourselves and  about 90 mins drive the other way, to the south east of the capital lies Port Arthur, which is the site of  the only Penal Colony on Tasmania, and the main reason the British came to the island in the first place.  Our reason for visiting is because it was recommended to us by many people we met whilst in Hobart.

Our route to Port Arthur took us over the Tasman Bridge, which spans the Derwent River, scene of a major disaster in 1975 when a ship carrying 10,000 tons of zinc ore collided with two of the upright pillars during a storm.  The resultant collapse of part of the bridge killed seven crew members on the ship and five people in four cars which drove over the resulting gap in the road.

tasman bridge

Tasman Bridge shot from the MONA Ferry.  The ore ship collided with the two pillars to the left of the Ensign.  

En route to Port Arthur we stopped for coffee at a  delightful lavender farm and for a short walk around to stretch our legs.

Views from the Lavender farm en- route to Port Arthur

“Transportation” was used as a means of punishment  by the courts in the UK from the 1600s with convicts initially being sent to the Americas until the revolution started there in 1776.  The first fleet to Australia sailed from the UK in 1787 and the practise continued up until 1868 when it was judged barbaric and abolished. If an individual was sentenced, for example, to 7 years transportation they were sent away from families, had to endure a near 5 month voyage then imprisoned in one of the penal colonies on this newly discovered land to serve their sentence.

Clockwise from top left: The view from land.  Port Arthur harbour; What the convicts would have seen – The Penitentiary – now a ruin ; Inside the Penitentiary – four floors to house, feed, and instruct the convicts; Us with the “Pen” in the background.

Penal colonies for convicts sentenced to transportation from the UK had existed on mainland Australia for a few years before Port Arthur was established so there must have been a reason to establish a penal colony on an island.

The Port Arthur Penal Station was established in 1830 initially as a timber harvesting camp using convict labour to produce wood for the many government projects.  It became the punishment station for repeat offenders from all the Australian colonies in 1833 because it was judged to be close to escape proof.  The settlement lay in a large  bowl with the sea at its edge and  steep forested hills behind.  Escape was though, nearly impossible as the prisoners had no-where to go.  The sea was an impossible route without a boat and any route through the forest was fraught with difficulty, not least the wildlife that existed in the forest at that time.

The “model” for Port Arthur was based on the structure put in place by prison reformer Jeremy Bentham, whose work at that time in Pentonville Jail in the UK was described as a machine for grinding rogues into honest men.  The model for Port Arthur included punishment and discipline, religious and moral instruction, and training and education.  Some men never left Port Arthur because the strict regime  broke them physically or mentally, but others left completely rehabilitated and newly skilled in trades such as blacksmith, shoemaking and shipbuilding and were able to establish themselves as free settlers in other parts of Tasmania or Australia.

Clockwise from top left: Exercise yards for those held in solitary confinement.  Each cell had its own walled yard and prisoners were hooded whilst being taken to and from their cells to avoid contact with the guards, who used sign language to communicate to maintain their isolation.  Prisoners had 1 hour per day exercise; Me in a cell – the figure to my right was a mannequin of a prisoner;  Lyn in the Asylum church and in a pew; Lyn in a wing of the Asylum; 

Whilst the regime for prisoners was harsh, for those guarding them and looking after them as the camp grew, it was relatively comfortable given their location.  The camps military staff and the free men and women (settlers who had chosen to move to Van Diemen’s Land) who managed the camp to provide the education, skills training and camp security, enjoyed many privileges and a relatively comfortable lifestyle despite being so far from their homeland.  By the 1840s more than 2000 convicts, soldiers and civilian staff lived at Port Arthur and it was becoming a major industrial settlement, with products such as stone and bricks to clothes, furniture and even boats and ships being manufactured here for export.

More views of the Port Arthur site.

Convict Transportation to Tasmania ended in 1853 but many of the inmates were either too old or too ill to leave so the settlement became an institution which cared for these people.  The penal settlement finally closed in 1877.

The transformation to tourist site began almost immediately when stories of convict life started to become the subject of curiosity among the growing population.  The site grew  to be a major attraction, and although some buildings had been demolished many still remain including the asylum, the Governors residence and the church. Today the Port Arthur site is regarded as a site of national and international significance, part of the history of the settlement and development of Tasmania and Australia.  It was a complete community and the story of those prisoners and the free settlers who came here is told through the many buildings and exhibits on show.  It is a sobering tour which focusses the mind on the hardship endured by the convicts at the hands of their guards, but also the work done by the settlers and the soldiers to help them rehabilitate them into useful members of the community, ready to contribute to its success.

We arrived to join a guided tour of the main prison site.  From the visitors centre we were led down to the harbour and saw the same view that the prisoners saw when they were first brought here.  It must have been very forbidding then, but now, with tourists roaming freely about the site and many of the buildings, including the main penitentiary, now only a standing shell it felt less intimidating.  The guide told stories of some of the more “resourceful” inmates and those who resisted all attempts at re-habilitation and were, as a result subjected to the most harsh and brutal physical and psychological treatment.  Many in the latter group never recovered from this abuse and lived out their days in the welfare cottages that still stand as a memorial to them.

It was a fascinating insight into a a way of life on which the foundation of Australia was based, although free settlers quickly outnumbered those in penal servitude.

There is one sad epilogue to the history of Port Arthur.  On 28 April 1996, a lone gunman walked into the historic site and randomly shot and killed 35 people and wounded 19 others.  A Garden of Remembrance close to the site of the shell of the Broad Arrow cafe where part of the attack happened was created to mark this tragic event.

Memorial Garden

Kettering is a small village in the southwest area of Tasmania.  It’s main function is to act as a ferry port for the boats that ply the waters between the mainland and Bruny Island.  It has a large marina, restaurant, a couple of cafes and a petrol station and that is it.  Our accommodation is lovely two bed bungalow on a wooded hill about 3km from the village.  Outside the property Pademelon, small four legged marsupials hop about the garden and into the bush at dusk feeding on leaves.  It is a lovely spot from which to explore this area of Tasmania.

A Pademelon – A timid creature, this was the only shot I managed to get. Shot at around     8-30pm on a long lens hence the poor quality.

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