Jan 19, 2010

Tasmania Part 3: Port Arthur Penal Colony

So I was kind of a bad boy the other day...

I stole a loaf of bread. What? I was hungry, and who was going to miss it really?!?

Turns out the Aussies did! So much so that I kind ended up in custody...

I have to say the Australians are pretty strict on crime. Even after pleading my case to the judges they threw the book at me (literally and figuratively).

They shipped me all the way to Port Arthur...

Which despite its picturesque appearance is not a nice place to stay. For your see Port Arthur is a penal colony.

I now have this humble cell to call home. Sure it might look quaint, but there are a LOT of rules I have to adhere to if I want to avoid a flogging or solitaire.

In fact so many rules, I need to review them right now. Excuse me for a second.

I spend 22 hours of the day in here...

1 hour in the exercise yard here...

and one bloody hour a day in Church, getting a religious rehabilitation! As if that is going to work!!!


Okay so all of the above didn't actually happen... to me at least. However this was the story of many of Tasmania's (and Australia as whole's) first European immigrants coming here (including some of Lady R's distant relatives)

Australia started off its life in the Commonwealth as British Empire's far away banishment prison. In the 1800's Britain was having massive problems with its rich vs. poor gap due to the industrial revolution. An easy way to relieve the societal pressure of a large unemployed impoverished population was to send them elsewhere to work and be productive. Thus Australia was formed, the only convict colony of its type in the world.

One of my first big field trips in Tasmania was to goto the Port Arthur historic site, where I got see and learn about this history in a bit more in detail.

Port Arthur was Australia's second prison (Sydney's being the first), and was among the largest to be established. It started operation in the 1840's and ceased operations in 1877.

Despite starting as a prison, Port Arthur during this time eventually took on many different capacities as the convicts began to wear down and/or age through their forced labour over the decades of the penal system's existence. This included serving as a mental asylum, a convict medical facility for the gravely injured, and retirement facilities for elderly convicts.

I have to say I was rather impressed with the site from a historic point of view. Despite being ravaged by bush fires and demolition in the early 1900's, the majority of Port Arthur is in good enough shape you can get an idea of what it must of been like.

The signs and staff were very informative, and you can learn much of what life here must have been like. There were a few gaps, but that is too be understood given the magnitude of the place.

All the buildings your seeing in these photos were built by convicts. They didn't just assemble the buildings, but extracted the materials needed to build them and processed them into the form needed. So every brick, plank of wood, and roof shingle was made by a convict, put in place by a convict and then used by a convict.
Thus it is hardly surprising that when the British finally abandoned the penal system and offered amnesty to all the convict in Australia, that the majority opted to remain down under rather then return to Britain. As they'd built the country of Australia all themselves.

The Port Arthur site had guided tours all throughout the day, but the site is also set up for self guided tours. As I was the only tourist in our group, the rest all being locals, we opted for guiding ourselves around the site. I probably won't have picked up much more for a tour guide, as my 3 companions all knew the history quite well due to their skooling.

Admission also included a complimentary boat tour of the surrounding islands of Carnarvon bay. Many of these were used for various purposes by the prison.
The most eerie of which was the Isle of the Dead. This island was were the most hardened criminals and lunatics were buried when they died. All in unmarked and unrecorded graves. Current Archaeological efforts to catalogue all buried there have only scratched the surface from what we were told.

There was an option to pay extra to tour the island, but my locals said it really wasn't worth it. Which based on the small size of the island I can see.

One of the most interesting sites was Port Arthur's Church. All the remains are its outer stone shell. The rest of the building either fell down in a powerful wind storm in 1876 or burned away in a massive bushfire in 1884.
It had a history to match what you might think a convict church should be. Any number of horror movies could be set here.
There were many mishaps and deaths directly tied to the construction of this building. While digging the trenches for the foundation a number of convicts turned on one their work team and killed him with their tools. In another incident while tiling the roof one inmate pushed a rival off to his death...
Some of the tour guides will claim that the church was never consecrated due to this blood shed before it was blessed (read about my compliants with the ghost tour guide in a moment!), but if you read the signs it was not blessed so that convicts of all denominations could feel free to worship here.
The other key structure was the Separate Prison. This was where high offense convicts or those who committed multiple misdemeanours were sent. The complex is the ultimate solitary confinement prison.
Prisoners were kept in isolation from each other, and forbid from speaking to anyone by staff. The whole complex was designed for guards to hear and monitor convicts activities. Even the in built chapel was set up to isolate prisoners from their surroundings. Each was given a small stand in box from which they could only see straight ahead towards the preacher.

The age, state, and function of all of Port Arthur give it a slightly creepy and haunted feel...
Which funny enough many claim Port Arthur is indeed haunted. This isn't surprising given all the suffering and dramas that went down here.
So at the end of our day we booked into one of the Ghost tours at Port Arthur.

It turns out they split the site into two separate tours, and so we only saw the "church side" buildings and heard their stories. This included the supposed most haunted building the Parsonage (here). However upon research the Penitentary side tour is much better thought of.
I had been looking forward to the ghost tour all day, but it turned out to be very disappointing. This was entirely due to our tour guide, who frankly was utter rubbish! I'm not a believer in ghosts, but I DO really enjoy ghost stories. So long as their is some substance or history involved.
Our tour guide was a total believer, and her whole tour delivery was founded on her belief in the supernatural instantly rubbing off on you. If it didn't rub off on you, as it so happened didn't with me or my crew, it was a pretty crappy framing for a tour,
Also every one of her stories seemed to come from another ghost tour and the encounters of fellow visitors such as ourselves. Which during the tour led me immediately to the question why were they having ghost tours if the only ghosts being seen were on the tours?!?

My locals were even less impressed, having been on the tours before. I had been told better stories by them during the day in the same places, than by our guide at night. Additionally Lady R bought the official ghost book from the gift shop, and it had wonderful HISTORIC stories that actually related to the site, and not just random "generic" ghost stories set at Port Arthur.
I couldn't tell if our guide had simply made her stories up, or if they were actual events she spun (through her overwhelming belief in the supernatural) into ghostly encounters. I say this as both me and Lady R tiggered her to go off the deep end during the tour (funnily I seem to have this effect anywhere I go. If something odd is going to happen, I'll be involved. Poor Lady R only usually gets to witness this, not join in... till that night!)
Thus the pic of me lying on the cement in the middle of the night. I was trying to take a picture on of one of the buildings using time exposure while we skipped out part of the tour... my pictural results are the last shot on the post.
Shortly into introducing us to the church, the guide literally freaked out at me, thinking I was a ghost. You see, once on a tour she had seen a shadowy figure with a big hat like mine, and in the shadows of the dark I looked just like him... Following my logic on her being a crackpot. If I had the same shadowy appearance as another shadowy figure in the same light, clearly these are two people we're talking about. However because one of them ran away when she spotted it, clearly it was a ghost. Why would a mortal man run off into the dark?
This desire to see the supernatural in every slight odd event came up again.

Checking out the Parsonage from above, Lady R had a panic attack and had to leave the building. Now the explanation is simple. We had noted during our visit in the day, that two of the rooms in the building were being heated (it was a hot day outside already at 27 degrees). Lady R hadn't liked it as a result back then.
Trying to cram 30 tourists into this tiny super heated room, all of whom have their camera flashes going off ad nauseum (oh yeah and she didn't instruct people to be considerate with their flash photography... like I said she was a rubbish guide!) was too much for Lady R, and so we opted out of that part of the tour.
Frankly I don't blame her. The flashes all going off in such a confined area, under extremely dark conditions was almost too much for me (I have great night vision, but sudden bright lights like that cause me extreme pain)... Add the jam of people and the incredible heat I didn't blame her for wanting out.
Then enter our guide. I wanted to bitch slap the old crow for what she said next. "Oh my dear, it is not uncommon for people to have such a powerful supernatural experience in that room!" Those were her exact words... Despite explaining to her the huge number of people with their bright flashes and the absurd temperature caused a natural panic attack, the guide lectured us for a couple minutes on how panic like that could only be caused by a spirit or presence blah blah. She would go the rest of the tour speaking of Lady R as a spiritually attuned person... which she has never complained of to me. Which you know I think I'd pick up on. "Craig, I see more dead people!"
Our guide was a BEEPing loon, and frankly ruined what was an otherwise a self delivering ghost tour (especially if you read the Port Arthur ghost story book from the gift shop!!!). If I ever end up living down here I'll have to take up tour guiding again.
Anyways Lady R and her friend S both went back to the visitor centre, while me and husband S carried on with the laughable tour.
At least seeing the buildings in the dark was quite fun, and I had fun visualizing the various horror movies you could film on site. We also saw some Wallabies and a Bandicoot in the dark, which was awesome!

I still recommend the ghost tour, but pick up the ghost book earlier in the day and glance over it before going. Then you can just soak up the atmosphere and the spirit of the tour (pun not intended ;P) while ignoring incompetent guides if you get one.

At least one of my exposure pics captured the chill factor of the night. Just too bad my tour did not.


Anonymous said...


Michael Hoskin said...

Spooky stuff indeed! It's cool seeing a travelogue from you again, looks like fun!

Kat said...

In school today, I just relearned that "convicts" from Canada were sent to Tasmania after the Rebellion of 1837! I'm continually astonished by all the interesting details I missed on the first go around(in school I mean)... anywho, it was interesting reading your experience of it! Cheers

Albertonykus said...

That sounded like a most interesting experience! Too bad the tour guide sucked.

Weapon of Mass Imagination said...

Mike- It was spooky and fun.

It is nice to have things to travelogue about again!

New Zealand was getting all too much like "home"

Weapon of Mass Imagination said...

Carrot (sorry couldn't resist the call back to good old days :P)

That is really interesting! The actual Port Arthur site was more dedicated to what the convicts lives were like AFTER they got to Australia, then how they got there.

There was a bit on how the average United Kingdom prisoner would get sentenced and sent down here, but not much on the more "exotic" commonwealth convicts ended up down here.

The one exception we came across on site (not that I waas thinking or looking for Canadian convicts) was a leader of the Irish rebellion. He was sent to Port Arthur as essentially a political prisoner, but once down here was allowed to live in the place as a free man. He'd dine with the Commandant, and go and visit Irish prisoners in their cells (as though he worked at the penal colony)... Wonder if any of our guys were given this sort of noble treatment?

Weapon of Mass Imagination said...

Albertonykus- Sometimes you win some other times you lose some.

The real problem is that I was a tour guide for 4 years, so I know the job quite well, and to boot I was a really good one too (I only partially boast. My visitors left an awful lot of positive comment cards back in those days)

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