|List||National Heritage List|
|Legal Status||Listed place (03/06/2005)|
|Place File No||6/01/106/0005|
|Summary Statement of Significance|
The Port Arthur Historic Site is a significant national example
of a convict site demonstrating, with a high degree of integrity and
authenticity, an aspect of the British strategy of convict transportation to
Australia. This type of coerced
migration had a major impact on the formation of Australia and the Australian
psyche. As one of a few major
sites now surviving to evidence the secondary punishment aspect of this penal
system, Port Arthur Historic Site ably demonstrates the evolution of penal
system to suit Australian conditions.
Also, because of its long years of operation, 1830-1877, which included
the cessation of transportation to Tasmania, it provides valuable and tangible
evidence of the physical form and evolution of the penal system in Australia
and, in particular, in Tasmania, over these years.
Port Arthur was also a key part in the Probation System phase of the Australian convict story. The Probation System of the 1840s was unique to Van Diemen’s Land and Norfolk Island, although short-lived in the latter, involving less direct physical punishment and more persuasion to reform through education, isolation, work and religion. The solitary punishment process apparent in British penal thinking of this era is particularly well-illustrated by the Port Arthur Separate Prison – a relatively rare surviving example of this type of facility in Australia, especially in this kind of setting. Similarly, the Point Puer boy’s establishment provides a demonstration of the spread of British ideas on the treatment of boy prisoners. The evidence of work and religion at Port Arthur still dominates the landscape with the large number of buildings (and their respective functions), major site modifications, known past industrial site functions and related areas, and religion-related elements and buildings evident.
The cessation of transportation to Tasmania in 1853 and the decline in the need for Port Arthur for convict use saw this use gradually replaced by a social welfare role with facilities being given over to, or built for ex-convicts, convict invalids, paupers and lunatics, demonstrating the legacy of the convict system. The Port Arthur Asylum (1868) is a rare example of this type of facility.
Port Arthur Historic Site is a significant, very rich and complex cultural landscape, the primary layers of which relate to the convict era (1830-77) and subsequent eras as a country town and tourist site, including a State National Park and a major historic site under conservation management. It combines the contradictory landscape qualities of great beauty and association with a place of human confinement and punishment.
A gunman took the lives of thirty-five people and wounded nineteen others on 28 April 1996 - an additional layer of tragic significance was added to the place. This tragic loss of life on this scale, and its effect on Australians, led to changes in Australia’s national gun laws.
Port Arthur Historic Site has extensive research potential primarily related to the convict experience because of its relative integrity and authenticity. This is enhanced because of the extensive other sources of evidence of the past history of the place including documentary, collections, structures, archaeological and landscape evidence.
Port Arthur Historic Site is outstanding in demonstrating the principal characteristics of an Australian convict site related to classification and segregation; dominance by authority and religion; the provision of accommodation for the convict, military and civil population; amenities for governance, punishment and healing, and the elements of place building, agriculture and industry.
Port Arthur Historic Site is a landscape of picturesque beauty. Its ruins and formal layout, in a serene setting, and the care with which this is maintained, symbolise a transformation in Australia from ‘hated stain’ to the celebration of a convict past. The picturesque setting of the place, recognised (and in certain areas consciously enhanced) since the early days of the settlement, features buildings in a landscape of hills with valley, edged by harbour and forest, is a very important aspect of the place’s significance. The parkland of today’s Port Arthur Historic Site is, in part, an accidental and deliberate artefact of park management practices, in the context of ruined buildings and mature English trees, which now seems to project an idealised notion of rustic contentment contrasting dramatically with Port Arthur’s known penal history. This apparent conflict and contrast is a critical element of the place’s significance. This complex, ambiguous character has been further strengthened as a result of the April 1996 shooting tragedy, creating, for many Australians, a more immediate poignancy and symbolism attaching to the values of the place.
Port Arthur Historic Site has outstanding heritage value to the nation because of the place's special association with British convicts in Australia and their administrators in the period 1830 to 1877, exemplifying a world-wide process of colonial settlement.
There are many significant people associated with the place from those who developed the penal philosophy used at Port Arthur to people who managed the convict system, those who lived at Port Arthur and ran the establishment, and those incarcerated there. These include John Howard, Jeremy Bentham, Joshua Jebb and the Prison Reform Movement; Governor Arthur, the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land at the time that Port Arthur was established as a penal settlement and the person after whom it was named; Sir John and Lady Franklin; the Corps of Royal Engineers; Commandant Charles O’Hara Booth, Commandant William Champ, Superintendent James Boyd, Thomas Lempriere, Commissariat Officer at Port Arthur; political prisoners William Smith O’Brien: the leader of the Young Ireland Movement ticket-of-leave, John Frost and Linus Miller.
The Port Arthur Historic Site
contains the major and several ancillary sites of the Port Arthur penal
settlement which operated between 1830 to 1877. The main penal settlement at Mason Cove was later
transformed into a small rural township, tourist destination and a nationally
recognised historic place. The core
of the Historic Site is contained within a natural amphitheatre formed by Mount
Arthur and Mount Tonga encircling the protected cove, freshwater creeks and the
basin floor. Forest covered hills
provide the backdrop to the west of the Historic Site. To north is Garden Point, the east are
the sheltered waters of Mason Cove, the sandy shores of Carnarvon Bay and Point
Puer, and the broad expanse of the harbour known as Port Arthur. The forested eastern shores – now part
of the Tasman National Park – include the distinctive silhouette of Arthurs
Peak and the heathy vegetation and high sea cliffs of the sea entrance to Port
Arthur - Cape Pillar, Tasman Island and Cape Raoul.|
This setting of forest, harbour, mountains and sea cliffs contrasts strongly with the Historic Site at Mason Cove, with its cleared parkland character, exotic trees and plants, historic buildings and ruins, and modern tourism facilities. The regrowth vegetation and geology of Point Puer and the Isle of the Dead blend more easily with the surrounding natural landscape – revealing evidence of their place within the penal settlement system only on closer inspection.
The Port Arthur Historic Site also holds several important collections - the Port Arthur Historic Collection, the Port Arthur Archaeological Collection, published records, manuscripts, databases, and architectural, photographic, and archaeological records.
site of Port Arthur embodies various layers of meaning which have been created through
the different phases of its natural and human history. It has a rich and multi-layered past
that is expressed in a diverse, dramatic and changing landscape. Through its pre-penal period, its
creation as a convict settlement, its transformation into a township and its more recent
tourism developments, the landscape as a whole, and the individual built structures that
occupy that landscape, embody many different and
sometimes conflicting cultural meanings.|
The geography and isolation, the barrier of surrounding dense vegetation and the uninviting ocean ensured that this was a contained place, a prison within a prison. Most phases of Port Arthur’s history are reflected to some degree in the present-day landscape. However, the legacy of some phases is more readily apparent than others.
1. The Aboriginal landscape
At the time of first contact with Europeans, the Tasman Peninsula was the country of the Pydairrerme band of the Oyster Bay tribe. The natural environment provided resources for food, shelter, clothing, pigments, tools, weapons, as well as decorative items such as shell necklaces, which contributed to a rich cultural life.
For the Pydairrerme, the Tasman Peninsula was part of an intricate system of social and spiritual traditions. It was a landscape modified by human activity, notably through movement, camping, use of natural resources and burning. Remains of middens and stone artefacts remain in the landscape from this period.
There were probably encounters between the coastal groups and early European explorers and sealers. With the arrival of British settlers from 1803, Aborigines were pushed from their traditional lands. The prevailing pejorative nineteenth-century views on race denied Aborigines rights to their land. The effects of dispossession and cultural dislocation, compounded by frontier violence and the ravages of foreign diseases, led to high mortality rates. There is no recorded evidence of any remaining Pydairrerme people on the Tasman Peninsula from the 1830s onwards. However, the Tamar, in 1833, carrying Aboriginal people from the West Coast to Flinders Island stopped at Port Arthur and one of the Aboriginal passengers, an elderly women who had died, was buried ashore at Port Arthur in an unknown location, but possibly on the Isle of the Dead which had been established that year. Aboriginal people also settled on the Peninsula after Port Arthur closed.
2. A landscape of control, punishment and industry
Planning a new penal settlement
Until 1825, Van Diemen’s Land was administered as part of the colony of New South Wales. Prior to 1818, most convicts were dispatched to Van Diemen’s Land from Port Jackson. From 1818, transportation of British and Irish convicts directly to Van Diemen’s Land under the ‘assignment’ system became more common. By the 1820s transportation to Australia no longer held sufficient fear, and was considered an inadequate deterrent to crime. A British Commission of Inquiry found that more severe penal settlements were needed for convicts who became secondary offenders in Australia.
Governor George Arthur first proposed a penal settlement on the Tasman Peninsula in 1827. With its clear strategic and security possibilities, Arthur considered the site a ‘natural penitentiary’. Two other stations for secondary punishment, Macquarie Harbour and Maria Island, were already operating in Van Diemen’s Land, but were no longer favoured. Both were expensive to maintain as they lacked a reliable supply of natural resources and were located at a considerable distance from the main settlement at Hobart.
Besides its attributes as a ‘natural prison’, the Tasman Peninsula was rich in natural resources – including timber, stone, clay, lime and coal. The Peninsula was close enough to Hobart to allow for a viable settlement, and to develop industries for export within and beyond Van Diemen’s Land. Port Arthur was also endowed with a protected harbour and freshwater stream. These were critical factors in the choice of site, both to ensure its viability, and to provide the capacity for large-scale convict employment.
The site of Port Arthur, on the protected south side of Mason Cove, was reserved as a new penal station. In 1830 timber was cleared, building commenced and the first convicts arrived. The following year an area of 300 acres was set aside for a penal settlement, primarily as a ‘timber-getting station’. Many of the first convicts to arrive were experienced tree-fellers. Sawpits were operating near the water’s edge by 1830. There was a considerable external demand for timber from the earliest days.
Accommodation and separation
The early settlement grew slowly. The first convict barracks erected in 1830 were rudimentary, comprising rough timber huts. A new prisoners’ barracks, comprising sleeping quarters and dining room, was completed in 1835, when the convict population had reached 1181 men.
The Isle of the Dead cemetery was established in 1832 on Opossum Island off Point Puer. The island site was probably mainly chosen for hygienic and religious reasons, but the quietness of this ‘secure and undisturbed resting place’, which was visible, but separate, from the penal settlement was also a factor.
Across Opossum Bay, at Point Puer, a boys’ penitentiary was established in 1834. The need for a separate establishment for boys stemmed from concerns about their moral contamination and sexual exploitation by the adult convicts. ‘Gentlemen convicts’ were also excluded from the main barracks. The Irish political prisoner William Smith O’Brien, for example, served time in his own cottage in 1850.
Better accommodation was built for the military officers and civil residents. A new two-storey military barracks was completed in 1840, with further additions in the mid-1840s. While the prisoners’ barracks, workshops and a flour mill/granary were built on lower ground near the waterfront, the prominent siting of the military barracks on a hill demonstrated its power and importance, and afforded protection for the settlement. Similarly, the siting of the officers’ residences on higher ground reflected and reinforced their social position. The Commandant’s Residence, originally a small functional building occupying a strategic location, grew to more substantial proportions, and its garden was planted with English and native species. From the mid-1840s, non-military officials, such as the magistrate, chaplain and resident doctors also occupied more substantial homes.
In 1848 the social reformer Reverend Henry Phibbs Fry condemned the lack of suitable convict accommodation at Port Arthur. His System of Penal Discipline pointed out that while the church and soldiers’ barracks were built in stone with unnecessary ornamentation, the old convict barracks and penitentiary were merely dilapidated timber structures. The transfer of convicts from Norfolk Island to Port Arthur necessitated increased accommodation. The granary was converted to a new penitentiary in 1853, and this was completed and occupied by 1857. The penitentiary contained two tiers of back-to-back separate apartments on the ground floor, and large mess room and dormitory spaces on the upper floors.
Altering the landform – engineering and construction
Building styles varied from rough vernacular convict huts to the formal designs of the larger institutional buildings and the civil officers’ residences. Initially all the structures were timber, though some had brick nogging. Later, a number of structures used locally quarried stone or locally fired bricks. By the 1840s, virtually all building materials used at Port Arthur, including timber, bricks, tiles, cut-stone and metal-work, were sourced from the workshops at the Port Arthur settlement or manufactured at the other work stations on the Tasman Peninsula.
The design of many of the buildings was the work of the Royal Engineers, with construction by convict labourers and their overseers. Engineering efforts in reshaping the landscape remain visible in the massive cut-and-fill operations, the building of retaining walls, excavation and establishment of the reservoir and mill race, and alignments of watercourses and drains.
The ambitious construction works considerably altered the natural landform and produced a more functional landscape. A sea wall and tree-lined path was established on the foreshore in the late 1830s. Land reclamation along the waterfront began in 1841, resulting in the covering of the mouth of the creek, and straightening of the southern shoreline, presumably to aid the development of the port. Water power was also harnessed through the creation of a water wheel to power the flour mill, and the construction of supply races and storage weirs.
A further area of the bay was reclaimed in 1853–54 to create the ground in front of the new penitentiary, including additional space for workshops. A timber wharf constructed of timber piles with stone fill and covered with timber planking was constructed. This created a stronger ‘edge’ to the waterfront and enabled the construction of piers for handling larger vessels.
An industrial landscape
Physical labour was considered critical to convict rehabilitation and moral improvement. In the 1840s, a network of probation stations was established throughout the Tasman Peninsula. It relied on the regimented organisation of convicts into labour gangs. All convicts in Tasmania worked in probation gangs for a period of time. This created a more productive labour force and transformed Port Arthur into a large-scale and diverse industrial complex that stretched across the Tasman Peninsula. Labour gangs were delegated to the sawpits, tree-felling and timber-getting, road making, quarrying, coal mining, farming, and collecting shell for lime burning. Closer to the main settlement they were employed at shipbuilding, brick-making, fishing, gardening and flour-milling.
Timber tramways connected the settlement with the nearby forests and quarries. More distant places such as the coal mines and Eaglehawk Neck were also linked by roads, as was Port Arthur with Point Puer and Safety Cove. The wharf facilities on the southern shore grew rapidly to support the transport needs of the settlement. A ‘convict railway’ powered by human effort was completed in 1836 and linked Norfolk Bay and Long Bay. It enabled easier water transport from Hobart, removing the need for the dangerous and time-consuming open sea voyage around Cape Raoul.
The landscape was continually adapted for food production. In the early 1830s the settlement was interspersed with fields and vegetable gardens, which were grown and worked by convicts. These included narrow strip fields, established as ‘officers’ gardens’ at the western end of the settlement. The convict gardens were replaced by one large government garden in 1834. The military and civil officers continued to plant kitchen gardens and orchards, which by 1838 covered six acres. The officers were also permitted to keep poultry and domestic livestock, and to catch fish and to hunt game.
A farm that included a dairy and piggery was established opposite the Separate Prison in 1854. Farms also operated at Garden Point, Safety Cove and Long Bay for grazing of sheep and cattle, dairying and cropping. At Port Arthur, agriculture expanded westwards along the settlement creek. Draught animals were introduced in the early 1860s - the discernible ridge and furrow patterns visible in this area suggesting that the expansion may have related to the introduction of the horse-drawn plough.
By the 1840s Port Arthur presented a busy complex of work-related buildings and structures, linked by a network of roads, bridle paths, tramways and tracks. The waterfront area along Champ Street, where the wharves and a row of trade workshops were located, was the focus of much activity. Here, goods were loaded and unloaded from ships, and human cargo arrived. A range of trades were represented, including boot and shoe making, clothing manufacturing, carpentry, a wheelwright, painting and metalwork. Here, many convicts were employed in trades with which they were already familiar. Others were trained at the settlement in trades that would assist with the building programs and local industries. The Dockyard, where shipbuilding was carried out, was also a frenetic place; between 1834 and 1848 it was the major industrial complex in the colony.
The granary and mill, built 1842–45, was planned as an industrial enterprise for the processing of grain brought in from outside Port Arthur. Here, both water and manpower were harnessed to grind the grain, which was shipped to Hobart from the adjacent wharf. A new steam sawmill was constructed in 1856– 57, as part of a new larger workshop complex adjacent to the Penitentiary. New industries established in the 1860s included a saltworks at Garden Point.
Control and punishment
The nature of the settlement as a gaol meant that Port Arthur was laid out as a functional complex of buildings where social control and hierarchy largely determined building design, the locations of buildings and their relationships to one another.
In the early 1830s convicts at Port Arthur were not sentenced for secondary punishment and enjoyed a relatively greater degree of autonomy compared with later periods. During Dr John Russell’s term as Commandant (1830–31) convicts were able to move through the settlement and go into the bush to collect timber. They were permitted to fish for themselves, maintain vegetable plots, and to prepare and cook the daily food rations they were allocated.
In 1833, Governor Arthur proclaimed Port Arthur as a destination for secondary offenders and issued new, more restrictive regulations. Access to different parts of the settlement was prohibited without express permission. Convicts’ movement through the settlement became restricted to disciplined work gangs, or smaller groups (accompanied by an overseer) carrying out domestic duties. The lives of female house servants, and to some extent the resident military officers and their families, were also strictly regulated. Boy prisoners were accommodated at Point Puer, away from the adult convicts.
Due to a high incidence of absconding convicts, Port Arthur became a heavily controlled environment. The rigid observance of the Benthamite principles of complete and constant surveillance meant that all visible routes were constantly watched and guarded. Guards were stationed in strategically placed sentry boxes – in front of the stores and the gaol. During the night a sentry was stationed outside the guard house, and three sentries were stationed at the dockyard. There was also, presumably, always a guard on duty on the watch towers. Other watch points were located on Scorpion Rock overlooking the settlement and at the Mount Arthur semaphore station. A line of guard dogs and lamps was stationed across the narrow land bridge at Eaglehawk Neck from 1832, which proved a virtually impenetrable barrier to escaping convicts.
The large semaphore signal tower erected to the rear of the Commandant’s Residence was a dominant feature in the Mason Cove landscape. This was part of a wider network of signal stations and associated sight lines set up in the mid-1830s by Commandant Booth, which connected the remote settlement with other semaphore towers throughout the Tasman Peninsula, and with Hobart. Messages mainly concerned shipping news or attempted escapes. The towers stood on hill tops and utilised standing trees. Other towers at Port Arthur were located at the Dockyard, Scorpion Rock and Point Puer.
Some building designs were influenced by prevailing notions about discipline and punishment. The Church, built on a prominent rise facing the harbour, represented the centrality of religion to the reform process, and the symbolic surveillance of an ever-watchful God. The Separate Prison, which opened in 1849, provided the most severe measures of punishment. Here, constant surveillance, solitary confinement and silence were considered the way to reform. The building was a small modified version of the Pentonville Prison in London, which was built to Jeremy Bentham’s 1791 design for a panopticon prison. It contained individual cells built around a four-wing radial design that ensured constant surveillance, as well as two ‘dumb’ cells and a ‘separate’ chapel. An extension in 1854 served as a lunatic asylum until a new asylum was built in 1867.
3. A domestic landscape
The site gradually took shape as a large complex of structures serving a growing range of needs that encompassed surveillance, industry, administration, accommodation, religion and education. By the late 1830s, the settlement resembled a substantial town. Later, in 1872, the visiting English novelist Anthony Trollope expressed such a view:
The 1840s saw an increasing gentrification of the areas occupied by the military and civil officers and their families, including a ‘quality row’ of brick residences situated near the Church. By 1847 Port Arthur was described as ‘a favourite resort for the officers and their families’. Ornamental pleasure gardens had been planted, and visitors frequently commented on the ‘Englishness’ of the gardens. Other efforts were made to gentrify the settlement. A literary institute was established in the 1850s and a cricket club was formed by the 1860s.
In the first few years of the settlement efforts were made to improve the private gardens, which were designed for the pleasure of the military staff, and their wives and families. George Arthur had criticised the state of the gardens in 1832, but by the 1840s they had improved substantially and won frequent praise from visitors. The Government Gardens were renowned for their flowers, and the gardens of the Commandant’s Residence were also extensive. The cultivation of exotic plants dramatically changed the appearance of the landscape. There was also strong botanical interest in native species. The establishment of scientific institutions in Hobart had encouraged experimentation with useful plants, especially those for medicinal, timber and other industrial purposes. Blue Gum and Blackwood were used in the early avenue plantings of the 1840s. An avenue of Blue Gum along the road to the Dockyard was probably planted c.1860s; boundary rows of eucalypts were also planted in the grounds of the Commandant’s Residence; and elsewhere Norfolk Island pines and other Araucarias were planted. The avenue linking the harbour and the Church is thought to have been originally natives but was replanted later with elms and oaks donated by Sir John Franklin.
4. A landscape in decline: ageing and ruins
After transportation to New South Wales ceased in 1840, the anti-transportation movement became a significant political influence in Van Diemen’s Land. While convict numbers at Port Arthur peaked at over 1000 in the late 1840s, there was a decline in transported convicts from the mid 1840s. The boys’ penitentiary at Point Puer closed in 1849. Van Diemen’s Land put an end to transportation in 1853. In a conscious effort to create a symbolic separation from the earlier convict period, Van Diemen’s Land was renamed Tasmania with the move to colonial independence in 1856. Ongoing efforts to expunge the ‘hated stain’ of convictism were central to the ongoing shaping of Tasmanian identity.
By the 1860s, the convict population at Port Arthur was ageing and in decline, and there was a growing number of paupers, and of the physically and mentally ill. The provision of welfare became a greater priority than penal reform. From the late 1850s, ‘Imperial lunatics’ had been transferred to Port Arthur from other invalid depots in Tasmania. Providing for the aged convicts and for the paupers, who were now accommodated at the site, necessitated structural changes. The Paupers’ Mess and Barracks were built in 1863, and the lunatic asylum was completed in 1868. The site effectively became ‘an invalid depot, asylum and welfare institution’.
Despite this decline there were other additions. In the 1860’s a market garden and saltworks were established at Garden Point.
The emphasis on control and punishment gradually lessened. In 1860 the cordon of dogs that guarded Eaglehawk Neck was removed. The strong military presence became a thing of the past with the departure of the soldiers in 1863 and their replacement with civil constables.
The natural forces of physical decay also played a part in the settlement’s decline. By the early 1870s many of the buildings were in a deplorable state. This was a result variously of inferior workmanship and/or materials, the manner and haste of much of the original construction, the aggressive coastal environment, and poor maintenance by the diminished able-bodied workforce. In 1873 nearly all the buildings were so dilapidated that rain was causing damage to ceilings, walls and floors. When the Church spire fell to the ground in 1875 because of high wind, the decision not to replace it indicated Port Arthur’s seemingly inevitable demise. The farm was also in a run-down state by 1876.
After the Port Arthur penal settlement was finally closed in 1877, a subsequent onslaught of natural disasters proved destructive to much of the remnant building fabric. Storms damaged buildings in 1879 and 1880. A minor earthquake in 1892 also weakened structures. Port Arthur’s close proximity to the forest made it particularly vulnerable to fire especially without the labour available previously to clear any vegetation regrowth or build up of potential fuel, or to fight a fire if it began. The first significant fire in 1884 burnt out the Church, leaving only the stone walls. Two further fires in 1895 and 1897 obliterated most of the remaining timber structures, and did extensive damage to many stone and brick buildings, including the Separate Prison, Asylum, Government Cottage, Penitentiary, Hospital and Parsonage.
The landscape that had been steadily built up since the 1830s was left empty and decaying. Yet fire, in all its rich symbolism, was considered a ‘welcome purifier’. It helped to revert the site to nature, casting the ruined remains as elements of a picturesque scene. In the place of unattractive dilapidated buildings with their disturbing associations had emerged true ruins, shaped by the forces of nature.
5. A romantic landscape: artistic and literary associations
Romantic associations about the Tasmanian landscape were a major preoccupation in the early colonial period. Port Arthur was considered a place that well expressed the then fashionable aesthetics of Romanticism, which placed great value on the Picturesque and the Gothic. Early observations of the Tasman Peninsula noted the sublime quality of its coastline. The vertical rocky formations along the coastline were strongly suggestive of Old World ruins. Such views, however, were generally not in the minds of convicts, most of whom lacked the privileges of a refined education and time to contemplate the scenery.
Visitors regularly commented that Tasmania, and Port Arthur in particular, had the look of a much older place. As early as 1837, Lady Jane Franklin, the Governor’s wife, considered that Port Arthur had the appearance of a place ‘of more antiquity’ than anywhere else in Tasmania. Even as early as the late 1830s Tasmanian ivy was being propagated on some of the buildings, enhancing associations with the picturesque gothic. Retrospective building styles at Port Arthur also created romantic associations, especially the Guard Tower, with its castellations and crenellations, and the Gothick Church.
As early as 1836 the settlement was described as ‘a prison in a park’. In 1842 David Burn described Port Arthur as ‘picturesque’. He considered it as ‘one of the most beautiful bays, with a shore of the purest sand, and waters of pellucid hue’. For him it was ‘an enchanting spot, of which the pencil, not the pen, can convey adequate conception; wood, water, earth, sky, all contrive to gladden the eye and charm the sense’. H. Butler Stoney, who visited Port Arthur in 1854, was greatly taken by the ‘English beauty’ of Port Arthur. He wrote, ‘Passing the church, which is partly over-grown with ivy, giving it a charming appearance’.
The ruling tenets of punishment and fear that were central to the penal system contrasted dramatically with the perceptions of the site’s beauty, and encouraged a perceived gothic sensibility about the place. Earlier observers had recognised this. William Smith O’Brien, imprisoned at Port Arthur in 1850, qualified his initial thoughts on the site’s scenic beauty: “Port Arthur might too be mistaken for a little paradise by one who contemplated it from a distance without knowing to what purposes that settlement is dedicated.” Another writer recognised the juxtaposition of horror with beauty while strolling in the Government Gardens in 1856:
A sweet little stream runs through the garden, and with very many trees of dear old England around you, it is easy to forget, wandering through this beautiful garden, that seven hundred fellow-creatures who have lost home and liberty through crime, are so near you.
For Smith O’Brien’s Irish compatriot and fellow political prisoner, John Mitchell, the Tasmanian landscape presented an oxymoron: ‘The gardens of hell’.
Marcus Clarke was the first to widely popularise the gothic quality of Port Arthur through his novel, His Natural Life, first published in serial form in 1874. Heavily influenced by the nineteenth-century fashion for gothic literature and art in Britain and Europe, Clarke emphasised the gloomy, melancholic nature of the place, and dwelt on the imagined horrors. The gothic here became macabre and disturbing, but it also encouraged, and played on, the morbid fascination that the place held for many visitors.
Romanticising the penal settlement at Port Arthur was a slow process. After its closure in 1877, it remained a place of shame. The government authorities were convinced that most Tasmanians wanted the convict buildings at Port Arthur demolished or removed. Many certainly did, but with their survival under a less conservative political regime in the 1880s, the site became a tourist attraction and a recreation site.
The changes wrought by the end of convictism had a positive effect on the landscape in the minds of some writers. In a 1889 guidebook, journalist Garnet Walch observed this dramatic shift from the old period to the present one, seeing ‘sunshine and hope everywhere where once reigned darkness and despair’. But overwhelmingly, the hated stain of the convict past was disliked and denied. Many wished that the place did not exist because of the associations it held for the history of the colony, and in many cases of their own families. The Hobart Mercury declared in 1889: “It must be remembered that the buildings themselves are fast going to decay, and in a few years will attract nobody; for they will be ruins without anything to make them worthy of respect, or even remembrance”.
6. The rural township landscape
A new township named Carnarvon was superimposed on the remains of the former penal settlement. Much land within the former penal settlement was subdivided for farms and orchards during this period, which created new settlements across the Tasman Peninsula. Small rural settlements grew out of the former probation stations, and Carnarvon became a crossroads town and the centre of community life for the Tasman Peninsula.
The first sales of Carnarvon town allotments took place in December 1877. Initial demand was weak, but additional lots were sold in 1884 and 1889. The new township was proclaimed in 1889. The subdivision of Mason Cove created a number of new roads and property alignments, some of which are visible in the landscape today. Boundary fences were erected and new tree rows defined private properties.
The creation of Carnarvon resulted in new uses, and the adaptation, rebuilding and removal of former penal buildings and features reshaped the site. The new owner of the allotment that contained the military barracks demolished the buildings and sold the materials for use in Hobart. The structure of the penal settlement nonetheless laid the foundations for the new town, as many elements of the penal settlement were adapted for town purposes. Some of the officers’ residences were maintained for private uses, and for tourism and township functions.
By the early 1900s, Carnarvon’s civic character was well established. Essential community facilities, such as a post office, school and cricket club, were operating. The Asylum was converted to a town hall, council chambers and gymnasium. This building also accommodated a church until 1926 and a local school until 1938. St David’s Anglican Church was built in 1926 and a new police station in c.1927. The focus of activity moved away from the waterfront and towards the new roadways as motor cars became the more common means of transport from the 1920s.
By the 1920s, Carnarvon had the appearance of a neat rural village. The orchard industry remained critical to the local economy until the 1960s. Timber harvesting and commercial fishing were also important local industries. The civic pride demonstrated by townsfolk was rewarded with a ‘Tidy Towns’ award. In 1918, following World War I, relatives of local soldiers planted a remembrance avenue of cypresses near the Town Hall (in front of the former Separate Prison and Asylum). The desire to maintain an attractive town was influenced by the broader ‘town beautiful’ movement and the growing domestic tourism market.
Impacts of Historic Land Uses
Historic land use within the area has typically been constrained by the underlying geology and its effects on landform and vegetation. Initial forestry activities sought simply the most millable timber, irrespective of species. However, subsequent land clearing and agriculture appears to have impacted most on peppermint dominated dry forest, common on the undulating and freely draining Triassic and Permian sediments. This formation has also provided most of the economic mineral resources within the area, with dimension sandstone for building at the Port Arthur penal station produced from a series of escarpment quarries located on the eastern flank of Mount Arthur. The harder jointed siltstone beds at Point Puer provided rectangular rubble for building at the neighbouring Boys’ reformatory, while localised deep weathering of sediments north of Scorpion Hill and at Brick Point has produced deposits of ceramic clay, which were used in making bricks for the settlements.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries the doleritic soils in the immediate vicinity of Mason Cove supported extensive subsistence horticulture, and dolerite rubble was quarried from a low escarpment on the north shore. Since then there has been a significant contraction of natural resource based activity in this area and a concomitant reversion of cleared land to scrubby dry forest.
7. A landscape for recreation and tourism
In the 1840s David Burn had predicted that Port Arthur would one day become a fashionable resort:
Here at some future ... day, when penitentiary and penal settlement have ceased to exist, ... the Tasmanian steamers will flock with their joyous freightage of watering-place visitors, whilst the present settlement, an easy distance off, will eventually resolve itself into one of the finest and most important naval arsenals – a Plymouth of the South. The security and amplitude of the haven, the facility of equipment, and the super-abundance of choice building materials, all conducing to the certainty of such result.
Until the 1870s, however, tourism relied on the various natural features of the Tasman Peninsula, such as Eaglehawk Neck, the Tessellated Pavement and the Devil’s Blowhole. Some early visitors were also enthusiasts for social reform and sought to observe social conditions at the settlement. In the 1870s the visiting novelist Anthony Trollope considered the workings of the penal system at Port Arthur to be shrouded in silence. He saw the penal colony promoting its architecture and scenery to develop tourism based not on ‘the memory of the past, but on the relics which the past has left behind’. He did not imagine they would attract many visitors, predicting that the buildings ‘will fall into the dust and men will make unfrequent excursions to the strange ruins’.
Tours of Port Arthur were operating in the 1880s. Former convicts acted as guides and supplied visitors with a ready stock of gruesome and entertaining stories. The Church, Penitentiary and Asylum were the only buildings initially open to the public. By 1884 visiting Port Arthur (now Carnarvon) had become ‘a thriving tourist activity’. The greatest influx of tourists occurred in the summer months when steamers brought day-trippers from Hobart. There was initially no tourist accommodation but from 1885 the Commandant’s Residence served as the Carnarvon Hotel. By 1892 Port Arthur had become an established port of call for tourists. Visitor numbers continued to grow. In 1912 a local councillor estimated that 5000 tourists visited the town.
In 1927, the name of Port Arthur was restored. Visitor numbers grew steadily, partly boosted by the introduction of motor cars, improved roads, and generally greater mobility and emphasis on recreation. Additional guest houses were opened, with several converted from earlier convict-period uses. Tourist interest in Port Arthur, especially from the mainland, continued to grow steadily in the post-war period. As more of the site was gradually returned to public ownership, the former township was erased somewhat by the new emphasis on the place as an historic site.130 In 1954 Port Arthur had a population of only 157. Management of Port Arthur became increasingly concerned with the provision of visitor facilities, accommodation and transport.
Port Arthur continued to be an ever more popular tourist attraction in the 1950s and 1960s. The Port Arthur Scenic Reserves Board was established through the Scenery Preservation Board after World War II. Additional accommodation facilities were developed, such as the Port Arthur Motor Inn (1958), a caravan park located in front of the Penitentiary ruin, and visitor facilities, including the Galleon/Broad Arrow Cafe, which was converted from sports rooms. Roads and transport routes were also upgraded. By the 1970s, Port Arthur’s function as a crossroads village had ended.
8. The landscape as an historic site
The restoration and preservation of parts of Port Arthur began in the 1890s. A government grant in 1892 made possible improvements to the Isle of the Dead, including the ‘restoration’ of gravestones. The island was considered a ‘sacred historical spot’ that was deserving of care and restoration. Historical interest in the site grew steadily. J.W. Beattie displayed an assortment of convict relics from Port Arthur in a Hobart museum (1890s). The Separate Prison was opened to the public from 1892, and employed official guides. Eldridge displayed a militaria collection in the Guard Tower from the 1890s; and William Radcliffe operated a later museum of convict-era and later objects and relics in the 1930s.
From 1893 the government began to acquire sites within the former penal settlement. By the early 1900s there were serious concerns about the deterioration of the site. The impulse to preserve the buildings ultimately won out against those who wished to destroy them. In 1914 the government determined to preserve the ruined Penitentiary.
The Tasmanian Scenery Preservation Board was established in 1916 and began restoring some of the buildings. Their early conservation efforts included the (destructive) conversion of the Isle of the Dead cemetery into a commemorative garden in 1933. Repairs were carried out at the Church in 1914, and the north and south walls were rebuilt in the 1930s. The west wall of the Church was also reconstructed and the tower repaired in 1955. In addition, the Scenery Preservation Board sought to further ‘beautify’ the landscape, with the construction of stone sea walls, broad acre lawns, an ornamental lily pond, and rows of roadside prunus and willows.
In 1926 scenes for the famous Australian silent film ‘For the term of his natural life’ (released 1927), were filmed at Port Arthur and at Garden Point using locals as extras to play the role of convicts. The latter scene showed teams of convicts hauling ploughs across the area that was still available for this function at that time because this area, which previously served as a market garden for the convicts, was still an open arable space. (Possible evidence of the sets constructed was found to have survived archaeologically, more than 50 years later.)
The Tasmanian government continued to purchase private properties within Port Arthur through the 1960s, and by 1970 owned much of the site.142 Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the number of visitors doubled. In 1971 the site was transferred to the newly established Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service. The first management plan was produced in 1975. The National Parks Service undertook conservation works on several structures through the 1970s; it also expanded visitor facilities and further developed the historical interpretation of the site. Works to the Separate Prison, for example, included exposing the original fabric of the walls, exercise yards and floors. The footings of the keeper’s cottage were levelled and the site converted to a car park. The town hall was converted to a museum in 1975.
No longer within the bounds of a vital township, Port Arthur developed into something of a museum piece, its ruined empty buildings displayed for inspection by tourists. Port Arthur presented a tidy picture; its buildings were set in a landscape of neatly clipped lawns due to park management policies from the first government acquisitions and including the extensive use of mechanical lawn-mowing equipment. The dominant landscape aesthetic that emerged was one of ‘romantic ruins’ in a park-like setting.
In the 1980s, several commentators began to question the merits of ‘romantic ruins’ at the expense of representing the brutality of the convict system, noting the contrast of the pleasant and idyllic appearance of the site contrasted with the historical reality of the prison.
From 1979 to 1986 the Port Arthur Conservation and Development Project, jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the State Governments, carried out a range of major conservation works and infrastructure development. The site’s first significant funding allowed for extensive historic documentary, materials, and archaeological research to be undertaken to support site conservation decision–making. Pioneering conservation techniques and methodologies were also developed for this project. Key infrastructure changes included the relocation of the caravan park to Garden Point, the upgrading and undergrounding of services, and the construction of a bypass road to Nubeena. Conservation works were carried out on most of the ruins and buildings. Safe public access was provided to some of these ruins for the first time whilst other buildings were opened with various forms of interpretation. Several buildings were converted to staff residences and a site administrative office was erected.
A new management authority, the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA) was created in 1987 through special State legislation. The Authority is a government business enterprise, responsible for its own commercial operations. The Authority has conducted research and conservation works on a number of historic buildings, and provided new visitor services throughout the site. The construction of a new visitor’s centre, car park and jetties at Mason’s Cove and Point Puer are major changes to the infrastructure of the site.
In recent years the Tasmanian State Government has provided substantial support for the Historic Site, recognising that its strategic and cultural heritage value extends far beyond the site boundary. This has included the formation of the Port Arthur Region Marketing body (PARM).
The tragic massacre of 35 people by a lone gunman at Port Arthur on 28 April 1996 has become part of Port Arthur’s history. A huon pine cross was erected at the waterfront near the Penitentiary a short time after the tragedy. In 2000, a memorial garden and reflection pool were established around the ruin of the former Broad Arrow Café building. In April 2001, the cross was relocated during the night to a position within the memorial garden. The garden and cross contribute another layer to the memorial nature of the landscape.
|Condition and Integrity|
The Port Arthur Historic Site, its collections and records,
are managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Authority in keeping with the site’s
About 197ha, Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, comprising the area
covered by the Port Arthur Historic Site Conservation Plan (Godden Mackay
Context 2000) and that part of Point Puer to the north of a line joining the
following AMG points: 570200mE 5220880mN, 570540mE 5220890mN and 570670mE
Note: The preparation of this place record has mostly relied
upon the following key overview documents, which draw extensively on other
texts. Readers interested in
knowing the primary sources can identify them by consulting the overview
Godden Mackay Context (2000) Port Arthur Historic Site conservation plan. (2 volumes).
Pearson, M and Marshall, D (Dec 1995) Study of World Heritage Values. Convict places. Prepared for Department of the Environment Sport and Territories
Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (April 2004) National Heritage List nomination, Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania. 25pp plus attachments
Report Produced Sat Mar 15 11:38:51 2014