Australia is home to some of the world’s most grim and fascinating historical jails. These dark places have been capturing the public’s imagination for more than a century, and none more so than Port Arthur Historic Site.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Empire viewed the island of Australia as a natural prison to which petty crims and dangerous felons could be sent and largely forgotten. From 1788 to 1886, around 162,000 convicts, mostly from Britain and Ireland, arrived in various penal colonies across Australia. In the first 70 years of transportation, most convicts were put to work labouring, so jails did not play a major role in the penal system.
By 1842, however, new ideas about crime and reform were developing, with the Pentonville Prison in the United Kingdom offering a popular model in which prisoners were separated by class. Prisoners were confined in silence for 22 hours a day, and conditions were shown to cause distress and mental health problems among inmates.
Many of Australia’s historical prisons were built after the Pentonville example – with separate cell blocks and wings radiating from a central area to provide constant surveillance – including Port Arthur.
The Port Arthur penal settlement also pioneered new ideas and systems of incarceration and reform that were gaining credit in Britain and the United States. This included the Point Puer establishment, which was purpose-built for reforming convict boys; the Dockyard, where convicts built both the yards and the ships; and the Pauper’s Depot and Lunatic Asylum, for the welfare of aging and infirm convicts.
The ruins and buildings that remain today have made Port Arthur Historic Site one of the country’s top heritage tourism destinations, with visitors from both home and overseas travelling to the Tasman Peninsula, just over an hour’s drive from Hobart. The Port Arthur penal settlement started as a small convict timber-harvesting station in 1830, which quickly became a vital source of wood for the colonies. Convicts were also put to work building ships, which were sold on for profit, and also gave the convicts a skill to use in their post-incarceration life. Visitors to the historic site today can experience the sounds and views that would have been familiar to these convict shipbuilders through audio interpretation at the Dockyard.
This is a sneak peek! To read about the rest of the journey, check out the Autumn 2023 edition of Caravanning Australia.
Image courtesy of Hype TV