If you really want to get a feel for how hardy the early Australian “settlers” were, then you simply must visit Tasmania’s Port Arthur Historic Site. A remarkable window on history, Port Arthur’s well-preserved buildings provide a marvellous – and frightening – picture of how life was for the 12,500 imprisoned there.
“The convicts may have landed themselves in the lucky country, but everyone needs the shock of discovering just how unpleasant life was.”
– David Whitley
A lazy two-hour drive south from Hobart, Port Arthur sits on a peninsula on the southeastern tip of Tasmania. Set up as an industrial penal settlement in 1830, the convicts serving time there were used as cheap labour to build the entire settlement. Yes, the lucky lads got to build their own cells.
Eventually, the prison was designed to be a Model Prison, where inmates were called by numbers not names, total silence was to be maintained and head masks were to be worn in the exercise yards. In church the prisoners were separated by individual boxes. It’s said that even the wardens wore slippers and communicated by hand signals. Take a tour with a guide and you’ll be glad, very glad, to be free to leave at the end.
Did you know?
The first convict penal settlement in Tasmania was on the west coast at Sarah Island, in Macquarie Harbour. The Model Prison at Port Arthur, designed by the Royal Engineers, was based on the model of Pentonville Gaol in London.
How to get there
Regular flights are available from all Australian capital cities to Launceston with Jetstar or Virgin Blue, to Devonport with Qantaslink or Rex and to Hobart with Qantas or Virgin Blue.
Car rental is available through all major car rental companies in airport or city locations.
“The house of Australia’s haunted history.”
– George Negus
Best time to go
Anytime, but always be prepared for cold, wet weather.
Port Arthur Historic Site
Official website of Tourism Tasmania
** This is our original 100 Things to Do Before You Die. First published in 1996. There is an updated 100 Things To Do In Australia Before you die, published in 2011.