The penal settlement of Port Arthur began as a convict timbergetting camp in September 1830. Over the next three years a bustling settlement arose by the edge of Mason Cove: barracks for close to two hundred convicts, workshops and, on a hill overlooking the bay, administrative buildings, military barracks and civil residences. In 1833, with the closure of Macquarie Harbour and Maria Island, Port Arthur became the focus of the secondary punishment system in Van Diemen’s Land. The geographically isolated Tasman Peninsula was an ideal location for such an establishment. A military outpost was quickly established on the narrow isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck, with military pickets and guard dogs strung out across the sandy neck. All but government seaborne traffic was banned from the area, the only visitors to the peninsula being those who were officially sanctioned. The Peninsula was also rich in resources – timber, stone, coal and land – and it was not long before the convicts were put to work exploiting all four. Within five years over five million feet of timber had been felled, split and sawn by the convicts, while hundreds of tons of sandstone and brick clay had been quarried for use at the settlement.
In early 1833 a survey of the Tasman Peninsula’s northwest had noted a seam of coal at a place known as Slopen Main. Later that year, Port Arthur’s Commandant, Charles O’Hara Booth, oversaw the establishment of a mine worked by convicts. Initially better-behaved convicts were sent to the mine; however, as it became established, it was used as a punishment station akin to Port Arthur, but with an even harsher regime and more fearsome reputation. Developments in convict administration in the 1830s also saw a significant step taken in the management of the previously perplexing problem of juvenile convicts.
In 1834 Point Puer was established across the bay from Port Arthur at the behest of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur. Here convict boys arriving in the colony were segregated from the corrupting influence of adult convicts and provided with a modicum of trade training, as well as basic scholastic and religious education. Well-behaved boys were taught shoemaking, tailoring, carpentry, stonemasonry, bookbinding and boatbuilding, while others were put to work felling trees, clearing and working land. Commandant Booth instituted a hierarchical punishment system in order to maintain discipline. However, staffing shortages and the poor quality of the buildings available often worked against these aims. By the end of the 1830s almost 500 boys were incarcerated at Point Puer. Some of them had committed crimes in the colony, but the majority was freshly landed off transports from Britain.
As well as the Coal Mines and Point Puer, a number of other establishments were attached to the main Port Arthur settlement. To the north were the small establishments of Long Bay and Norfolk Bay, which were port termini for a convict-powered tramway across the peninsula and reduced the need for the sometimes hazardous open sea voyage to Hobart. Pushed by a gang of convicts and capable of carrying passengers, this human powered transport was the first passenger railway in Australia. A number of semaphore stations were also built around the Tasman Peninsula, facilitating contact between the establishments, as well as with Hobart.
Although a network of track ways traversed the peninsula, transport and communication were largely maintained by a fleet of convict-manned schooners, whaleboats and lighters. Many of these craft were built at Port Arthur’s convict-operated dockyard. Here, under the guidance of a free Master Shipwright, initially John Watson and later David Hoy, convicts were put to work on the skilled tasks of boat and shipbuilding. Between 1834 and 1849 fifteen large vessels and over 140 smaller boats were launched.
In 1838 the Molesworth Report was published, the net result was the cessation of transportation to New South Wales in 1840 and a dramatic re-structuring of the system of convict management in Van Diemen’s Land. The new system, known from 1840 as the Probation System, saw all new convict arrivals placed in work gangs scattered across the colony. Port Arthur was retained as a punishment establishment within the new probationary framework. This re-shaping of the convict system ushered in a period of unparalleled activity on the Peninsula, as men and material were funnelled into the area. Five new stations were established - Saltwater River (1841), Slopen Island (1841–44), Impression Bay (1841–51), Wedge Bay (1842– 45) and Cascades (1842–56). These stations were administered by their own Superintendent, though Port Arthur still retained the largest population of convicts and administrators. By 1846, over 3500 men were incarcerated on the Peninsula, of whom 1200 were at Port Arthur. The 3500 men were superintended by 200 officers of the Convict Department, as well as the soldiers of the military detachment.
The need to supply the ration demands of this rapidly growing population resulted in increased agriculture at all settlements, as well as the construction of a flourmill and granary at Port Arthur in 1845. Powered by an overshot waterwheel, the mill was one of the largest edifices built in the colony at that time. A network of dams, water races, tunnels, pipes and a flume drew water from the Mt Arthur foothills and supplied it to the wheel.
Convicts at Port Arthur were employed in a steadily growing number of activities, from the traditional hard labour of timber-getting and quarrying, to the manufacturing of clothing, building materials and components. Under the management of Commandant William Champ, the settlement began to move away from the austerity of its early years. Subsistence garden plots were established throughout the settlement, as was the ornamental splendour of Government Gardens. An increasing number of official visitors came to the settlement, and their written and illustrated observations today form a valuable part of Port Arthur’s archive.
When not engaged in the tasks of running the settlement, the military and civil officials and their families enjoyed a limited social life at the cloistered outpost; dinner parties, games, outings and scientific pursuits, were all part of daily life. A number of Port Arthur’s senior staff maintained connections with cultural institutions, and there were many scientific collaborations based at the penal settlement in areas as diverse as horticulture, medicine, tidal research, and later photography.
The probation system reached its zenith in the mid-1840s, then began a rapid decline that lasted until the early years of the following decade. Stations were closed across the colony, as the Convict Department desperately rationalized and centralized its operations in the face of the impending end of transportation. The stations of the Tasman Peninsula were some of the last to be closed, as all remaining Imperial convicts were channeled onto the Peninsula. The Coal Mines was closed for convict purposes in 1848. Point Puer closed in 1849, following the near completion of a new juvenile penitentiary at nearby Safety Cove. The establishment had peaked at over 700 inmates between 1842 and 1844. However, as fewer boys were transported to the colonies in the wake of the establishment of the Parkhurst reformatory on the Isle of Wight, the number of boys at the settlement had rapidly dwindled. It no longer remained viable to continue. As other stations on the Peninsula closed, Port Arthur again became the focus of convict operations on the Peninsula.
In 1848 work was begun on the Separate Prison. Completed in 1852, the prison could house 50 convicts undergoing separate treatment. The prison was based on the British prison Pentonville (1842), designed by Captain J. Jebb, and it was also influenced by the American Philadelphia system. The construction of the Separate Prison was part of a new punishment philosophy, based on the reforms first espoused by John Howard and, later, by Jeremy Bentham. This approach was to drastically alter approaches to convict management, as well as the physical landscape of Port Arthur.
Depriving the convicts of contact with their fellows and isolating them for 23 hours a day, the Separate Prison was designed to subjugate the recidivist elements of the convict population. It replaced the physical punishment of flogging (the last flogging occurred in 1849) with psychological intimidation and manipulation. Between 1855 and 1868, ‘C Wing’ of the prison was used to house violent lunatics.
In 1854 work also began on converting the flourmill and granary, which had failed dismally to meet expectations, into a four-storey Penitentiary. Work finished in 1857: the edifice was capable of housing 136 men in separate confinement and up to 350 in dormitories. Many of the men initially held there were arrivals from Norfolk Island, which was closed in 1855. The industrial capacity of the Port Arthur settlement increased as men and material were directed there due to the closure of other peninsula stations. With the closure of the Cascades station in 1856, a steam-driven circular saw and miles of iron tramlines were removed to Port Arthur. Timber-getting continued apace at the penal settlement; a maze of tracks and tramlines were pushed miles into the hinterland to extract the valuable resource. A bank of sawpits was constructed in 1856 by the foreshore, excavated into landfill from the reclamation of the harbour in 1854–55.
A large workshop was built next to the Penitentiary, housing the steam sawmill, a bone mill and blacksmiths’ workshop. Such was the mass of material being produced at the settlement that a dedicated steamer wharf was erected in 1858, allowing vessels to load directly. Large tracts of land were developed for agricultural purposes around the settlement. A farm with pigs and dairy cattle was opened in 1854. New farms were established at Garden Point and Long Bay, and a number of old outstations on the Peninsula were reopened for agricultural purposes. This activity was all part of an attempt to make convict activities self-sustaining.
Britain had drastically lessened her investment in the Convict Department, especially since the cessation of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in 1853. By the late 1850s there were small numbers of convicts in Hobart and Launceston institutions, with Port Arthur having by far the largest population. Inevitably, this population became less and less ‘effective’, and unable to perform the tasks necessary to the running of the establishment. An increasing number of convicts were classified as invalid, pauper or lunatic.
In 1857 the old Prisoners’ Barracks was given over to paupers and invalids. In 1863 work was completed on a Paupers’ Depot, which became a dedicated institution for looking after ex-convicts incapable of making a life for themselves outside the penal system. A year later work began on the Asylum, adjacent to the Separate Prison. The Asylum was completed in 1868, and received those members of Port Arthur’s population suffering mental illness. With the effectiveness of Port Arthur’s prison population rapidly declining, the settlement became an establishment geared toward managing the welfare of the old, helpless and ‘damaged’ convicts.
After 1865 Port Arthur was the last penal settlement maintained by the British Government. In 1872 it was handed over to colonial control, complete with its dwindling convict population. The establishment continued for a further five years, until it was finally closed for convict purposes in 1877.
Following the closure of Port Arthur for convict purposes in 1877, the land was parceled up for private sale. Lots were often sold with the proviso that the old convict buildings be demolished and removed. Many buildings were, however, retained for residential and commercial purposes and a township grew among the ruins of the old penal settlement. A burgeoning tourist trade saw the area of Port Arthur (renamed Carnarvon in 1884) devoted to a novel combination of tourist-centric and rural agriculture and timbergetting industries.
Visitors were initially mainly Tasmanians, keen to see first-hand the ‘horrors’ of a penal station, but soon the site was attracting increasing numbers from the mainland and overseas. The Carnarvon community was quick to capitalize on the curiosity of the tourists. Private museums, guided tours (often offered by ‘old lags’), the sale of souvenirs and the provision of accommodation catered to tourists’ interests and created a financial base for the community.
In 1895 and again in 1897 the area suffered damaging bushfires, devastating many of the remaining convict-period buildings. Despite this, Port Arthur did not lose its place as a key tourism attraction. Recognition of this prompted the Tasmanian Government to create the Scenery Preservation Board in 1915, which took the management of parts of Port Arthur out of local hands. In 1916 the Church, Penitentiary, Separate Prison and Point Puer were gazetted as historic reserves.
During the 1920s and 1930s the Port Arthur area had three hotels and two museums catering to tourism. Infrastructure expanded as the community gained such amenities as a post office, cricket club and lawn tennis club. Layers of social meaning were added to the landscape, including the planting of a memorial avenue to honour local men who served in the First World War. A new jetty was built and extended to accommodate the rapidly increasing numbers of tourists. Under the Scenery Preservation Board, effort and funds were invested into the preservation of the site. The community continued its tourist-centric approach, but non-tourism occupations, such as fishing, timber-getting and orcharding, continued.
The year 1927 was marked by the release of the film adaptation of Marcus Clark’s epic convict novel ‘For the term of his Natural Life’, as well as by the reversion of the township name from Carnarvon to Port Arthur, although tourist literature had never referred to it as anything else. By 1948 the majority of the township was reserved as a Historic Site, impacting non-tourism usages of the area. Hotel accommodation was withdrawn from the historic precinct, and the present-day Motor Inn was constructed in 1959 on the site’s periphery. The Point Puer peninsula was used for farming purposes until the 1960s.
Between 1938 and 1947 the Port Arthur historic site was managed by the Port Arthur and Eaglehawk Neck Reserves Board, with control reverting to the overarching Tasmanian Scenery Preservation Board until 1962. From this date, until the National Parks and Wildlife Service took over in 1971, the Tasman Peninsula Board oversaw the site’s management. Under the National Parks and Wildlife Service, serious professional attempts at site interpretation and conservation were made, with the net result that the working elements of the township were gradually supplanted. Point Puer was compulsorily acquired by the Tasmanian Government in 1977.
The Port Arthur Conservation and Development Project (PACDP), which operated from 1979 to 1986, was a joint Commonwealth and State project that included conservation and development of the historic heritage resources of the Tasman Peninsula. In addition to its specific heritage activities, the PACDP was also involved in other major works, such as the relocation of residents from the township of Port Arthur and the construction of bypass roads. The PACDP established co-operative relationships between archaeology, historical interpretation, architecture and engineering at Port Arthur and was unprecedented in time span and complexity as a conservation project in Australia.
During this time the Coal Mines Historic Site was managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, but the PACDP engaged in a number of projects in the area, including a comprehensive archaeological survey in 1985. The Coal Mines remained under the control of the National Parks and Wildlife Service until 2004. When the PACDP came to a close in 1986, management of the Port Arthur Historic Site passed to the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA). PAHSMA operates under a specific Act (the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority Act 1987) and is subject to the Government Business Enterprises Act 1995 (Tas).
PAHSMA’s management continues to the present day. The Authority took over management of the Coal Mines Historic Site in 2004. Since PAHSMA was established in 1987, a large number of major conservation, infrastructure and interpretation projects have been implemented. These have included the reconstruction of the former Government Gardens, interpretation of the Dockyard, a new Visitor Centre, new jetties, the opening of Point Puer, and the adoption of the 2000 Conservation Plan.