Throughout colonial Australia, only three dockyards used convict labour to build both the yards and the ships. The Port Arthur Dockyard was one of them. The other two were Sarah Island on Tasmania’s west coast, which closed just as this yard opened, and the first Sydney dockyard. Opened in 1834, the Port Arthur Dockyard mainly supplied and repaired ships for the government. It also repaired some private vessels. It was located away from the main settlement, to reduce the ‘corrupting communication’ between convicts and free sailors.
The work force built a great variety of maritime craft including barques, brigs, schooners, cutters and whaleboats. These vessels transported convicts, supplies, raw materials and manufactured goods between Port Arthur and other colonial ports. The men here built some of the biggest ships in the colony at that time. A free Master Shipwright and convict overseers directed production in the yard. Up to 70 adult convicts and boys from Point Puer formed the labour force.
Like all the work sites at Port Arthur, it served two purposes. The hard work was meant to help reform the men, but their labour was also expected to be as productive as possible. Men who were sentenced to hard labour worked in gangs, carrying timber; well-behaved men were given the opportunity to learn a trade. You might imagine that men forced to labour work reluctantly, resentfully and slowly, and take no pride in their work. But these convict-built ships were as good as any built in the colony.
John Watson was the Master Shipwright until 1836. He was followed by David Hoy. Both men seem to have taken seriously their responsibility to reform the convicts under their charge. John Watson’s grandson described how his grandfather had taken a ‘very desperate character’ and turned him into a productive worker by treating him ‘like a human being and not as a caged beast’. In general Watson found the men, no matter how ‘dangerous’ and desperate’ their reputation, ‘most willing to learn a trade and some of the boys turned out very well’. David Hoy also enjoyed a good relationship with his workers, and was proud that many of them became ‘respectable and useful’ members of colonial society. Walter Paisley, who learned his trade here as a very rebellious Point Puer boy, was still making whaleboats 50 years later.
There were two docks for large vessels and a slip for smaller boats. These were the focus of all Dockyard activity. One of the large docks, dug by convicts in 1835, is still visible, though a limekiln was built in the other in 1854. The small slip is no longer visible. 15 large vessels, the biggest weighing 286 tons and measuring 30 metres long, and more than 140 smaller boats were launched from these docks. Much of the activity took place on the water. When the hull of a vessel was completed, it was launched and anchored offshore; there the fit-out of the decks, mast and rigging continued. Small boats and barges ferried men and materials between the ship and shore. When vessels pulled into Port Arthur for repair, they were sometimes careened in shallow water on the rocks so that men could work on the bottom of the vessel. Men engaged in these repairs often worked in water up to their necks.
The Master Shipwrights House was one of the first buildings in the Dockyard, built for John Watson and his family in 1834. It was not only his home, but his office, the ‘nerve centre’ of the Dockyard. From its windows he could survey all its activities. Here ships were designed, records were kept and orders were given. A convict clerk worked in the toolstore next to the kitchen, issuing the valuable tools and keeping the accounts. John Watson left in 1836 and was replaced by David Hoy.
Hoy had been at Macquarie Harbour for six years, where he had been in charge of shipbuilding with ‘no assistance but from prisoners taken out of the gangs, only one or two of which had ever handled a sharp-edged tool’. He claimed to have turned them into shipwrights equal to any in the colony in three years. His personal history illustrates the dangers of working in a 19th-century dockyard. He injured his back when spars fell on him at Macquarie Harbour, and fractured his skull after scaffolding collapsed under him at Port Arthur. When Lady Franklin met him in 1837 she described him as ‘an old man’. He was then about 50.
The Master Shipwright’s house is the only building that survives from the ship-building period. It is built using brick-nogged construction, an old technique that creates a strong and well insulated structure. The house was once surrounded by outbuildings – a pig sty, poultry shed, store, privy and laundry. The small garden in front was probably the shipwright’s wife’s domain, where she grew flowers and herbs.
Behind the house lay the large food garden. When the Dockyard closed in 1848 this house was occupied by a succession of civil officers, including the commissariat officer and the schoolteacher. After Port Arthur closed, the house passed into private hands but was resumed by the government in the 1950s. It narrowly escaped demolition in the 1970s
Up to five convict overseers worked at the Dockyard. They ensured that the convict work force carried out its orders. Master Shipwright David Hoy employed a number of free men as overseers to try to improve discipline. Port Arthur’s military garrison was responsible for security. Boats and tools were a tempting target for would-be escapees, so three soldiers were stationed at the Dockyard on watch each night. According to regulations, they were to be ‘most vigilant that nothing is taken away; to take into custody any prisoner lurking about his post or out of the Master Shipwright’s quarters without bearing a written pass, to hail all boats passing and repassing; to be most careful that no fires are left burning, not to quit their post except for the purpose of reporting anything extraordinary they may have observed, to keep an eye on anything they observed floating or drifting in the water.
The Sentinel is not to enter the hut in his hours of duty, to patrol frequently about the yard during his hour, his attention to be particularly directed to any boats that are ready for launching, to answer the Sentinel’s call of ‘all’s well’ at the settlement every half hour’. Despite these precautions, four prisoners stole a boat from the Dockyard and escaped in 1835. They were later recaptured.
The Clerk Of Works House is not part of the former Dockyard complex, but was built over the top of the 1841 Blacksmiths’ Shop and an earlier sawpit. The house was constructed after 1848 and was occupied by a number of officials during Port Arthur’s later years, including a chaplain and the clerk of works. After the settlement closed the house was privately owned.
Though successful, the ship building operations at Port Arthur ceased on a large scale in 1848. A growing colonial economy, recovering after a severe depression in the early 1840s, meant that private ship builders did not want to compete against a government yard producing ships at a cheaper rate and lobbied for its closure. During its 15 years of operation, Port Arthur’s dockyard produced 15 large decked vessels and around 150 small open boats. At its peak, more than 70 men worked here.
Today this area is silent and almost empty. But if you had been here between 1834 and 1848 you would have seen a collection of small and large wooden sheds clustered around two large docks. In the largest shed, a vessel 25 metres long is taking shape. On a small slip nearby a whaleboat has been drawn up for repairs. Around these vessels swarm men in coarse woollen uniforms, with brown leather caps on their heads. Other men work up to their necks in the cold water, repairing another vessel just off shore.
A timber-carrying gang is emerging from the bush, bringing a log to the sawpits. Other convicts sweat in the heat of the blacksmith’s shop, forging iron and copper fittings for the ships. You would have heard the rasp of saws, the clash of metal on metal, men shouting to one another. You would have smelt sawn timber, burning charcoal and hot pitch. Today only bird song and the sweet smell of the bush fill the air.