Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Parsonage, Port Arthur

The Parsonage was originally a two storey building when constructed in 1842/43. It was the only two storey house to be built on the site which is probably reflective of the senior status shown to the ministers. The Reverend Durham and his family were the first occupants and lived here for 10 years. Irish born Durham, his wife and six children arrived at Port Arthur in 1843 and were the first long term occupants of the house.

Durham was said to be a difficult man to deal with. Durham became involved in frequent squabbles with other staff at Port Arthur. He clashed often with the Catholic chaplain and he loathed the Catholic convicts. Commandant Booth disliked his attitude and saw this as evidence that Durham was in fact, mad. But such differing of opinion between Catholics and the church of Ireland was not uncommon for the time. Letters from Durham to the Commandant that have survived from the time, however, reveal a reasonable man. He requested that the convicts be allowed to attend prayers under shelter, a plea for humane treatment that Booth denied. He reminded Booth that the chaplain should be responsible for running the school and the library. A later inquiry proved him right. That same inquiry, however, found that although he was hot headed and intolerant, Durham’s effort to improve the convict’s moral condition was beyond all praise. One former convict wrote that he had won the heart-felt respect of all those unfortunate people with whom he had come into contact.

By the early 1850’s, the Durham’s had returned to Ireland and the Reverend’s health had deteriorated to the point he was committed to an asylum. Maybe he actually was mad or his experiences at Port Arthur had proved too much for him.

After Durham, a number of parsons came and went before the Reverend George Eastman arrived with his wife, Louise and their large family in 1857. The Eastman’s would have 10 children in total and the older boys could often be seen running wild around the settlement, disrupting the farm operations and annoying the convicts in charge of it.  Eastman had served at other convict establishments across Tasmania and despite his popularity at Port Arthur, like his predecessor Durham, he experienced his share of clashes with authority. The superintendant of the Ross Female Factory had resigned rather than continue to work with Eastman who had sided with staff against him.

At Port Arthur, he was held in high esteem for his “kindly manner, genial and charitable disposal” and was known as the “Good Parson” by the prisoners. In 1870, when he rose from his own sick bed to minister to a dying convict, he caught a fatal chill. When he died, aged only 48, he left his wife & family in poverty. He was buried on the Isle of the Dead in Port Arthur harbor.  By the time the Reverend Haywood arrived with his wife in 1870, the settlement was in decline. Most of their flock was old, ill or insane. By all known reports, the Haywoods were the first  people to see ghosts in the parsonage cottage. Most of these sightings were from the 1870’s, at a time when there was a popular interest in spiritualism and many Christians saw this as a proof the soul existed and endured after death. The Haywood’s left Port Arthur when the settlement closed in 1877.

In July 1877, just a few months before the last convicts departed, the government began to subdivide the land in preparation for an auction. Although the uptake of land was initially slow, by 1879, people had begun to move in and make Port Arthur home. The burgeoning township began developing the infrastructure it was going to require, such as a school, stores, a hall and a post office.  The 1890’s saw the bushfires rage through the settlement and a number of buildings were lost or damaged. The Parsonage was one of the buildings to sustain damage when it lost its second storey. But the families were resilient and soon began the task of rebuilding.

In the early 1880’s Christina Annie Blackwood and her sister had arrived in Port Arthur to join their parents and before too long, Christina had set up as Postmistress in a small room at the rear of her family home (which was the former Junior Medical Officers House). After the Parsonage building was damaged in the 1895 bushfire, the building was refitted as a single storey building. Christina purchased the property and she relocated the Post office to her new home. She and her new husband, George Wellard, who was the local passenger coach proprietor, ran their businesses from the Parsonage with the help of family members for many years to come. Christina used to read & write letters for those who were unable to do so for themselves. The mail came from Hobart by boat to nearby Taranna each day and then by coach to Port Arthur. Many of the local people used to gather at the Post office awaiting the arrival of the mail, making this a central meeting place for the township.

The Wellard family was not the last to serve in the township post office. The Dickson family took over in the early 1960’s and remained until the late 1970’s when the Post office moved out of the settlement.
The building has hosted dozens of residents and several names throughout its existence. There have been many changes to its appearance and use over the years, from double storey to single storey, from home to……fleetingly, a wine bar.

The building has been the focus of a significant conservation program and is now presented basically as it would have been during the period when the Wellard family lived and worked here. The building has wonderful interpretation boards as well as furniture and artifacts etc including the original stables at the rear of the property.

Main Text & Information Sources
Interpretation Signs at the site.