Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Officer's Quarters, Port Arthur

Tents accommodated the 63rd Regiment when it arrived at Port Arthur in September 1830. More permanent accommodation was constructed soon after with a timber barrack capable of holding over 60 men. As Port Arthur grew, so did the need for larger barracks. Plans were prepared in 1837 but construction was delayed until 1840 when a brick building with an impressive sandstone fa├žade was erected on the hill behind the Guard Tower. The original barracks were then demolished. The new building seems to have comfortably accommodated 100 rank & file in 1842 but by 1846, with over 270 officers & soldiers, it had become so overcrowded that men were sleeping on the ground. In response to this issue, a new barracks was proposed on the other side of Mason’s Cove, but this did not proceed with a second barracks being constructed to the west of the existing one.

For the first decade or so, the officers & officials who administered Port Arthur lived in timber framed cottages on the hillside behind the Guard Tower. However, as time went by, the cottages grew older, there became cause for complaint. Thomas Lempriere, the Commissariat Officer quote in 1847 – “In two months time I shall have completed a residence of 14 years under this roof, a weatherboard house that has not a single door wind or watertight. The plates supporting the uprights are decayed from damp and age, which has caused the walls to sink, the whole having been constructed from green wood, every door and window, has shrunk. In fact, the residence is quite unfit for the residence of any officer of the department…..they might perhaps serve as temporary accommodation for some of the inferior officers of the convict department”

During the 1840’s the senior officers’ accommodation was upgraded and their new brick & stone buildings form what is known today as Civil Officers Row. These buildings have survived and have been restored in recent years. The old cottages became the residences of clerks, overseers, and storekeepers. Some of them had families with them and some shared with other officials. By the time the settlement closed in 1877, the houses would have been in very poor condition. They were purchased at the government auction, presumably for demolition. Any remaining traces of the cottages have been lost with the 1895 & 1897 bushfires.

The Senior Military Officer had a separate house constructed for him and his family next door to the Commandants House in 1834. It became known as Rose Cottage. Lempriere described it in 1838 as a neat cottage with a verandah at the front and comprising 4 rooms and a kitchen. The house was initially constructed entirely of wood (no bricks were produced at Port Arthur before 1839) but the kitchen and outbuildings were later rebuilt in brick. There was grass at the front and a garden at the rear. By the early 1840’s the house was occupied by Captain & Mrs Errington. She sent paintings of the house and her little boy to her family in the UK which showed a comfortable, well furnished interior. But by 1848, the occupants were complaining that the building was damp and rotting. The garden of the cottage seemed to be noted for its “prettiness” and this was probably why it was called Rose Cottage.

It was one of the settlement buildings that remained unsold at the original government auction after the settlement’s closure in 1877 but by 1887, the cottage was named “Mount Parnassus” and was run as a juvenile school. By 1889, it was again sold and once again known as Rose Cottage. By 1897, it housed the State School. By this time, it would have been a very old timber building and while it caught fire during the 1895 bushfires, it was saved. However it was not so lucky during the 1897 fire.

Many of the serving military soldier’s were married and in some cases their families accompanied them to Port Arthur. Unless they were officers, the families all shared a room in the barracks. In 1853, two double cottages were approved for married military officers. The plan was to have one built on either side of the guard tower. However, only one cottage was ever constructed. Each half of the cottage had two rooms on the ground floor, one or two attic rooms above and a kitchen behind.

The tenants were military families at first but later overseers and civil officers occupied them from time to time. The building was sold after the closure of Port Arthur but was badly damaged in the 1897 bushfires. Half of it was rebuilt a few years later, the other side serving as a chicken house. When rebuilt, it was used as a museum for visitors for a number of years. In 1963, both sides were renovated and in 1986, further conservation work was completed.

Main Text & Information Sources – 
Interpretive Signs at the Site
“Port Arthur – Convicts & Commandants” – Walter. B. Pridmore