Blog 218 Port Arthur 27th – 28th March 2012


Please note the dates (on the titles) of these blogs. These are still adventures that happened pre the accident of  27th April 2012. We are trying to get up to date but Karen still has a full on physio regime and Kev is being her carer. We are also very busy getting a presentation ready for the V twin rally in the UK and designing new calendars.

Please bear with us we are doing our best, at least we have something for you to read while Karen recuperates.

Back to Tassie

Blog 218 Port Arthur 27th – 28th March 2012

No visit to Tassie would be complete without visiting Port Arthur and this is where we headed when we finally left Hobart. It was named after Van Diemen’s land lieutenant governor George Arthur and originally started as a timber station in the 1830′s but is much better known as the site of the harshest most secure penal colony in the country. It was usually only reserved for the most hardened criminal and secondary offenders.

We thought it would be an easy run down there but like most things in Tassie there was so much to see on the way that we didn’t make it until the next day.

Occasionally we happen to be in the right place at the right time and we had just finished taking photos (or so we thought) from this swing bridge when a worker arrived to open it for a yacht that was coming through. I almost got squished in my haste to squeeze through the barrier shutting off the cars as I raced back from the bike when Kev called me over. The Denison canal which it traverses was originally hand dug in 1901 but this new hydraulic bridge was replaced in 1965. We got to see the workings underneath as he collected his “fee” from the yacht, usually chocs, alcohol, food etc.

Kerry had suggested a slight detour around the lookout road to the Tasman peninsula featured in the first two photos. We also stopped at the rare tessellated pavement for a look at the pan and loaf formations.

The pan formation is a series of concave depressions in the rock. This part of the pavement dries out more at low tide allowing salt crystals to develop further; the surface of the “pans” therefore erodes more quickly than the joints, resulting in increasing concavity.

The loaf formations occur on the parts of the pavement closer to the seashore which are immersed in water for longer periods of time. These parts of the pavement do not dry out so much, reducing the level of salt crystallisation. Water, carrying abrasive sand, is channelled through the joints, causing them to erode faster than the rest of the pavement, leaving the loaf-like structures protruding.

The Tasman peninsula where the Port Arthur penal colony was sited is linked to the mainland by a narrow spit of land called Eaglehawk neck. At 400 metres long and under 30 metres wide at its narrowest point it formed a natural gateway to the peninsula. In the 1830s a line of eighteen dogs were chained to posts across the neck to stop any convicts attempting to escape the prison at Port Arthur. The area was heavily patrolled by soldiers and the guards’ quarters is now a museum. Many attempts were made by prisoners to escape via the neck and the dogs won many a battle.
I tried my luck at escaping but they still have a nasty bite……
Nearby was a blow-hole similar to the ones we saw at Quobba which gave a little huff and puff but the tide was wrong, it was here however that we re-met a couple we first encountered in Cervantes who fed us tea and cake when Kev was trying to find why the bike was misfiring. In the true Aussie spirit, this time they fed us the rest of their fish and chips which we were most grateful for, they also gave us a donation for our remaining journey, thank you. On our other side in the photo is a couple originally from England who enlightened us as to where our bike originated from. Alan recognised the numberplate prefix FP from his home town Rutland in Leicestershire England.

We began to lose the light so found a sneaky free camp at the end of the road near Tasman’s arch which we were able to revisit at first light in the morning along with the Devil’s kitchen.

Tasman’s arch is what’s left of the roof of a large sea cave created by wave action many years ago. The Devil’s kitchen once had an arch as well but the waves and wind eroded this until it collapsed.

Next morning we headed out through Doo town so called by the locals as more and more residents are renaming their homes. We saw Rum Doo, Much Adoo about nothing, I Doo, Doo or don’t, sadly I only managed a fleeting photo as we passed by.

We also stopped at this beach, which on the surface looked much like any other, apart from the footprints in the sand. This is Pirate bay, home to a colony of Little Penguin’s who have their own underpass as they nest in burrows on the other side of the road and are in danger of being squished when they venture out at dusk and dawn. You can see their footprints in the sand in the pictures.

It was glorious sunshine when we made Port Arthur and there was a serene feel as we walked round the ruins with our early morning guide. This was soon dispelled when our tour reached the separation cells and we heard the gruesome tales and living conditions. This opened in 1849 modelled on London’s Pentonville prison. Even the exercise yards which they used for one hour a day were separate, everything was conducted in silence. The fifth, sixth and seventh photos show the chapel, here prisoners were hooded and made to stay silent before being herded into separate coffin like chambers, once here the hoods were removed as they could only see the preacher. When I was standing in one my head was just showing this was deliberate to enforce the isolation. Many of the prisoners in the Separate Prison developed mental illness from the lack of light and sound. This was an unintended outcome although the asylum was built right next to the Separate Prison.

Here is the asylum now a museum and the penitentiary which was originally built as a flour mill and granary along with some views back towards Masons cove. The last photo is the dockyard, once the busiest and most productive in Van Diemen’s Land. It is one of only three dockyards in the British Empire to have used convict labour to build the yard and the ships, it is also the best preserved with a 25-metre long ship sculpture which sits in one of the Dockyard’s slips, highlighting the scale of the ships that were made here.
A few outlines remain of the buildings which stood here the boat sheds, steamers, a sawpit, the overseer’s hut and blacksmith’s shop and the Master Shipwright’s home.

The Isle of the Dead was the destination for all who died inside the prison camps. Of the 1,769 graves recorded to exist there, 180 of those, the free men mainly prison staff and military personnel, are marked. There are the odd few convict marked graves amongst these. The lower parts of the island was for convicts, invalids and paupers with only military and civil burials near the higher ground.

The intricate stone work and rope inlay on some of the graves was the mark of one of the prisoners who also made a headstone for his mate William Mansfield it was the only work he signed in the bottom corner.

The grave digger John Barron lived on the island for twenty years alone. The ground was very fertile and he grew many flowers as he said he could not bring himself to eat vegetables grown from that soil. He even dug out his own grave on high ground overlooking the sea, the depression can still be seen through the trees but he was so spooked one night and begged to leave his island never to return to it.

Sadly it’s not only the past prisoners that haunt this place, Port Arthur was the scene of a horrific massacre on 28th April 1996. Martin Bryant a 28yr old went on a killing spree with a gun here and shot 25 people and wounded another 23. Most of these people were in the cafe, staff included, the ruins now form part of the memorial gardens to the trajedy.

In stark contrast to the minute single cells for the prisoners, the commondant’s house was quite opulent. It was here he lived with his wife and children. There were few women and children stationed at Port Arthur and the only time they felt safe to wander was on Sundays during church service which every prisoner had to attend, it was not a pleasant life for the civilians who were just as much as prisoner here due to it’s isolation. The other building is the military barracks complete with guard tower.

Built above the prisoners’ barracks on Settlement Hill in 1841-42, the Hospital was the third constructed at Port Arthur and included wards, a kitchen, baking room, laundry and morgue and was staffed by a doctor and a number of untrained convict orderlies. Port Arthur’s convicts laboured in heavy industries such as timber-getting, an inherently dangerous job that meant accident victims were common inmates at the hospital. The hospital building was damaged by bushfire in 1895 and 1897.

The Gothic style church constructed in 1836-37 is a lasting tribute to its convict builders. Built on high ground to overlook the convict settlement, the church could accommodate over one thousand souls at its services. It was never consecrated, due to its use by prisoners of different denominations. The church was destroyed by fire in 1884.

One of our bells is missing…….Port Arthur’s bells are the oldest in Australia cast in 1847 by an unknown prisoner. Following the closure of Port Arthur they were stored safely for twenty years in New Norfolk asylum before seven of them were handed to the council, the eighth had disappeared. Soon after they were all split up and placed in various churches. By 1995 seven bells had been returned to Port Arthur but the eighth is still missing to this day.

A place for the paupers, this brick mess building was built in 1864 as part of a complex that included timber dormitories to the north. The mess was used as a school in the 1880′s but the dormitories were demolished. The mess was gutted in the bushfire of January 1895 and has been a ruin ever since.

The semaphore pole was a means of communication by raising and lowering the bars in different positions to represent letters and numbers. Flags could be added to increase the vocabulary.

Kev awaits his sentence whilst Karen is already in chains.

Scattered around Port Arthur were the out houses belonging to the many workers, the largest of all these the commandants house, also Tremain, civil officers row (five houses for the surgeon, magistrate etc.) and Smith O’Brien’s cottage. Originally a stable it was converted into a cottage to house one of Port Arthur’s most famous political prisoners, Irish Protestant Parliamentarian William Smith O’Brien.

We took a walk through the government gardens and scrumped a few apples from the orchard. This magnificently preserved penal colony is a powerful reminder of Australia’s early history. For just a moment try to imagine what it must have been like to have lived in the teeming slums of London’s East End, to have stolen a bolt of cotton, or some foodstuffs or been involved in some petty crime and having been sentenced to seven years transportation, to have found yourself at the other end of the world in this god-forsaken institution. The scale of the punishment seems so out of proportion to the crimes which were committed. 12,500 convicts served their time at Port Arthur between 1830 and its closure in 1877.

Many people tried to escape including George “Billy” Hunt. Hunt disguised himself using a kangaroo hide and tried to flee across the neck, but the half-starved guards on duty tried to shoot him to supplement their meagre rations. When he noticed them sighting him up, Hunt threw off his disguise and surrended receiving 150 lashes.

Port Arthur was also the destination for juvenile convicts, the boys were separated from the main convict population and kept on Point Puer. Like the adults, the boys were used in hard labour such as stone cutting and construction. The Gothic style church was one such building. Port Arthur had few female prisoners who were used as servants for the officers, women were mainly sent to work for the settlers.

Next up – the forgotten parts of the Tasman peninsula.

  1. #1 by Kev & Karen on September 9, 2012 - 11:54 am

    Hi Andrew
    Spooky !!! Well it just goes to show what a small world it really is, sorry we couldn’t catch up with you for a cold one while we were in Tassie.
    Six months touring around the Tamar sounds like great fun, they looked like they were enjoying themselves.
    All the best
    Kev and Karen

  2. #2 by Andrew Henzell on September 8, 2012 - 6:06 am

    Hi Kev and Karen, sorry I missed you in Tassie.

    The wooden boat sailing through Denison canal is owned by friends of mine, and fellow motorcyclists as well.
    What a small world, to see Erik, the boats name, in your blog, as they were returning from six moths cruising in the Tamar on Tassies north coast.

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