Port Arthur is a small town and UNESCO world heritage listed former convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula in Tasmania. It is one of Australia’s most significant heritage sites. It has a tragic history both in the convict era and in modern times.
Getting to Port Arthur
Most people who go to Port Arthur travel from Hobart to the site. Port Arthur is about a 1 hour and 30 minute drive from Hobart. If you are staying in Hobart, I recommend you get up early to make sure you are at Port Arthur when the gates open at 9am.
If you are in Hobart you can take a day tour that includes Port Arthur as well as other sites along the Tasman Peninsula. The other options are to hire a car and drive yourself. There is plenty to see on the trip and a hire car allows you to stop when you want. Buses also run from Hobart to the site.
We stayed at Eaglehawk Neck (across from the Tessellated Pavement) which is 25 minutes from Port Arthur so that we could be at the site when the gates opened. This allowed us to get a car park close to the entrance. It also meant that there was only one person in the queue to get tickets before us. At about 2pm the main entrance was so busy with people arriving that we struggled to get through to the exit. There is also accommodation around Port Arthur.
Your Port Arthur entrance ticket is valid for two consecutive days. It includes:
- the interactive experiences in the Visitor Centre
- a 40 minutes introductory walking tour
- a 20 minute harbour cruise passing the Dockyard, Point Puer Boys Prison and the Isle of the Dead
- the Museum and the Convict Study Centre
- the historic buildings, ruins and gardens on the site
- access to the convict Water Supply Trail and Dockyard
By being at the site at 9am for opening, it gave us an opportunity to get photos without crowds of people. On the day we visited a P&O cruise ship was anchored in the bay and the passengers disembarked throughout the day making it busier than usual.
The general admission to the site is AUD$37 for an adult. I recommend you consider paying the extra for one of the other tours. These include:
- AUD$50 for entry plus Isle of the Dead tour (we did this tour)
- AUD$50 for entry plus Point Puer Boys Prison tour
- AUD$70 for entry plus both the Isle of the Dead and the Point Puer Boys Prison tour
- AUD$25 for a 90 minute lantern-lit ghost tour
- AUD$85 adults only paranormal investigation experience (this is run once a month so we missed this experience)
For more information check Port Arthur’s website.
The Port Arthur World Heritage Site
Port Arthur was not originally a penal settlement, but rather it was a timber gathering camp using convicts to acquire timber logs for government projects. This first settlement was established in 1830.
Three years later in 1833, Port Arthur started to be used as a convict settlement for repeat offenders. Convicts from other Australian colonies would be sent to Port Arthur if they re-offended. Port Arthur was never used as a convict settlement for convicts when they first arrived in Australia.
Within seven years, in 1840, more than 2,000 people were at Port Arthur. This included soldiers and civilian staff and their families as well as convicts.
However, by 1853, convicts were no longer beings transported to Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land). Port Arthur was then transformed into a facility to house aging convicts and convicts that were physically and mentally ill.
It was not until 1870 that the settlement was closed.
The historical importance of Port Arthur was recognised in 2010 when it and 10 other historical sites that form the Australian Convicts Sites were World Heritage listed.
An additional tragic chapter was written into Port Arthur history on 28 April, 1996. On that day a lone shooter took the lives of 35 people and injured at least another 18 people.
When you do the guided tour of the site, the tour guides tell visitors of the shooting and that guests and employees lost their lives. They will also recommend you visit the memorial to pay your respects. There is no mention of the shooter’s name (out of respect, I have not mentioned the shooter’s name either).
The shooting changed Australia forever and also resulted in gun control being introduced into Australia. The gun laws included the banning of fully automatic and semi automatic firearms. It also included a mandatory 28 day cooling off period before getting a gun licence and you required a ‘genuine reason’ for owning a gun (self-defence was not an appropriate reason).
A gun buy-back also resulted in about 700,000 legal and newly made illegal guns being handed in and destroyed. There has not been a mass shooting in Australia since.
This tragic chapter in Port Arthur and Australia’s history is also one of largest mass shootings in the world.
The Memorial Garden includes a cross containing the names of those who lost their lives. It also includes a memorial pool. The memorial stands on the site of the Broad Arrow Cafe. 20 people lost their lives in the cafe. The memorial pool was created as a place of remembrance and reflection and when visiting Port Arthur, spend some time at the memorial to pay your respects.
The Penitentiary is the most imposing building and one of the first you see when you enter the Port Arthur site.
When it was in use, convicts were split into two groups in the Penitentiary. The convicts who were considered to be of ‘bad character’, were housed in cells in the two lower floors of the building. Better behaved convicts had a much better view on the top level of the building and had the benefit of being able to sleep in bunk beds. The lower two floors contained 136 cells while 480 convicts slept on the top floor.
The church sits above the Government Gardens and shows the amazing stonework that was crafted by convicts, many of them boys from the Point Puer Boys’ Prison. You can visit the boys prison while on the harbour cruise.
The church held an important place at the settlement as religion was considered an significant part of the rehabilitation process for the convicts, of which some 1,100 would attend Sunday services.
Isle of the Dead
The Isle of the Dead is a small island close to Port Arthur. It is the final resting place for more than 1,000 convicts, military and civil officers, women and children who were buried there between 1833 and 1877.
The Isle of the Dead is accessed from the harbour cruise and is a guided tour. If you want to visit the Isle of the Dead make sure you include it in your entrance ticket.
There are a number of other sites to see during your visit to Port Arthur.
Practical Tips for Visiting Port Arthur
Firstly, Port Arthur is a must see if you are visiting Tasmania. Give yourself a day to visit the site and if you are staying close by you might even want to join an evening ghost tour.
Practical tips for when you visit Port Arthur are:
- Arrive early. Make sure you arrive before the opening time of 9am so that you can get a car park close to the entrance and be at the entrance when the site opens.
- Arriving early also allows you to miss the crowds that arrive later in the day. This give you an opportunity to get some great photos without the crowds.
- Be aware that cruise ships visit Port Arthur which increases the number of visitors. On the day we visited P&O cruise ship Emerald Princess was anchored in the harbour and guests were continuously ferried from the ship to the site during the day.
- Wear comfortable shoes. There is a lot of ground to cover at the site.
- Even if visiting in winter, make sure you have a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and water.
- Tasmanian weather is unpredictable. Also make sure you have a raincoat / umbrella in case it rains.
- Visit at least one of the islands while on the harbour cruise.
- Don’t rush. You can comfortably visit the site in a day so don’t think you need to rush. That being said, we did rush around to get specific photos we wanted before the crowds arrived.
- Respect the site. The site is World Heritage listed.
- Visit the interactive experiences at the visitors centre. You can do those as you are leaving.