Exploring Historic Convict Sites

When talking about Tasmanian penal settlements, none stand out like Port Arthur Historic site located an hour south of Hobart on the Tasman Peninsula.

Port Arthur has had a chequered path, both in the past and in more recent times, but ultimately the location is a part of Tasmania’s pioneering history.

Starting as a timber station in 1830, three years later it was housing some of the hardest British and Irish criminals, sent to the other side of the world to be forgotten for their crimes.

Port Arthur was known for being one of the toughest environments known in Australia. It was the least desirable location for convicts anywhere in the country.

In 1853 a new prison was opened and in 1855 it was further expanded to represent a Separate Prison Typology or Model Prison system. This change in direction also signified a change in the way prisoners were dealt with. The move saw a lessening of physical punishment and a move toward psychological punishment.

It was tough times, so the process of rewarding and denying prisoners was considered better than beating and hardening criminals. In 1877 the site closed as a penal colony and over the years the site fell into disrepair.

During the 1880s the site was converted to a small town, with many of the structures torn down, bricks sent to Hobart for new buildings and developments. Two fires ripped through the town in 1895 and 1897, but then tourism to the area started to occur which lead to the start of the Scenery Preservation Board which was charged with protecting and maintaining the site in 1916.

By the 1970’s the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife had taken over the site and State Government had injected much needed funds into the site helping further preserve and manage the site for the future.

Today the site runs under the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority and has created a tourism attraction that is high on the priorities of so many tourists traveling and staying in Tasmania.

Night ghost tours, the Hospital, Convict Church, the Penitentiary, the separate Prison and the cruise to Isle of the Dead – all these attractions are available on site to experience and enjoy while learning more about Tasmania’s history.

However, Tasmania’s convict past extends well beyond just Port Arthur. While Port Arthur has the guided tours and attractions, there are some amazing self-discovery options in different locations around the site that share the same convict history.

Close by to Port Arthur is the Coal Mines. This area was part of the convict settlement of the Tasman Peninsula and housed up to 600 prisoners, their jailers and their families.

The forced labour of convicts at the mine was one of the most severe forms of punishment in one of Tasmania’s most beautiful locations. The mine was originally set up to offset the cost of bringing coal to Tasmania as well as a method of putting the convicts to work. The mine was operational for approximately 40 years.

The site today is a self-guided exploration around tracks and ruins with plenty of signage to inform you about the sites history. The site is free to enter and is open daily.

Maria Island on Tasmania’s hosted a convict settlement over two periods, between 1825 and 1832 and then again between 1842 and 1851. Three well preserved ruins still exist on the island including the Commissariat Store, the convict penitentiary and the convict built dam.

Maria Island can be accessed from Triabunna on Tasmania’s east coast via a regular ferry service to the island. National park fees apply.

Back in Hobart, The Cascades Female factory was a purpose built institution designed to reform female convicts. During the period 1828 to 1856 it is estimated that some 5000 women passed through the facility.

The facility today is not much more than three definable yards (of the original 5) but the daily tours tell the amazing story of the history, the stories and the archaeological past of this amazing site.

Daily tours operate and depending on your admission, can include the dramatic performance of “Her Story”, a look into the lives of women at the facility.

There is much to do and see in Tasmania, and accommodation options are close by through Innkeepers Tasmania.

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