Before I went to Tasmania the one place that was definitely on my list was Port Arthur. With a history that is as famous and renowned in Australia as the Tower of London in England or Alcatraz in the USA, this is a must see place.
In the 1800’s convicts were transported from England to Port Arthur mostly for what would be petty crimes today, and they were put to work in incredibly harsh conditions. The price paid for stealing a loaf of bread was severe.
Port Arthur is at the end of an island on the other side of the world that is isn’t easy to get to and is very hard to escape from, with only one very narrow land route in and out. Many tried but few escaped from here.
As I drove that very narrow road to the one place I really wanted to visit, I started to think about the impact it would have on me. The day before I’d been to Richmond Gaol which was thought-provoking but gloomy. Did I want to go to another site that would leave me melancholic and sad? Fortunately I didn’t let my ‘What if’s’ take over and I arrived at Port Arthur around 10am. I thought I’d be there for a couple of hours’ tops then visit another local site. After all, how much could you see at an old prison? As it turns out, quite a lot! Tip number 1 for Port Arthur – Allow yourself a plenty of time.
What I hadn’t thought about was that a prison doesn’t only have prisoners but also staff. Back in the 1800’s they were also imported from across the sea. Some came with spouses and families and they needed accommodating as well. When I entered the site, I was quite pleasantly surprised to see something that looked more like an English country estate than a prison.
The grounds are expansive, you see the remains of an impressive church built of stone, you see English country gardens that the wives and children of senior staff would stroll around and you see the remains of some quite striking buildings. Port Arthur doesn’t LOOK as foreboding as Richmond at all, in fact I thought it could be quite a nice place for a holiday house… if I could ever afford one.
The stories that go with Port Arthur aren’t as pretty as the site itself, but this attraction is very well set up to inform tourists without bringing you down. You start with a guided tour that gives you a basic overview of the site and information on what life was like for prisoners and staff. The interactive centre gives you an insight of what it was like for particular people and that adds another element of interest to your experience and after a good few hours of exploring you have an appreciation of what life was like all those years ago.
Port Arthur has another more recent history that is tragic and sombre and commemorated well on the site. The Port Arthur Massacre in 1996 has been Australia’s deadliest. 35 people were killed and more injured on April 28th 1996. When something that grievous happens in a community as small as Port Arthur, practically everyone is affected and for that reason at Port Arthur itself, you’re requested not to ask staff about that day. Instead the memorial garden gives visitors both information and a place to remember and reflect.
There is a reason Port Arthur is so popular with tourists and that is that it’s so very well set up to cater for us. It doesn’t shy away from the grimness and its history, but it delivers the facts in a very digestible manner. It is definitely worth a visit.