It was a fitting afternoon to begin our tour at Tasmania’s World Heritage convict site of Port Arthur – reputedly one of Australia’s most haunted places. We met at dusk, it was chilly, the sky was leaden grey and spires of the convict-built church were cast into shadow as several people were made lantern bearers. Our group of around 20 then shuffled towards the old church, where the stories of life from another, much harder world began…
A dark past
Port Arthur began as a timber station in 1830 before becoming a penal colony in 1833 – a home for some of Britain’s most hardened criminals. Named after Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, Port Arthur had a reputation as one of the strictest prisons in the British penal system. Men frequently attempted suicide within its walls, despite their belief this would send them to hell – evidently a preferable alternative.
Here repeat offenders were hooded and thrust into cramped cells where they sat in darkness and isolation for 30 days, fed on bread and water. Adults and juvenile boys at the prison were used for hard labour, grinding and chiselling together some of the country’s first gothic-style churches. In all, more than 1000 convicts perished within the walls of Port Arthur during its 47 years of operation, and more than one was brutally murdered.
The nearby Isle of the Dead, which I’m yet to visit, was the final resting place for convicts at Port Arthur. The island allegedly contains 1646 unmarked convict graves. In 1996, Port Arthur was also the scene of Australia’s worst postcolonial massacre, when 35 people were gunned down. Today, the site is reputedly the country’s most active haunted place, with more than 2,000 unexplained occurrences recorded here over the past two decades.
Wandering of an afternoon through the capacious, green grounds by Carnarvon Bay, it’s hard to imagine Australia’s most significant heritage site has harboured so much harrowing pain and death.
Port Arthur ghost tour – the convict-built church
Our group’s first stop was the convict-built church, whose spires looked faintly sinister beneath the floodlights before fading into the now midnight blue sky. The old church is arguably the most intriguing spot on the ghost tour, with its gothic-style architecture, lighting and well-kept grounds. It’s also the spot where William Riley bludgeoned fellow convict Joseph Shuttleworth to death with a pickaxe. He was hanged for his deed.
A commonly seen spectre in the grounds is the ‘lady in blue’, a young lady who died during childbirth. Legend has it she wanders the grounds searching for her child. People have allegedly seen her appear and reach out to people in the church’s bell tower before vanishing.
Our group was mostly crowded around our guide, engrossed in the stories and setting which inspired a sense of romance and dread. Myself and friend and photographer Dee Kramer took photos apart from the group, in darker, quieter spaces. I didn’t experience anything unusual here, although there are many who’ve reported otherwise.
The reverend’s house
Our next stop was the former house of Reverend George Eastman, which is allegedly the second most haunted building in Australia. Reverend Eastman was a parson at Port Arthur for almost 15 years before he went to the aid of a dying convict in bad weather. Upon returning, he became ill and died in bed two days later. The reverend is the most common – and also the most aggressive – ghost seen at Port Arthur.
Our ghost-thirsty party entered the old house and upon instruction, we formed a circle in one of the front rooms. The lights were turned off and our guide placed a lantern in the middle before the stories began.
Just a few weeks after Reverend George Eastman died, Reverend Hayward, his wife and six children moved into the abode. The family were subjected to moving chairs and footsteps, and by 1870 everyone thought the house was haunted except Mrs Hayward. Determined to expel such myths, she made a trap one night after the children went to bed.
Mrs Hayward tied threads across the staircase from top to bottom and waited several hours, hearing nothing. As soon as she went to bed, Mrs Hayward heard movement downstairs. She woke her husband and they checked the staircase, where every piece of string had snapped bar one at the top. The Haywards saw nothing, but allegedly felt a breath of hot air before hearing footsteps descend the staircase. Shortly after the Haywards left the house and Port Arthur.
In recent times, two builders and an apprentice were restoring the house and decided to stay in it. One night the apprentice was found wide awake, flailing, having trouble breathing. It took the two men to pick him up as he was pinned to the bed. Once he recovered, he explained he felt a very heavy weight on his chest and upon opening his eyes he saw a man with a beard, telling him to leave his house and never return.
During the narrative our guide did a JUMP SCARE and I captured a green light around the lantern. As you can see, a lot of my photos in this post have green lights. However I’m not convinced they’re anything other than a photographic aberration experienced at night. The house, nonetheless, was atmospheric and as our group began to depart I took a blurry iPhone shot of the staircase leading to the top floor.
This part of the house is out of bounds, for safety, as people have allegedly had unpleasant experiences on the first floor where the old reverend slept. Although I’m still not convinced ghosts exist, I don’t know if I’d spend the night here, particularly after watching the adaption of Stephen King’s 1408.
The dissection room
Moving along a stone floor, our only light was the lanterns, which revealed the shuffling of feet and our narrow confines. Soon we arrived in a small room that was previously the senior surgeon’s basement. Our group surrounded a replica stone autopsy table in the centre, while I loitered in the darkness of the basement’s corridor, due to the limited space.
People have reportedly passed out here on tours and some have experienced severe pain. Additionally, camera malfunctions are a common occurrence in the senior surgeon’s basement.
One man on a ghost tour saw the outline of a human face through his video camera. He then allegedly witnessed the figure dressed in a convict uniform come out of the wall and look at everyone in the room before disappearing. The man later played the footage at the visitor’s centre and said he would send a copy to the tour group. Upon returning home to the mainland, his footage had disappeared.
During our tale the guide picked up what was undoubtedly a well-brandished relic – a sheep’s skull – before scraping it across the table, creating a nauseating shrill which reverberated around the room. Another JUMP SCARE. The corridor in which I was currently standing, we were told, has had “its fair share of reports”. At this point my ears pricked up, as I was last in the group sticking out in a long, pitch-black corridor.
The separate prison
Under lamplight, our soul-seeking squad moved through the basement corridor towards our final destination, the separate prison. Here the whitewashed walls under the light of our lamps revealed a grim, spartan place. This was the place where repeat offenders experienced some of the worst punishment and many a man committed suicide.
In a bid to escape what the prisoners termed “hell on earth”, one man allegedly took the strap from his hammock and hung himself. However the autopsy report revealed it took him five minutes before finally dying. He was apparently conscious for the majority of that time, but didn’t make a single noise. He really was keen to check out.
We then heard the tale of a visitor who collapsed on site and was treated in hospital for severe shock. She later relayed that while on the ghost tour she saw a figure staggering towards her along the corridor. It was only about a metre away from the tour guide when the figure stepped into the light, looking – according to her report – ‘half dead with bruises and blood all over him’.
Other stories included a young boy awaiting execution inside the prison, whose chilling screams can sometimes be heard at night.
We now sat in a large room, which I tried in vain to imagine as my home in the mid 19th-century. The voice of our guide echoed throughout the chamber as our lamp illuminated a large, open section in the middle, while passages on each side gradually vanished into tombs of obsidian darkness. It was a fitting spot for our ghost tour finale.
Absorbed in this fresh collection of baleful narratives, we marched through the crisp darkness to the visitor’s centre where we received a certificate for our efforts. Dee and I then thanked our guide as we thought he did a good job of running our tour.
Should you go on the tour?
Yes. Even though some stories are long and fanciful and I experienced nothing particularly unusual, the tour is worth it for the atmosphere and to see Port Arthur at night. It’s also worth seeing the former house of Reverend George Eastman, which by all reports could be legitimately haunted. Saying that, the tour is confined to specific sections and doesn’t visit the main prison ruins or the Guard Tower, which I found a little disappointing.
Of course there are more ghost stories than I’ve mentioned here, which you’ll just have to experience yourself. Tours last 90 minutes, include a two-kilometre walk around the site and cost $26.50 for an adult, $15 for a child (17 and under) and $75 for a family. There are two tours a night with the first one beginning around dusk. Booking is essential. Check out Port Arthur’s website for more details.
Disclosure: I received a complementary tour for writing this view. However all views expressed here are, of course, my own.