Two hours before our ghost tour at Tasmania’s World Heritage convict site of Port Arthur, my friend and I were given free reign to explore. It’s a typically busy place, although this afternoon it was empty, as I imagined it was in the years after it was abandoned in 1877. Wandering across the spacious grounds, the sun cast an amber hue over the ruins while a double rainbow shimmered above Carnarvon Bay.
Port Arthur has a dark past, having a reputation as one of the strictest prisons in the British penal system. Here wayward behaviour was severely punished, while suicide and murder were a commonality. This, coupled with the well-preserved ruins and lush, tidy grounds, creates an atmosphere of splendour tinged with dread. Of the roughly 1,600 ghost sightings recorded here, an alleged 60% of these have occurred in daylight.
The ghost tour was to come. Now, however, we walked over to the largest and most recognised building in Port Arthur, the penitentiary.
Port Arthur’s Penitentiary
Port Arthur began as a penal colony in 1833, although it wasn’t until 1857 that a flour mill was converted into the penitentiary. The old flour mill was powered by a water wheel, which was fed via a brick lined channel. This water system didn’t work very well, which is why the mill was converted. However it later proved useful to transport water to the bathrooms, privies and kitchens of the penitentiary.
In all, the penitentiary took three years to convert and a clock tower, bakehouse, kitchen, laundry and storerooms were added. Prior to its construction, prisoners were kept in a dormitory alongside lunatics. Inside the penitentiary, prisoners were segregated according to their character.
The bottom two floors contained 136 separate cells, which housed nefarious prisoners serving a heavy sentence. The floor above contained a dining hall (which doubled as a school room at night), along with a Catholic chapel and a library with around 13,000 books. The penitentiary’s top floor was a dormitory for 348 comparatively well-behaved prisoners.
However it all came to an end when Port Arthur closed in 1877, and in 1897 it was ravaged by fire. Many bricks were then pilfered or sold and it’s only due to extensive restoration – completed in 2014 – that the penitentiary remains open to the public.
This iconic section of Port Arthur was thoroughly enjoyable to explore in the soft light, with not another soul besides my friend about. I didn’t experience anything incredibly moving or unusual, yet I enjoyed wandering the ample grounds alone, trying to capture an essence of what occurred here not so long ago.
There are many more sections of Port Arthur to explore, and I recommend a solid day or two’s visit (take a tour) to get a good feel for the place and its history. With the light now fading fast, I turned and walked towards the visitors centre to experience another, darker side to Port Arthur.