‘Some Stories Last More than a Lifetime’: Port Arthur

Photo showing the ”new” Penitentiary and hospital prior to fires destroying the site. Photo Courtesy of Port Arthur Historic Site.

Established in 1830 as a timber station, Port Arthur was a secondary penal colony. By “secondary” it meant that the prisoners were repeat offenders. The men and women who ended up at Port Arthur were those who had committed crimes after they had arrived in the colonies; The worst of the worst were sent here and the site was chosen for its remote and inhospitable location. Making escape impossible for the unlucky convicts who were imprisoned here was a priority at the time. Escape was almost impossible, with a line of vicious dogs guarding the only way out, a 100-metre-wide strip of sand at Eaglehawk Neck.

It’s one of Tasmania’s most popular tourist attractions, but the story behind the Port Arthur Historic Site is anything but easily digested, It’s been more than 140 years since the Port Arthur penal colony shut after 44 years of brutal slavery and punishment of the ‘worst of the worst’ sent from the motherland, some as young as 9 years old. Most were hardened criminals, others insane or you could say just unlucky. Some made it out. Hundreds did not.

There is so much already documented about Port Arthur that we will not give you another history lesson here. However we will give you 5 interesting facts to ponder.

1. The convicts built their own prison walls. 
Really ….. No thanks.

It’s hard to imagine that they would really care about leaving a few bricks loose!

The initial industrial penal settlement was built of timber from the surrounding forest and was home to key factories, such as ship building, shoemaking, smithing, and timber and brick making. But by the 1840s, Port Arthur was home to more than 2000 convicts, soldiers, and free officers (and their families), and by 1848 the first stone was laid by the prisoners for the separate prison, which stands as a central attraction today. 

The new Penitentiary even in ruins dominates the site.

This is the most photographed building on the historic site. The new Penitentiary as it was known had 136 separate cells on the bottom two floors for those whom one Commandant called ‘the lions’ – ‘prisoners of bad character under heavy sentence’. They had to be separated from each other and from the better-behaved.

The ”new” Penitentiary as it stands today.

The convicts ate and slept here but worked around the site and across the peninsula. Above the cells was a dining hall (which doubled as a school room at night), the prisoners’ library of ‘useful and entertaining books’ and a Catholic chapel. On the top floor was a dormitory for 348 better-behaved men.

2. An ambitious experiment….. but did it work?

Believe it or not, despite all of the cruelties that went on at Port Arthur, the Governor was trialling an ambitious experiment around the philosophy that prisoners could reform while still being punished.

Religious and Moral Instruction was given at church services.

The authorities’ aim was to offer its prisoners the opportunity to turn themselves into useful citizens of the future by building a system on punishment and discipline, classification and separation, religious and moral instruction, trade training, and education. In combination, they were to provide the convict with opportunities to turn himself into a useful future citizen. We can actually say that Port Arthur was Australia’s first TAFE. 

A sculpture of a ship now stands on the slipway where hundreds of boats were built. Master Shipwright Mr Hoy who was originally at Sarah Island, came to work and train the convicts at Port Arthur.

There were many benefits for learning a trade, apart from the obvious one in improving ones life. Convicts that were good at their trade also received privileges like tea and sugar, and some skilled prisoners were even rewarded for good work with a ration of rum.

However for those who did not tow the line. Harsh punishment in the form of solitary confinement was issued. Now we were lead to believe in school that these prisoners were kept in the dark for 23 hours a day. But in fact they worked in their solitary confinement quarters for 23 hours a day with one hours exercise. But they were not to utter a word or make a sound. They were kept in a state of silence. This represented a move away from physical punishment to a focus on psychological punishment. 

Isolation, confinement and total silence was the
punishment for the untameable

3. Convict tattoos… more than just for decoration.

It’s nice to know some things are woven through history. Go back 180 years, and even convicts had a thing for tattoos. And just like today, they were for many and varied reasons. From purely decorative, to a tribute to a loved one, and even a reminder of a trial date, or in fact when their sentence would be complete.

While some of the most common tattoos were that of a woman, a cross or crucifixion, a heart with the initials of a loved one, a man, and a mermaid – the most popular was that of an anchor, which was a symbol for hope.



How do we know about these tattoos? The government of the day were very precise in their record keeping. Identifying a prisoner was of importance so detailed descriptions were made.

4. Drawing the short-straw… the life of a soldier

There was no glory in guarding convicts. Speak to most soldiers and they say they train for battle to defend their country and that of their allies.

So imagine being called up for duty when there is not only no chance for any of that, you’re across the other side of the world in a place called Van Diemen’s Land. Most regiments posted at Port Arthur regarded it as a low point in their history. Their main job was obviously security, watching over the convicts working in the bush or building boats, and of course chasing after escapees.


With their accommodation next to the Commandant’s house, it wasn’t all bad news. Senior offices and their families apparently had busy social lives and enjoyed dinner parties!

5. The care of the older and infirmed


Most convicts lived a life of heavy labour, and for those already skilled they would be put to work in their trade. But for those men who were too weak for the heavy lifting, you’d find them in the gardens or performing light duties at Garden Point.

The hospital as it was prior to destruction by fire.
The hospital in ruins today

During the 1860s Port Arthur entered what is becoming known as its ‘Welfare Phase’. This period saw the construction of the Pauper’s Depot in the Hospital (1863-64) and the Asylum (1864-68). The result of an ageing and increasingly infirm prisoner population, these were the centres of Port Arthur’s somewhat benevolent leanings. Another result of the ageing prisoners was that the profitable convict-driven industries like timber-getting and agriculture took a downturn.

In keeping with the era, treatment for the patients, many suffering from depression or mental disability, was rudimentary at best. Convict patients were provided with a ‘soothing’ atmosphere, where they were allowed exercise and mild amusement. Work, though limited, was mainly tending the gardens, or chopping firewood. 

The NRMA caravan park where we stayed is the location of the convict gardens where they once flourished. Convicts walked the 50 minute return trip each day after attending to the vegetable gardens, which feed the 2000 occupants of the site.



Port Arthur Historic Site is one of the those few attractions where even when going in with high expectations, it still managed to excel. This is a historical site of untold disappear. As you run your fingers slowly across the hand-made clay brick remains of once imposing structures built on the blood, sweat and tears of convicts at the notorious Port Arthur Historic Site, you feel an energy, a deep melancholy and unexplained sadness.

The unease contradicts the view about you. The day is warm and peaceful with the leaves of broad ancient oaks and gum trees chattering in the breeze. Bumble bees hover over colourful flowerbeds and cherry and apple trees are bursting with fruit.

You can’t feel good walking about this monument with its horrific past that was enforced upon this land. A history that tried to be forgotten by so many even changing the towns name to Carnarvon to wash away the past. But nothing could erase the past, not even the bush fires that ravaged it. It has succeeded regardless. What has triumphed though is the stories of individuals who served their time, reformed, escaped or died. They left a history that we should never forget.


We have been to Tasmania on many occasions, but we have been unable to visit the Port Arthur site. It is 26 years since the Port Arthur “Massacre”, (how we hate that word). 26 years ago 35 innocent people lost their lives, and 23 others wondered, families were destroyed and dreams were never fulfilled. Kate Scott was one of those vibrant young lives, never will she grow old and never will she nor any of others be forgotten. We were finally able to pay our respects to Kate and those taken from us on that fateful day.

Rest in Peace



Your entry fee includes a 2-consecutive day pass, a free introductory tour and a free harbour cruise. Make sure you don’t miss the tours.

We would also recommend booking extra tours if you’re budget allows. We added in the Commandants Tour & Isle of the Dead Tour. The tour guides are all excellent – natural, passionate and knowledgeable. 

If you want to visit all the buildings at the Site, take in the museum and do all of the tours., you will need more than one day. We managed to have an action packed day from 8am till the close of the iron gates, but we were on a march.

Discover more about Port Arthur and Tasmania at www.discovertasmania.com.au

Following is a pictorial of our visit to Port Arthur. Some have been photographed in sepia. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Church of non denomination








The Catholic Chaplain’s house became a hotel as above. As a hotel it saw many film stars through it’s doors
Below you can see it restored.


The accountants home

Commandants house and below interior photos
Wall paper in the hallway
View from the Commandants House
The ”new” Penitentiary
The watch house and baracks






Join us next time when we go on an exhilarating boat ride to explore the highest Cliffs in the Southern Hemisphere.

If you would like to ride along with us whether it be on the high seas or on a dusty road out west, consider being a patreon find out about it here 👉 Dreamtime Patreon every little bit helps to keep us on the road producing Youtube and writing blogs as we hope you enjoy them. 

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If you are interested in the products we used on our build on our product page is a list. Many of these items we sourced secondhand, others we purchased from the manufacturer or retailer. We have found them online and listed them for you. Some of the links supplied we have an association with and we will receive a small commission if you purchase through the link, but it is free to look and do your research 😊 we can not promise all links to work as retailers may remove items, but we will do our best to update them 👍

Through Hell’s Gate where it was said …. “you will never return from the notorious Sarah Island”

In about 1815, when James Kelly sailed through Hell’s Gates to be the first European to visit Macquarie Harbour, he named Sarah Island after Sarah Birch, the wife of the merchant who had paid for the voyage.

Sarah Island was established in the remote reaches of Macquarie Harbour in 1821. From 1822 to 1833, Sarah Island was the home of a harsh convict settlement. It is Tasmania’s oldest convict settlement and reputedly one of the severest penal establishments in the history of transportation to Australia. 

Once a thickly wooded outcrop in Macquarie Harbour lashed by the Roaring Forties, it was selected as a place of ‘banishment and security’ because of its isolation. It was a bleak place reserved for the worst of British felons. Sarah Island has a notorious past. Flogging and hanging was frequently used as a punishment and more than 180 escape attempts were made. Convicts laboured under the harshest conditions in the rainforest, felling Huon pines for boat building. 


Remotely located, the island sits in the southern part of Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast. Of all the possible sites to choose, Macquarie Harbour would have been the most windswept and barren but it was also the most secure.


Any convict trying to escape Sarah Island had not only to get across the harbour but to hack their way through the impenetrable rainforests of the west coast …… to where exactly. Despite its isolation and grim function, Sarah Island was for a time the largest shipbuilding yard in the colonies.

With the opening of the Port Arthur penal settlement in 1830, the use of Sarah Island was phased out. It operated for a year as a convict probation station when it housed a party of convicts sent to cut Huon pine. Economic and ‘moral’ problems forced its closure.

Towards the end of the 19th century the haunting ruins and natural beauty of Sarah Island became popular with tourists. The island was gazetted as a tourist reserve in 1926 and nearly 50 years later is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and Macquarie Harbour Historic Site. Today, the convict ruins give a chilling insight into the cruelties of convict life and are especially unsettling given the overwhelming beauty of the surrounding wilderness.

Sarah Island

A walking track links important sites. The best way to visit the site is on one of the several wilderness cruises operating out of Strahan. We chose the family owner and operated World Heritage Cruisers (red boat).

They took us on a journey following in the footsteps of the convicts from their passage through Hells Gates the narrow entrance to Macquarie Harbour named by the convicts on their way to Sarah Island to their daily life on the island; Entering the harbour through Hell’s Gates meant navigating waters so treacherous that many lost their lives here. For them it may have been their salvation because what awaited those who did make it was much, much worse than death. Conditions at the penal settlement on Sarah Island in the southern part of the harbour were so harsh that one convict, only known as Trenham, went as far as stabbing a fellow inmate, reasoning that this would get him executed and he wouldn’t have to spend more time in this hell.

Going through in the modern large catamaran on a calm day was concerning enough. At just 120 meters wide and notoriously shallow this dangerous channel is the entrance a harbour twice the size of Sydney Harbour. Hell’s Gate must of been an intimidating site as ships navigated though with no propulsion other than the wind. Convicts described their arrival through the entrance as the “entrance to hell”. The dangerous conditions caused by the “Roaring 40s” would also contribute to the well deserved title, that is still used today.

Hells Gate at 120 meters wide isn’t somewhere we would like to be navigating in a square rigger.

Once thorough Hells Gate we cruised along Macquarie Harbour passing high-tech aquaculture where hundreds of thousands of Tasmania’s famous Atlantic Salmon and Ocean Trout are farmed;

Fish farms in Macquarie Harbour


enjoying the very interesting commentary from the Captain and experienced guest speakers about the history and goings on in the area. Once docked we stepped ashore at Sarah Island to see some of Australia’s oldest convict ruins.

Beautiful broad walks have been constructed for our convenience

A settlement which pre-dates Port Arthur by decades. Created to put the ‘fear of God’ into the convicts of Van Diemen’s Land, this tiny outpost of 18th Century British penal history hides a fascinating tale of human triumph over adversity, brought vividly to life by expert guides of the Round Earth Company. 

Our guide on the ground from Round Earth Company, Kiah was simply brilliant in her delivery of the historical facts in a theatrical way to bring the people to life.
Many drawings and paintings are still in existence from the convict time.

Over time Sarah Island has gained a reputation as a place of unspeakable horrors and a living hell, largely due to the exploits of one of the island’s ‘colourful’ characters, Alexander Pearce, the Cannibal Convict, and a novel For the Term of His Natural Life written about 1860 by Marcus Clark. The novel, although based on actual events, is a fiction which set out to create Sarah Island as a living hell for its hero, Rufus Dawes.

A scene from the 1927 film of For the Term of his Natural Life.

Altogether about 1200 men and women were sentenced or sent to Sarah Island. Most of them had committed further offences while serving their original sentences; others came as ‘remittance men’, skilled tradesmen who worked at the settlement in exchange for remission of their sentence.

They were supervised by military detachments of several regiments (up to 90 soldiers at one time), and by a variety of Civilian Officers, Supervisors and Constables, many of whom were ex-convicts. Ships’ crews were regular visitors, tradesmen were co-opted and often bribed to work at the Settlement. There were women and children: some convicts working as servants; some wives of soldiers and officials; some wives and children of convicts.

Well constructed walkways keep visitors off the historic sites

The Muster in 1828 was a total of 531, including about 380 convicts, 95 military, 14 women, some civilians and 27 children.

The early work of the Settlement was timber-cutting and hauling, work that could be done largely by unskilled gangs. But shipping out the valued Huon Pine proved more of a problem than expected: one solution was to build ships at the Settlement to transport the timber.

Solitary confinement block

Soon Sarah Island was more than just a prison. It was also an industrial village: gardeners, timber cutters, sawmen, boatmen, tanners, bootmakers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, boat builders and shipwrights, fencers, bakers, cooks, medical orderlies, quarrymen and stonemasons, brick makers, lime-burners, coal miners, clerks, accountants, artists and draughtsmen.

The remains of the New Penitentiary

Today there are a few obvious ruins. Most of the buildings were of timber construction which has been removed or rotted. Some deliberate damage many years ago by those who wanted the island’s history forgotten and the activity of souvenir collectors in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century have depleted the brick and stone structures.

Only rubble off fire places remain for the cottages

Some detailed images of the Island painted by the artists who served time there (skilled draughtsmen sent for forgery). But the real task of re-construction is to create a picture of the people who lived and worked there. 

The bakery
Servants quarters where the natural vegetation is
reclaiming the island.

And this is where the talented folk of the Round Earth Company take us on their journey. What they do is to put together a detailed picture of all these people, what they did, how they related to each other, and above all how they responded to the harsh environment and the brutal treatment meted out for at least half of the period of the Settlement. It is a fascinating tale of trials and tribulations of an island full of the unimaginable group of people forced together to live on a very small Island at the end of the world. 

Where this area had been cleared and was the main shipbuilding and slipway area it is now returning to nature. walkways have been provided so you can examine the remains of the slipways.

The Tour has been researched and prepared by Richard Davey with the assistance of Dr. Hamish Maxwell-Stewart. The story told on the Guided Tour has been elaborated by Richard Davey in The Sarah Island Conspiracies, published in 2002. The tour is as much as a theatrical performance as much as guided factual tour and it is a snippet to the of this complex picture and introduces you to some of the people of Sarah Island. 

The Ship that Never Was, a must see to conclude your visit
to Sarah Island

To complete the story and to see the characters come to life acted out by attending the hilarious pantomime performance of “The Ship that Never Was”. This live theatrical production has been in continuous operation since 1994 every night at 5:30pm. Bookings are essential as numbers are limited in this small intimate space. We would suggest that you see the production after your tour of Sarah Island.

The theatrical production of the building of a ship, the escape, the capture and the trial, facts told of Australian history.


We hope you enjoyed our insights to a forgotten part of our convict history. there is much more to the story. But it would be remiss of us to spoil it for those who wish to discover Sarah Island for themselves. For those of you unable to make the visit there is plenty of books now available on the subject, please find a list following:


The Great Escape: start reading The Ship That Never Was by Adam Courtenay

The Sarah Island Conspiraciesby Richard Innes Davey


The Round Earth Company have a children’s comic available. https://www.roundearth.com.au/books.html

Join us next time when we take a historic train that was said could never be built.

If you would like to ride along with us whether it be on the high seas or on a dusty road out west, consider being a patreon find out about it here 👉 Dreamtime Patreon every little bit helps to keep us on the road producing Youtube and writing blogs as we hope you enjoy them. 

Please subscribe to the blog so you will be notified each time we post. To subscribe head to our home page.

We love to read your comments if you have any questions pop them below, we will be sure to get back to you.

If you are interested in the products we used on our build on our product page is a list. Many of these items we sourced secondhand, others we purchased from the manufacturer or retailer. We have found them online and listed them for you. Some of the links supplied we have an association with and we will receive a small commission if you purchase through the link, but it is free to look and do your research 😊 we can not promise all links to work as retailers may remove items, but we will do our best to update them 👍