Planning a trip to Port Arthur? Here’s what you should know

Australia’s most infamous prison, Port Arthur, is one of Australia’s most important heritage sites and a huge, open air museum. It is officially one of Tasmania’s most sought after tourist attraction.

The historic site tells the story of  Tasmania’s “inescapable prison” via a real presentation of the convict system from 1833 to 1877. Port Arthur was seen as a much better prison, and would make the convicts better people. But life here was just as hard and brutal as other penal colonies, and a place of despair and misery for its inmates

The site encompasses a total of more than 100 hectares, 40 hectares of which is accessible to the public. Get up close with 30+ well restored buildings, ruins and period homes.

The Penitentiary

Originally constructed as a flour mill and granary, the penitentiary was built in 1857 to house over 480 convicts. The two lower floors were for the less desirable inmates, while the upper floors had bunks and shared rooms. The building also contained a mess room, library, Catholic chapel, workshops and ablutions complex.

Access to the Penitentiary is included in the Site Entry Pass.

The Separate Prison

Port Arthur played host to Separate Prison, an infamous institution where instead of physical punishment, psychological discipline was enforced. The institution used the “Silent System,” in which all inmates remained quiet at all times and wore hoods or masks when not in their cells. This was intended to give prisoners time to reflect upon their crimes—however, in reality, it had far darker consequences. It’s no wonder that an asylum stood next door and the Isle of the Dead served as a prison burial ground for more than a thousand souls.

Access to the Separate Prison is included in your Site Entry Pass.

The Church

The timber and stone church was constructed in 1836-37 in Gothic style. The stonework was prepared by the boys from the juvenile establishment across at Point Puer and the church was built by the convicts. The church was never consecrated because it was used by various denominations.

All prisoners had to go to the church every Sunday and it could accommodate over one thousand worshippers. The church was considered a very important part of the overall reform process at Port Arthur.

Access to the church is included in your Site Entry Pass.

The Boys’ Prison / Point Puer

The British Empire’s first boys’ reformatory prison was built on Point Puer. Boys sent here were given some basic education, and taught trade skills. Like the adults, they also did hard work such as stone cutting and building. Around 3000 boys between the ages of 9 and 16 served sentences here.

Access to Point Puer is via an optional tour, requiring an additional entry ticket.

Port Arthur Ghost Tour

Port Arthur is one of Australia’s most haunted sites with over two centuries of documented ghost sightings and paranormal activity. If you’re craving for a unique unforgettable experience, then this night-time tour must be in your itinerary.

Expert guides will share numerous historical stories about supernatural events and modern ghost sightings, you’ll hear about legends of cells with ghostly screams and empty rocking chairs that move. The tour is also a great way to have access to exclusive parts of the site and the tour can be spooky especially on some moody nights.

Port Arthur Ghost Tour is an optional tour, requiring an additional entry ticket.

The Cemetery Tour / Isle of the Dead

The Island of the Dead was the destination for all who died inside the prison camps. The island has two distinct burial sections, one with the convicts buried on the low southern end, and the other with free and military burials on the high northern end.

The free people had head stones, but very few of the convicts did. Upon the death of a convict, a letter would be sent to his home informing about the death and asking for money if they wanted a headstone. This could take up to 18 months, so sometimes the headstone might not even be put where the convict was buried. Most convicts that came to Australia were from extremely poor families, whoso families could not afford the cost of a headstone, and hence many unmarked convict graves.

The Cemetery/ Isle of the Dead Tour is an optional tour, requiring an additional entry ticket.

The Commandant’s House and Junior Medical Officers House

You can also listen to daily talks in two of the most popular convict-era Museum Houses to get a sense of some of the occupants, their lifestyles etc.

The Commandant’s House, served as the residence of the Commandant, Port Arthur’s most senior official. When it was initially constructed in 1833, it was four room cottage surrounded by a verandah with a commanding view over the rest of the settlement. It evolved over the years to become a many-roomed complex surrounded by ornate gardens and enclosed in high masonry walls.

The Junior Medical Officers House was built in 1848 for Commissariat officer Thomas James Lempriere and his large family who threatened to resign if he was not provided with appropriate accommodation. Later, it housed some of the most important officials of the settlement. It was also used a hotel twice, once as Tasman Villa and the next time as Hotel Arthur. It also served as the base for the cast & crew of the classic movie, “For the Term of His Natural Life”

To hear the Museum House talks, simply be at the respective house at the times listed. Access to these talks is included in your Site Entry Pass.

Getting to Port Arthur

Hiring a car or driving your own is a great way to get to Port Arthur. The Tasman Highway to Sorell and the Arthur Highway to Port Arthur offer some spectacular coastal views and plenty of other attractions and sightseeing opportunities. Beaches, coastline, forests and farmland – you’ll see it all.

You can also catch a bus from Hobart CBD and various companies offer day tours from Hobart.

Cruising can also be great way to get to Port Arthur. It takes 2.5 hours and you’ll watch some gigantic dolerite cliffs at Cape Raoul, spot some seals, and enjoy the stunning panorama of Storm Bay

Tickets and Entry

Site entry tickets are valid for two consecutive days and include an Introductory Guided Walking Tour, Harbour Cruise, access to Museum, Convict Study Centre and Interpretation Gallery and the site of the Dockyard.

For a small additional fee you can also cruise to the Isle of the Dead and join a guided tour of Port Arthur’s island cemetery or take a tour of Point Puer Boys Prison.

Dining options

On site, visitors can enjoy a wine or beer, tea or coffee and light refreshments in the restored 19th century home of the Visiting Magistrate or at the Museum Coffee Shop.

Visiting Port Arthur with Kids

Most kids will enjoy the ‘Hidden Stories’ Activity Book, Model Semaphore to communicate messages, the game Lottery of Life to understand convict life, the Convict Water Supply Trail, and the Dockyard.

You could do a picnic in the sprawling lawns where children can run around.

Port Arthur also runs wonderful program over the school holidays with a stack of child friendly fun activities like brick making, doll making, fantascopes and provide them a perspective on convict lifestyle.

The suitability of Ghost Tours for children generally depends on the age and ‘stage’ of your children. Ghost Tours are popular with older children however if your child is very young, very active or tends to suffer with nightmares, then Ghost Tours may not be suitable.

Top tips Before You Go

  • The nearest petrol station to Port Arthur is around 15km away. So fuel up before you get to Port Arthur.
  • Depending on the day’s weather forecast, it is important to be adequately dressed. Wear comfortable shoes and bring a raincoat if it might rain. Many of the ruins do not have roofs, so it is important to be prepared.
  • If you’re a history buff and would like to explore Port Arthur without having too many people around you, choose to visit on a Saturday because most tourists tend to be in Hobart for the Salamanca Market.
  • Don’t forget your camera.
  • If you’re driving, allow yourself extra time to stop on the way. Attractions include Eaglehawk Neck, Tesselated Pavement, the Blowhole, Tasman’s Arch and The Devil’s Kitchen, as well as the amazing Pirate’s Bay Lookout.

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