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Stepping into the Port Arthur time machine

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We spent the entire day today walking through a time machine.

What we experienced is indelibly etched into our memories.
We came as close to experiencing what daily life was like in this harsh penal settlement in the 1830’s to 1870’s as it is possible to in this day and age.

The lashing of the cold wind and the icy rain only enhanced the experience that combined and contrasted the ugliness and the brutality of this harsh and unforgiving prison, where the hardest and most unmanageable characters were housed, with both the man made elegance of the houses, gardens and grounds and the awesome natural beauty of the surrounding bay and the mountain backdrop.

A 40 minute guided tour gave us a brief overview of the settlement and how it came to be here and enabled us to get a bearing on the main features such as the Shipyard where over 200 of the finest quality ships were built, the church that sat over 1000 people over 2 services every Sunday, the houses of the officials and their families, the Separate Prison where prisoners were kept in absolute silence, the Asylum, Hospital Penitentiary and the Commandants house.

We then made our way to the jetty where we boarded a vessel that took us around the bay enabling us to see the Port Arthur settlement from seaward.

The penetentiary from the cruise

The penetentiary from the cruise

We then steamed out to two Islands, The Isle of the Dead and Point Peur.

The Isle of the dead is where the convicts who died in the settlement were buried in unmarked graves and the free inhabitants where buried higher on a hill with monuments and headstones. A lone convict gravedigger lived in solitude on the Isle for 10 years only leaving 6 times during that period.

Isle of the dead - The high side where free inhabitants were buried withe headstones

Isle of the dead – The high side where free inhabitants were buried withe headstones

Point Peur on the other island was where the boy convicts were held and taught religion and a trade.
The youngest recorded boy convict was 9 years old with the average age being 14 – 16.
As we steamed back to the jetty we were mesmerised by the contrast of the natural beauty and the buildings that were responsible for such atrocious hardship.

After disembarking the vessel we walked to the dockyard where the Master Shipbuilders house still stands pretty much as it was in the 1850s as does the Clerk of Works house.

The Master Shipwrights house at the dockyard

The Master Shipwrights house at the dockyard

All around is evidence of the buildings that once stood here like the boatbuilding shop, the Carpenter’s and Blacksmith’s workshops. The huge lime kiln for making lime for the settlement is almost completes and you can clearly see the docks where the completed ships were launched.

A sculpture sits where ships were once built and launched. The Lime kiln is in the background.

A sculpture sits where ships were once built and launched. The Lime kiln is in the background.

Even the saw pits are still there where convicts sawed the huge Huon pine logs into planking, keels, stems and sternposts by the “Top Dog” and the “Underdog” method – one at the bottom of the pit and one on the top each working the huge splitting saw.

As we peered in to the windows of the Clerk of Works house we could clearly imagine the activity within the house and we could imagine the family harvesting the vegetables from the beautiful garden.

Master Ship builders House Inside

Master Ship builders House Inside

We walked back around the stony beach past cottages still well preserved and neat stone stairways to other cottages long since disappeared through either the bushfires that raged through the settlement in 1895 and 1896, 20 years after the settlement ceased to be a prison in 1877 or the demolition that occurred when the government sold the houses after the closure.

The memories of the television news of 28th April 1996 returned as we entered the Memorial Gardens and what used to be a café and gift shop. This was the horrific day that a young mentally disturbed man, Martin Bryant, calmly walked into this café, consumed a meal and then just as calmly shot dead 35 people in and around this site with 3 automatic weapons, wounding and permanently scarring many more.

Our walk bought us to a huge and beautiful formal garden complete with an ornate 3 tired fountain as its centrepiece and long symmetrical pathways leading to the ruins of what was once Government house which housed visiting government officials. Plenty of photographs are displayed on signposts around the buildings leaving little to the imagination of the grandeur that once accompanied this residence.

The magnificent Government Gardens looking up to the ruins Government House

The magnificent Government Gardens looking up to the ruins Government House

Beside government house is what is left of the church and again, even though it was gutted by the bushfires, the walls and steeples lay testament to the craftsmanship of the convict stone masons and builders.

The imagination vividly opened to the rows of hardened convicts that were made to attend church here each Sunday and it was easy to hear the melodious voices of the convict choir raised in solemn psalm singing.
Seven of the eight large church bells that were cast here by convicts still remain and display to current and future generations the skill of the unknown convict who created them.
This church was a beautiful building in its early years as written testimony from ship captains and others calling in at the settlement attest.

The Church gives a hint of its past gradeur

The Church gives a hint of its past gradeur

Next to the church is the Parsonage, still in reasonable condition and the Accountants house built in 1842 and then the Civil Officers row of houses the most perfectly preserved of which is the Junior Medical Officer’s house.

The perfectly preserved Junior Medical Officers house

The perfectly preserved Junior Medical Officers house

It was easy to live in the shoes of the inhabitants of this house as the beautiful and well preserved furnishings made us feel like we were there back in time, looking out on the settlement just as it must have been back then. We were even able to eat a delicious pear from a tree in the garden.

Junior Medical Officers House Inside

Junior Medical Officers House Inside

It was then on to the well preserved Farm Overseers cottage and the dairy with it’s ornate facade.
It was then that we discovered what must have been the most fearful place imaginable to those 19th century inhabitants – The Separate Prison.

Line of cells in the Seperate Prison

Line of cells in the Seperate Prison

This is an almost perfectly restored hell hole where prisoners were sent after capital punishment with the Cat o nine tails was abolished in favour of the more “humane” form of punishment of solitary confinement.
On entering the Separate Prison convicts lost their identity becoming known only by the number of their cells.

They were not allowed to speak at all and could only communicate to guards by writing on a slate or by sign language. They were locked in a tiny cell for 23 hours each day in complete silence and even the one hour exercise per day was carried out in complete silence.

Whenever a prisoner left a cell he was made to don a mask so that he could not be recognised nor could he recognise any other prisoner.

Masks hid the prisoner identity in the 1 hour per day they left the tiny cell

Masks hid the prisoner identity in the 1 hour per day they left the tiny cell

He was made to work in the cell during the day at leather work, shoemaking etc and strung his hammock up at night.

There was not enough room to work with the hammock strung.

Either sleep or work but not enough room for both. 23 hours was spent in here every day.

Either sleep or work but not enough room for both. 23 hours was spent in here every day.

Hidden speakers replicated the sounds that would have been heard in the speechless silence and you really could feel the despair and the hopelessness of the inhabitants.

The Separate Prisoners were made to attend Chapel each Sunday but they stood in ingeniously designed stalls that ensured they could not see another living soul except the parson preaching. They were allowed to sing however and hidden speakers broadcast the mournful notes of the voices as they would have sounded. As we each stood in a stall listening to the parson’s preaching and the voices in song we could not help but be transported back and experience a tiny pinprick of the soul destroying daily routine that reduced the most hardened criminal to subservience and caused many of them to be moved to the building next door – The Asylum.

The Chapel where only the preacher was visible

The Chapel where only the preacher was visible

Breaking any of the 90 rules of this place would result in a greater form of solitary punishment. The rule breaker would be taken to a room with no windows and 1 metre thick walls. Passage to this room was gained through 4 doors only one of which could be opened at a time. This ensured not only absolute darkness but absolute silence.

Without the camera light this room is absolute in its darkness and silence

Without the camera light this room is absolute in its darkness and silence

To experience this horror even for the few seconds we did sent shivers down the spine.

Our last building to explore for the day was the Asylum after suddenly realising that the entire day had been spent here without even a stop for lunch.
The Asylum has largely disappeared except for the main hall that was later used as the council building although it does house a small but fascinating museum of relics from the convict and free inhabitants.

The Asylum - appropriatly only a few steps from the Seperate Prison

The Asylum – appropriatly only a few steps from the Seperate Prison

We were astounded to realise it was almost closing time for the historic site, 5.00pm, and we had spent the entire day here lost in a thousand imaginings, feeling some of the pain and despair that must have prevailed over this place yet knowing that we have had a unique peek into this integral part of Australia’s history.

We decide to return tomorrow to experience the rest of the site.

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