Port Arthur in Tasmania was originally founded in 1830 as a timber station, but its isolation made it the ideal place for a prison, and it was quickly converted into Australia’s largest and most notorious prison colony.
In order to pay for the cost of providing for the criminals it housed, the site became a center of industry. Prison industries such as ship-building, shoe-making, metal-smithing, and brick-making flourished in this isolated location. The prison dockyards were actually forced to close down after private shipwrights complained to the government that they could not compete with the quality of ships made by the prisoners.
Located on a remote peninsula, naturally protected on three sides by water, the prison was designed to primarily hold rough convicts who had re-offended since their transportation to Australia for other crimes.
The concept of corporal punishment for crimes against society slowly gave way to new methods of “rehabilitation,” which may have actually been more cruel, including forced hard labor.
Prisoners who did not survive were buried on the small island cemetery known as “The Isle of the Dead.”
After the prison closed in 1877, despite the spooky surroundings, the area was redeveloped as a town, but fires in 1895 and 1897 left many of the original prison buildings gutted.
A more recent blood-stained incident brought the historical site back into the headlines. On Sunday, April 28, 1996, in Australia’s worst killing spree, a man named Martin Bryant drove to the popular tourist spot and opened fire in the cafe, gift shop, and surrounding area, killing 35 people and wounding others.
Bryant was caught and ultimately sentenced to 35 life sentences. He will die in prison, but many are still affected by the senseless massacre. The original cafe was burned to the ground, and a monument was erected in honor of those who died.
Admission to the site includes an engaging interactive museum and access to most areas by foot. (There is a buggy that does the rounds and eliminates the need for too much walking.)
Various options exist, including guided tours and trips to the islands, as well as a guided tour of the Isle of the Dead and the Point Puer Boys Prison. There is (of course) a souvenir shop, cafeteria, and restaurant.
Know Before You Go
From Hobart, follow the A3 Tasman Highway (across the bridge) through Cambridge, across the bridge, right at Sorrell onto the A9 Arthur Highway, through Copping, through Eaglehawk Neck, and onto Port Arthur.