Port Arthur ~ UNESCO World Heritage Site


Port Arthur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the island of Tasmania. While it is famous as being a penal settlement, it began as a small timber station in 1830. However, by 1833, the Tasmanian government converted the site into a penitentiary for convicts.


The British government considered the Port Arthur location ideal for a penal colony. Firstly, the area is remote and easily monitored by guards. Secondly, a shark-infested ocean was on one side, leaving the only other exit via Eaglehawk Neck isthmus. Finally, the isthmus at only 30 metres wide and was strictly monitored by guards.

Convicts arrived from both the Australian mainland and the United Kingdom. Crimes such as theft, e.g. stealing a handkerchief, poverty, drunkenness, social injustice, and murder, would result in lengthy prison sentences. As a result, British gaols were overflowing with prisoners, and the government decided transportation was the best solution to the overcrowding problem with Prisoners being transported to Sydney. However, repeated offenders and habitual escapees were sent to the Port Arthur penitentiary. It became Australia’s most brutal penal settlement until it was closed in 1877. Unfortunately, many Port Arthur buildings were destroyed due to two devastating bushfires in 1895 and 1897.

Port Arthur Penitentiary and hospital
Port Arthur Penitentiary and hospital

Port Arthur is just 95 km from Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania. In 2010 it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage register. It is now Tasmania’s most popular tourist attraction.

Port Arthur ruins
Port Arthur ruins
Penal Experiment

The local authorities believed in creating a penal system based on punishment. Hard labour, discipline, religious and moral instruction, learning new trades, coupled with education, would encourage convicts to repent for their sins. Consequently, rewards were offered to the convicts hoping they would conform and become good citizens. These rewards included items such as rations of sugar, tea and rum. Conversely, non-compliant convicts received harsh and punitive punishment. Physical punishments included flogging and hard labour, mental and emotional punishments included solitary confinement.

View of Port Arthur Penitentiary from across the bay of Mason Cove
Port Arthur Penitentiary across from Mason Cove. This view is the most photographed structure at Port Arthur.
Port Arthur ruins
Ruins at Port Arthur UNESCO World Heritage Site

Convicts originated from England, Scotland and Ireland, enduring a long and arduous 5-month voyage via ships. For the most part, the great distance resulted in many convicts never seeing their families or freedom again. Most of the convicts lived tough lives under this harsh penal system. Overall, Britain sent over 166,000 convicts to Australia between 1787 – 1868.


Convicts were sentenced to a range of punishments depending on their crimes and behaviour during their imprisonment. Sentences ranged from seven years to fourteen years or life imprisonment in terms of imprisonment.

The primary emphasis of the prison was harsh punishments. These punishments were designed to break the convict’s spirits. Punishments included; flogging, solitary confinement, hard labour, felling trees and working in coal mines. In addition, leg irons were used as a form of torture and punishment to curb movement and deter escaping.

Those convicts who refused to be reformed received very severe and ongoing punishments. Despite the so-called good intentions of the system, brutal, harsh, and cruel methods were implemented. Under those circumstances, many convicts developed severe mental health issues and were sent to lunatic asylums. Generally speaking, they were never being released.

Life and work were brutal, physically demanding and extremely cruel. Convicts were sent into forests to fell trees, trim and cut them into logs and drag them back to the sawpit trenches for use. They had no tools for these jobs, which was nearly impossible as the massive trees.

Under such circumstances, some convicts wanted their freedom so severely, they were repentant and conformed to the system. They learned new skills and became law-abiding citizens and, as a result, earned their freedom. Others weren’t so lucky. Those with no hope of release saw death as their only escape. Two men would make a pact to kill the other. Under this system, murder was punishable by death, and as a result, they both got the release they sought, which sadly was death.

Port Arthur UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The main hall looking down towards A-wing of cell blocks on the left
The main hall, looking down towards the A-wing of cell blocks on the left.

The Penitentiary cells were tiny, measuring only 2.4 x 1.8 metres. Walls were white-washed, cold and sterile. Lamps were placed in each cell to enable wardens to see inmates at all times. In addition to the harsh physical punishments, inmates endured isolation and total silence in their sterile cells. Prisoners described this form of torture/punishment as the ‘most unendurable kind’ of punishment. The authorities believed that subjecting inmates to this kind of punishment would force them to look inwards and repent for their crimes, hoping that the convicts would reform their lives.

One of six reconstructed refurbished cells
A reconstructed cell
Convict Church

The image below is the unnamed church. Convicts themselves constructed the church at Port Arthur around 1836. The convicts used the church for religious services. Unfortunately, the church was severely damaged by fire in 1884. In 1913 the State Government took over control of the church and partially rebuilt it to stabilise and conserve the facade and the remainder of the ruins.

Port Arthur Church
Port Arthur church ruins.
Port Arthur Massacre

On April 28th, 1996, a 28-year-old man from Port Arthur randomly opened fire his military-style semi-automatic rifle at crowds in the Broad Arrow Cafe at Port Arthur before moving out into the grounds and randomly shooting other people. Twelve people lay dead approximately fifteen seconds later, and many more were injured. When the gunman left Port Arthur, twenty-one people were injured, and sadly, thirty-five people were killed. To date, this was the worst mass shooting in Australian history. Eventually, the man was captured and found guilty. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole.

Gardens at Port Arthur

Port Arthur UNESCO World Heritage Site
Gardens at Port Arthur

In the 1980’s Port Arthur was refurbished and was designated as a tourist attraction. Port Arthur is Tasmania’s most important tourist destination. This site is visited by over 250,000 people annually. It is worth stopping to visit this site if travelling to Tasmania.



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