Ghosts, Convicts and Ghost Convicts at Port Arthur

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Flag of Australia  , Tasmania,
Thursday, March 1, 2012

For Christmas we were very generously given money to use to visit Port Arthur, a former prison on the Tasman Peninsular just an hour and a half from Hobart. 

 This prison was for the convicts who re-offended once in Australia so 'the worst of the worst.' From 1830-1877 it was an active prison and thousands of prisoners were sailed into the harbour for various crimes against Australia. Port Arthur itself has over 30 buildings from the original prison although several of them are now ruins as they have been affected by bush fires. It's a beautiful area which is very green thanks to a lot of rain and it has a beautiful harbour. 

 At the time that the prison was active Tasmania was called Van Diemens Land named by the dutch explorer Abel Tasman (Tasmania is named after him now), and prisoners would be sailed from Hobart Town to Port Arthur which was considered very convenient being just a day or two away by boat and with it being right on the peninsular and almost entirely surrounded by water, it was very difficult to escape. The Peninsular is joined only by 100 metres of land called 'Eaglehawk's neck' and to protect this area they had a line of chained vicious dogs who would tear apart any prisoners attempting to escape. 

 Over a couple of days we planned to see all that Port Arthur has to offer, explore the nearby islands as well as to join a ghost tour.
On the first night we had dinner at the restaurant called 'Felons' and then went on their Ghost tour. Our guide James led a group of about 15 people to some of the most creepy parts of the Port Arthur site and told us stories of hauntings and murder which have been reported since the closure of the prison in 1877. In the dark and using only lanterns to light the way we went into the church, the separate prison, the surgeon's underground autopsy room and several other haunted buildings. One of the houses which was lived in by a reverend and his family is considered to be Australia's second most haunted building so of course we had to go inside and hear scary stories whilst looking out for ghosts in the house. The worst haunting experience was just 5 years ago when 3 builders were staying in the house whilst renovating it and were paid a visit in the night. The youngest builder started shouting and throwing his arms up but remained stuck to his bed. It took the 2 other builders all of their strength to drag him up and outside before he could start breathing again properly. The next day when they asked him what happened, he said he felt two hands pressing down on his neck and weight on his chest pinning him down. He had bruises on his neck.... and I thought reverends were nice, he must have been really bad if he's not in heaven. Scary! 

 The tour guide took a lot of satisfaction in making us jump by slamming doors, banging his feet and making loud metal clashes. It was a really good ghost tour and gave the whole place a different feel to the tranquil day time.

 The next day it rained all day but we braved the rain and did the conventional tours and explored Port Arthur, learning more about it's fascinating past and also visiting the two islands nearby. One called 'Isle of the dead' which was a cemetery for over 1000 men, women and children who's families were too poor to have them repatriated and buried somewhere near home. The other called Point Puer Prison which was an island prison for boys aged between 9 and 19. We particularly enjoyed the isle of the dead tour as it we got some insight into some of the individuals who lived and died at Port Arthur. One of the gravediggers there was particularly conscientious. taking his job very seriously and would always have 3 graves dug and ready. One for a catholic, one for a protestant and one for himself which he would even remove the bugs as he didn't like the idea of being eaten after he died. However he claimed he was visited by the Devil and couldn't stay on the island anymore so never got to use his well maintained grave.

 I think the most interesting aspect of Port Arthur is in the attempts to reform the prisoners. Initially they used the usual techniques you hear of from old British prisons, hard manual labour in chain gangs, discipline (lashings and beatings) if you step out of line at all, forcing religion upon them and then rewarding good behaviour. But then they tried separation for the most hardened criminals which basically amounted to complete psychological torture. Prisoners were kept in isolated cells with only the bible to read for 23 hours a day and had to remain in complete silence at all times. For one hour each day they could exercise in the exercise yard, but this also had to be in silence and they would wear a head mask so that if they saw another prisoner they would just see a mirror reflection. They would have to go to church 4 times a week, again wearing the head-mask, but the church wasn't your usual church with open pews. The congregation are separated and each prisoner would stand inside his own booth meaning he could only see the minister and the armed guards at the front. Singing at these services was the only time they could ever use their voices. Guards even wore slippers and learned to speak in Sign language to ensure complete silence at all times. 

 Unsurprisingly a lot of these prisoners ended up in the 'lunatic' asylum next door. But the guards and men in charge felt they were doing what would give the men the best chance of a good future and they didn't understand the effect that complete separation and isolation for prolonged periods of time would have. It was interesting to visit but when you think that actual people lived there and had to endure those sorts of conditions it must have been pretty brutal.

 One of the areas completely unrelated to the convict era but very moving is the memorial to the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre. Some madman came to Port Arthur with a bag of semi-automatic weapons and opened fire randomly on staff and visitors killing over 30 people before eventually being captured by police the following day having held up a near-by guest house with a hostage who he also killed. It's so hard to imagine that happening in such a tranquil and beautiful place. The lonely planet has a specific section on this event and says not to ask anyone at the site about it as many of the staff lost friends, family and colleagues at the event and will not talk about it. 

 So, we've been thoroughly educated and really enjoyed our couple of days at Port Arthur. Time to get on the road in the Campervan.
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Ann on

Aah! Katy preaching and Sean in a booth listening and praying.....excellent training!

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