Saturday, 10 October 2009

Port Arthur: For the term of his natural life


Van Dieman's Land was hell-on-earth and the centre of that godforsaken cess-pit was Port Arthur named after the Governor of the Colony Colonel George Arthur. The lush, green, serene memorial that stands today bears stark contrast to the conditions that existed during its active years - 1830 to 1877 - of initiation, incarceration and punishment.


John Barnes: a 17 year old labourer from Northampton who received 15 years transportation for burglary. His last record shows him to be an invalid in Launceston in 1890.

William Curtis: house painter and brick layer from Bristol. Transported in 1844 at the age of 22 for stealing. In 1856 sentenced to life at Port Arthur for murder. After two sessions in the Separate Prison, was released in 1875.

James Foley: A city sweep from Cork who was sentenced at the age of 26 to transportation for stealing. Later charged with being in a brothel and stealing. While at Port Arthur he was charged with a number of offences including neglect of duty, flour improperly in his possession, and misconduct in talking to an officer's son without authority. He was released in 1875.


Port Arthur is a mesmerising memorial to the past of our country. I spent two entire days there: it is open from 9am to 5pm and the Bronze Ticket-of-Leave is good for two days and for return visits within two years. An Introductory Walking Tour came with the Bronze ToL as did a cruise around the harbour. To this I added a guided tour around the Isle of the Dead. There are information panels scattered throughout the buildings and grounds together with old photographs some occupying half a wall. Thankfully there are no reenactments or blaring commentaries. There are audio guides which few people were using.


John Kerswell: A Welsh plasterer transported in 1828 at the age of 20 years to 15 years for stealing. Absconding four times and charged with being drunk three times, granted ToL in 1856 and Conditional Pardon in 1857. However, he received 20 years imprisonment for attempting to stab a policeman. He was released from Port Arthur in 1875.

William Forster: At age 17 years was transported for ten years for stealing a box writing desk. Misdemeanour followed misdemeanour and sentence added to sentence until in 1864 he was sentnenced to life for robbery under arms. The last mention of him is in 1872 when he was sent to the Separate Prison for misconduct.

Alexander Woods: A soldier with the 17th Regiment, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Woods (aged 30) was transported from Canada to Port Arthur for 14 years for desertion.
Returned to Hobart with a ToL in 1853 but returned to PA again in 1865 for 15 years for burglary. He was a church attendant in 1869 and was discharged in 1875.


As I wandered around this memorial to power and man's inhumanity to man, I began to wonder if these men had not been better off here than in the tepid swills that passed for streets in London, Dublin and Glasgow. I wondered this as I read their life stories, gazed at their bedgraggled portraits, walked through their row upon row of cells, through the penetentiary, around the hospital, between the asylum and the Separate Prison. It was when I got to this last that I stopped wondering: the instant I stepped into one of the cells and the door closed behind me ...

10 comments:

brattcat said...

This is an amazing post, Julie. I'm still trying to figure out how you managed that stunning image at the top. And how you managed to remember the names and details of those six men. These photographs certainly reflect the degree to which you were engaged by your visit here. Excellent work!

diane said...

Interesting post. great shots, good information and personal feelings to boot. I remember being stunned by the cruelty that went on there. I think it was the cell of silence that shook me the most.

altadenahiker said...

Yes, this had me thinking about a tour I took around Alcatraz, off the coast of San Francisco. I was locked in a solitary confinement cell for (5? 10? minutes). Almost immediately you lose track of time and the mind starts playing cruel tricks.

Julie said...

Astounding, isn't it, the "cell of silence" which at Port Arthur is in the Separate Prison. had the door shut on me - which I refused to let it! - the black was pitch and the walls were sound proof. Ghastly!

BC: The first photo is of the lights in the central hub of the Separate Prison, I was immediately underneath pointing directly up. It took me quite a few shots before I got one in focus! Usually I would lie on the floor, but the floor was very cold and very hard!

freefalling said...

It's an extraordinary place, isn't it?
It is still such an isolated place - in a country at the end of the world, in a state at the bottom of that country and then way down the end of that state.
It's hard to imagine what that meant in a time without planes, and telephones and cars.

Julie said...

Absolutely, Lettie. The absolute end of the world as they knew it! I suspect the individual convict had no idea of their absolute isolation: would have done their head in otherwise.

However, I kept thinking that they had such a crap life back in London was this any the worse. Of the 60 thousand transported to PA, I wonder how many were eventually integrated back into society?

Joan Elizabeth said...

Yes it is a haunting place. Like many Aussies there is a drop of convict blood in my veins even if they didn't integrate into society their children did and probably ended up with a better life away from the poverty that drove their forebears here.

Lois said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post Julie. It's hard to believe people lived this way!

AB said...

A grim place. And the clouds look suitably dramatic in the middle photo.

Vogon Poet said...

I knew something about this from The Fatal Shore and, seen in perspective with the alternatives of the time, this seemed not excessively bad. Until your last words...