The Chilling History of Port Arthur, Tasmania


Tasmania is an island state of Australia and is located 240 kilometers south of the Australian mainland with the Bass Strait separating them. It’s a small town located on the Tasman Peninsula, about a100 kilometers southeast of the state capital Hobart.

When you look at this place, it looks like an incredible location with beautiful buildings, lush green lawns and nicely landscaped gardens, but it wasn’t always this tranquil-looking. Port Arthur has a very interesting and quite chilling history. It went from a feared convict settlement to now a World Heritage-listed Historic Site. It also captures the attention of many people from around the world who visit this popular tourist destination.

From the disturbing history of the treatment of the prisoners, to the island where over a thousand bodies have been buried, to the deadly massacre of 1996, this site has a deeply dark and horrifying past. Let’s take a look at what makes this location so unique and chilling at the same time.


Port Arthur was named after George Arthur who was the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land. The British Empire first founded this location as a penal colony which was active for around fifty years. It was also the location for the “Separate Prison” which was home to many inmates who were subjected to several forms of psychological punishment.

Port Arthur first began as a timber station in 1830, but is more known for their penal colony, which housed some of the worst convicts around. Ship building, smithing, shoemaking, and timber and brick making companies were some of the industries operating there during that time. Then in 1842, a large flour mill and granary began their operations, as well as the construction of a new hospital. During that time, in the 1840s, there were over 1,100 inmates who were housed and worked in Port Arthur. The convicts didn’t just spend their days alone in their cells – they were also given help to reform themselves by receiving education, trade-training, and also by religion.

Timber-getting was the most punishing and most profitable job that the convicts were forced to do. The trees around the settlement were huge, so cutting them down was definitely hard labor for them. In fact, up to fifty convicts would carry the large logs on their shoulders, back to the main area.

Ship building was another way for well-behaved convicts to receive a useful trade they could learn prior to being released back into society. As many as 70 inmates were employed there at one time. While most of them cut timber, others were given the jobs of carpenters, caulkers, blacksmiths, coopers and shipwrights who in fact worked on the ships.

Despite the 1860s being a very busy time for Port Arthur, many of the inmates were aging and getting sick, so they were unable to do as much work. Instead of cutting down the huge trees, they would instead just cut firewood. The prison eventually closed and the last inmate was shipped out in 1877.

The Prison Life

The Separate Prison was known to be an inescapable prison because of their high security, natural defenses and complete isolation. And if that wasn’t enough, the waters surrounding Port Arthur were infested with sharks.

However, one inmate named Martin Cash did manage to escape the prison by swimming across the bay. He even wrote a book in 1870 detailing his escape, which was titled The Adventures of Martin Cash. It became a bestseller in Australia.

The prison was also known to invoke more psychological than physical punishment on the inmates. This prison used what was called the “silent system” where the convicts remained quiet at all times, wore hoods or masks while in each other’s company, and occasionally spent several days without seeing any lights or hearing any sounds. Although this was meant to make the inmates reflect on their past crimes, this no doubt took a deep psychological toll on many of the prisoners.

Several of the inmates developed mental illness from the isolation. Others who were more deeply disturbed, actually committed murder while they were there in order to receive the death penalty to escape the mental torture they endured.

When the prisoners passed away, they were buried on a tiny island in front of the site called the Isle of the Dead. Apparently, 1,646 bodies are buried there, however, only 180 of those have marked graves and they are of the military personnel and prison staff members (along with their family members) who died there.

In addition to the adult prisons, there was also a boys’ prison located across the harbour from Port Arthur called the Point Puer Boys’ Prison. It housed approximately 3,000 juvenile offenders between the ages of 9 and 16 who served time there between 1834 and 1849.

Massacre of 1996

On April 28, 1996, Port Arthur was the location of the worst mass-murder in Australia’s history. A 28-year-old man named Martin Bryant went on a mass-shooting spree and killed a total of 35 people, while injuring 23 more before being caught the following morning. Bryant, who is said to have an IQ equivalent to an 11-year-old child, told police that he had paid cash for the weapon from a local gun dealer. He is currently serving 35 life sentences for the murders.

In less than a year, Bryant had lost his female companion to a car accident and his father to suicide. He did, however, inherit a large sum of money after his female friend died, so he spent a couple of years traveling. The first victims of his killing-spree were a couple who he believed cheated his father out of a real estate deal. He then went to Port Arthur, where he ate lunch at a cafe before taking a semi-automatic rifle out of his bag and started shooting people. After that, he proceeded to steal a car, killing the occupants inside and taking one hostage. He took the hostage back to the location where the first murders took place and set the car on fire. He ended up killing the hostage and after an 18-hour standoff with police, he was caught after setting the house on fire and trying to escape.

The rampage caused the Australian government to introduce the National Firearms Agreement which banned residents to own semi-automatic and automatic rifles, in addition to pump-action shotguns. As a result of the stricter gun laws, over 640,000 firearms were turned in to authorities.

Tourism and Heritage Site

Although there were devastating fires in 1895 and 1897, Port Arthur residents re-built the historic site to make the town livable again and for a fresh new start. They even built a post office, lawn tennis club, and a cricket club for the residents. And by the 1920s and 1930s, the location was home to three hotels and two museums which helped with tourism.

Today, Port Arthur receives around 250,000 visitors every year, making it Tasmania’s top tourist attraction. The site features more than 30 historic buildings which include the Penitentiary, Guard Tower, and the Convict Church.

In 2010, Port Arthur (Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property) was named to the World Heritage List.

Port Arthur Hauntings

This is a site with a very chilling past; therefore, ghost sightings is not unusual for this location. With well over a thousand people dying at Port Arthur, it is believed that many of those souls have never left the location. Unexplained events and ghost stories have been documented at Port Arthur since 1870, so it has definitely had a reputation for being haunted for a very long time.

For those who visit Port Arthur, they can even take a 90-minute lantern-lit ghost tour. They will have an expert guide who will lead them to many of the buildings and ruins, all while listening to the many tales of unexplained events that have happened over the years. Some of the stories include hearing screams from the prison cells, seeing flickering lights from the Isle of the Dead, and seeing rocking chairs move on their own.

Some people have even seen the “Blue Lady” who is believed to be the spirit of a woman who was married to an accountant. They both lived in Port Arthur during the 1800s. Those who have seen her say she is wearing a long blue/grey dress and a bonnet. Other sightings are that of a little girl who allegedly fell down the stairs at the commandant’s house. People have seen the girl lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of the staircase with her right arm broken. Some tourists have also heard children laughing and playing.

Ghostly apparitions have also been captured in pictures. One picture that was taken has an image which looks like a boy inside one of the prison cells. Another image that was taken shows what looks like several children looking out of the windows in one of the buildings.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, this is by far one of the most interesting places to visit that has a deeply disturbing and chilling history.

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