The 13th Floor

The Sinister History of Tasmania’s Port Arthur Prison

Prison is not pleasant, no matter the facility or the supposedly enlightened beliefs of those in charge. One of the most infamous prisons, the Port Arthur penal colony of Tasmania, believed that their methods were actually therapeutic. Boy, were they wrong.

Port Arthur initially opened as a timber station in 1830, but by 1833 it was converted to a penal colony, harboring the hardest British criminals, mostly those who had reoffended. Located on the southern tip of the Tasmania peninsula, the prison was considered inescapable. 


In 1843, Port Arthur added a Separate Prison to the colony. Based on the ideas by philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, Separate Prisons were built in the panopticon style, where the entire prison would be visible from a central guard station. The idea behind this was that a prisoner would think that he was always within sight of a guard, and therefore he would be on his best behavior. The difference in the Port Arthur Separate Prison was that each wing was clearly visible, but the individual cells were not.

The biggest difference between the Separate Prison and other prisons at the time was the use of corporal punishment. At other prisons, beatings were common and food was used as a reward system, not a basic human right. At the Separate Prison, they followed the “Silent System.” Prisoners would be forced to wear hoods when in the company of other people, spend their days in solitary confinement cells, identified by numbers rather than names, and were forced to remain silent. The idea was that this would give the prisoners a chance to reflect on what they did wrong. This was considered not only humane, but an advancement in prisoner reformation. Instead, many prisoners developed mental illnesses after being kept in darkness and silence for days on end. There are some people who say that the psychological damage was so bad that some prisoners committed murder in order to get a death sentence. Death was the only escape they could see from the desolation. 


The prison was considered inescapable. Located on a peninsula, it was surrounded by water, which was rumored to be filled with sharks. The only connection to the mainland was roughly thirty meters wide and guarded by soldiers, fences, traps, and half-starved dogs. Of course, inmates still tried to escape. Martin Cash and two friends swam to freedom, the details of which were captured in Martin’s autobiography, published in 1870. The most fascinating escape was that of George “Billy” Hunt who disguised himself as a kangaroo in a kangaroo pelt. It kind of worked. Guards shot him, but only because they thought he was a kangaroo. The guards were kept on meager rations, so when they killed the “kangaroo,” they were hoping to have a feast. Hunt gave himself up and received 150 lashes as punishment.

Port Arthur had their own island cemetery, known as the Isle of the Dead. Over 1,100 people were buried there, but there are only 180 grave markers, belonging to prison guards, staff, military, and their families. The inmates who were buried here were buried in unmarked, multi-person graves.

There was also a boys’ prison at Port Arthur. The Point Puer Boys’ Prison was the first separate boys’ prison in the British Empire, that saw over 3,000 boys pass through. The youngest was nine years old, and the first sixty “inmates,” brought to the colony in 1833, were tasked with building the prison. Point Puer was known for “stern discipline and harsh punishments.” Though many of the boys sent to Point Puer were imprisoned for offenses we would consider minor, there were a few hardened criminals in the bunch. In 1843, an overseer was killed by two boys under his guard. 

The prison colony was shut down in 1877, and devastating fires in 1895 and 1897 help speed up the adoption of the land as general residential land. It almost immediately became a tourist attraction, and by the 1920s a tourist economy had sprung up. Preservation efforts began almost immediately, and in 2010, Port Arthur was named to the World Heritage List in 2010.

In 1996, Port Arthur got a new, sad chapter as it became the site of one of the deadliest shooting rampages in the world, committed by 28-year-old Martin Bryant. Thirty-five people were killed, and 23 were injured.

In less than a year, Bryant lost his “female companion,” an heiress twice his age, to a car accident, and his father to suicide. He inherited a lot of money and spent a couple years traveling, but it couldn’t quell his increasing loneliness. Thoughts of suicide turned to thoughts of murder, and he took a stockpile of guns on the road. His first victims were a couple who Bryant felt cheated his father in a real estate deal. He then went to Port Arthur, had lunch, and opened fire. He stole a car on his way out of Port Arthur, killing those inside, and taking a hostage. Bryant took his hostage back to the site of his first murders and set the car on fire. After an eighteen hour standoff (during which he killed his hostage), Bryant set the house on fire and tried to escape. He was caught and eventually pled guilty to all charges brought against him. Bryant is now serving 35 life sentences for the murder victims, plus 1,035 years for various other crimes.

Today, Port Arthur is Tasmania’s top tourist attraction. The massive site includes over 30 buildings that are available to tour. A single admission ticket gives you access to Port Arthur for two consecutive days. Aside from the general tour, additional experiences include a ghost tour, a tour of the Isle of the Dead, a tour of Point Puer, and a Paranormal Investigation experience.