Skip to main content

Prison Life

Port Arthur

Port Arthur along a waterfront.

I watched the bright red birds fly in the clouded sky, following them as they passed abandoned prison buildings.

“Jail is an occupational hazard—don’t feel sorry for the prisoners,” the tour guide said. “They knew what they were getting into when they made their choices.”

I had never thought of being a criminal as a type of profession. But according to the tour guide, that is just the type of occupation the prisoners in Port Arthur, Australia, had chosen.

A life sentenced not to any prison—but to a prison on an isolated island.

After hearing the tour guide’s words, I was mesmerized by the idea that wicked criminals had once lived and worked on this same island.

The Life of Port Arthur

A peninsula. A prison. A history.

Tasmania is a small island that sits off the coast of the southernmost tip of Australia. On the southern part of the island on a peninsula is a town and historic site called Port Arthur. Before it became the historic attraction it is today, Port Arthur detained more than 2,000 prisoners over a period of 47 years in the 1800s. These prisoners—ranging from ages nine and up—were British criminals sent to the isolated Tasmania. From thieves to murderers, Port Arthur was a prison to a range of criminals.

So, what were the stories of those who lived on this peninsula during its time as a penal colony?

A close-up of a Port Arthur building.

Life as a Convict

A thief. A shoemaker. A father.

After being transported to Australia for burglary, William Thompson found himself working hard as a prisoner in Tasmania. He served in the dangerous and dismal coal mines for 12 months and later worked in the shoemaker shop.

Once he was free from his prison sentence, William turned away from life as a criminal. He became a shoemaker’s apprentice for a master in Hobart, Tasmania. He also got married and had seven kids.

But William’s life on Port Arthur was not easy to forget. He and his fellow convicts worked 364 days a year—every day except Christmas.

Each prisoner wore a shackle around their ankle—the worse the prisoner was, the heavier the shackle. To make them think twice about acting out, lashings were used for punishment—until the day a separate prison opened. Within the separate prison, convicts weren’t allowed to talk or get anywhere near others. They were kept completely alone to think about the bad they had done.

“Don’t feel sorry for the prisoners,” the tour guide had said. But how could I not feel sorry for men who were tortured with isolation and darkness?

Even if the convicts thought of escaping the peninsula, the only stretch of land that connected Port Arthur to the rest of Tasmania is called Eaglehawk Neck—a stretch of land guarded by vicious dogs.

Despite these difficult living conditions, not all the soldiers who guarded the criminals were considered enemies.

Life as a Soldier

A soldier. A friend. A tragedy.

Robert Young was only 20-years-old when he was working as a soldier at Port Arthur. His responsibility was to watch over the prisoners while they worked and traveled.

One night, he was traveling by boat with a doctor and some convicts. While trying to return safely to land, Robert suddenly fell into the water.

One of the convicts dove into the water after him. But minutes passed with no sign of Robert. After ten minutes of searching, Robert’s body was found floating up on shore.

Robert Young was buried among hundreds of others on the Isle of the Dead—a tiny island separated from the rest of Port Arthur.

During my visit to this mysterious peninsula, I rode a boat that wrapped around the Isle of the Dead. The waters were a deep gray blue, and I wondered what other stories Robert would tell me if I could speak to him today. Why had the convict tried to save him? What had he done to make friends with a criminal?

A castle-like building at Port Arthur.

Life as a Commandant

A leader. A gardener. A son.

The phrase “leave something better than you found it” was adopted in an unexpected way by Commandant William Champ.

While serving as the commandant, William Champ decided to make a solitary, beautiful garden for the women and other families who lived in the colony—a place kept separate from the convicts. He did this by writing to his mother in England and asking her to send some of the native plants to him.

The garden he created is not the same today, but what remains is still beautiful.

Champ was just one of ten commandants who lived and worked at Port Arthur. Each commandant had unique experiences and challenges while running the convict settlement.

Another commandant who lived and worked on Port Arthur was Commandant Charles Booth. Booth helped lead Point Puer—a separate prison created for young boys to help them become good citizens.

The commandants lived with their families in a house on a hill—close enough that you could still see the penitentiary where the prisoners stayed. It must have been strange and unsettling to live so close to criminals that England deemed too wicked to stay in England. But then again, if the commandants’ families had only known Port Arthur, maybe it was as normal to them as living in the neighborhood streets of Provo.

A girl standing in front of an entryway to Port Arthur.

Life as a Traveler

A visitor. A dreamer. A storyteller.

During my visit to Port Arthur, I imagined what the island would look like filled with prisoners wearing chains on their ankles and working in the woods chopping down trees. I imagined the families inside their cozy homes and the green garden that Commandant Champ created. I pictured the watchtower with soldiers standing frozen like statues inside.

I imagined William Thompson making shoes, Robert Young riding on a boat, and William Champ planting in his garden.

All of the people who lived on Port Arthur during its time as a penal colony have long since passed away, but their stories remain in the buildings and the sceneries.

Noelle Barrus