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Port Arthur And The Convict Tramway

In the middle of the 19th century, Tasman Peninsula, on the southeast coast of Tasmania, became home to one of Australia's most dreaded penal colony. The peninsula was selected as a penal settlement because it is geographically isolated from the rest of Tasmania, it being surrounded by water, which the administration rumored was infested by sharks. Its only connection to the mainland was a thirty-meter-wide isthmus known as Eaglehawk Neck that was fenced and heavily guarded by soldiers, mantraps and half-starved dogs.

Port Arthur in Tasmania

The penitentiary building at Port Arthur in Tasmania, Australia. Photo credit: FiledIMAGE/Shutterstock.com

The penal colony, called Port Arthur, was built based on Jeremy Bentham's dystopian theories of prison topology. Like the panopticon, the layout of the prison was symmetrical, with several prisoner wings radiating from a central hall from which the guard conducted surveillance. From this position, each wing was clearly seen, although individual cells were not.


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Port Arthur employed what was called the “Separate Prison Typology”. Here, physical punishment was replaced with psychological torture, such as denial of food and isolation. Prisoners were kept hooded in the company of others and were not allowed to speak. The lack of companionship drove many prisoners to madness. Conveniently, an asylum was located nearby.

Port Arthur in Tasmania

Inside the prison in Port Arthur. Photo credit: Paul Carmona/Flickr

Port Arthur in Tasmania

Inside the prison in Port Arthur. Photo credit: Paul Carmona/Flickr

The Peninsula was rich in resources such as timber, stone, and coal. Exploiting these resources of the land kept the convicts busy. Within five years of the establishment of the penal colony, over five million feet of timber had been felled, split and sawn by the convicts, while hundreds of tons of sandstone and brick clay had been quarried for use at the settlement.

In those days, convict labor was so abundant that it was cheaper to engage the convicts on jobs that were usually performed by animals or machines. One example of this is the convict tramway, operated by the prisoners of Port Arthur.

Opened in 1836, the convict tramway was an 8-kilometer-long track of roughly hewn timber rails over which convicts pushed four-wheeled open carts upon which government officials sat. The human-powered transport is often described as Australia’s first railway. Aside from passengers, it also transported goods from Norfolk Bay across the narrow isthmus to Port Arthur and Long Bay.

Convict Tramway

The convict tramway. Colorized from the original sketch by Colonel Mundy.

The tramway was worked in relays by a group of about fifty men. One description of travel on the railway by Colonel Mundy mentions that the convicts were still in chains when they pushed the carts. Mundy reported that there were occasional derailments, but he suspected that not all of them were accidental, but deliberate acts of sabotage performed by the prisoners so that they could rob the passenger's pockets. He also expressed displeasure at the “unpleasant proximity” when the convicts jumped aboard the carts when it free-wheeled downhill, especially when there were ladies on board.

One of the last remaining sections of the tramway can still be viewed at the Federation Chocolate Factory at Taranna.

Convict Tramway

The rails of the tramway. Photo credit: www.tasmanregion.com.au

Port Arthur was billed as inescapable, but that was no deterrent for some prisoners. One of the most bizarre escape attempt was made by one George "Billy" Hunt, who disguised himself using a kangaroo hide and tried to flee across the Neck. But when one of the guards on duty tried to shoot him to supplement their meager rations, Hunt threw off his disguise and surrendered. He received 150 lashes.

Successful escapes were few and far between. Nearly everyone died inside the prison camps and was buried in unmarked graves at the Isle of the Dead.

The prison closed in 1877, and by the turn of the next century, it had already became a popular tourist attraction. Since the 1970s, the site is managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Port Arthur, now a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage property, is one of Australia's best-known historical sites.

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