Tag Archives: Nineteenth Century

Port Arthur, Tasmania: Of Ghosts and Despair and Haunting Beauty

Summer is over at last! It was long, and it was hot, and I can’t wait to mothball my shorts and t-shirts and don boots and scarves and gloves once more.

But it was a good summer. Part of it was spent on holiday in Tasmania, “glamping” with the family through the island’s pristine northwestern wilderness (hiking and canoeing, spying Tasmanian Devils and wombats, no phone, no internet, no TV –  bliss!)

And it wouldn’t have been a complete holiday if we didn’t soak up a bit of history, which we did at the penal settlement of Port Arthur.

Port Arthur operated as a prison from 1830 to 1877, housing repeat offenders sentenced to transportation from England for crimes that today seem so very trivial: stealing small livestock, clothing, loaves of bread. We spent the day exploring the sprawling prison settlement in the idyllic surrounds of vast green lawns cooled by an ocean breeze. Buildings such as the Commandant’s House are still standing; others, like the convict-built church and the Penitentiary that housed nearly 500 prisoners, are just skeletal ruins.


The Penitentiary


Ruins of the convict-built church

The day was gorgeous – a clear blue sky, the warmth of a golden sun on our backs, the tranquility of the surrounding bushland …and the juxtaposition of Port Arthur’s beauty with the incredible suffering that occurred there could not have been more stark.

To my mind, the worst of Port Arthur’s misery was handed out in the Separate Prison.

The Separate Prison was effectively a prison within a prison, with a regime of silent, solitary confinement. Every man who arrived at Port Arthur spent a certain amount of time there based on his original sentence, and those who later reoffended at Port Arthur would be sent back in for more of its punishing system of social and sensory deprivation.

Twenty-three hours a day locked in cells with walls and doors so thick that no noise could penetrate. Exercise taken alone in narrow yards that afforded a glimpse of the sky and nothing more. Warders who walked the halls in felt slippers and communicated in sign language so inmates would hear no sound. Prisoners forced to wear masks when outside their cells to ensure they did not speak. The solitary confinement even extended to the prison chapel, where prisoners stood in coffin-like cubicles that entirely cut them off from one another.


Corridor and cell doors of the Separate Prison

There was a theory of sorts behind this cruelty: that silence and isolation would force inmates to “look inwards” and repent their crimes. But the resultant psychological torment was so bad many men simply broke. And despite the concerns of prison chaplains and medical officers, the response was simply to build an Asylum for these poor souls, right next door to the Separate Prison. Once they were deemed sufficiently cured, they were returned to the Separate Prison to start the process of losing their sanity all over again.

Escape attempts were not uncommon. Nor were suicides. There are even stories of prisoners forming pacts to end their combined misery, whereby one prisoner would agree to kill the other, with the survivor then hanging for the crime, thus releasing both from their living hell.

Our day at Port Arthur extended into the evening, when we went on a “Ghost Tour” by lantern light. Walking through the shells of these old buildings in the dead of night was incredibly eerie.


The ruins of the church at night

Over a thousand people died at Port Arthur during its 47 year history, and our tour guide regaled us with many tales of unexplained incidents and hauntings. Unsurprisingly, the most chilling tale for me involved the Separate Prison.

On two separate occasions, several years apart, a man (a tourist) and later, a woman (an archaeologist working at Port Arthur on a dig) went missing.  The alarm was raised, the settlement was searched and on both occasions the missing  person was eventually located.

This is where it gets creepy.

In each instance, the missing person was found in the Separate Prison, lying on the floor of a cell in the foetal position. Both were in some sort of dissociative state, sobbing and babbling incomprehensibly. Both snapped out of this strange state soon after their discovery, but neither could remember how they’d got there, and both thought they’d wandered off for only a few minutes when in fact they’d been missing for several hours. Neither could remember what had happened to them, but both felt a profound and overwhelming sense of despair.

And both were found in the exact same cell.

Cell number six, if memory serves. After the last incident, it was permanently boarded up.

Our tour guide that night said something about Port Arthur that has stuck with me ever since:

“No one who was here ever wanted to be here”.

Not the convicts. Not the prison officials and military men who were given no choice in their posting. Not their wives and children who accompanied them.

No one.

The prison closed 139 years ago, but the suffering and the utter misery of the place is still so overwhelmingly palpable, like it has seeped into the very walls. Remembering the terrible shooting massacre that occurred at Port Arthur in 1996 makes for an even more sombre experience. I’m glad my husband was there to take photos, for I found I couldn’t bring myself to take a single “happy snap”.

Still. Port Arthur is a place that must definitely be seen. It is hauntingly beautiful. And it serves as a quiet, permanent warning of how just cruel humanity can be.




Filed under Uncategorized, Victorian Prisons

Victorian England – An Era of Oddities

And now for a few more of the intriguing tidbits I’ve stumbled across while researching my novel.

This time, three very odd – and one, perhaps a little grim – factoids from the Victorian era.

The 5th Duke of Portland’s Underground Haven

William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the 5th Duke of Portland, was a truly eccentric Victorian aristocrat.

Never married, the duke was extraordinarily reclusive. His valet was the only servant permitted to lay eyes on him. His other servants received their orders via written notes posted by the duke through a slot in the door to his private apartments, followed by the summonsing ring of his bell. He preferred to take his strolls at night, accompanied by a female servant bearing a lamp. And he reportedly had the gardens of his London townhouse enclosed with ground glass screens so he might take a turn outside without the neighbours seeing.

The poor man most likely suffered from a crippling case of agoraphobia, and nowhere is this more evident than the building works he commissioned at his country seat of Welbeck Abbey, in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire (yes, Robin Hood’s stomping ground!)

At Welbeck Abbey, the duke employed an army of workers to make special additions to his family seat. He considerably renovated the abbey’s interior, and added a massive riding house for his stable of over one hundred horses (none of which he ever rode). But the oddest of his constructions is the network of sumptuous rooms and connecting tunnels that, over a span of twenty years and at a phenomenal cost, he had dug beneath the ground.

A ballroom, library, picture gallery, kitchens and wine cellars, all connected by gas-lit tunnels, some of which were wide enough to permit a carriage, others with tracks set in the tunnel floor so food could be whisked along from the kitchens. Now, to be accurate, the rooms are best described as “below ground” rather than “subterranean” as they are not completely covered with earth and admit natural light via skylights set in the ground above. But of course, the duke made sure the skylights’ glass domes were all screened from prying eyes by shrubbery.

The overseeing of all this subterranean work reportedly gave the duke great pleasure. But sadly, his reclusiveness meant he never shared his underground haven with a single guest, and by 1879 Welbeck Abbey had fallen into disrepair, the duke living in only four or five habitable rooms, all stripped of furniture … and all painted pink.

Welbeck Abbey is still in the Cavendish-Bentinck family’s hands today. It is a private residence, meaning access to the underground rooms and tunnels is not permitted. But wouldn’t it be fascinating to take a peek at what lies beneath!

The Fake Houses of 23 & 24 Leinster Terrace, London

In the 1860s, London’s original underground railway was powered by steam, and as such, its tunnels required regular “venting” sections, open to the air above. One of these venting sections can still be found at 23 & 24 Leinster Terrace, Bayswater – but from the street, you’d never know it.

Standing on the tree-lined pavement, all you see is an elegant row of white, stucco-walled terrace houses, in keeping with the rest of the genteel neighbourhood. From the rear, though, the secret is revealed – numbers 23 & 24 are nothing but a five foot thick facade, towering over a pit through which the Tube line runs (see this Daily Mail Article for some terrific photos).

A very Victorian way of keeping up property values by keeping up appearances!

The Gruesome Secret in Scotland Yard’s Basement.

The Thames has a long and grim history of disgorging London’s dead. Records show that in 1882 alone, 544 corpses were pulled from the river. Three of the more bizarre deaths connected with the Thames occurred during 1887 to 1889, when the limbs and headless torsos of three female murder victims were discovered in or near the river. They were dubbed, “The Thames Torso Murders.”

Now, the act of committing three murders, then dismembering the bodies and disposing of the parts about the city, is mind-bogglingly macabre. But the oddest of these three crimes surely must be the second, purely for where the killer chose to dispose of some of the remains.

The poor woman’s arm was found first, in Lambeth Road. Next, her arm was fished from the Thames near Pimlico. And not long after, her torso was found  – dumped, of all conceivable places, in the construction site of New Scotland Yard being built upon London’s Victoria Embankment. Death on the Met’s brand new doorstep.

Scotland Yard has long since moved to London’s Broadway. Only one of the victims was ever identified. And the killer’s identity remains a mystery, as does what it was about Scotland Yard that drew him to dispose of his victim’s remains there. Mere opportunity? A sick joke? I doubt we’ll ever know. But the Jack the Ripper Casebook site has a thorough discussion of the case – including speculation the same killer committed similar murders more than ten years before ….

Oh. And these murders overlapped with Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror in Whitechapel. Shudder. It’s a wonder any Victorian Londoner ever left the house.

Do you have any bizarre tales of Victorian London? Do share. You know I’ll be all ears!


Filed under Victorian Oddities

Welcome to my Cabinet of Curiosities

Nineteenth century London and Paris.

Cities and an era that hold endless fascination for me.

Both capitals were the greatest metropolises of 1800s Europe, centres of dynamic change and innovation, home to artists and grand courtesans, philosophers and thinkers, breeding grounds for cutting edge science and astonishing feats of engineering.

And yet London and Paris were filled with dichotomies. For all their beauty, they were  blighted by slums and terrible disease. Social reformers locked horns with staunch empire builders and those who believed in the right of the privileged few to govern the masses. The societies they produced ran the gamut from staggering wealth to cruel poverty. And in both cities, industrialisation and scientific revolution rubbed shoulders with an obsession with spiritualism and the occult, and what lay on “the other side.”

As a writer of historical fiction, Second Empire Paris, Victorian era London and the tension between the modern and the old give rise to a wealth of inspiration and ideas. It’s why I chose them as the settings of my historical novels, including The Colours of the Dead, the first book in my mystery series set in the aristocratic drawing rooms and slums of 1886 London.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed researching my books. I’ve lost countless hours in the University of Adelaide Library greedily gobbling up scholarly works and the precious gems of old diaries and memoirs. Whole days have vanished down research rabbit holes on the internet. And a research trip to Paris in 2012 was one of the highlights of my life. London, watch out …

But therein lies one of the greatest frustrations of writing historical fiction: unearthing wonderfully curious tidbits, but then, in the interests of not boring one’s readers to death with “information dump-itis”, being unable to use them all.

So this little blog has sprung to life, that I might provide a home for the fascinating and eclectic facts and tales I’ve come across in the course of researching my books. Things that won’t necessarily make it to the finished page but nonetheless inform the milieu my characters inhabit. Some are macabre, some are jaw-droppingly amazing, some make me chuckle … and I hope you’ll find them of interest, too.

I’m sure I’ll also bang on about my books, and add a sprinkle of my thoughts on this writing life. Plenty of shelf space in this cabinet!

Happy New Year – and welcome.

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