Tag Archives: Victorian prisons

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

Science and Punishment in Victorian England

In case you didn’t know, I’m an Aussie gal. The places and eras I write about are far from my own, which I guess explains why, when I research my books, my eye is always caught by any antipodean connections.

One such link to Australia I came across in researching The Colours of the Dead involves Sir Edmund Du Cane.  He was a Royal Engineer who answered the call of the Comptroller General of Convicts in Western Australia to come out to the colony to plan its prison buildings. But Du Cane was also the architect of one of the most brutal, soul-destroying prison systems put in place in Victorian times. And he did it largely in the name of science.

Late nineteenth century Victorians loved their technology and science. They lived in a time when great shifts in these spheres were taking place at a very fundamental level. The disciplines known as “natural philosophy” and “natural history” gradually became “science”; gentlemen dabblers and “naturalists” became “scientists.” This was also the era that gave birth to Darwinsism and the fledgling field of psychiatry; germ theory was nailed down; sewer systems were built, as was the London Underground.

With technology and scientific thinking pervading much of Victorian life, it is little wonder it was eventually directed towards the question of its prisons, and its inmates.

The eighteenth century had seen the idea of the reformability of prisoners flourish. But by the second half of the nineteenth century, influenced by social Darwinism, thinking had changed.  Many believed there was little point trying to reform those of the criminal class – they were what they were – and Sir Edmund Du Cane, Chairman of Commissioners of Prisons (amongst other posts) held such views.

For Du Cane, reformation was secondary to  control, and his prison system was unapologetically aimed at breaking a prisoner’s spirit to swiftly acclimatise them to a regimented existence. The methods employed to do this, viewed from our 21st century perspective, were incredibly cruel.

Food rations were barely enough to sustain an inmate’s existence. This was deliberately so, and termed “scientific starvation”. Men went to bed hungry, got up hungry. There were reports of prisoners driven to eating boot grease, poultices and candle stubs to ease their hunger pains.

Inmates slept on plank beds, with clothing insufficient to ward off the cold. Singing, whistling, any musical sound, was punishable by bread and water.

Picking oakum

Picking oakum

Out of their cells, prisoners were kept busy with menial, dangerous and soul-destroying tasks such as  picking oakum (the fibres that made up ship rope) and breaking rocks. Climbing the treadwheel was a particularly barbaric trial. The treadwheel was a massive, wooden apparatus of continually revolving steps originally intended to drive belts that supplied power to mills and lathes, but in prisons was used purely as part of the “breaking” regime. Prisoners spent hours each day stepping on the treadwheel (in some prisons, climbing the equivalent of over 16,000 ft a day) and to make matters worse, they were separated from one another by cubicles to prevent any communication as they slaved. Accidents often occurred, as did fatalities.

A prison treadwheel

A prison treadwheel

Turning the hand crank was also part of the prison regime. These cranks were situated in the cells, and the number of turns made by each prisoner was carefully counted. There was absolutely no point to this endeavour, of course, but prisoners who failed to reach the required number of turns were penalised by a loss of privileges or food.

Yet another pointless activity imposed on inmates was the carrying of 24 pound cannonballs. They were picked up, and put down, for several hours a day, again, with no objective at all.

By the end of the 1880s most prisoners were subjected to Du Cane’s regime. The “tasks” imposed by his system were menial, physical torturous, dangerous, and worst of all, utterly pointless. A prisoner was reduced to nothing more than a cog in a vast, diabolical, machine designed to break him down. It is hardly surprising that many men released from these prisons were mentally damaged by their ordeal. Neither is it surprising that a very high number of these men returned to lives of crime. They were probably unfit for anything else.

If you’d like to read more about Sir Edmund Du Cane or the Victorian prison system, I highly recommend:

London’s Shadows: The Dark Side of London by Drew D. Gray

English Local Prisons 1860-1900: Next Only to Death by Sean McConville

The Punishment and Prevention of Crime by Col. Sir Edmund Du Cane.


Filed under Victorian Oddities, Victorian Prisons