Even after learning about the likes of 'Ball Ripper' and 'Felon Killer', Graeme Lay finds much to hope for on a notoriously cruel Australian prison island.

From a sheltered cove a broad sweep of lawn rises steadily to a formal garden, cross-hatched with pathways. Above the garden is the massive ruin of a brick church. A driveway lined with mature oaks and elms also leads to the church, and other well-tended avenues lead to a complex of 19th century brick buildings that overlook the cove. These buildings are also in ruins, yet they possess beauty and dignity. Groves of deciduous trees stand among the lawns, pathways and avenues. The scene is idyllic.

This is a parkland whose setting is as lovely as anything you could imagine, a pastoral scene bathed in clear, late autumn light. It could be a scene in rural Surrey or Sussex.

But this is Port Arthur, Tasmania, formerly known as Van Diemen's Land, a place that in the 19th century was synonymous with incarceration, brutality and despair. This former convict settlement on the south coast of the Tasman Peninsula is one of the most beautiful, yet paradoxically also one of the most notorious, historic sites in the whole of Australia.

In 1846, a typical year, Port Arthur housed 1200 prisoners, mostly recidivist offenders - transported convicts who had committed further crimes in the-then British convict colony. From 1830 until 1877, a total of 12,500 prisoners were incarcerated within a prison system where discipline was enforced with hideous severity.

Port Arthur was established in the 1830s as a penal settlement. Photo / Tourism Tasmania
Port Arthur was established in the 1830s as a penal settlement. Photo / Tourism Tasmania

Immodestly naming the place after himself, in 1830 Governor George Arthur (1784-1854) selected the site for its natural advantages. Located at the end of broad, forested Tasman Peninsula, Port Arthur is well sheltered from the storms that blow in from the south. During the colonial era, goods and prisoners were brought to the Tasman Peninsula mainly by sea. A ribbon of land less than 100m wide, called Eaglehawk Neck, separates the peninsula from the mainland of Tasmania. Virtually escape-proof, the peninsula was almost the perfect place to imprison people.

Initially established as a timber camp producing logs for government projects, after 1833 Port Arthur was converted to a punishment station for repeat offenders.

By 1840 more than 2000 convicts, soldiers and civilians lived at an industrial settlement that produced boots, bricks, dressed sandstone, furniture, boats and ships. Military personnel, civilian "free men" and their families lived in comfort. They promenaded on the sheltered shore, picnicked in the gardens, enjoyed regattas, attended parties, musical and literary soirees. Close by, just above the cove in a huge penitentiary, hundreds of prisoners - many shackled together - led lives that were uniformly wretched.

Today Port Arthur is about an hour's drive south-east of Hobart.

The first building pertaining to the convict settlement is at Eaglehawk Neck, gateway to the Tasman Peninsula. The Officers' Quarters Museum was built in 1832, making it the oldest timber military building in Australia. Although unprepossessing from the outside, it's well worth wandering through, as its rooms reflect the unique history of the area. The information boards in the Officers' Quarters chronicle the building's history. Over its 184 years it has been not only an officers' quarters but a honeymoon cottage, a private home and now, a free museum.

The saddest of the information boards depicts in words and drawings the history of the local aboriginal people, the Woorraddy. When European settlers arrived in Van Diemen's Land during the early 19th century, their way of life and that of the hunter-gatherer Aborigines clashed violently. Traditional hunting grounds were taken over for the grazing of sheep, with no compensation paid. Aborigine children were abducted and used for labour; the settlers shot Aborigines indiscriminately.

Port Arthur was established in the 1830s as a penal settlement. Photo / Tourism Tasmania
Port Arthur was established in the 1830s as a penal settlement. Photo / Tourism Tasmania

They retaliated, and by the mid-1820s there was open warfare between the two cultures. In 1828 martial law was declared against the Aborigines. A bounty of £5 was paid for each adult Aborigine and £2 for each child. As more and more settlers poured into the island and demanded land, the Aborigines of Van Diemen's Land were doomed. Victims of genocide, full-blooded members of their race were exterminated, although many Tasmanians today have an Aborigine ancestor or two.

Meanwhile, the convicts of Port Arthur could only escape by swimming around Eaglehawk Neck - an inability of most to swim and sharks in the surrounding sea precluded this method - or by making a run across the isthmus under cover of darkness.

Realising that the Eaglehawk Neck route would be the likely choice, the penal authorities established what was called the "Dogline". This consisted of a chained line of up to 18 ferocious hounds, whose barking would raise the alarm if any fleeing convict tried to cross the line. Employed for their ferocity, affectionate names were bestowed upon them by their constable charges, titles such as "Ball-Ripper", "Golden-Fangs" and "Felon-Killer". The sight and sound of these creatures must have struck terror in the heart of any would-be absconder from Port Arthur.

Yet at least one convict did get through the Dog Line, in 1842. He was Martin Cash, who went on to enjoy a successful career as a bush ranger.

At the eastern end of the Dogline, above serene Pirate Bay, there is a bronze monument to the vicious canines. Today the bay is a Nature Recreation Area, and ironically, also an authorised dog exercise area. A notice states that "Dogs may be off leash but must be under effective control at all times". As someone who dislikes large dogs intensely, and still wincing at the thought of desperate would-be runaways being savaged by "Ball-Ripper" and the others, I walked out onto the beach, glancing around nervously. There was a dog there, being walked on a leash. It was a big poodle. I resisted the urge to give it a good kicking.

If a convict did escape, which against all the odds did sometimes happen, a semaphore telegraph system alerted the authorities. This consisted of a series of relayed flag signals between Port Arthur other coastal stations and, eventually, north-west to Hobart.

The runaways were then hunted down.

When recaptured, the convicts were subjected to an even crueller punishment. In what was called "the Separate Prison", they were locked for 23 hours each day in a single cell. Here they ate, worked and slept. The one remaining hour allowed solitary exercise. Some of the convicts spoke to no one except their jailers for years. This isolation drove many of them insane, so their next accommodation was the Asylum, at the rear of the township. Eventually this institution had to be abandoned, since the isolation of the Separate Prison drove so many convicts out of their minds.

I read of one woman, the daughter of the controller of the Separate Prison, who was so moved by the plight of the inmates that she "stuck a piece of sweet scented verbena into the hands of one of the silent prisoners & heard afterwards the poor fellow was on his knees weeping over it in his cell". The Asylum is now a museum.

The Penitentiary (1857), Port Arthur, Tasmania. Photo / Graeme Lay
The Penitentiary (1857), Port Arthur, Tasmania. Photo / Graeme Lay

Yet as ghastly as the regimes were, the convict settlements had at their core a kind of utopian vision, one in keeping with 19th century philosophy. Port Arthur must be seen in the context of its era. An English social reformer, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), had designed a radical new penitentiary at Pentonville, England, which he described as "a machine for grinding rogues into honest men". This became the model for Port Arthur. Its philosophy was that through discipline and punishment, religious and moral instruction, training and education, better people would result. But the living and working conditions for most were intolerable and the punishments meted out to those who committed further infractions were brutal. One of the Information Centre at Port Arthur displays has a set of iron shackles that were worn by the prisoners. After I put it around my ankle I could hardly lift my foot from the ground.

It takes more than a day to see Port Arthur, such is the extent of the site and its manifold heritage interest. As well as the expansive complex of avenues, gardens and ruined brick buildings, which have an undeniable grandeur, in the harbour is "The Isle of the Dead", which contains the settlement's old burial ground. And nearby is Point Puer Boys' Prison, the first reformatory in the British Empire built for juvenile male convicts, aged 9 to 18 years. One shudders to imagine what went on inside that place.

After the convict transportation system ended in 1853, Port Arthur became an institution for ageing and physically and mentally ill patients. The penal settlement eventually closed in 1877, and many of its buildings were dismantled or destroyed by bush fires. Today Port Arthur is a World Heritage Site, one of 11 spread over Australia, from Fremantle in the west to Norfolk Island in the east, from central New South Wales to the extreme south of Tasmania.

While wandering around Port Arthur and trying to absorb the vast amounts of 19th century Australian history it embodies, I was struck by two related thoughts. First, although this concentration camp was a ghastly place, its myriad stories are not without hope.

Those convicts who kept their head down and served out their sentences of transportation - hideously disproportionate to the offences they had committed in Britain, mostly petty theft or other minor misdemeanours - they now had a whole new way of life before them. Australia offered free persons opportunities they never would have had in impoverished, class-ridden Georgian and Victorian Britain.

Graeme Lay. Photo / Graeme Lay
Graeme Lay. Photo / Graeme Lay

Moreover the prisoners who learned trades within the prison could use these skills to build a new life.

As with all places of isolated incarceration, people who had useful skills became valued members of the community. This was true of Port Arthur. The many moving convict case histories in the Information Centre attest to this fact. Tradesmen such as carpenters, stonemasons, bricklayers, blacksmiths and shoemakers were highly valued, and as such were given preferential treatment.

Most did survive the gulag. One historian concluded: "Many men were broken, but some left Port Arthur rehabilitated and skilled, some as blacksmiths, shoemakers or shipbuilders". Their skills were deployed to create a better society for themselves and their descendants.

And to demonstrate that the Victorians did not have a monopoly on cruelty, and that human behaviour can, even in modern times, touch swamp bottom, an event of April 28, 1996, underscores this tragic fact. On that day Martin Bryant, a young gunman carrying semi-automatic weapons, coldly and mercilessly murdered 35 men, women and children and wounded 37 more, in and outside the Broad Arrow Cafe at Port Arthur.

After burning down a guesthouse Bryant was eventually captured, and remains imprisoned near Hobart.

A Garden of Remembrance commemorates those killed and wounded by Bryant, 20 years ago. Thus was added one more chapter to Port Arthur's sorrowful story.

Port Arthur was established in the 1830s as a penal settlement. Photo / Tourism Tasmania
Port Arthur was established in the 1830s as a penal settlement. Photo / Tourism Tasmania