2 JULY 1948, Page 15


By A. C. B. NEATE Port Arthur is today a modern settlement that has sprung up among the ruins of the old convict station around the sheltered and picturesque cove that was once known as Stewart Harbour, on the south coast of Tasman Peninsula. This peninsula, which might have been designed by nature as a place of segregation, is an almost exact miniature of the Morea of Greece—the Isthmus of Corinth being represented by the narrow Eagle Hawk's Neck, a natural causeway with the Southern Ocean on the East and a five-mile-wide bay 'on the west. The solid stone walls of the now roofless buildings alongside the trim tin-roofed bungalows of the settlement present a contrast which seemed somehow symbolical of their generations. A few of the buildings have been renovated and are in use—the prisoners' lunatic asylum is now the town hall—but most stand windowless and roofless as defiant and indestructible skeletons, while many have been removed without a trace, and now only the outline of a road or an avenue leading to nowhere indicates a former resi- dence or barrack.

When Colonel George Arthur was appointed governor of Tasmania

in 1824 the convict system had been in existence some twenty years- Lieut. Bowen, a youth of eighteen, having led a posse of prisoners to the Derwent, near where Hobart now stands, in 1803—and the home Government, concerned with post-Napoleonic-war retrench- ment, was worrying about expenses ; so Arthur came out with orders to economise. When he arrived the convicts numbered about six thousand, about equalling the free inhabitants of the island. When he left in 1836 there were 17,000 convicts and the civil population had risen to 26,000. Under Arthur the convicts were divided into three classes. The first, and far the largest, group were assigned as labourers and servants to local residents ; the second were employed on public works (they built Government House, Hobart, in 1857), and the third, which consisted of refractory rogues who were not amenable to milder discipline, or had committed crimes on arrival, were kept in c- nfinement and worked mainly on roads. These last included the " chain gang " who figure in the horror tales of the period.

I had a look at the prison "visitors' book" of 1843, which is kept at the Port Arthur village store. Written in the copper-plate of some convicted clerk or draughtsman, it gives details of each entrant, including the offence for which he was " inside." Some of these seemed pathetically small—though I was told that a small offence was often seized upon as a ground for getting rid of undesirable

characters. A woman who got the singular sentence of ten years and two days for stealing a shawl, but was shown in the column of remarks to have been a brothel-keeper, points to this. Less easy to explain is the eight-year sentence on nine-year-old James Lynch for stealing three packets of toys. He is said to be the youngest prisoner ever admitted. It would have been interesting to learn what hap- pened to James when he faced a free world at seventeen with this experience behind him, but I could get no more information.

Port Arthur housed some interesting prisoners during its forty- seven. years of existence. One of them was William Smith O'Brien, M.P. for Limerick, who founded the Irish Confederation in 1846 and was later tried for high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Reprieved by the Queen, he got to Tasmania in 1848. His stay was uneventful, and, after refusing concessions and a conditional release, he was pardoned unconditionally in 1856 and returned to Ireland. More varied were the experiences of Thomas Meagher, who was convicted with O'Brien on the same charge and also reprieved. While roaming the countryside he came upon the family coach of a settler in difficulties on a bad road ; he gave assist- ance and accompanied the family home, and shortly afterwards married their governess, Katherine Bennet. A few weeks later, after making a point of surrendering his ticket of leave, he slipped away and boarded a ship bound for Pernambuco. After a number of vicissitudes he got to New York, where he was received as a champion of liberty and offered a public reception by the City Council. This, however, he refused. He began with a two-year lecture tour, and then practised at the New York Bar until the outbreak of the Civil War, when he joined the Army of the North as a private. He soon set about organising an Irish Brigade, which he commanded with the rank of Brigadier-General, and fought with distinction at the second battle of Bull Run and at Chancellorsville. After the war he became governor of Montana Territory, where he fell off a steamer in the Missouri and ended his eventful career at the age of forty-three.

The east window of the church was designed by another interesting prisoner—the artistic Thomas Griffiths Wainwright, who came into residence in 1839. This cultured criminal, who was at the same time art critic, painter, poisoner and forger, as well as being a journalist and associate of men of letters, had been sentenced to transportation for a forgery committed some years earlier. He is also known with fair certainty to have poisoned his rich uncle, his mother-in-law and his sister-in-law Helen Abercrombie. He admitted poisoning Helen, whose thick ankles offended him. For some reason he was not arraigned on the murder charge. He had been a regular contributor in 1822 and 1823 to the London Magazine (which published Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia) under the pen-name of " Janus Weathercock," and had also exhibited watercolours at the Royal Academy. Although Charles Lamb called him " the gay kind-hearted Wainwright " and said he was the mainstay of the London Magazine, he seems to have been like many legendary criminals—a poor sort of creature at close up. Whilst in Newgate awaiting passage to Tasmania, he was recognised by Charles Dickens, who was going round the jail with MacReady. He was said to be the original of " Varney," the hero or villain of Lord Lytton's Lucretia, and was the subject of " Pen, Pencil and Poison—an aesthetic study," published by Oscar Wild: in the Fortnightly Review in 1889.

Seventy years have now passed since the last convicts left, and quiet has descended on Port Arthur, The buildings crumble very slowly, but the woodwork of the landing-stage has rotted away, and the grass has obliterated the roadways and the traces of demolished structures. For long the place was forgotten, but of late the Tas- manian Government has become alive to its " tourist " attraction. So, on summer afternoons, the " Pioneer " 'bus discharges a straggle of sightseers, who gaze for a scheduled time and wonder at the methods of bygone days, or are rowed across the water to the island of the dead where in nameless graves lie sixteen hundred involuntary visitors of the past—forgotten relics of a system which seemed harsh and inhuman by the standards of a generation ago, but, compared with people's treatment of each other today, seems almost benevolent ; and, in any case, laid the foundation of present-day Tasmania.