The heritage-listed Port Arthur Historic Site is one of Australia’s favourite tourist destinations, with over thirty buildings and restored period homes set in 40 hectares of lush, forested parkland that slopes gently to the placid waters of Mason Cove. Most people visit the former penal settlement by day when they can enjoy its rustic charms and the solemn dignity of its heritage buildings while strolling through a rural tableau that would grace the pages of Country Life. But this serene idyll belies its dark and tragic history as a notorious convict penitentiary and, were you to take a tour of the Site at night, you would quickly learn that it seethes in a chilling cauldron of paranormal activity.
For the record, Tasmania has more ghosts per square kilometre than any other state in Australia, and Port Arthur is one of its most haunted places. There are several theories as to why this is so. Experts attribute its ‘hauntedness’ to the trauma and suffering experienced by the thousands of convicts during the penitentiary’s operation. Psychics believe that places like Port Arthur are paranormal ‘hot spots’, where the walls between our world and the spirit world are thinner, and through which resonate the memories stored up in that other dimension that can be felt by people who are sensitive to it. Over 250,000 day visitors and nearly 34,000 night visitors come here to find out if they are among the chosen ones.
Named in honour of Lt-Governor George Arthur, the settlement began as a small logging camp but, in 1833, was expanded to become a full penitentiary. For forty-four years (1833-1877) it housed the hardest criminals from England, repeat offenders from other Australian prisons and obdurate rebels against colonial authority. Port Arthur also received juvenile convicts, boys as young as nine, who, like the adult prisoners, were used in hard labour, such as stone cutting and construction. For all its 1,200 inmates, Port Arthur was “hell on earth”, a brutally harsh and inescapable prison, administering unremitting hard labour on near-starvation rations, surrounded by shark-infested waters and guarded by slavering mastiffs. In desperation, some prisoners committed murder, to be punished on the gallows in order to escape its cruel regime.
The cemetery, known as The ‘Island of the Dead’, was the destination for all who died inside the prison settlement. The earthly remains of some 1,500 brutalised and tormented convicts lie in mass graves bearing no remembrance of their existence or the “living hell” that delivered them there. Modern-day visitors to the island report an oppressive atmosphere of melancholy and ineffable sadness. But a prisoner named Mark Jeffrey, who lived on the island as the resident gravedigger, claimed he saw “His Satanic Majesty”, a horned creature with smouldering eyes, encircled by sulphurous smoke.
With a fearsome history like this, it is hardly surprising that Port Arthur hosts so many manifestations of the ‘unworld’. During five years and nearly 1,000 tours at Port Arthur, one guide saw three ghosts and experienced about a dozen strange occurrences. It’s an occupational risk that all new guides are warned of before they are allowed to take the job.
Since the 1870s, thousands of bizarre occurrences and sightings of apparitions have been witnessed at Port Arthur and recorded; since 1983, when ghost tours were introduced on a regular basis, hundreds of experiences have been documented with photographs, in Port Arthur’s Unusual Occurrence registry. These histories and reports reveal an eerie pattern – the stories are exacting in their detail, down to the apparent age, hair colour, and dress of the spectre, repeated decades apart by witnesses who are unknown to each other.
Our tour guide and paranormal guardian for the evening was ‘Claire’, clad in a full-length Dryzabone oilskin, as much for effect as for warding off the evening chill. As we gathered in the deepening gloom of dusk at the rear steps of the Visitors Centre, she repeats a short mantra: “It’s not my job to convince you that ghosts are real. It’s my job to tell stories. Those stories are true”. She didn’t need to rely on special effects to terrify us; the truth would do that admirably.
Under the cloak of darkness, armed with nothing more than our bravado and a couple of lanterns, Claire, our ‘mistress of the macabre’, led us off into the night, along pathways and lanes overhung by dark, pendulous trees, until we came to the Government Cottage, where we paused while she vividly recounted Port Arthur’s cruel and desperate history, grisly acts of murder and mental torture, and regaled us with narrations of some of the documented sightings and bizarre, unexplained events. In our eerie surroundings, by the soft glow of the lantern, the spirits of those long gone seemed very close at hand.
Presently, we approached the old Church, one of the earliest buildings constructed at Port Arthur (c.1836). In stately seclusion, this once majestic edifice stands on an elevated location that commands an upward view towards the heavens, reflecting the importance of religion in the reform of the convicts. Burnt out in a bushfire in 1884, only the stone walls of the Church remain intact and, tonight, these gothic ruins loomed out of the darkness, starkly floodlit within and silhouetted against a moonless sky. As we entered the portals of this former House of God, it lacked only the funereal ravens of The Omen roosting in the bell tower, to complete its aura of brooding menace.
The building had been designed by a convict, earning him a pardon for his work, and built with convict labour – moving one historian to observe that “the hearts of men and artists did beat within their rustic breasts”. But before you get all dewy-eyed with maudlin sentiment, it would be well to remember that one of those “rustics” was William Riley, who, while digging the footings in this unhallowed ground, suddenly and brutally murdered fellow-convict Joseph Shuttleworth with a pickaxe. As he threw down the weapon he said calmly, and somewhat enigmatically, “I am satisfied”. At his trial, Riley refused to speak and he was hanged without voicing a reason for his violent attack, and the incident ranks among the most bizarre and baffling in the settlement’s history.
A short distance from the church, along a lane that seemed to me grossly under-lit by the feeble glow of several lamp posts, we came to the Parsonage, perhaps the most haunted of all the buildings at Port Arthur. Just about everything that could happen in a paranormal sense has been witnessed here and documented – unexplainable lights, disembodied footsteps, doors closing and a community of different ghosts, including that of the Reverend George Eastman who died in an upstairs bedroom. It is said that, while his coffined body was being lowered out of a window, the rope broke, the coffin smashed open and his body fell into the lane. Modern-day visitors have reported smelling the stench of rotting flesh in the Parsonage’s front yard near where the reverend gentleman landed.
We entered its haunted hallways and gathered in a front room where Claire recounted some of the many unexplained occurrences that its occupants have experienced for over a hundred years. As she did so, I moved around the room, behind the group, taking photos of their ghostly shadows cast upon the walls by the flickering lantern light and trying desperately not to encounter some unseen ectoplasm lurking in the inky corners. After what seemed an eternity, we were all mighty glad to leave this house and return to the night’s chill embrace.
The vacant interior of the Accountant’s House, next door, has been seen illuminated internally from time to time by a strange, intense light akin to a camera flash. Among the grounds of these two houses roams an apparition known as the ‘Blue Lady’, a mournful presence believed to be the accountant’s wife who died in childbirth, along with the child. Her spectre, wearing a blue dress, appears very sad, often crying, and sometimes talks to children, as though seeking solace for her loss. In 2011, one of the visitors to the Parsonage was a lady with her three-year-old daughter. On the veranda of the building, the young girl exclaimed “Mummy, put me down, I want to play with the nice lady who lives here”. Leaving her mother’s side, the child ran down the veranda with her arms upstretched as though to be picked up by someone not visible to the astonished bystanders.
As the tour proceeded, it seemed that the stories became more ghoulish and the miasma surrounding the settlement more unsettling and oppressive. In the gloom beyond the Accountant’s House lay a row of plain, unassuming cottages that yielded yet more mystifying and macabre tales.
The first of these was the Junior Medical Officer’s House. It’s unusual for ghosts to leave physical evidence of their presence, but that’s what happened here in 2003, when the floors of the residence were sanded and varnished. On the last night of work, the contractors locked the doors to let the final coat dry, but re-entered the building next morning to find footprints – the image of a woman’s bare left foot and one of a child’s right foot – clearly visible in the varnished floorboards before the fireplace. Nobody had been in the house overnight and how the footprints came to be there remains a mystery.
The tension was now palpable among our group as we approached the residence of the Senior Medical Officer and descended the stairs to its subterranean cellar, known as the “Dissection Room”. This crypt-like chamber was small, only about 3m x 5m, with bare, rendered walls and a stone table placed at its centre. Upon one end of this Claire placed a lantern, thus illuminating the skull of an animal at the other end, and narrated a history that would have done Edgar Allen Poe proud.
And so we came at last to the Separate Prison (1850). If there’s a prize for the outright creepiest location in Tasmania, the Separate Prison gets my vote hands down. Changes in English penology in the mid-19th century were reflected at Port Arthur by the cessation of corporal punishment, such as flogging, and the institution of the “silent system”, in which many of the worst prisoners underwent psychological subjugation and manipulation. They were made to wear a heavy, black hood and admonished to remain perpetually silent, except for the singing of hymns in the Chapel on Sundays. Infractions of this diabolical regime were punishable by reduced rations and solitary confinement, locked in a stone-walled chamber that admitted neither light nor sound, for days at a time. This torture by prolonged sensory deprivation broke men’s spirits and drove a lot of them insane. For thirteen years up to 1868, ‘C Wing’ was used to house violent lunatics, the unintended product of this ‘enlightened rehabilitation’, until the Asylum was built, conveniently, next to the Prison.
The layout of the prison is fairly symmetrical: a cross shape with exercise yards at each corner; the prisoner wings each connected to the surveillance hub and the Chapel in the Centre Hall. As we descended the flight of stairs into this bleak alcove, its gaunt bare walls seemed to close around us and oppress our senses. It was like entering the lair of some brooding monster, waiting silently beyond the lantern light to devour our imaginations. And many have succumbed to its evil seduction. In the Separate Prison, visitors have heard the cries of a ghostly boy awaiting execution. Mysterious lights have been spotted in the darkened cells and passageways; visitors to the cell where prisoner William Carter hanged himself have felt anxious or depressed; some have been found huddled on the bed or floor weeping uncontrollably. From the adjacent chapel may sometimes be heard a phantom choir singing an age-old hymn – the voices of desperate, hopeless men.
For a while Claire spoke to us, matter-of-factly, about the grim and gruesome history of this place of terrible incarceration. At the end of her narration we all stood in the tomb-like silence among the dancing shadows, to experience a little of what the inmates must have suffered for years on end.
Today, by day or by night, Port Arthur is one of Australia’s best-known historical sites and most visited tourist attractions, generating over $7 million, of which ghost tours account for nearly 10 percent. It has been ranked in the top ten landmarks in the Asia Pacific region by Trip Advisor and over 92 percent of visitors say that they would recommend a visit to family and friends. It is unquestionably Tasmania’s “must do” ghost tour experience.
Some sceptics might dismiss the ghostly encounters as the product of over-active imagination, based more in folklore than empirical science. But there’s no denying the volume, frequency and consistency of the many thousands of documented sightings and paranormal experiences in nearly every building in the heritage site. Do you believe in the supernatural? I can guarantee that a Ghost Tour at Port Arthur will definitely ask that question and have you thinking seriously about the answer.