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The Candlestick, Cape Hauy, Jason Charles Hill

A Short History of the Tasman Peninsula

Geologically, the Tasman Peninsula is home to a number of Tasmania’s top natural wonders; with much of the peninsula is protected as national park, given its beauty and natural diversity. This spectacular coastal environment includes soaring 300 meter high sea cliffs and a number of fascinating coastal rock formations such as Tessellated Pavement, the Blow Hole, Tasman Arch, Devil’s Kitchen, Remarkable Cave and Waterfall Bay; all easy to get to by car. Most famously, the peninsula is known for the World Heritage Port Arthur Historic Site.


The area is also home to many animals including the brush tail possum, wallabies, wombats, bandicoots, Australian fur seals, penguins, dolphins and migrating whales as well as the endangered swift parrot and many forest-dwelling birds. You may also see endangered wedge-tailed eagles and sea eagles overhead.


At the time of first contact with Europeans, the area was the country of the Pydairrerme band of the Oyster Bay tribe. Their territory was what is now known as the Tasman and Forestier Peninsulas. A narrow “neck” of land joins these two peninsulas. There is no recorded evidence of any remaining Pydairrerme people on the Tasman Peninsula from the 1830s onward, although remains of middens and stone artifact’s remain in the landscape from this period.


Port Arthur was also endowed with a protected harbour and freshwater stream. These were critical factors in the choice of site, both to ensure its viability, and to provide the capacity for large-scale convict employment. In 1830 timber was cleared, building commenced and the first convicts arrived.

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Tessellated Pavement, 1892. Tasmanian Archive Heritage Office
Tessellated Pavement, 1892. Tasmanian Archive Heritage Office

Port Arthur Penal Settlement – named in honour of Lt-Governor George Arthur – began life in 1830 as a punishment-oriented timber station. Replacing Macquarie Harbour and Maria Island as the primary source of secondary punishment, Port Arthur’s 47-year operation was due largely to its geographical isolation and the availability of natural resources such as timber, sandstone and dolerite. as well as fertile land for farming.


The daily work of the convicts ranged from ganged labour – including timber-getters in irons, and un-ironed garden gangs to relatively skilled labour in the shipyards or artificers’ shops. Combined with scholastic and religious instruction, the labour was designed to provide an avenue to reformation, as well as to improve the economic returns of a large and expensive settlement. The station’s workshops housed blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors, basket makers, carpenters and stonemasons.

Port Arthur - penitentiary 1917. Tasmanian Archive Heritage Office

Across Carnarvon Bay, at Point Puer, a boys’ penitentiary was established in 1834. A line of guard dogs and lamps was stationed across a thin isthmus just 30 metres wide at Eaglehawk Neck, and once guarded by dogs to prevent convicts escaping. Any break of the scrub or slightest noise would set the hounds barking and alert the sentries. Dogs were even placed on stages out in the water to detect absconders attempting a sea crossing. The dogs were a virtually impenetrable barrier to escaping convicts.


A ʻconvict railway’ powered by human eff ort was completed in 1836 and linked Norfolk Bay and Long Bay. The Saltwater River coal mines and Eaglehawk Neck were linked by roads. A wide network of signal stations was set up in the mid-1830s that connected the settlements and the Peninsula to Hobart.

By the mid-1840s there was a decline in transported convicts and the boys penitentiary at Point Puer closed in 1849. With the end of transportation in 1853 reduced even more and in 1877 the Port Arthur penal settlement closed. The Officers Quarters (1832), reputed to be the oldest wooden military building remaining in Australia, is the only structure left on the isthmus from the convict days, and is now a museum interpreting the history of Eaglehawk Neck

A new township named Carnarvon was superimposed on the remains of the former penal settlement, and by 1880 tours of Port Arthur were operating. The former Commandant’s Residence became the Carnarvon Hotel. By 1892 Port Arthur had become an established port of call for tourists. In 1912 a local councilor estimated that 5000 tourists visited the town. (Today there is an estimated 280,000 annually visit the site)

Following the closure of the penal settlements, land around the peninsula was subdivided for farms and orchards and small rural settlements. Nubeena, Koonya, Taranna, Saltwater River, Premaydena & Eaglehawk Neck, grew out of the former probation stations. Fruit growing became one of the main industries, although most of the early orchardists were dependent on the timber industry in conjunction with vegetable and dairy products.