Digging into Port Arthur’s industrial past

Published 23 March 2017

The grim history of Port Arthur and the Tasman Peninsula through their decades as Tasmania’s dog-guarded convict gulag are being given new layers of meaning in an ambitious project led from the University of New England (UNE).

Supported by a $495,000 Australian Research Council grant, the project is restoring other stories around Port Arthur’s convict days, between 1830 and 1877, to show how convicts lived and worked within the busy industrial complex that the settlement once represented.

In doing so, the research team hopes to get an understanding of how Port Arthur’s British convicts, torn from their social roots, helped build the foundations of Australia’s distinctive culture and labour systems, and shaped the landscape around them.

Led by Professor Martin Gibbs of UNE’s School of Humanities, the work will be undertaken in a collaboration between UNE, the University of Tasmania, the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority and the University of Liverpool, UK.

UNE and UTas each have distinguished histories in Australian colonial scholarship, and have collaborated closely in the past.

The team aims to rehabilitate the social and culture structure of the penal settlement using a combination of archaeological and historical approaches. Using LiDAR, a highly-accurate method of landscape capture to aid the archaeological survey, the landscapes of convict labour will be recorded and analysed and tested against the vast data archive generated by the system’s administrators.

Port Arthur offers many layers for interpretation. As well as being a place of imprisonment and reform, it was a busy industrial site, where convicts were worked in the surrounding forests at timber-getting, quarrying stone, manufacturing shoes, smithing the tools required at the settlement and tending the cultivation fields.

“The British administration wanted to screw profit from the settlement, so they had to have robust training and record-keeping systems,” Prof Gibb said.

“They kept remarkably complete records. We have unique identifiers for each convict. We know how tall they were, their eye colour, whether they had pock marks, their injury record, and who did what, where.”

“If we can link pieces of archaeological evidence to the written record and other evidence, we can start to visualise how this penal settlement might have operated, and how effective it might have been in its intended jobs of reform and profit-taking.”

Port Arthur’s convicts came from a tradition of craftsmen’s guilds, an ancient labour training system that managed skills development and regulations for specific trades.

UNE historian and a member of the ARC-funded Port Arthur project, Associate Professor David Roberts, is intrigued by how – or whether – these systems translated to Van Diemen’s Land.

“We may get some insights into how early Australian labour systems were formed,” Assoc. Prof. Roberts said.

“Convicts were often deported because they were labour organisers in Britain. What effect did they have on Port Arthur’s labour system, and were those systems carried out of the settlement?”

Once the team has built an understanding of Port Arthur as a complex industrial site, and the Tasman Peninsula as a convict-shaped landscape, it will then work on how to convey this more nuanced picture of the convict experience.

Prof. Gibbs hopes that ultimately, the work will greatly increase the depth and interest of the Port Arthur story when it is presented through public outreach and education programs.

He believes that potentially, the techniques being developed to quarry information from Port Arthur’s industrial past could provide new ways of interpreting Australia’s World Heritage convict sites, and other historical landscapes.

Image: UNE historian Associate Professor David Roberts and UNE archaeologist Professor Martin Gibbs are collaborating in a new analysis of Port Arthur’s industrial past.