Port Arthur, Tasmania…A Family Relic.

When James Newton went on a thieving rampage on the night of 11th October, 1843 I wonder if he considered the possibility of being caught and sentenced to 14 years transportation?

I doubt it.

Indeed, it doesn’t look like he was “thinking” very much at all.

Although James Newton seemed to be doing alright (he could apparently read and his occupation was Quarryman), he stole a lot more than the proverbial “loaf of bread”. When he was tried at the Hereford Assizes On the 21st March, 1844, it turned out that he and his mate had burgled three separate dwellings in one night and had quite a haul.

James Newton was sentenced to 14 years transportation and sent to London’s Millbank Prison. On 8th July, 1844 he left Woolich on board The Agincourt. With authorities taking a tough stance against theft, he was initially given the harsher penalty of being sent to Norfolk Island with a view of being transferred to Port Arthur down the track.

Naturally, getting caught had consequences and James Newton moved from being a free man, into a system of discipline and punishment and debate about moral and prison reform. Indeed, questions were being asked about whether the “criminal class” could actually be reformed.

So, when James Newton arrived at Port Arthur, he was at the mercy of “the system”.

As yet, I don’t know how long James Newton spent at Port Arthur before being consigned to John Connell at Oatlands. However, from 1848, harsh physical punishment within Port Arthur was rejected in favour of punishment of the mind. Flogging gave way to solitary confinement and the Separate Prison was built at Port Arthur in 1850. Cruciform-shaped, each of the four wings comprised a central corridor flanked by rows of solitary confinement cells. Separated by thick sandstone walls, it was hoped that the convicts would benefit from contemplative silence and separation. This design was based on  Jeremy Bentham’s model prison, Panopticon. Indeed, Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”[1] Elsewhere, in a letter, he described the Panopticon prison as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”.[2]

On January 8th, 1887,the Illustrated Australian News reported that:

“Port Arthur  was considered to be the most secure prison in the island. Surrounded almost on every side with water which teemed with sharks, its only connection with the mainland; by Eagle Hawk Neck being guarded by chains of sentinels and ferocious blood hounds, it well deserved the trust reposed in it by the convict authorities, for few were the escapes, that took place from it. Even old hands that had broken prison time after time recognised the fact and took for their motto: “All hope abandon ye who enter here.”1.


Knowing that a member of your family endured this physical and psychological brutality for any length of time at all, is disturbing. Yet, you really have to look pretty hard to see any signs of that on a gorgeous sunny day where the prison ruins take on a rugged, artistic beauty, the gardens are magnificent and there’s even the luxury of a cricket pitch.

Anyway, returning to our visit to Port Arthur.
Unfortunately, by the time we’d admired the Tasman Peninsula, that we only had half a day left for Port Arthur. This meant we seriously had to rationalise our visit. We went on the walking tour and harbour cruise (which are both included with your entry fee) and then we decided to focus on the Chapel. From there I made a quick dash into the Chaplain’s cottage, which also housed some interesting convict artifacts.

Geoff and Miss on board the ferry cruise.

To do the place justice, I’ll be visiting each of these locations in a separate post.
The Chapel
Meanwhile, I should let you know that things turned out pretty well for James Newton in the end. On the 22nd September, 1853 James married a free settler, Bridget Vaughan,  and they went on to have 6 children and own their own farm in Campbell Town. James had his conditional pardon approved 4th October, 1853.
Stay tuned.
xx Rowena


Illustrated Australian News (Melbourne, Vic. : 1876 – 1889) Saturday 8 January 1887 p 10 Article




4 thoughts on “Port Arthur, Tasmania…A Family Relic.

  1. Pingback: Weekend Coffee Share… 5th February, 2017 | beyondtheflow

  2. annabellefranklinauthor

    As a child I wished I lived in Australia instead of Wales – I even used to wish my ancestors had been naughty enough to be transported there! That said, solitary confinement must have been hell – unless you had some skill in contemplation and meditation, it would just drive you mad.
    It looks as if you had a lovely day in Port Arthur, under that stunning blue sky. As I look out of my window at the relentless Welsh rain, I find I still have a hankering to live in Australia!

  3. Rowena Post author

    Annabelle, I gather you’ve never been to Australia and so I encourage you to head out here and experience it for yourself.
    We did have magnificent weather, although we did reschedule our trip to Port Arthur. We had about two days of rain in 3 weeks and one of those was while we were in Hobart. I know I’m starting to sound completely photo obsessed but a big part of going to Port Arthur for me, was to get some great photos, especially with the sandstone buildings on a bright blue sky. Ironically, I could’ve got some spooky ones in the rain but it’s an outdoor venue a reasonable drive from Hobart and it wouldn’t have been as good. Moreoever, there were also many stunning places to explore on the way there.
    We’re all wanting to move to Tassie but the realities of life will keep us here.
    xx Rowena

  4. Debbie Harris

    Great post Rowena, it fits in with mine really well as you suggested in your comment. Love the history of the place and will return one day. Thanks for visiting me and leaving me a link.

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