R10557 Ghosts of Port Arthur, c1932: Port Arthur



This black-and-white clip from a travelogue made about 1932 shows the large stone ruins of the Port Arthur prison settlement, and re-enactments of convict life. In voice-over the narrator reflects on the early years of the settlement and the convicts who built it. Re-enacted scenes show convicts labouring in chains supervised by guards, entering the penitentiary and going to church. A tour group explores the crumbling buildings. The narrator walks with a companion through the model prison and church. Orchestral music and a hymn accompany the footage.

Acknowledgements: Reproduced courtesy of australianscreen online.

Educational value
As tourism in Tasmania expanded in the 1930s, tours of Port Arthur became popular. The main attractions included the penitentiary, initially built in 1857 as a flour mill and granary, which had housed more than 480 convicts; the church, constructed in 1836-37 and destroyed in an 1884 fire; the hospital, built in 1841-42; and the model prison, built in 1853, where prisoners were isolated. By the 1930s tourism to the area supported three hotels and a museum.
Director Ken G Hall uses a number of film techniques to make Port Arthur appear attractive to tourists. The re-enactment scenes appeal to the imagination and curiosity of those intrigued by Australia's convict past. The camera invites the potential visitor to join the tour group as it journeys around the crumbling and ivy-clad buildings, and the haunting lyrics of the hymn 'All people that on Earth do dwell' swell as the visitors step into the ruins of the old church.
The clip presents a sympathetic view of the convicts who built Port Arthur. The narrator emphasises their suffering, calling the time the 'bad old days', and saying that the convicts were 'poor devils', that 'the hearts of men' beat under convict clothes, and that some were transported for 'trivial offences'. The portrayal of the elderly narrator leaning on his stick contributes to the mood of sad wise reflection on Port Arthur's tragic history.
Re-enactments as well as the narration re-create the harsh experiences of the 75,000 convicts who were sent to the prison settlement at Port Arthur between 1832 and 1877. Men are shown chained and submissive, engaged in hard physical labour. The narrator describes 'human cattle toiling and sweating', 'always working, working, hopelessly', and uses terms such as 'wretched' and 'heartbreak labour' to emphasise the extent of their suffering.
The narration, voiced by Bert Bailey, offers a sympathetic view of the Port Arthur convicts that may have been influenced by the 1927 film 'For the Term of His Natural Life', which was about an innocent man transported to Australia and was largely filmed at Port Arthur. The film was a sensational success and may have influenced popular opinion. In the same year as they made this documentary Bailey and Hall collaborated on the enormously successful feature film 'On Our Selection'.
The clip shows the state of the Port Arthur buildings in the 1930s after bush fires had largely destroyed them in the 1880s and 1890s and before conservation programs began in the 1960s. The penal settlement closed in 1877 and the buildings were gutted by bushfires in 1884, 1895 and 1897. They lay derelict until conservation projects began. Today, reconstruction and refurbishing projects help to convey something of the experiences of inmates.
Australian history
Convict labour
Penal colonies
© Curriculum Corporation and australianscreen online, 2009, except where indicated under Acknowledgements