Heritage Management

Laser scanning of Penitentiary assists with heritage building conservation and monitoring

Laser scanning of Penitentiary(Credit: PAHSMA (photo by Andrew Ross), 2008)

Penitentiary Conservation Project

The Penitentiary is located in the heart of the Port Arthur Historic Site. As a ruin it evokes an aesthetic attraction to our visitors that has lasted for many decades. 

The ruin was conserved in the late 1980’s with a major installation of a central walkway and viewing platform. 

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Port Arthur Penitentiary Precinct Conservation Project 2013-2014

During the last two years, the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA) has commenced a large scale conservation project which focuses on the iconic Penitentiary ruin. The aim of this project is to conserve and present the structure, replacing the existing walkway, now redundant with tall steel columns strategically located around its perimeter to support the high masonry walls.

We are undertaking a major program of conservation works on the site's most emblematic ruin - the Penitentiary. The works will ensure the ongoing stability of this highly significant building as engineering surveys have identified that the ruins are vulnerable, particularly to forces of high wind.

Considerable preparation has been undertaken prior to commencement of this critical conservation project. A Conservation Management Plan and structural assessments left no doubt that the interior support framework is deleteriously compromised and engineering reports confirmed that the walls require stabilisation measures. Archaeological excavations have offered new insights into the conversion of the granary into a Penitentiary and towards understanding how the early foreshore in the area was developed. It has already been a long haul to reach this exciting stage of the much needed conservation works.

Work commenced in February 2014 with the demolition of the old walkway and support structure. The work is anticipated to be completed by December 2014; due to the large scale of works, the precinct will not accessible to the public for the duration of the works. Port Arthur's most photographed building will become a construction zone however to ensure its ongoing longevity, this conservation work is critical.

The Board and staff of PAHSMA are working closely together to ensure that the visitor experience is not compromised too dramatically and that the message of conservation is first and foremost during what is truly, an exciting time for the World Heritage -listed Port Arthur Historic Site. Estimated at in excess of $6 million, every effort has been expended to ensure the Penitentiary and its stories, will be preserved for generations to come.

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Penitentiary Archaeology Project

The installation of this support system will require sizeable foundations to be prepared however, disturbing the soil deposits of such a significant site and building simply cannot be done without first conducting an archaeological investigation. The view beneath the surface will help us to understand the earlier uses of the Penitentiary structure and also, the land upon which it sits.

While the Penitentiary is Port Arthur’s largest and most recognisable building, its earlier history as a granary has never been fully investigated.

The building was originally constructed during the early 1840’s as a flour mill and granary complex which housed both a water wheel and a convict-powered tread wheel to drive the large grind stones. It wasn't until 1853 that the conversion to the Penitentiary commenced and some four years later, the building was equipped to house 484 convicts; 136 of those convicts were in the two stories of solitary cells. The building also featured a large mess room, Catholic Chapel and a library.  Although it is certain that the granary/mill and associated infrastructure existed prior to the conversion, details around the design of the water wheel and the size and scale of the surrounding pit are unknown.   

Unfortunately, despite the building plans being very clear on design, they do not match the descriptions of the building given by those who were here after the structure was built. It is hoped that some of these questions will be answered during the excavation and some insight into the previous operation will be provided. Should the archaeological project be successful and produce the sought after answers, this pre convict missing piece of the Port Arthur puzzle will be built into the on-site interpretation. 

Excavation inside the Penitentiary BakehouseVolunteer Archaeologist Ané Van Derwalt excavating within the Pentitentiary's Bakehouse building.