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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Project Update - November 2014

Port Arthur Penitentiary Conservation Project nears completion 

The engineering project at Port Arthur’s Penitentiary to ensure its survival for future generations is nearing completion, with scaffolding coming down and finishing touches being applied over coming weeks.

The major engineering project to restabilise the Port Arthur Penitentiary is coming to an endThe major engineering project to restabilise the Port Arthur Penitentiary is coming to an end

Since early 2014, significant excavation and installation of reinforced concrete ground beams supporting 14 huge steel columns that will provide support to the emblematic ruin has been completed. Around 5 kilometres of stainless steel reinforcing rod has been grouted into the brickwork and 91 core holes have been precision drilled vertically down through the walls to allow for high tensile stainless steel grouted structural anchors to be inserted. The exterior walls have been fitted with stainless steel bracing plates that are concealed beneath the sandstone capping stones.

This landmark project for PAHSMA is internationally significant in terms of structural works to a building within a World Heritage listed site. The project will provide structural stability and environmental protection to the remnant walls, which were at risk due to age and deterioration of the masonry fabric. 

The work has been necessary to ensure the safety of visitors and guarantee the long-term conservation of the building. It also provides the opportunity to interpret the building in new and exciting ways that will enhance the visitor experience, which will be done over coming months.

The work will be substantially completed in time for the busy summer season. Visitors will have access to most of the Penitentiary building from mid-December, and unimpeded views from the most photographed northern side of the building.

Some works will be continuing in the eastern end of the Penitentiary until late January due to the discovery of substantial voids within some of the walls, requiring a modification to the structural solution and work plan. 

It is testament to the skill of the design team, the contractors and the skilled tradespeople involved that this was the only major problem that had to be overcome and that a solution was devised to cope with this very complex engineering issue. 

The project will be delivered on budget and given the scale and complexity of the work, this slight delay in final completion is minor. Critically the project will ensure the best long term structural and conservation outcome for the Penitentiary, and will provide an enhanced experience for visitors.

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Project Update - May 2014

The major works within the precinct to date have been associated with site establishment (getting site sheds installed, putting in electrical services, constructing hard stands for cranes and other  vehicles etc.), heritage fabric protection (temporary floorings in all work areas, sheeting to cover vulnerable fabric etc.) and the excavation of the slots for the concrete beams that will support the steel columns.

Photo of the Penitentiary before  the stairs have been removed.

The major works within the precinct to date have been associated with site establishment (getting site sheds installed, putting in electrical services, constructing hard stands for cranes and other  vehicles etc.), heritage fabric protection (temporary floorings in all work areas, sheeting to cover vulnerable fabric etc.) and the excavation of the slots for the concrete beams that will support the steel columns.

Site and building protection has been installed, including hard stand areas for crane and truck access. Roads have been built up to allow vehicle access without shredding the muster yard to a muddy bog.

Protection of ground features and cell walls has been carried out by cladding large areas with ply wood. The trenches have all been dug by hand and a chemical compound used to split large dolerite boulders for easier removal.

Subsurface features discovered include an early spoon drain associated with a pre-granary workshop building, massive sandstone pads, and timbers used to reclaim the beach. We have salvaged sections of the timber for testing to enable species identification.

Constructing and installing reinforcement for concrete ground beams and pouring the first of the concrete beams is happening at the moment.

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Penitentiary interior after removal of stairwell

Anatomy of a Conservation Challenge: The Penitentiary Precinct Conservation Challenge

Project conservation professionals presented a one day seminar on the ins and outs and the ups and downs of this significant heritage project at the World Heritage property, on Wednesday 4 June 2014 at the Port Arthur Historic Site.

Port Arthur Penitentiary Precinct Conservation Project 2013-2014

The Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA) has undertaken 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 was 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. 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.