Welfare at Port Arthur

During the 1860s Port Arthur entered what is becoming known as its ‘Welfare Phase’. This period saw the construction of the Pauper’s Depot (1863-64) and the Asylum (1864-68). The result of an ageing and increasingly infirm prisoner population, these were the centres of Port Arthur’s somewhat benevolent leanings. Another result of the ageing prisoners was that the profitable convict-driven industries like timber-getting and agriculture took a downturn.

Port Arthur’s Asylum was built next to the Separate Prison at the southern extremity of the site. Built to a classic cruciform shape, the wings were occupied by dormitories around a central mess hall. The building was flanked by two ‘L’ shaped buildings comprising a Keepers’ quarters and a bakehouse. To the rear was a long wooden building which served as separate apartments for the Asylum’s more rowdy occupants. The front of the Asylum was trimmed with an open verandah, which fronted onto a large fenced garden replete with paths and ornamental plantings.

In keeping with the era, treatment for the patients, many suffering from depression or mental disability, was rudimentary at best. Convict patients were provided with a ‘soothing’ atmosphere, where they were allowed exercise and mild amusement. Work, though limited, was mainly tending the gardens, or chopping firewood. After closure the Asylum was severely damaged in the 1895 bushfires, after which it has gone through various incarnations as a schoolhouse, town hall and museum.

Recently a scale model has been built of the Asylum as it was during its peak. It is available for viewing in the Museum.