Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Isle Of The Dead, Port Arthur

The Isle of the Dead (also known as Dead Island) was originally called Opossum Island after the vessel under the command of the Port Officer at Hobart Town, Captain John Welsh, during his survey for a penal settlement. The establishment of Port Arthur in 1830 when it began operating first as a timber station, then a prison settlement for male convicts in 1833. The Isle of the Dead was used as the graveyard for the penal settlement of Port Arthur from 1833 to 1877.

Around 1000 persons are buried there, comprising a mixture of officials, soldiers, their families, seamen, convicts (including boys from Point Puer), invalids, paupers and lunatics. Social distinctions were observed and the free were segregated by burial in the north-western corner. Several memorials are still evident in this section, but most of the island is bare of headstones as it was forbidden for markers to be placed on convict graves and that the only indication of graves reserved for convicts were to be mounds of earth on the southern or lower half of the Island. The high ground on the northern half of the island would be reserved for Civil and Military burials, which were permitted to have headstones.

The policy of not erecting convict headstones was obviously changed, as is evident today, with the first convict headstone that we know of being erected over the grave of Edward Spicer, about the 19th January, 1854. The policy of not burying convicts on the higher ground was changed round about the 28th February, 1858, when William Mansfield was buried there (his being the earliest surviving convict stone on the Island today).

Today we know of several more convicts given headstones. The first convict to be buried there was John Hancock, as his convict record states that John Hancock alias Wilcox was transported for stealing. Two structures were erected in the later years. A hut to house the gravedigger and a funeral shelter for mourners.

On the 19th July, 1916, the Island was proclaimed a reserve under the Scenery Preservation Act, and an official guide was appointed to take tourist to the Island. Control of the Island was to change hands a number of times. In 1937, attempts were made to clear the island and lay it out as a garden of remembrance. However many of the plants were not suited to the Island and did not survive and it was decided to re-establish native bush plants that thrive under the Island conditions.

In 1971, under the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the island was cleared of undergrowth and maintenance of the grounds, headstones and graves was undertaken. Paths were established and regular guided tours are now part of the island and the Port Arthur experience..

Main Text & Information Source

3 comments:

  1. I wonder why it was forbidden for markers to be placed on convict graves. No one would have expected large marble tombs, but even a convict could have had the dignity of a grave marker.

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    1. Rev. John Allen Manton, a Wesleyan Missionary was appointed as Officiating Clergyman in 1833. It is reported that he dictated that there would be no tombstone or other mark to be placed at the head of the convict graves, and that the only indication of graves reserved for convicts were to be mounds of earth on the southern or lower half of the Island. The high ground on the northern half of the island would be reserved for Civil and Military burials, which were permitted to have headstones.
      Segregation occurred in death as in life with the free being buried on the high side of the Island and convicts, invalids, lunatics and paupers on the low. Unmarked graves on the lower side roughly aligned east to west. This contrasts to those of the free whose headstones face north; something that is highly unusual as tradition and religious belief dictated that the dead faced east in order to await the Judgement Day. The two possible reasons that have been used in interpretation are that by facing north they faced England and home, or that by facing this direction they had their backs to the convicts.

      This information sourced from a wonderful PhD thesis “Death & Burial at Port Arthur 1830 – 1877” by Lynette Ross.(1995) & from the Ausemade website (See link on main post)
      The full thesis is available to download at the UTas Library Open Repository
      http://eprints.utas.edu.au/16257/

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  2. Thank you for such very good photos and comments! I have been researching a convict who was shipped to Tasmania aged 19 on the Lotus in 1832 and buried on the Isle of the Dead in 1858.

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