The Prisoners Barracks

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Plan of the Prisoner’s Barracks (1840). Courtesy of LINC Tasmania.

The Prisoner’s Barracks housed the convicts of Port Arthur until 1842, when the complex were abandoned and the convicts were moved to the new penitentiary building (which is the iconic building still standing today). In 1840, the convicts of my novel Port Arthur were housed in what looks like the plan above.

The long building on the extreme right is full of single cells used to house one convict per cell. This is the building which ran all the way down the main area, where majority of the prisoners were housed in huts around the Penal Yard. The Penal Yard was set up in a square; on the outside, huts which housed the convicts. Each hut had berths and was said to have housed between 16-30 convicts each, with 1 overseer to enure that the convicts behaved themselves during the night. The berths were opposite the doors and windows, with the overseer sleeping in a berth at the end. A light burned in each hut so the overseers could see movement, and the windows were clear windows so the Commandant, Chief Constable or the Sergeant of the Guard could see through when they patrolled the yard at irregular intervals. In the middle of the penal yard, a fountain stood (which has been moved around the Port Arthur site a few times!). The Penal Yard itself was used to keep the convicts during their free time, when they were not working or confined in their huts.

Outside the square set up towards the front of the complex were two other areas. Boys were housed separately to the men on the left, and there also stood a schoolhouse for the convicts who decided to better themselves while in prison. Other overseers slept in their own barracks, and were kept just outside the Penal Yard and convict huts. The Muster Yard was used during ‘Muster’, a time when all convicts were to line up in single file rows to be checked by the Commandant, Superintendent and Medical Officer.

Around the entire complex was a tall wooden fence which enclosed the area, of which soldiers stood guard outside. On the other side of the fence on the left was the solitary confinement cells, of which no convict was permitted. Soldiers guarded this small building to ensure none of the convicts escaped and none ventured in. This is not seen in the diagram above.

This entire structure does not exist today, as it was destroyed by fires. However, I imagine it would have been a sight to see. If you go to Port Arthur today, and you walk on the road behind the Penitentiary, between the Penitentiary and the other buildings lined up on the other side, you will notice a large area of uneven land, mounds and small hills of grass. This is where this penal yard was when it existed, the original barracks of the Port Arthur convicts of 1830-1840.

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On the extreme left, the Port Arthur Penitentiary. The road between the Penitentiary and various officer buildings and houses. The large green area in the middle of the photograph is where the prisoner barracks stood.

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