The Hobart

New History Unearthed at Port Arthur

by Dr Richard Tuffin
New History Unearthed at Port Arthur

“Seventeen men were at work in the blacksmiths’ shop… furnished with all necessary implements. The furnace is capable of casting five tons weight of iron in one piece…Forty-nine men were employed at shoemaking in a shop 80 feet long by 30 feet broad. Shoes are made for the officers, military and men… Twenty-six carpenters were at work in a large shop, making various articles, and house-work for the station.”

When he wrote this description in 1850, the Revd. Henry Phibbs Fry could have been describing any number of colonial-era workshops. As it was, he was recording a visit to the notorious penal station of Port Arthur, on the Tasman Peninsula in south east Van Diemen’s Land. Established in 1830, for much of its 47 years of operation the station served as a destination for convicts who had reoffended after their initial transportation to the colony.

Though Port Arthur’s reputation for unremitting labour and – at times – brutality is mostly deserved, researchers from the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA) and University of New England (UNE) have increasingly been challenging this portrayal. Using historical and archaeological methods, we’ve looked at how convict labour reshaped the land­scape of the Tasman Peninsula as they were made to extract and refine timber, stone, coal, shell, clay for the needs of the station and the colony.

As part of this we’ve been undertaking an archaeological investigation of the convict workshops to look at the more skill-based manufacturing aspects of convict work. The site of the workshops was until recently a manicured lawn situated next to the Penitentiary. During the convict period the complex of timber, brick and sandstone buildings housed a variety of skill-based trades: blacksmithing, tinsmithing, carpentry, shoemaking, tailoring, wheelwrighting and sawing. The men used complex equipment forges, casting furnaces, steam engines and mills to complete their tasks.

View of the site before and after excavation (R Tuffin)

The archaeological excavation is currently being carried out by Sylvana Szydzik (PAHSMA) and Dr Richard Tuffin (UNE). After some months of excavation we have managed to expose the deposits and features associated with the 1857 blacksmith and foundry. Big patches of coal and charcoal, with fragments of iron throughout, marks the former location of the anvil. A patch of mortar and broken brick shows where the smith’s furnace had been situated. Not far away, a pit (possibly once used for casting) contained tens of kilos of casting and metalworking waste, as well as a broken anvil. This was probably thrown in the hole in the 1880s, after the convicts had left and the building was being salvaged, with the anvil being too heavy to relocate.

Below the foundry period deposits, we are starting to find footings and artefacts associated with an earlier period when the building was used by the shoemakers. Even lower than this, we are finding evidence of the clay, rocks and logs that were used to build up the former waterfront in the early 1830s. This excavation provides us with a rare window into the evolution of Port Arthur from penal station, to post-convict township, as well as the lives and labours of those who were forced to spend time here.

You can check out the excavation blog at or visit the site in person.

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February 2024

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