Saturday, 26 May 2012

A visit to the Coal Mines Historic Site in Tasmania

Last year, whilst on an unforgettable trip to Australia, I visited a remarkable place on the beautiful island of Tasmania: the Coal Mines Historic Site. I wasn't there for long as my family and I arrived late in the afternoon as the sun was starting to lower in the sky and the shadows grow long in front of us. We spent an hour or so wandering around the site without seeing another soul. The place had an indelible atmosphere of silence and isolation, yet also peace which is at complete odds to it's former role as an outpost of the Port Arthur Penal Station. The Coal Mines became a place where persistent offenders and those men who'd committed the direst crimes would be sent for punishment.

Coal Mines Historic Site

The Mines are in a lovely part of the Tasman Peninsula, overlooking Norfolk Bay. Sited about 30kms north of Port Arthur, it's hard to believe now that this beautiful spot once roused such trepidation in the unfortunates who were sent to work there. Today the modern visitor sees ruins of cell blocks, punishment cells, soldier's barracks and hospitals. One can't help but stop and marvel at the splendour of the azure waters and distant coastline whilst trying to frame artful photos through the bare windows of the broken down walls. Its unlikely that the scenery would have been at the forefront of the minds of the men who were sent to work there in the 1830s, when the mines were first opened.

A quote by Thomas Lempriere, Deputy Commissary-General
at Port Arthur, from a report written in 1839.

At one time there were up to 600 prisoners plus soldiers, supervisors and their families living on this site. The men slept in dormitories but there were also 108 separate cells to keep the men isolated at night. Below these cells, built in the damp earth underground, one can investigate the solitary punishment cells where offenders could be kept for up to 30 days. These cells are pitch black, cold and forbidding. I couldn't stay long within the confinements of those chilly dark walls before being overtaken by the need to make my way back to daylight and the warmth of the sun.

The underground solitary punishment cells. And my brother!

I think it is unlikely that my convict ancestor, Joseph Cullip, would have spent any time at the Coal Mines. The archives at Port Arthur show that he was never kept at Port Arthur itself; he wasn't a hardened criminal and the good conduct record he held whilst in Tasmania corroborates my view that he never suffered the hard life meted out to those who were sent to the mines. Walking around the site I felt relief that, to my mind, Joseph hadn't walked the same paths that I was. Even though the area would once have been teeming with activity, it is quiet now, and eerie. The skeletons of the buildings are a grim reminder of a brutal past, and the atmosphere that pervades the ruins easily feeds over-active imaginations such as mine. I was glad I visited, but I was equally glad to return to the cosiness of our holiday rental and the comforts of modern day life.

Coal Mines Historic Site

To learn more of the history of this evocative place, check out the Port Arthur website. Whilst there, you can also read the stories of just some of the convicts who did their time at Port Arthur, including William Thompson who spent 12 months at the mines.

'Artful shot'

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