This article is primarily about the 1895 fire at Port Arthur in relation to the Model Prison, although the entire historic site was severely impacted.
The Separate, or Model Prison at Tasmania’s Port Arthur closed in 1877. ‘Separate’ meant complete isolation. Inmates wore hoods if others were present, and sometimes endured days without seeing light or hearing a sound. Prisoners were identified by number rather than name. It was psychological hell!
The building subsequently stood empty, slowly decaying until in 1889 it was offered at public auction, along with other buildings on the old convict site. Initially the Tasmanian government decreed that purchasers must demolish the buildings in an effort to remove the stain of convict history. Fortunately, local residents organized a petition and were successful in having the condition of sale removed.
From The Tasmanian News, Wednesday, March 13 1889;
The sale was commenced by the auctioneer offering the Model Prison building, and the superintendent’s cottage, and the land on which they stood. The upset price £260 was at once offered, and the bidding proceeded by £10 bids until the total reached £630, when it was knocked down to the Rev. J. W. B. Woollnough at that figure.
Joseph William Boss Woollnough was an Oxford educated Anglican minister and something of an entrepreneur. He later served as a member of parliament (1893-1903). His plan was to develop the prison as a high end boarding house, or hotel. However, a lot of restoration work would be required;
The building is in a bad state – rain comes in everywhere, pools of water lie about the corridors, the woodwork has considerably rotted, and all is in a state of decay. (Mercury March 13 1889).
The Rev. Woollnough replaced the roof with shingles, which at least offered some protection from the elements.
On Friday, January 25 1895 A bushfire broke out at Port Arthur. It followed several days of intense heat, and a NW gale made the fire impossible to stop. News soon came of catastrophic damage;
The following photos are from the Port Arthur Separate (Model) Prison Conservation Project.
As the fire approached, burning leaves driven by high winds fell onto the shingles.
The following photo was taken after the fire, and the entire shingled roof has gone.
On January 31 The Mercury printed an article about the fire, and the aftermath;
The smouldering ruins give a grim and mournful appearance to the pretty surroundings, and we all hope that this severe visitation may prove the opening of a better future, The fire commenced about 11.30 am on Friday, and the burning embers of the Model Prison were not extinguished till Sunday Morning.
Interstate, reports of the fire did give an opportunity for the natural beauty of Port Arthur to be highlighted. A piece in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph (February 9 1895) spoke of steamer trips to visit sights such as the Blow Hole and Tasman’s Arch;
The recent fire at Port Arthur (Tas.) which resulted in the utter demolition of the Model Prison, the hospital, the old penitentiary, and the commander’s house, has effectually obliterated the last remnants of an unenviable, but interesting, history. Port Arthur is situated on Tasman’s Peninsula, some few miles up the coast of Tasmania, and, weather permitting, steamers from from Hobart make regular trips to the Port. It is a most interesting excursion, as it gives the tourist an opportunity of viewing the delightful scenery in that remarkable region…..
Meanwhile, the Reverend Woollnough abandoned his grand plan to turn the historic prison into a hotel.
From The Mercury 27 December 1900;
The poor old Port lies in pretty much the same condition as it was left by the disastrous fire of a few years ago. The Penitentiary is there still, roofless, and begrimed with smoke. The coral plant creeps on the interior walls, and the fern flourishes where the floors have been. The ruins of the Model Prison are gaining virtue by age. The exercise yards are being covered with green, and the mist of time seems to make the ‘dark cell’ darker then ever……Many people urge that the remnant of the old convict settlement at Port Arthur ought to be wiped out. Well why? If it ought to be, the Tower of London ought to be razed to the ground.
Below is a view inside the prison, photographed between 1911-1915. Though the open door on the right are steps leading to a solitary confinement cell.
Thankfully the ruins were preserved. In 1916, ownership of the Model Prison returned to the government.