As a convict at Port Arthur in the 19th Century, there was a fair chance that if you kept your nose clean for long enough, you would find yourself employed in the workshops learning a valuable trade skill. Trade training was an important part of life at the prison; teaching secondary offender convicts the necessary trade skills to find gainful, and more importantly legal, employment.
It’s a side of Port Arthur’s history often neglected by visitors with a short time to spend on site, but if you take a moment to stop and look, you’ll find that evidence of the significance of their efforts all around you. The very walls of the buildings stand as testament to the skill of the convict tradesmen.
Nowhere is this more beautifully demonstrated than on the Isle of the Dead. For those lucky visitors who disembark at the island for the 40 minute guided tour, not only do they hear details of the personal lives of those who called Port Arthur home, but they are also surrounded by detailed examples of the skilled stonemasons.
There are very few headstones on the island in comparison to graves, with at least 1100 burials and less than 100 stones to mark them. Part of this is of course because convicts were not permitted to have a grave marker until the 1850s.
But when you take the time to examine the headstones remaining on the Isle of the Dead, you will be rewarded with intricate details often missed at first glance. Here we see the evidence of men who were in some cases still learning to read and write, yet were still able to produce delicate script and embellishments in sandstone.
The more time you spend looking at the headstones, the more the stones reveal; a tiny script on a grave of children reading ‘memento mori’, a fading angel and tiny leaf motifs, they are among the many hidden secrets of the Isle of the Dead.