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Isle of the Dead

Port Arthur

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Isle of the Dead (Port Arthur) - Cities, Towns and Localities
The Isle of the Dead (Isle De Morts, also known as Dead Island) was originally called Opossum Island after the vessel under the command of the Port Officer at Hobart Town, Captain John Welsh, during his survey for a penal settlement. The establishment of Port Arthur in 1830 when it began operating first as a timber station, then a prison settlement for male convicts in 1833. The selection and naming of the Island as a burial ground was described in a religious pamphlet published in 1845 and written by Rev. John Allen Manton, a Wesleyan Missionary appointed as Officiating Clergyman in 1833.

It was also said in the religious pamphlet that there would be no tombstone or other mark to be placed at the head of the convict graves, and that the only indication of graves reserved for convicts were to be mounds of earth on the southern or lower half of the Island. The high ground on the northern half of the island would be reserved for Civil and Military burials, who were permitted to have headstones.

Isle of the Dead, Tasmania.
Isle of the Dead.
The policy of not erecting convict headstones was obviously changed, as is evident today, with the first convict headstone that we know of being erected over the grave of Edward Spicer, about the 19th January, 1854.

The policy of not burying convicts on the higher ground was changed round about the 28th February, 1858, when William Mansfield was buried there (his being the earliest surviving convict stone on the Island today).

Today we know of several more convicts given headstones.

The first convict to be buried there was John Hancock, as his convict record states that John Hancock alias Wilcox was transported for stealing,

On the 19th July, 1916, the Island was proclaimed a reserve under the Scenery Preservation Act, and an official guide was appointed to take tourist to the Island. Control of the Island was to change hands a number of times.

In 1937, attempts were made to clear the island and lay it out as a garden of remembrance. However many of the plants were not suited to the Island and did not survive and it was decided to re-establish native bush plants that thrive under the Island conditions.

In 1971, under the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the island was cleared of undergrowth and maintenance of the grounds, headstones and graves was undertaken. Paths were established and regular guided tours are now part of the island.


Headstone of Eliza Caroline Aylett, the only fenced grave today.
Headstone of Eliza Caroline Aylett,
the only fenced grave today.

Indeed the graves offer a glimpse into the past, offering a look at the people who lived, worked, suffered and died, bringing to life images of a fascinating historical past.

In 1841, the amateur meteorologist and Deputy Assistant Commissary at Port Arthur’s prison settlement, Thomas Lempriere, in the company of noted Antarctic explorer Captain Sir James Ross, cut one of the earliest benchmarks in the world, against which to measure scientific changes in sea level.

He used a basic tidal gauge to measure the tidal movements of the time, and it is only in recent times that his results were found in London.

View of headstones.
View of headstones.

Today, this benchmark with the old records of tidal movements, will be compared to current measurements of the  sea level, to establish what if any changes have occurred.

Source: The Isle of the Dead by Richard Lord and
Port Arthur Historic Site.

Check out some Isle of the Dead accommodation at nearby Port Arthur and Tasman Peninsula accommodation. In addition to our listed online travel guide information, contact the local tourism visitor centre for your destination for more attractions, tours, local maps and other information.

Information Centre Port Arthur Historic Site Visitor Centre
Ariel view of the Isle of the Dead, with Point Puer behind.
Ariel view of the Isle of the Dead, with Point Puer behind.
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