‘Some Stories Last More than a Lifetime’: Emotions, Temporality and the Ghost Tours of Port Arthur, Tasmania

Ghost Tour at Port Arthur. Photographer: Simon Birch. Image courtesy Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority.

By Alicia Marchant, History and Classics, The University of Tasmania

About 11 o’clock I saw some loose earth fall into the trench, and on looking up, I saw the prisoner strike Shuttleworth on the head with a pick-axe; I saw a second blow struck; it was violently struck; he lifted the pick-axe over his head; when the second blow was struck, I jumped out of the trench, but before I got to him he had given the third, and by the time I had seized him by the shoulder, he had his pick-axe raised to strike the fourth; … the prisoner said, when I seized him, ‘I am satisfied’, and threw down the pick.[1]

On 16 December 1835, poor Joseph Shuttleworth found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time: engaged in the construction of the church at Port Arthur, Shuttleworth was digging a trench when fellow convict William Riley struck him on the head with a pick-axe. Shuttleworth was taken to hospital still quite lucid, however, he soon started convulsing and eventually, after some time, he died. Riley was arrested, and his case was sent to trial, where he was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

It is at the centre of the now ruined gothic church at Port Arthur that this gruesome murder is narrated in great detail to an enthralled group of ghost tour participants. ‘We are close to the very spot where it happened’, we are told by our tour guide, who is dressed in a full-length dark brown overcoat and hat, not unlike those worn by Victorian-era grave-diggers. The group sticks quite closely together, because it’s late at night, and although the exterior shell of the ruined church is well lit, the ground is not. Instead, our light comes from several lanterns that are carried by the guide and selected ghost tour participants to light the uneven ground; this circle of light has the effect of demarcating a safe place as the group moves through the ‘dark’ historic buildings. And it is here, in a circle of light in the middle of the church, that we are told that in all likelihood Riley had a death-wish, that he wanted to die to escape his life at Port Arthur, and that poor Shuttleworth was merely a means to gaining Riley’s desired end. But, we are also told, ‘we just don’t know’; this brutal incident could have been a murder-suicide pact, or it could have been the result of previous unknown grievances between the two. Regardless, the violence is emphasised, as is the possible randomness of the act; the guide asks us to remember the dark side of human nature, and to look around at our fellow tour group participants and ask ourselves whom amongst us we trust.


Since its founding, and even more since it fell into disuse, Port Arthur in Tasmania has fascinated, intrigued and shocked visitors. A prison established to deal with the apparent worst of British society, the methods employed and the living conditions generally were often punishing and brutal; so much so that Port Arthur was to become notorious in the global historical imagination as a place not only of physical pain and suffering, but of emotional pain too; fear and shame, as well as melancholy and despair, for instance, were actively generated through various imprisonment practices for the purposes of regulating and reforming Port Arthur’s inmates. A complex place imbued with emotions and a multi-layering of grim history, Port Arthur has long been considered an important tourist destination, particularly for those seeking the ‘dark’; even when still occupied, Port Arthur offered visitors an opportunity to view the ‘unutterable wickedness’ of the ‘savage’ inmates while they slept.[2] Today, however, the inmates are long gone and, thanks to a series of bushfires that swept through the Peninsular region, the last of which all but gutted the buildings in 1897, Port Arthur is now a series of ruins. The well-documented ‘dark’ history of imprisonment at Port Arthur, combined with a mostly absent and ruined material culture, work to create a void that is easily populated by another dark and quasi-present force: the ghost and the supernatural. As far back as the 1870s, ghost sightings and odd occurrences were recorded around the historic site, particularly the Parsonage, which has a reputation for being one of the most haunted buildings in Australia. Port Arthur is famous for its ghosts, a fact that you are reminded of upon entering the visitors centre, which has a framed collection of photographs with captured traces of paranormal activity: photographs with unexplained blurs, lights and streaks .

‘Seeing Ghosts’. Poster on the wall at the entrance of the Port Arthur Visitors Centre

The ‘Port Arthur Ghost Tour’ has been operating formally since 1989, and is one of several options provided for tourists to explore the historic site. It is an incredibly popular tour, with the gift shop – stocked with numerous mugs, t-shirts, hats and other merchandising, even white chocolates shaped like ghosts – standing testament to this. The ghost tour is conducted after hours, in the dark of night. Port Arthur’s advertising brochure invites visitors to:

Follow pathways through darkened ruins and historic buildings as rich stories unfold. Relive unexplained events from Port Arthur’s past – strange happenings that baffled and alarmed convicts, free people and soldiers and continue to chill the blood of
visitors to Port Arthur today. Listen to captivating stories that will resonate in your mind long after the lantern dims at the end of the night.[3]

It is clear from the outset that emotions, particularly fear, are key to both the presentation of Port Arthur’s history on the tour, and the desired outcome: the resonance of the histories of Port Arthur for the participant, and the formation of memories.


Ghost Tour T-Shirt, Port Arthur Gift Shop.

The ghost tour provides an embodied and affective means though which to engage with the historic site and its past; the delivery is highly performative, and is presented with the aim of both educating and entertaining. Various strategies and props, like the lanterns and the guide’s clothing, and at one point an animal skull, are used to dramatic effect. These strategies actively seek to generate fear, anticipation and the expectation that something might happen on the tour. The narrative itself includes a range of sensory elements that add to the vividness of moments from the past: references to bells tolling, the wind in vents, and to medical chemicals like formaldehyde, which you could swear that you smell in the dissection room underneath the Visiting Magistrate’s House. Moreover, the surrounding darkness and soft light from the lanterns provide a backdrop in which senses other than sight must be relied upon; we are often told to watch our step, not to wander off and get lost. A heightened awareness of the surroundings adds markedly to the sense of anxiety. These feelings of uncertainly are reiterated and reinforced time and again through stories illustrating that life at Port Arthur was difficult, and that many, not just the prisoners but the guards and doctors too, lived in fear of sudden, unnatural death at the hands of a desperate inmate.

‘What are you doing tonight?’ Advertising for the Port Arthur Ghost Tour.


Suicide in the cells

On 20 April 1867 William Carter committed suicide in the Separate Prison. He hanged himself with the straps off his hammock in his cell. Over the years, several visitors have experienced a feeling of depression and anxiety when entering one of the cells. Could it be related to his suicide back in 1867?[4]

The ghost tour participants meet William Carter after being locked in the Separate Prison. Built in 1850, the Separate Prison was part of the move away from the corporal punishments of flogging and physical hardship, towards a regime where inmates were controlled by psychological and emotional means. This involved social isolation through architecture, as well as facial hoods and solitary confinement to regulate their emotions. The narrative provided by the ghost tour guide focuses on the ways in which Carter’s death resonates in the present. Quite recently, we are told, visitors entering the space of the cell reported overwhelming feelings of sadness and despair. One visitor, it is reported, was so paralysed with emotion that they were found by others in the foetal position in the corner of the room and had to be carried out. This story speaks to the role of spaces, especially the importance of proximity to the historical space as being key to its resonance, but also, crucially, to the existence of common feelings across time. These shared feelings make powerful connections between individuals of the past and the present; here, emotion works to recall a particularly awful event, and to encourage the ghost tour participants to recognise familiar emotions and create affective connections with the past.


Lantern on the Dissection Table, Port Arthur Ghost Tour

The ghost tour is a complex and dynamic experience, in which the past is vividly recalled through affective and embodied acts of sensing, doing and feeling. The process of walking around the site following a lantern and being taken into claustrophobic spaces, including a subterranean dissection space, generates feelings of discomfort. This multi-layering of emotions, of fear upon fear, and the blurring of present and past emotions is key to the ghost tour experience. The fear of seeing something unexplained, some ghost or spectre, is really difficult to fight, particularly when coupled with fears of powerlessness, violence and the sense of removed freedom that are built upon through story-telling as you progress along the ghost tour journey. Many participants record their physical and affective reactions to the tour:

‘My husband was very cold all the way around, and he is very hot-blooded. And I’m normally the one that gets very cold, and I was warm this time.’

‘I felt this really strong pain in the knee, and it couldn’t have been; my knee does crack, but not like that.’

‘When we were coming back I said during the tour I really felt like somebody was there amongst that group who shouldn’t be there.’ [5]

What the ghost tour offers is an immediate, and fearful, communion with the past that is embodied and affective. However, the ghost tour’s focus on fear and despair runs the risk of assuming that all of the convicts and other people connected to the operation of Port Arthur were completely miserable or defiant; that they suffered inner torment, and therefore suffered depression, melancholy and anger. Such generalisations and over-simplification of the emotional lives of the inmates at Port Arthur miss the subtleties and nuances of their individual lives, instead feeding into the traditional and mythological image of the convict. While it is true that many of the convicts suffered terribly both emotionally and physically, it is also true that not every convict had the same experience. Those who were skilled would work at their trade, and lived fairly ordinary lives if they maintained good behaviour and a structured routine. The ghost tours are the product of, and contribute to, a very particular sort of history: one which privileges the violent and ‘dark’ aspects of the history of life at Port Arthur.

This selective evocation of the past and its emotions renders that past into an affective memory with the potential to ‘resonate in your mind long after the lantern dims’. The language used to promote the ghost tour, which I cited earlier, speaks explicitly to this notion of temporal slippage and telescoping, using terms such as ‘relive’, ‘continue to chill … today’, ‘resonate’ and ‘the silence and soft glow of the lantern can make those long gone seem very close at hand’. These references importantly allow for a sense that the past (or manifestations from the past) can be felt and experienced, and that ‘some stories last more than a lifetime’.

Ghost in the Church, Port Arthur.

Alicia Marchant is a CHE Associate Investigator (2013, 2014, 2016), and a Research Associate in History at the University of Tasmania. Her work focuses on the history of emotions, heritage, materiality and dark tourism. She completed her PhD at The University of Western Australia in 2012, in which she examined depictions of rebellion in English chronicle narratives written between 1400 and 1580. From 2012 to 2014, she worked as a Research Associate for the Centre, based at The University of Western Australia.

[1] ‘The Trial of William Riley, Supreme Court’, Colonial Times, 12 January 1836, p. 7.

[2] Guide for Excursionists from the Mainland to Tasmania (Melbourne: H. Thomas, 1869), p. 159.

[3] ‘Ghost Tour Brochure’, Port Arthur Historic Site, 2010.

[4] Andrew Simmons and Julie McCulloch, Ghosts of Port Arthur (Port Arthur: A.D. Simmons, 1990), p. 26.

[5][5] Port Arthur Site Visitor Evaluation – Ghost Tours and Proposed Audio Tours, December 2002.

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