The Penitentiary in Hobart is a time capsule. At one point during the tour, I found myself thinking, “Where am I?” The guide’s descriptions and the beautifully preserved location took me to another place, another time. If you haven’t visited The Penitentiary, put it on your list of things to do. It’s fantastic!
Hobart’s landscape once looked very different. In the early 1800s, shiploads of convicts arrived in the town and required sorting. The Penitentiary, affectionately known as The Tench, was built for this purpose. Later, it was used as a gaol, with a public chapel and gallows. You won’t find much of it left but what does remain will amaze you.
On arriving at The Penitentiary, you’ll see the lovely clock tower. We even heard it chime – it was about a minute out but that’s pretty good for a clock that’s nearly 200 years old! You’ll also see the red brick of one of the original curved walls. It’s a lovely architectural feature but it’s even more fascinating when you run your hands over the broad arrows and thumbprints left by the convicts who made the bricks.
Inside the gates, you’ll see the shadowy outlines of the doors into the solitary confinement cells. Inside the building, stand inside a cell with the door shut. Our guide was very kind and kept it shut only for a few moments. You’ll then see the remains of the original chapel, which was converted to courtrooms when The Penitentiary became a prison.
You’ll journey to the courtrooms like a prisoner, through underground tunnels. What an experience! Popping up inside the historic dock really threw me! It felt like I could have been in England or perhaps back in the courtroom’s heyday. Your tour ends with a sobering visit to the gallows (and some grisly tales from your guide). The Penitentiary is not a pleasant place but it is strangely beautiful and exceedingly fascinating.
What to Bring
Bring your camera but leave everything else in the car or the museum office. Some of the tour is outside, so you’ll need to wear appropriate clothing for the season. I imagine that the guides whisk you inside the building quickly if the weather is too extreme.
You’ll find The Penitentiary on the corner of Campbell and Brisbane Streets in Hobart. It’s a short drive or walk from the CBD. Make use of the limited visitor parking in a small carpark behind the building on Brisbane Street. If you miss out on this, you’ll have to pay for street parking (there are two-hour spots in Brisbane Street).
There is no cost to view the two museum rooms, the tour waiting room and the gift shop. You’ll learn a lot about The Penitentiary but you can’t see the historic site properly unless you do a guided tour. Tours cost $20 per adult, $15 concession, $12 per child or $40 for families. Make sure that you arrive in time to book a tour. Tours depart at 1pm and 2:30pm everyday and also at 10am and 11:30am on weekdays (it is closed on public holidays). Your tour will last for approximately 90 minutes but can go longer (we had booked tickets at the State Cinema and missed the last few minutes of our tour). Thank you to the National Trust for making yet another historic site come alive!
If you’re in the area for a while, there are many other fantastic places to visit in Tasmania’s south.