For over a century after the end of transportation families all over Australia were reluctant to acknowledge 'the hated stain' of convict ancestry. Emancipists were denied and rejected by their descendants; children were fed lies about their forebears; records were concealed, changed and destroyed; relics of convictism were attacked and swept away. Yet at Port Arthur, which represented the stain at its very darkest, things were different.
When the prison closed in 1877 and land on the Tasman Peninsula became available for free settlement a few years later, some of those who made their homes in the area, like Richard Gathercole or George Seaborne, were ex-convicts who had served time at Port Arthur. Others, such as James Noye or Joseph McGinniss, were the descendants of convicts, many of whom had been consigned to Lieutenant-Governor Arthur's notorious 'gaol of an empire'. George Greatbatch, father of a large family who took up land at Nubeena in the 1880s, had been sent to Port Arthur for absconding from a chain-gang and stealing his irons, 'the property of the crown', while John Henry Palmer, founder of a large local clan, claimed to have grown up at Port Arthur as the son of a convict overseer.
Given all this it would not have been surprising if the new settlers had chosen to keep away from the abandoned prison buildings or even pressed for their destruction. Instead, they moved in on the place, filled it with new life and made it into their own free town. When in the 1890s two bushfires swept through the site, destroying any wooden structures and damaging others, rather than carrying on where the fires had left off, the local settlers embarked on a program of reconstruction.
The Commandant's house and the Junior Medical Officer's residence became hotels. Shops and new houses sprang up. Richard Gathercole's children and grandchildren settled in the town, opened a baker and set up thriving saw-mills at nearby Stingaree Bay, Oakwood and Fortescue Bay. Fishermen brought their catches to the jetty. The green beside the Penitentiary became a sportsfield and the site of an annual show. Gathercole's brother-in-law, George Wellard, repaired the fire-damaged Parsonage, which housed the local post office and the headquarters of a freight and passenger service catering for a busy tourist trade.
Most significantly, the citizens of the new town carefully restored the Asylum, where men driven mad by the silence of the Model Prison had been confined, and used it as a school, a social centre and, ultimately, the Tasman Council Chambers. So while all across Australia a new generation was seeking to conceal the convict past, the people of the Peninsula tacitly accepted the need to acknowledge their history. They preserved the past to become the ground for social interaction and the management of their own destiny. They made the suffering and madness of an earlier time the site of their children's education and planted in it their hopes for the future.
Even the attempt to erase Port Arthur's history by re-naming the town Carnarvon was rejected. Elderly Peninsula residents still speak of attending school at 'the Port' or visiting 'the Port' for shopping days and dances.
In 1926, when Norman Dawn was planning to remake a film of For the Term of His Natural Life at Port Arthur, local and federal governments were urged to put a stop to this revival of a past which many Australians wanted to forget. But on the Peninsula the film crew were made welcome. People came from everywhere to put on convict uniforms and work as extras, watch the filming or dance with the stars in the former Asylum.