The Penitentiary Chapel Historic Site on the corner of Brisbane and Campbell Streets was one building that Colonial Architect and Civil Engineer John Lee Archer designed to cleverly fulfill the answer to several problems. By 1829 St. David's Church in Hobart Town was becoming so overcrowded that a second Anglican church was needed to enable the free inhabitants to worship in comfort, especially those who now lived in the outer regions of the town. But more importantly it was felt that a place for worship and religious instruction for the vastly increasing numbers of arriving convicts was long overdue.
In 1830, ships brought 2150 new convicts making a total of over 10,000 convicts in Van Diemen’s Land . Many had been assigned out, but a considerable number were housed in the Prisoners’ Barracks Penitentiary or as they called it ‘The Tench’. Most of these convicts were taken out on daily work parties for road and building construction, while those with bad records toiled on the barracks’ treadmill grinding wheat. Others carted and broke large rocks from the nearby quarry into small stones to be used for road works.
Although Hobart Town had originally been established only as a gaol town with many convicts and a few free settlers, facilities for the secure holding and separating into classes of such large numbers of prisoners were virtually non existent.
Convicts and free settlers alike who committed local offences were held in the town gaol in Murray Street near the corner of Macquarie Street . This small two-story building, begun in 1816, was soon falling apart as it had been constructed using inferior bricks on soft damp ground. It rapidly became overcrowded and escapes were numerous, but it remained in full use as town gaol and scene of all Hobart executions from 1825 until 1857.
In 1829 John Lee Archer designed a new gaol to be built directly across Murray Street next to the courthouse on the present site of the Treasury Buildings. It was in the shape of a cruciform with a flat landing leading from a chapel on which it was proposed to execute criminals. This building was never built, but its cruciform shape was to be used when Lee Archer prepared the plans for the Penitentiary Chapel
With such large numbers of convicts, another secure cellblock was sorely needed. So Lee Archer designed the ground floor of the Chapel to contain thirty-six solitary confinement punishment cells.
Semi-circular exercise yards enclosed the cruciform arms of the chapel with easy access from the cellblocks. Each of the three wings of the chapel would hold 500 prisoners on bench seats. The prisoners would enter the chapel by doors in the southern wall on either side of the raised pulpit, which was directly beneath the main window and ‘foundation stone, which bears the date Anno Domini M.DCCCXXXI (1831).
Almost immediately it was decided to open the northern wing of the chapel to the overflow congregation of free inhabitants from St. David’s Church, so Lee Archer designed what is recognised as one of the best examples of colonial towers in Australia as the free entrance to the Penitentiary Chapel from Brisbane Street.
The public, after entering the northern wing via the tower staircase, were seated in neat cedar pews which could be reserved at a nominal annual rental of £1 ($2), while the 1000 convicts in the east and west wings were crowded in and shared simple but hard wooden bench seats.
Although building costs escalated to over £2000 ($4000) and constructional delays were numerous, the chapel was in full use by late 1833. However, another six months passed before the final fittings were finished and the tower completed, including the installation of the dual faced clock built in 1828 by Thwaites and Reed of Clerkenwell, London .
Rural Dean Rev. Philip Palmer was installed as Penitentiary chaplain, but soon incurred the wrath of Lieutenant Governor Arthur by hanging a screen to shield the public from the gaze of the convicts. The screen remained even though the convicts sorely objected to being so segregated.
Complaints were also forthcoming regarding the total lack of ventilation in the chapel and the disruption to services caused by the terrible noises which could be heard coming from the chained convicts in the cells beneath the floor.
Linus W. Miller, a twenty-two year old American lawyer who was transported to Van Diemen’s Land as a state prisoner from Canada after becoming involved in the 1838 Canadian rebellion, arrived on the ‘Canton’ in Hobart Town on 17 January 1840. As was normal he was barracked in the Penitentiary and it is from his educated writings that we can gain a first hand insight into daily life of the convicts. The following is just a small part of his description of their attendance at Divine Service in the Penitentiary Chapel.
‘On looking about me, I could not discover more than twelve, among twelve hundred prisoners, who appeared to be taking any notice of the service. Some were spinning yarns, some playing at pitch and toss, some gambling with cards; several were crawling about under the benches, selling candy, tobacco, &c., and one fellow carried a bottle of rum, which he was serving out in small quantities to those who had an English sixpence to give for a small wine-glass full.
The Chapel remained in use by the public until 25 February 1845 when it was closed by the Comptroller General and used only by convicts, prison officers and their families.
Prisoners’ Barracks Superintendent James Boyd proudly reported in 1847 that ‘It is however most gratifying to me in being able to state that the convicts show the utmost attention and propriety of demeanor [sic] during Divine service, and apparently feel interested in the very excellent discourses which are delivered to them.’
Meanwhile a chapel in High Street (now Tasma Street ) was rented from the Methodist Church for temporary use of the free people of the parish until January 1848 when the present Trinity Church was finally opened for worship.
The Rev. Mr. J. Medland, who had replaced Rev. Palmer as Penitentiary Chaplain, reopened the chapel in 1853 to forty of his close followers during a very public row with church authorities over his promotion to Chaplain of Trinity Church.
The old gaol was quickly sold, demolition commencing within a month. The State Bank of Tasmania (later the Trust Bank) occupying the site for many years.
An execution yard was added to the western wing of the chapel. The scaffold beams and trapdoor mechanism from the Murray Street gaol were installed. The first execution on Tuesday, 18 August 1857 being carried into effect upon Alexander Cullen, alias ‘Scotty’, for the wilful murder of Elizabeth Ross. The Hobart Town Mercury next day reporting ‘The unhappy man seemed perfectly resigned to his fate’.
On 18 February 1862 , Margaret Coghlin was executed for the wilful murder of her husband John. She was the only woman among the thirty-two souls who suffered the extreme penalty of the law within the walls of the execution yard up until the last Tasmanian hanging on Thursday, 14 February 1946 .
It was a gloomy stone building, always criticised for being far too small, having bad ventilation, inadequate heating and extremely poor acoustics.
Late in 1857 alterations were carried out, the interior of the court cleaned and renovated, with gas lighting installed for evening sittings.
However, just over twelve months later, tenders were invited by the Director of Public Works for the additions and alterations required in the erection of court houses and offices at the Penitentiary.
These major alterations involved converting the nave and eastern transept of the Chapel into two courtrooms. Cedar pews and fittings were to be utilised in the courts as jury boxes and reporter’s benches.
The inclined wooden floors in these areas were removed, then the brick cells beneath the floors were demolished.
New street level floors, external doors and dividing high walls were constructed to separate each of the courts from the western transept, which was retained as a chapel in almost its original state, most religious denominations using it for weekly services for the prisoners in the gaol until 1961.
Jury rooms and offices for members of the legal profession were constructed on the corner between Campbell and Brisbane Streets.
Rooms to house the deputy gaoler were added to the first floor. The court rooms were first used on 17 April 1860, His Honor Sir Valentine Fleming, Knight Chief Justice presiding in Court 1, while His Honor Mr. Justice Horne sat in Court 2.
The courts continued with various uses as Supreme Courts, Criminal, Magistrates and Coroners Courts up until 1983, with only minor alterations such as additional toilets in 1916, electric lighting and heating and the acoustic ceiling and air conditioning of Court 2 in the 1950’s.
In order to gain access to the tunnels under the courts leading to the docks, the chapel was demolished and the wire security cage runway installed.
Thus, we have existing today a fascinating insight into Colonial Tasmania. A beautiful 1834 tower with the two courtrooms remaining virtually unchanged for over 145 years.
And the Gaol Chapel, although partially destroyed in the 1960’s, has been restored to depict the original architectural design concept of John Lee Archer’s Penitentiary Chapel
Guided tours by National Trust volunteers are well worth participating in. The tours last for approx 75 minutes and the stories and information that is passed on by the guides is fantastic. The site also offers ghost tours on Monday & Friday nights. All in all, a fascinating insight to convict history in early Hobart.