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.
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
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
plans for the Penitentiary Chapel.
At the other end of town
holding the transported convicts was the Barracks building of the Tench,
which faced Campbell Street near the Bathurst Street end of a large open
block. Lee Archer placed the Chapel at the Brisbane Street end facing
the Penitentiary. The two-acre block was enclosed with a
high stone wall, the top encrusted with broken glass.
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
brick cells varied in height to support the inclined floors for the
chapel above. The cells had no light and little ventilation. Called the
Hole’, the entrance to the smallest cells was only 70 cm high. (27
inches). Convicts who returned drunk from daily work parties would be
cast through this opening into the solitary darkness of the cells to
sober up. Declared inhuman, the smallest Dust Hole cells were sealed up
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
recognized as one of the best examples of colonial towers in Australia
as the free entrance to the Penitentiary Chapel from Brisbane Street.
tower, a reflection of Renaissance Greek Temple and Wren influence
had a more mundane purpose as well as an aesthetic reason for its style.
The floor level at the Brisbane Street end of the chapel was some five
metres above ground level because of the sloping floor with the cells
beneath, so a large staircase spiraled around inside the tower to a
doorway cut high in the chapel wall.
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.
The Penitentiary Chapel was never consecrated as a
church, although normal services including communion, baptisms, funerals
and marriages were conducted for many years.
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. Disputes
occasionally arose which ended in a blow or kick; but in these cases the
constables, who were present to maintain order, generally felt called
upon to interfere. If any resistance was offered to their authority the
culprit was seized by the arms and collar, dragged out of the church and
thrust into the cells beneath.’
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.
On 1 January 1857 the Penitentiary
was proclaimed a Gaol and House of Correction. Extensive alterations
were carried out to house the prisoners and debtors from Murray Street
gaol. The prisoners were finally removed from that crumbling ruin to
their new quarters on Saturday, 13 June.
The old gaol was quickly
sold, demolition commencing within a month. The
State Bank of Tasmania (later the Trust Bank) occupying the site for
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 willful 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 willful 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 .
Those executed at Campbell Street were as follows:-
Alexander Cullen (Murder)
James Kelly (Murder)
Timothy Kelly (Murder)
William Maher (Murder)
Thomas Callinan (Murder)
Thomas Gault (Felonious Assault)
John King (Murder)
William Davis (Murder)
Peter Haley (Bushranger)
William Ferns (Bushranger)
Daniel Stewart (Bushranger)
Robert Brown (Carnal Knowledge)
Bernard Donohoe (Wounding)
John Nash (Robbing / Shooting)
Julius Baker (Shooting with Intent)
Martin Lydon (Indecent Assault)
Margaret Coghlin (Murder)
Charles Flanders (Murder)
William Mulligan (Rape)
Hendrick Witnalder (Sodomy)
Robert McKavor (Robbery under arms)
William Griffiths (Murder)
Job Smith (Rape)
Richard Copping (Murder)
James Ogden (Murder)
James Sutherland (Murder)
Henry Stock (Murder)
Timothy Walker (Murder)
Arthur Cooley (Murder)
Joseph Belbin (Murder)
George Carpenter (Murder)
Frederick Thompson (Murder)
Supreme Court in Hobart was constructed between 1823-25 on the
opposite corner of Murray and Macquarie Streets from the old gaol.
It was a gloomy stone building, always criticized 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.
major alterations involved converting the nave and eastern transept
of the Chapel into two courtrooms. Cedar pews and fittings were to be
utilized 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
Gas lit, stone lined tunnels
were installed below floor level to connect the dock of each court to a
central entrance where the pulpit once stood
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
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.
With the transfer of prisoners to
Risdon Prison early in 1961, the 1910 Deputy Gaoler’s residence in
Brisbane Street was converted to a
daytime holding block with ‘cyclone
wire’ cells for prisoners awaiting trial.
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
Gaol Chapel, although partially destroyed in the 1960’s, was
restored to depict the original architectural design concept of John Lee
Unfortunately the Chapel was again desecrated
in 2016 when the National Trust was granted permission to
convert the Chapel into a cinema with three huge video
projectors hanging down from John Lee Archer's beautiful 1831
ceiling beams. 24 Speakers were then placed around the Chapel
and on the beams and the walls painted white, so that a movie
could be shown on the walls. The original convict windows were
fitted with remote control blinds to darken the Chapel.
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