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From a History of the Campbell Street Penitentiary Chapel, by Brian Rieusset:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.