No. 281 - The Separate Prison Chapel at Port Arthur

The chapel inside the Separate Prison at Port Arthur must be the most extraordinary place of worship in Tasmania. It is a reconstruction of the original chapel that was destroyed by bushfires at Port Arthur in the late 19th century. Its design was based on the chapel at Pentonville prison built in 1842 in North London. Pentonville was an experimental prison that modelled the concept of separate confinement first developed at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

In Britain the ‘separate system’ was adopted as a means to deal with the rapid increase in prisoner numbers caused by the ending of capital punishment for many crimes and the reduction in transportation of convicts. The intention of the separate design was to keep prisoners isolated from each other. The cells were built to prevent transmission of sound and ensure total separation. The system found its way to Tasmania with the construction of the separate prison at Port Arthur in 1853 to accommodate the most hardened criminals.

The system was designed to cultivate depersonalisation. In the Separate Prison no talking was allowed and almost all noises were eliminated. Slippers were worn to reduce the sound of footsteps. Prisoners were not referred to by name, but by their cell numbers. The men spent 23 hours of the day inside their individual cells, except for an hour of exercise daily in the separate yard. When taken out of their cells, prisoners wore a hood to conceal their faces and were prevented from approach other prisoners. On Sundays and in the evenings, prisoners were permitted to read the Bible or other religious texts.

The chapel at the Port Arthur Separate prison was attended four or five times a week. It was divided into fifty separate stalls so that all the prisoner could see was the cleric on the raised pulpit at the front. Apart from the voice of the cleric, no sounds could be heard. Instructions were placed on a signal board in one corner. Sunday was a much-anticipated day for the convicts. While having to endure a lengthy sermon, they were permitted to sing the hymns, the only time in the week when they could use their voices. No doubt they would have sung heartily!

At the time it was believed that the combination of religion exhortation, separation and silence, combined with rigorous discipline and moral training would produce true and deep repentance and rehabilitation of the convicts in the separate system. Instead it led to high rates of insanity. It is no accident that a “Lunatic Asylum” was constructed alongside the Separate Prison.

With the closure of Port Arthur in 1877, the site soon became an attraction for tourists. The black and white photos of the interior of the chapel date from this time and provided detail needed for the modern reconstruction and restoration of the building and its interior.

The ruined exterior of the chapel prior to restoration - LINC Tasmania - Item Number  NS3195/1/3107

The ruined interior of the chapel prior to restoration: LINC Tasmania -Item Number  NS3195/1/3104


LINC Tasmania: Item Number  PH30/1/4541

Source: QVM 1985:P:1012

LINC Tasmania - Item Number  PH30/1/4542
An illustration from Henry Mayhew and John Binny’s 1862 book, ‘The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life’.
Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018


Brand, Ian and Tasmania. Convict Dept. Rules and regulations for the New Separate Prison at Port Arthur The "Separate" or "Model Prison", Port Arthur ([2nd ed.]). Regal Publications, Launceston, Tas, 1990.

Brand, Ian Penal peninsula : Port Arthur and its outstations, 1827-1898 ([Rev. ed.]). Regal, Launceston, Tas, 1989.


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