No. 303 - The 'Convict Church' at Port Arthur - "With Loaded Guns"

Lieutenant-Governor Arthur laid the foundation stone of the ‘convict church’ on April 25, 1836. A convict named ‘Mason’ was credited with having designed the church but research has revealed that is in fact the work of colonial architect, (and convict forger) James Blackburn. The church was constructed using convict labour and built with stonework that had been prepared at the boys’ prison at Point Puer. A 50ft wooden spire was painted to resemble stonework and this was sprinkled with crushed sandstone to enhance the illusion. The tower contained a belfry with a set of 8 bells that had been cast at Port Arthur in 1847. These are purportedly the first bells cast in Australia.

The first service was conducted in 1837 although the church was still incomplete with most of the windows unglazed. The church was never officially consecrated; partly because it was used by several different denominations and more probably because of Bishop Nixon’s opposition to convict transportation*.

Convicts entered the building through doors at either end of the building and were seated on benches while 200 free settlers could be accommodated on pews. Free settlers and the families of officials entered the church through the main entrance and passed under a huge three-tiered pulpit to an area that was screened from the convicts.

Religion was an essential aspect of convict life at Port Arthur and part of the reform process. The church was initially presided over by Wesleyan Ministers until 1843 when the Church of England’s Reverend Durham was appointed to the settlement. This caused issues with Roman Catholic convicts who refused to attend services in the church and this resulted in the appointment of Father Bond to meet their spiritual needs.

A interesting record of a service in the church comes from a description by David Burn in his account of ‘An excursion to Port Arthur’ in 1842:

"Next day (January 9,1842) being Sunday, we proceeded after breakfast to see the convicts mustered prior to their being marched to church. They were drawn up in three lines, each gang forming a separate division, the overseers (convicts) taking their stations in the rear. It was hideous to remark the countenances of the men, to which their yellow raiment (or half black, half yellow), with P.A. and their respective numbers stamped in various parts, imparted a sinister and most revolting expression. Scarcely one open set of features was to be found. To read their eyes, it seemed as though they were speculating the chance of gain or advantage to be hoped from us. Crime and its consequences were fearfully depicted in their visages; and we turned from the disagreeable caricature of humanity with as much disgust as pity and regret. Muster over, the men were marched with the utmost silence to church, whither we shortly followed, a military guard, with loaded guns, being so stationed as to command the entire building.

This necessary arrangement in a degree destroyed the solemnity of worship. The crew of H.M.S. Favourite were present; their frank, manly, jovial countenances offering a striking contrast to the lowering aspects of the miserable yellow jackets. Service was performed by our fellow-traveller, the Rev. Mr. Simpson (of the Wesleyan Mission) and the occasion being in aid of the Sunday school, the worthy pastor took the opportunity of remarking that, as cash was a scarce commodity on the settlement, the IOU of any individual disposed to contribute would be gladly received – an observation which received a general grin, since, however beneficial it might prove to the cause, the expression seemed more fit for the gaming-table than the pulpit….

The church at Port Arthur is a beautiful, spacious, hewn-stone edifice, cruciform in shape, with pinnacled tower and gables.' Internally it is simply, but neatly fitted, affording accommodation for upwards of 2,000 sitters. There is no organ, but a choir has been selected from among the convicts, who chant to the psalms with considerable  effect. As yet, no clergyman of, the Established Church has been resident, the religious duties having hitherto been undertaken by those zealous and indefatigable Christians, the Wesleyans. Mr. Manton is the present "respected pastor, a gentleman who has devoted himself not only to call the sinners of Port Arthur to repentance, but who has erstwhile laboured earnestly in the same good cause at the now abandoned settlement of Macquarie Harbour."

Port Arthur prison closed in 1877. Two years before this the wooden spire on top of the bell tower blown down in a heavy gale. In 1884, sparks from a fire that had been lit to clean up around the Parsonage, which is situated next door to the church, caught the old shingles on the church roof. In spite of the efforts by residents, the church burnt to the ground. By the turn of the century the church was in ruins and was overgrown with ivy. In 1979, funding was secured to preserve the site as a tourist destination. Several sandstone structures built by convicts, including the ‘Convict Church’, were restored to a condition similar to their appearance in the 19th century.

The Isle of the Dead

The Isle of the Dead was used as the graveyard for the settlement of Port Arthur from 1833 to 1877. Around 1000 persons are buried there, including officials, soldiers, their families, seamen, convicts (including boys from Point Puer), invalids, paupers and lunatics. Social distinctions were observed and the free were segregated by burial in the higher ground in the north-western corner of the island. Several memorials may be found in this section, but most of the island is devoid of headstones as it was forbidden for headstones to be placed on convict graves. Some exceptions were made because a small number of headstones dating from the 1850s were dedicated to prisoners. David Burn, who described the “Convict Church” in 1842, also visited the island. He makes specific reference to two infamous; Dennis Collins and James May:

“On our return to the settlement we landed at a small island names, from its funeral purposes, “Isle des Morts.” Or Dead Men’s Isle. Within its sea-girt shores, almost its first occupant, lies Dennis Collins, the sailor who threw a stone at King William the Fourth on one of the English racecourses. Here likewise repose the ashes of [James] May, the burker of the Italian boy. Here moreover, are monuments to several free persons who have died during service at Port Arthur, or perished in its vicinity; of the latter are three seamen wrecked in the schooner Echo, two seamen of Government vessels, and several soldiers of the 21st, 51st, and 63rd Regiments….”

Dennis Collins

Denis Collins, aged 58, was transported for ‘High Treason’ for throwing a stone at the King. “I was sentenced to be drawn on a hurdle then to be beheaded and quartered. The reason I threw the stone at the King is that I petitioned the King to restore my pension and he refused”.

Denis Collins, the old pensioner who threw a stone at his Majesty, is ordered to be transported for life - so that the poor old man will have the satisfaction of being once more on the element on which he passed so many years of his life. During his confinement at Reading gaol, his personal appearance had undergone considerable alteration. He had become considerably stouter, and his rough, hard looking, weather beaten countenance had assumed a florid complexion and a plumpness which destroyed much of the marked character of his features. His dress, since his conviction, was most grotesque, all the right side of it being bright yellow, and all the left side of a purple brown. His wooden leg (a new one, worn for the first time on his trial) was painted sky-blue, and to complete the tout ensemble he wore a blue cloth cap with a red border and a white tassel on the top.

[Reports from the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette Thursday, March 28th, 1833]

James May

John Bishop, together with Thomas Williams, Michael Shields and James May, an unemployed butcher, also known as Jack Stirabout and Black Eyed Jack, formed a notorious gang of ‘resurrection men’, stealing freshly buried bodies for sale to anatomists. Bishop admitted to stealing (and selling) between 500 and 1,000 bodies. In November 1831 a suspiciously fresh corpse of a 14-year-old boy was delivered by Bishop and May to the King's College School of Anatomy. On inspection, it was suspected that the body had not been buried, and police were summoned. The resurrection men were arrested, and remanded in custody. On 8 November, a coroners' jury was held and found a verdict of "wilful murder against some person or persons unknown". The prisoners appeared at trial at the Old Bailey between 2 and 3 December. Bishop (aged 33), Williams (aged 26) and May (aged 30) were all found guilty of the crime. The police had tentatively identified the body as that of Carlo Ferrari, an Italian boy, from Piedmont, but after their trial Bishop and Williams said that the body belonged to a Lincolnshire cattle drover, on his way to Smithfield. Bishop and Williams were hanged at Newgate Prison on 5 December 1831 for the murder, before a crowd of thirty thousand. May was respited at his Majesty's pleasure, as it was accepted that he had no knowledge of the murders. James May was sentenced to life transportation to Van Diemen's Land on 1 December, 1831. He received a two-year sentence to Port Arthur for insubordination on board the transport vessel and died at the settlement in 1834, buried in an unmarked grave on the Isle of the Dead.

Derived from: Sarah Wise The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London Metropolitan Books, 2004)

* A claim is often made that the church was never consecrated due to a murder that took place on the site when it was under construction. That a murder took place is no doubt a fact - I think it is one of the stories told on the Ghost Tour - with reference to ivy not growing on the walls at the fateful spot - but it is probably not the complete reason why it was never consecrated.  J. Moore-Robinson wrote: "The church was never consecrated. Bishop Nixon, who was an able, but peculiarly intolerant man, and implacably opposed to the convict system, refused to perform the office, it is said, on the untenable ground that a murder had been committed while the building was in progress. His successors evidently considered that the time was past for usefully performing the office. Bishop Nixon retired in 1864, only a few years before Port Arthur ceased its existence as a penal station". In other words the murder was used by Nixon to impede the church's consecration but it is in fact not a valid reason for preventing the church's consecration.

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Plan/Drawing No. 136 & 137 - New Church - ground plan - now building at Port Arthur 1836 : Libraries Tasmania - CON 87-1-41

Plan/Drawing 1836 - Libraries Tasmania - CON87/1/42 

Libraries Tasmania: PH30-1-5099
Libraries Tasmania: Photograph - S Clifford photographer - Port Arthur - view of settlement including church in 1869 - PH2-1-21

The Pulpit c.1870: Libraries Tasmania object number - PH30/1/4484

Photograph - View of the Port Arthur Church (with the roof on)  c. 1875-84 : Libraries Tasmania  PH30/1/9414 

The 'London Burkers': John Bishop (left), Thomas Williams (centre) and James May (right). Photograph after the 1831 original engraving.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

The Isle of the Dead


The Mercury, Saturday 6 April 1935, page 17
The Mercury, Monday 26 July 1937, page 3
The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette Thursday, March 28th, 1833

Mercury, Saturday 25 February 1933, page 8 (correspondence from J. Moore-Robinson)

Burn, David and Beattie, J. W. (John Watt), 1859-1930 An excursion to Port Arthur in 1842. 'The Examiner' and 'Weekly Courier' offices, Launceston, Tasmania, 1910.

Pridmore, Walter B. and Solomon, Rose.  Port Arthur : as it was / Walter B. Pridmore ; illustrations Rose Solomon  W.B. Pridmore Murdunna, Tas  2002

Interpretation Signs at the Historic Site


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