No. 348 - The Catholic Chapel at the Port Arthur Penitentiary - "Miserable in the Extreme"

Religion was an essential aspect of convict life at Port Arthur as a part of the process of reforming prisoners. Port Arthur’s landmark ‘convict church' was initially presided over by Wesleyan Ministers until 1843 when the Church of England’s Reverend Durham was appointed to the settlement. Durham was said to be a difficult man and became involved in frequent disputes, often with the Catholic chaplain. Commandant Booth disliked his attitude and saw this as a potential source of conflict. This came to a head when Catholic convicts refused to attend services in the church. This issue was outlined in report by Lieutenant Governor Eardley-Wilmot to Lord Stanley, Secretary of State for the Colonies:

“On the nomination of Mr Durham by your Lordship to Port Arthur, the present Chaplain, Mr Manton would immediately be displaced; and the very rumour of it, created a sensation there, which has been attended by important consequences. Hitherto all denominations of Christians, whether Presbyterian, Wesleyan, Independent or Roman Catholic, have been satisfied in attending one common place of worship at Port Arthur, so long as no decided ensign of any particular creed was erected. But now that a Church of England clergyman is to be established there, and a Church consecrated accordingly, all of these different creeds inform us they cannot conscientiously attend the Church of England service. I need not trouble your Lordship with an account of the gradual steps, which the convicts have taken to get themselves exonerated from attending the Church Service; suffice to say that on Sunday the 4th October last, one hundred and eighty-five of the convicts at Port Arthur refused to go to church. This emeute [riot] was put down by the judicious conduct of Captain Booth the Commandant, who at once acceded to their religious scruples, and kept them in a room by themselves, with proper books at their disposal, during the time of Divine Service”.

The incident eventually led to the appointment of Father Bond to meet the spiritual needs of Catholic prisoners. The Catholics continued to use the church for their own services until a makeshift Catholic chapel was established in the penitentiary building.

The Penitentiary was completed in 1857 from a converted flour mill built in 1845. The building took three years to convert and a clock tower, bakehouse, kitchen, laundry and storerooms were added. Prisoners were segregated according to their character. The bottom two floors contained 136 separate cells, which housed prisoners serving heavy sentences. The floor above contained a dining hall (which doubled as a school room at night), along with a Catholic chapel and a library with around 13,000 books.

A plan of the penitentiary [see below] shows details of the chapel's layout. It was placed at the rear of the building and measured approximately 30ft by 30ft.  A railed off altar and confessional were located on the south side of the room and an enclosed area housed a library.

The chapel is described in 1877 by the ‘Special Correspondent’ for the Hobart Mercury in an article titled “Port Arthur in Its Last Days”. Interestingly, the report indicates that the Chapel was by this time also used by non-prisoners:

“Beyond the cells is the dining hall, in which a thousand people could conveniently find room…..The room is also used as a chapel, in which prayers are said twice a day by the chaplain. At the opposite end of the building, on the same floor, is a small room set apart for Roman Catholic worship. The “appointments” here are miserable in the extreme. This, if prisoners were the only persons who took part in the devotions, might easily be accounted for; but as free people are allowed a private entry from the street, and are accommodated within the rails of the altar, I would have thought that some endeavour would have been made to fit the place up in a manner becoming a Roman Catholic Chapel…"

In 1884 the Chapel was again briefly, and unkindly described by Theophilus Jones in his series 'Through Tasmania':

“Off the second gallery is a room fitted over the wing cells, fitted as a Roman Catholic Chapel. The window panes are stained and etched with scroll designs, the work of a felon lunatic during his lucid periods”.

The Chapel ceased being used soon after the prisons closure in 1877 having been in service for less than 20 years. However, it is significant as it is a tangible reminder of the sectarianism that was rife at the time and which as particularly evident in the penal system.

Source: Libraries Tasmania NS1013-1-1827

A detail of the from the plan below, showing the chapel. Source: Libraries Tasmania PWD 266-1-1779

Source: Libraries Tasmania PWD 266-1-1779
The dining hall, on the same level as the chapel. Source: Libraries Tasmania NS1013-1-1941

The entrance hall to the Penitentiary showing the first two levels. Source: Libraries Tasmania: NS1013-1-579


Mercury, Monday 19 March 1877, page 3
Mercury, Saturday 21 June 1884, page 2

Brand, Ian. Port Arthur, 1830-1877 / by Ian Brand Jason Publications West Moonah, Tas 1980

Southerwood, W. T Planting a faith in Tasmania. Southerwood, Hobart, 1970.

Interpretation signage at the Port Arthur Historic Site


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