No. 368 - The Bethel Chapel at New Wharf - Launceston - "Three Letters of an Obscene Word"

In 1814 Methodist preacher George Charles Smith started prayer meetings for merchant seamen in the port of London. In 1818, the Port of London Society was set up to promote preaching to seamen in the port. In the following year, the Bethel Union Society was formed to co-ordinate the activities of several societies inspired by George Smith's activities. In 1833, the Port of London, Bethel Union and other societies merged to form the British and Foreign Sailors' Society. Its stated aim was the 'moral and religious improvement' of seamen. The establishment of the Bethel Chapel at Launceston in the mid 1840s was undoubtedly inspired by these developments in Britain.

In the 21st century Launceston’s waterfront is a tourist precinct and little remains of what was once the most important commercial port in Tasmania. By the mid 19th century Launceston was already a bustling port town. The subsequent mining boom and development of the railway system effectively made Launceston the commercial capital of the island until the end of the 19th century. The development of the town's port and the accompanying increase in the numbers of sailors and wharf side workers gave rise to a public movement to provide a place of worship for itinerant seafarers. Hobart and Sydney already had established chapels for mariners. In 1845 the Launceston Examiner reported on progress made in establishing a chapel at the town’s wharfs:

“The want of accommodation for public worship at the wharf, has long been a subject of regret. Services have sometimes been held during summer on the decks of vessels, but no united effort has been made in this town to supply the spiritual destitution of seamen visiting the port. It is seldom that sailors leave their vessels on the Sabbath to enter a church; but a bethel chapel is peculiarly their own; and at Sydney and Hobart Town the attendance is generally good. We are gratified to learn, that his Excellency [Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot] has acceded to a request recently made, and has sanctioned the erection of a place of worship on the wharf for the use of seafaring men. The chapel will be built by public subscription, on the [south] side, and immediately adjoining the custom-house shed, and supplied in rotation by clergymen belonging to various denominations”.

By the end of 1845 a committee had been established to build a seamen's chapel. Members of the committee included Reverend Dowling, West and Price. Tenders for the erection of a ‘Bethel chapel’ were advertised in May 1846.

In February 1847 the Courier reported on a public meeting 
 held at the Bethel Chapel (chaired by Henry Reed), to resolve the matter of debt on the completed building:

“A meeting had been held in the new Bethel Chapel, …to devise means for raising funds to discharge the debt incurred in the erection of the building, before its opening for Divine Service. The Rev. C. Price explained the circumstances which led to the erection of the chapel, and the financial operations of its promoters. The amount of the debt was £100 2s. A number of resolutions, expressive of the opinions of the meeting, with regard to the claims of seamen to the prayers and sympathy of their fellow-christians, and the importance of adopting means to inculcate the principles of religious truth amongst this important and interesting class of men, were carried unanimously, and a collection, amounting to £38, was made, reducing the debt to £62 2s. A few zealous individuals have guaranteed to collect the remainder."

Consequently, the chapel opened debt free on Sunday 14 February 1847.

The chapel went on to hold regular services for seaman for about 20 years and was eventually demolished in 1878. From the start, its location at a busy wharf in a less salubrious part of town effected its operation and no doubt contributed to is decline and eventual closure. In August 1849 the Examiner reported:

“After rain the wharf invariably presents the appearance of a pigsty, being covered with mud to the depth of several inches. The Bethel chapel is surrounded by the drainings from several yards, amongst which is a butcher's, and is almost unapproachable. This might be remedied with very little trouble".

In 1852 the chapel suffered some damage due to flooding which led to calls for the building to be removed:

“…the rebuilding of the Landing Waiter’s Office and Sheds at Launceston; - and the removal of the Bethel Chapel, which would have been rendered a matter of pressing necessity, - the late floods having made the present building wholly untenantable”.

By the early 1860’s services at the chapel were no longer advertised but they may have continued until the 1870’s although perhaps not on a regular basis. In the 1860’s the chapel was being used for other purposes including a trade school and a Sunday school. In 1862 the Examiner reported:

“We are glad to announce that an association has been formed for the purpose of establishing a Free and Industrial School on the wharf, in the building known as the Bethel Chapel… A ladies’ committee has been formed, whose duty will be to collect subscriptions, and it is to be hoped that the town-people will support such a laudable movement”.

A later report indicates that the chapel was also been used for a Sunday school:

“A few evenings ago the children attending the Sunday School conducted in the little Bethel Chapel on the wharf received their usual annual festival. In the afternoon, the teachers initiated appropriate out-door amusements, which were almost as highly enjoyed by the juveniles as were the tea, cake, &c, with which they were subsequently regaled. The edibles being disposed of, the amusements were resumed in the building…”.

By the 1870’s it is clear that the chapel had deteriorated significantly and had become the target of criminal activity. In January 1871 the Cornwall Chronicle reported:

“For the second time within a fortnight the Bethel Chapel was broken into on Saturday night. Entrance was effected by one of the windows. Two boxes were taken from a cupboard, they were broken open and five pence in coppers were stolen”.

In fact, a notice for a reward for information about burglary at the chapel appearing in the Examiner reveals that the building had been broken into on three occasions in January 1871. A Police Court report reveals that the chapel had also been the target of vandalism in that year:

“James Loftus was charged with cutting letters on the door of the Bethel Chapel, on the 8th October. - Arthur Green deposed that he was Superintendent of the Sunday School held in the Bethel Chapel. On the 8th Oct., while in the Sunday School, he heard a disturbance, and on going to the door, he saw four boys outside - among them was the defendant. He observed three letters of an obscene word had been cut on the door. All the boys denied having done it. - James Taylor deposed to having seen the defendant cut the letters. - The defendant was ordered to be imprisoned for fourteen days”.

In 1872 a report in the Cornwall Chronicle reveals that the trade school had been closed for some time and that efforts were being made to reopen it, although this was being resisted by the Board of Education:

“A few years ago the present Mayor, aided by some benevolent ladies and gentlemen, established an excellent day school at the Bethel Chapel on the wharf, and it effected much good in that part of the town, as long as funds could be raised to pay the teachers. The money was given grudgingly by those who felt that the school ought to be supported from the fund entrusted to the Board of Education, and at last the committee, finding they were responsible for debts on behalf of the school, reluctantly discontinued it, and adopted means to pay the arrears. The Mayor is still desirous of having the day school re-opened….”

Finally in 1875, a report in the Examiner reveals the fate of Bethal chapel. It seems that services may still have been held in the chapel but its days were clearly numbered:

“A meeting of ministers has been held to consider the necessity of holding Sunday afternoon services at the Bethel Chapel, on the Wharf. The whole matter of past and present was discussed. It was stated that there were about thirty religious services held in Launceston every week within a mile of the Wharf, and many of them within five minutes walk, and it was thought it would not be difficult for those who are anxious to invite persons to religious services near the wharf or any other part of the town, to find room for them in the various places of worship, which are open morning and evening in readiness. It was understood, however, that the ministers were not averse to undertaking any services which might appear necessary for the good of the town; and it remains an open question”.

There are no further reports on any decisions taken by the ministers but in 1878 a report in the Examiner clearly spells out the chapel’s fate:

“It is in contemplation to pull down the present landing waiter’s office and the adjoining Bethel chapel, which from their wretchedly damp and dirty appearance have long been an eyesore. We are therefore glad to hear that their demolition had been decided on…”.

In 1878 an advertisement issued by Reverend Charles Price announced the chapel's sale by auction on Saturday 26 October for building material to be removed by the purchaser within a month. No image of the building or any detail of the building survives other that its location at New Wharf, (between St John's Street and lower George Street) alongside the Landing Waiters office.

While the Bethel chapel existed for only 31 years and ultimately was a failed experiment, it is nevertheless yet another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Launceston's rich and varied history of churches and it also provides a window into a little known aspect of the city’s waterfront life which has now all but vanished.

The Bethel Chapel can be seen on the right in this 1851 pencil drawing of the "Departure of Tasmanian delegates to the Australian Anti-Transportation Conference" - National Library of Australia -Rex Nan Kivell Collection NK6870.

A detail of the pencil drawing - the chapel is behind the building with a chimney. The entrance to the chapel is on the right below the Bethel flag

Source: Libraries Tasmania - Item number PH30/1/1708 - undated

Source: QVM: 2002:P:0225 - View along the North Esk c.1860's

Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 24 January 1871

Launceston Examiner, 22 October 1878


Launceston Examiner Saturday 19 July 1845 p 3

Launceston Examiner 6 February 1847
The Courier, Wednesday 10 February 1847 p 3
Launceston Examiner, Wednesday 22 August 1849 p 6 
Hobart Guardian, Wednesday 25 August 1852, page 2

Launceston Examiner, 21 June 1862, page 2
Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 19 January 1864, page 5
The Cornwall Chronicle Monday 23 January 1871 p 2
Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 24 January 1871, page 6 (advertising)
Launceston Examiner, Saturday 4 November 1871, page 5 (Police Court)
The Cornwall Chronicle Wednesday 21 February 1872 p 2
Weekly Examiner, Saturday 9 January 1875, page 11
Launceston Examiner, Thursday 17 October 1878, page 4 (Advertising)
Launceston Examiner, 22 October 1878, page 2

Launceston Heritage Study: Stage 1 Thematic History, Ian Terry & Nathalie Servant for Launceston City Council, July 2002 (accessed 14-3-19) (accessed 14-3-19)


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