No. 384 - Launceston's Brisbane Street Sunday School and Union Chapel - "Surrounded by Brothels"

A magnificent Stephen Spurling photograph taken from the top of the Launceston 'Firebell Tower' in 1885 provides an exquisitely detailed view of the western end of Brisbane Street and Cataract Hill. [see a high definition copy of the photograph here] The photograph includes the long vanished Launceston Gaol and Wellington Square, now partly occupied by Launceston College. In the foreground of the photograph a weatherboard church-like structure can be seen at the junction of Brisbane and Wellington Streets. This presented a puzzle because there is no record of an established church at this location. The mystery was eventually resolved when it was revealed as the Brisbane Street Sunday School and Union chapel. 

The Brisbane Street 'Union Chapel', was built in 1865 as a Sunday School and a place of worship for the indigent children of Launceston.  Although it was a short-lived experiment, its history is an aspect of the largely untold story of the Launceston's underclass and the role of religious philanthropists in fighting poverty.

As an educational institution, Sunday schools’ were first formally established in England in the 1780s in order to provide education to children from the impoverished classes. In 1851 William King started a Sunday school in Dursley, Gloucestershire, and he suggested that Robert Raikes, editor of the Gloucester Journal, start a similar one in the town :

“Mr Raikes, upon visiting a portion of the city of Gloucester, was struck with the neglect, poverty, and wickedness exhibited by a group of wretchedly ragged children, and resolved upon action; ...three or four women who kept schools, were engaged to instruct on the Sunday as many as he could send.”

Raikes used the Gloucester Journal to promote this cause and as a result many clergymen supported schools which aimed to teach children reading, writing, cyphering (doing arithmetic) and to have a knowledge of the Bible. By the end of the 18th century 250,000 English children were attending Sunday school. The Sunday school movement was financed through subscription and buildings were constructed that could also host public lectures and meetings as well as provide classrooms.

In Tasmania Sunday schools were controlled by various denominations with the purpose of providing religious and general education to the faithful. The Hobart based Sunday School Union of Van Dieman’s Land, which was founded in 1841, was established to support Sunday schools run by the nonconformist churches.  A report in the Hobart Courier provides some detail about its function and purpose:

“…One principal object of the Society will be to form a depot of books for the supply of schools in connection with the Union. We are happy to see several branches of the Christian church united in promoting the religious instruction of the young, and hope that they may be liberally supported and their labours crowned with success”.

Following the establishment of the Sunday School Union in Hobart, Launceston followed suit and after a meeting held in St. John’s Square Schoolroom on 17 June 1847, the 'Launceston Sunday School Union' was formed. There were initially five schools established in the Union: Tamar Street; St John’s Square; the Free Church; the Presbyterian and York Street [Baptist], with a total of 300 children. Both the Hobart and Launceston Unions saw Sunday Schools as “nurseries of the church” and “colleges of the ministers”.

For reasons not known, the Launceston Sunday School Union ceased operating and it was not until August 1863 that a new union, the Northern Tasmanian Sunday School Union, was established. Unlike the earlier Union, which saw the schools as “nurseries of the church” the new union was clearly aimed at the poor and set out to provide “seperate morning Sabbath services” at the Bethel [Chapel] Ragged School located at Launceston’s wharf. Further to this, the Union planned to build a new schoolroom on Brisbane Street. The Union's report for 1864 states:

“Then there was the proposed erection of a new school-room for the Brisbane-street Ragged School, in operation in a most necessitous part of the town. A building committee had been appointed, trustees elected, the lease of the site prepared, and the committee intended at once to proceed with the work, when it would be necessary to apply to the Christian public for pecuniary assistance…”. 

This objective was achieved in the following year. The Union’s annual report for 1865 notes:

"On the 6th of September [1864] it was resolved to erect a school-house in lower Brisbane-street. A building committee, consisting of sixteen members of the various denominations in connection with the Union, was appointed, from which body six trustees were elected; a suitable piece of ground was leased for seven years at the corner of Brisbane and Wellington streets; and a neat and commodious building has been erected.…The building was opened for Divine service on Sunday, the 18th Dec., the Rev. C. Price preaching in the afternoon, and Mr. C. Cater in the evening. A tea meeting was also held on the following Tuesday evening. The Sunday School assembling in the building is under the control of the Union, and the room is at present let to a competent person as a day school, at a small weekly rental".

The social ambitions of the Union are clearly demonstrated in a ‘paper’ presented at a meeting of the Union at the Brisbane Street school in March 1865. This provides us with a vivid insight into the lives of the children of Launceston's underclass:

Mr. J. Dakin read a carefully prepared paper on "Ragged Schools," in which he threw out valuable practical hints on the subject of the education and reclamation of those usually known by the designation of "city Arabs" - the destitute and outcast children of our town. He suggested the desirability of establishing "ragged industrial and feeding schools", similar to those in existence in Scotland under the fostering care of the Rev. Dr. Guthrie; the mode of conducting which was stated to be as follows: -The scholars go to the school in the morning, and stay there until the evening, those whose homes are so cruel or so vicious that they would certainly suffer if they passed the night there, remaining within the walls of the school-house all night. Sound religious training seems to be the great object of the schools, but the children also receive a plain secular education, and are brought up to industrial occupations. The girls learn to sew, knit, wash, cook,... the boys are trained up as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and so on - in a country school being taught to handle the axe, the hoe, and the spade, and fitted for rural labours or for emigration. A certain period is allotted each day for play. Every morning the children go through their ablutions with the utmost regularity, and to ensure regular attendance, as well as to meet the necessities of their poverty, they daily receive three plain but substantial meals. Punishments are rare; and although, on entering school, the children are as foul as the gutter out of which they have been plucked unbroken as the wild Arab of the desert, and ignorant of everything that is good with rags on their backs and misery in their looks - such a change comes over them, that better behaved scholars, sharper intellects, happier faces, are not to be seen anywhere”.

For all the Northern Tasmanian Sunday School Union’s good intentions, it seems that it was unable to finance and support “ragged industrial and feeding schools” on a sustainable basis. Indeed, the Brisbane Street Sunday school floundered within 5 years of opening.  In 1870, Murray Burgess, the Chairman of the Board of Education of Schools at Launceston reported:

“I have examined the buildings proposed for occupation as Free or Ragged Schools in Launceston, and have placed myself in communication with the Rev. Mr. Price, the principal promoter of these schools. I regret I cannot report favourably on either of the proposed buildings. The brick chapel on the Wharf requires substantial repairs, has no yard, closets, or enclosure whatever, and I believe there are no means of remedying these deficiencies. The Union Chapel in Lower Brisbane-street is a wooden building in fair state of repair, well lighted, and ventilated, and would accommodate 80 children; but the allotment on which it stands only covers a space of 63 feet by 47 feet, and it is surrounded by brothels. In their play hours the children would be exposed to the worst influences. There are two closets, but both are in bad order…. The necessity of making further provision for the instruction of the poor and neglected classes in Launceston has long forced itself on my attention and as soon as the question of [a] site is determined, I shall be prepared to offer suggestions for the organisation of a Free School…”. 

Consequently, the Brisbane Street Chapel and Sunday school closed in the early 1870's. It was used as private 'commercial school' until it was demolished in August 1886, about a year after it was photographed by Stephen Spurling from Launceston's 'Firebell Tower'. 


A detail of the photo taken from the 'Fireball Tower' - Photograph by Stephen Spurling 1886 - Libraries Tasmania - Item Number L119-1-007

Stephen Spurling 1886 - Libraries Tasmania - Item Number L119-1-007 - A link to a high definition copy of the photograph can be found in the introductory paragraph.

Launceston Examiner,  Tuesday 31 August 1886


Sources:

The Courier, Friday 26 March 1841, page 2
Launceston Examiner, Wednesday 24 May 1848, page 6
Launceston Examiner, Saturday 1 October 1864, page 3 
Launceston Examiner, Thursday 26 January 1865, page 3 

Launceston Examiner, Thursday 2 March 1865, page 5
Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 23 August 1870, page 3
Launceston Examiner,  Tuesday 31 August 1886,  page 1  Advertising

I would also like to acknowledge Maureen Ferris for her input in helping to identify the mystery building in the photograph.


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