No. 427 - Launceston's Female Factory Chapel

The brutality of the convict system in colonial Tasmania is rightly a central theme in popular history. However, a critical point is that for all of the system’s notorious cruelty, it was in fact (at least in theory) a revolutionary system designed to reform the criminal class. As such, religion was an integral part of the penal system in Tasmania and played a critical role in the reform of the convict population. A report from 2008 which advocated World Heritage listing of Australia’s convict sites notes that this was achieved through:

“…The construction of churches and chapels for the use of convicts; employment of chaplains at penal stations responsible for the moral improvement of convicts; compulsory attendance at church services; reading of prayers by authorities and ‘private masters’ and distribution of Bibles. Separate churches or rooms were often provided for convicts from different religious denominations. Religious observances were often an essential part of the daily lives of most convicts including those under going secondary punishment. Attendance was rigidly enforced and non-attendance was a punishable offence. Under the probation system, convicts were required to commence and end each day with prayers and attend two divine services on Sundays. Clergymen were critical cogs in the penal machinery, expected to be knowledgeable about the character of each convict. They were required to sign all key documents that could lead to the rehabilitation and freedom of individual convicts including applications for family members to be sent from Britain, tickets-of-leave, special privileges and pardons”.

An essential component of the convict system was the ‘female factory’. Female factories were based on British bridewells, prisons and workhouses. They were purpose-built for female convicts transported to Tasmania and were called factories because each was a site of manufacture.

Launceston’s Female Factory opened in November 1834, replacing a female factory at George Town. It operated as a female factory until 1855 when it was converted into a gaol. The prison operated until 1914 when it was demolished to make way for the construction of Launceston High School (now Launceston College).

In 1833 the short-lived Launceston newspaper, ‘The Independent’, reported that the “first stone” of the “Female Factory” was laid “in the presence of the Lieutenant Governor” on Saturday 20 April. The building was situated on the land now bounded by Paterson, Bathurst, Brisbane and Margaret Streets. A description of the ‘Factory’s’ design, including its chapel was published in the Hobart Town Almanack:

“The building of a female house of correction, hitherto necessarily but very inconveniently kept at George-town, has also been nearly completed. The construction of this design is particularly deserving of commendation. The superintendent from the very nature of the building must of necessity keep a constant eye on every class of the establishment, the windows of his quarters being so constructed as to overlook each division. The beautifully simple and appropriate style of the chapel is especially worthy of notice. Each class of prisoners can attend divine service without the possibility of communication. The octagon is forty feet in diameter lighted by a lantern, and the effect will certainly be very imposing with a full congregation”.

The description of the building and chapel reflects the underlying philosophy behind the factory system. The lives of women were regulated by authority, work, surveillance and religion. The women classified into three ‘classes’ of inmate; punishment, crime and hiring classes. After serving six months in the ‘crime class’, approved prisoners became ‘pass holders’ and could work for wages outside the factory. The three classes were separated to avoid “contamination” and this was dictated down to the level of separation in worship.

Whilst very little is known about Launceston Female Factory’s chapel, and no image of it exists apart from the architect’s plans reproduced below; the chapel nevertheless has an important place in the history of Tasmania’s churches as it represents a fundamental aspect of the place of religion in the reform of prisoners.

After the closure of Launceston’s Female Factory in 1855 the building was remodelled and underwent numerous renovations and rebuilding over the years. Numerous architectural plans and proposals for the gaol exist but it is difficult to ascertain which of these proposals were carried actually out. While the original ‘separate chapel’ was appropriated for other purposes early in the building’s history, a chapel of some sort continued to exist until the prison was demolished in 1914. The prison chapel was serviced by the local clergy on a rostered basis and individual pastoral work would certainly have taken place with prisoners inhabiting the condemned cell.

In the illustrations below, the architect J. Lee Archer’s drawings show the original concept of the chapel as described in the Hobart Town Almanac. A collection of photographs have also been included to show the extent of the prison and some of the finer details of the building.

A detail of J. Lee Archer's design for the Launceston Female Factory chapel - Source: Libraries Tasmania PWD226-1-899

A detail of J. Lee Archer's design for the Launceston Female Factory chapel - Source: Libraries Tasmania PWD226-1-898

A detail of J. Lee Archer's design for the Launceston Female Factory chapel - Source: Libraries Tasmania PWD226-1-899
A plan of the prison in 1855 showing the chapel in a new location - source: Libraries Tasmania PWD 266-1-813

A notice published in the Cornwall Chronicle 1848 showing places of worship in Launceston

A detail from a photograph taken in the 1870's showing the location and extent of Launceston Gaol - Source: Libraries Tasmania LPIC147/4/225

A detail taken from a photograph taken by Henry Button, c.1848 showing the Female Factory. The chapel roof of the chapel can be seen in the centre of the photograph.  Source: Libraries Tasmania LPIC147-4-219

The doorway to the condemned cell - photograph taken prior to the prison's demolition - Source: Libraries Tasmania LPIC147-4-67

A photograph of the prison walls taken at the corner of Bathurst and Patterson Street. Source: Libraries Tasmania PH30-1-420

A Spurling photograph taken prior to the prison's demolition - Source: Libraries Tasmania LPIC147-4-60


The Independent, Saturday 27 April 1833, page 2
Launceston Advertiser, Thursday 28 November 1833, page 3 
Hobart Town Almanack for 1834, page 97
The Colonist and Van Diemen's Land Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser, Tuesday 11 March 1834, page 3
The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 15 April 1848,  page 2 

Australia. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.  Australian convict sites : world heritage nomination / Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts  Dept. of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts Canberra  2008  


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