No. 570 - Colebrook - The Jerusalem Probation Station Church

Colebrook is situated in the Coal River Valley in the Southern Midlands region approximately 50 kilometres north of Hobart. It was previously known as Jerusalem and later as ‘Colebrook Dale’. Colebrook was developed as a site for a convict probation station in 1839. Remnants of the station, which included a barracks, hospital and church, still exist. Most of the surviving buildings in the precinct were added to the Tasmanian Heritage Register in 2010.

Up until the late 1870’s the Jerusalem Probation Station’s Church was used by the town’s Anglicans:

“This building is large and commodious, and when first handed over to the Church of England authorities was in good repair. It is a T-shaped church built of bricks, with a shingle roof. During the time prisoners were domiciled in the probation station the church was used by civilians as well as prisoners. The civilians occupied the body of the church, and the prisoners the two side wings. When the building was handed over to the Church of England, a number of people objected to worshipping in a place which had associations of a somewhat disagreeable character connected with it. For 20 years back many persons have advocated the building of a new church…”

In fact "The Old Prison Church" was a substantial structure capable of accomodating 800 prisoners with dimensions measuring 75ft by 24ft with an extension at the rear centre of the building measuring 27ft by 21ft.

The church was an integral part of the probation system which was an experiment in penal discipline unique to Van Diemen's Land. It replaced the assignment system which although an effective system of punishment and reform, was criticised as being inequitable and difficult to administer. The probation system was introduced in 1839 but proved to be an unsuccessful experiment. It was reformed several times until it was abandoned altogether following the abolition of transportation to the colony in 1853.

The construction of the Jerusalem Probation Station commenced in 1841. It was one of 75 probation stations established across Van Dieman’s Land. Convicts would progress through the probation system undergoing a regime of labour, religious instruction and education which could lead to the reward of a probation pass and eventually qualifying for employment by free settlers.

At least in theory religion was a critical part of reforming convicts. A 2008 a report for UNESCO 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”.

In reality the provision of religious instruction was sporadic and the Jerusalem Station provides an example of this. In August 1842 ‘The True Colonist Van Dieman’s Land Political Despatch’ published an editorial “The Church in the Probation Gangs”. The newspaper was particularly critical of the failure of the ‘Church of England’ which it essentially accused of corruption. It claimed that most convicts were counted as adherents of the faith thus giving the Church greater access to government funds available under the Church Act. Unfortunately, these same convicts’ spiritual needs were sometimes badly neglected:

“Although a very large proportion of the transported offenders may have been born within the pale of the Church of England, we are convinced that of them a very large proportion are as ignorant of the Christian religion as if they had been born and reared in the centre of China. We know that one of the means which the Church of England has adopted to assert her superiority in this Colony is, to claim as members of her community all men who were reared in a Christian country who avow that they have “no religion,” and it is remarkable that persons of this description, with hardly an exception, acknowledge the claim, in returning themselves in the census — a very common answer to the question: — “What shall I put you down? being— “I am of no religion!” “Shall I put you down a heathen, then: “No! put me down a Churchman!” We never heard a Roman Catholic, a Presbyterian, or one who returned himself of any other Protestant sect, say that he had “no religion.”

The “True Colonist also criticised the additional payments made to Anglican ministers to service Probation Stations. For example at the Jerusalem Probation Station it was claimed:

“Our attention has been particularly called to the above, and to the case of the Episcopal minister at Richmond, who receives £50 a year for visiting the gang stationed at Jerusalem. Now, we know that the Presbyterian minister at Sorell has, ever since his appointment, performed service at the Coal River, at stated times, and occasionally, at Richmond, until the latter station has been occupied every Sunday by the Independent ministers…..Mr. Butler, the Catholic Priest at Richmond, has to visit his flock all over the Richmond and Brighton districts, including….several convict stations in that circuit, including those at Jerusalem, the Lovely Banks, Jericho, and the Broad Marsh. Yet, for all this, he neither gets, nor claims, any extra pay; indeed, we have every reason to believe that his emoluments from the Government do not exceed £200; while each of the Episcopal ministers in Mr. Burrowes’ district have a State income of £300 besides their glebes. We make these observations to place in a clearer light, the undue preference which the Government gives to the Episcopal ministers, in opposition both to the spirit and letter of the Church Act. It cannot be said that the extra pay is given to Episcopal Clergymen for attending the Probation station; it cannot be because that all the Probationers are members of their special flock, because many of them are Catholics, who cannot receive instruction from any Protestant Minister.…”.

In 1846 James Purslowe, who had been superintendent of the Bridgewater, Jerusalem and Impression Bay Probation Stations’ complained about the illegal activities of a Church of England Catechist living at Jerusalem:

“I was eighteen months at Jerusalem. The gang generally averaged about 350. When I first went to the station the only spiritual visitor was a catechist who occupied a farm adjoining. He preached every Sunday, and performed divine service. At no other time did he ever trouble about the gang, or even visit the station, although his own dwelling was within a few yards. At this station, the order against smoking was most imperative; yet, every man smoked. The visiting magistrate was constantly complaining men were frequently punished but, in spite of every effort to discover where the tobacco was obtained, for months it remained a mystery. At last it was suspected that the catechist must be in the secret, although he had been consulted frequently about it. I waited upon him and communicated the suspicion; he denied all knowledge of selling the tobacco. The same practice continued and defied all our vigilance. But the truth at length came out. A prisoner was detected bringing tobacco from the catechist's house; he was prosecuted and punished. I afterwards proceeded against the catechist in the court at Richmond; he was convicted of selling tobacco to the gang, fined, and dismissed from his situation. One man was in the habit of buying it wholesale, and retailing it to the men for their rations; or what few pence they might obtain from travellers on the road. The dismissed catechist continued to occupy the farm, and I subsequently had, occasion to prosecute a servant of his for receiving clothing from the gang, which clothing was found in his house. This is the man to whose sabbath exhortations the reformation of the gang was confided!”

In contrast Purslowe praised the work of the Catholic priest Father Thomas Butler.

“At Jerusalem I separated the Roman Catholics from other denominations, and they were allowed to worship God in their own form, under a minister of their own religion - the Rev. Mr. Butler. I cannot speak too highly of his untiring zeal for their reformation, and can testify that the success of his labours was exhibited in the subdued demeanour, resignation and general propriety of those who formed his flock.”

Historical records of churches and the religious services conducted at probation stations are very rare. While the history of the ‘convict church’ at the Jerusalem station is no exception in this regard, its story nevertheless provides another small piece in the fascinating puzzle concerning the place of religion in convict reform.

After the closure of the probation station the "Old Convict Church" was used by the town's Anglicans until the early 1870's when services were moved to a local schoolroom. By the time St James church opened in 1884 the convict church had fallen into disrepair and was sold to Mr. William Rumney who converted it into a barn.  The building had a brief revival in 1898 when it was leased by Captain R. Storey and was used as a venue for concerts and dances.  During this time it was known as Waterdale Hall. After the opening of Colebrook public hall in October 1901 the old church reverted to being used as a barn.

Until recently the convict church functioned as a barn and suffered further deterioration over the years. It is not easily recognisable as a place of worship however the current owner plans to restore the building.  A photograph of the barn taken in 2010 and a map showing its location within the probation station precinct can be seen below.  A photograph of the building was published in the Mercury in 1934 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of St James Anglican church.

The old convict church in 1934 when it was in use as a barn. (The Mercury)

The Jerusalem church is now a barn. Photograph source: Heritage News, Tasmanian Heritage Council June 2010

A general outline of the convict precinct at Colebrook - The church's location is indicated by the green circle.

Restoration work at the Chapel - Photo: Brad Williams

Restoration work at the Chapel - Photo: Brad Williams

Restoration work at the Chapel - Photo: Brad Williams


Launceston Advertiser, Thursday 28 April 1842, page 3
The True Colonist Van Diemen's Land Political Despatch, and Agricultural and Commercial, Friday 5 August 1842, page 4
Launceston Examiner, Wednesday 26 August 1846, page 6
Mercury, Friday 29 December 1882, page 3
Mercury, Friday 14 March 1884, page 3
Mercury, Tuesday 13 March 1934, page 10

Heritage News, Tasmanian Heritage Council, June 2010, page 3

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  <>


  1. A very interesting article, that solved a minor mystery in my family tree. My ancestors, Emanuel Smith and Honora Leahy, were married in Jerusalem on the 11th of June 1854, "at the chapel Jerusalem". Based on the dates of establishment of the Anglican and Catholic churches in Colebrook, I knew it couldn't be either, and had always wondered where the chapel that they referred to was - now I know! Thank you!


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