No. 615 - Richmond - St Luke's Anglican Church - 'The curses of convicts built into the walls'

Richmond is a heritage town located in the Coal River Valley approximately 25 kilometres east of Hobart. The valley was one of the earliest areas penetrated by the first British settlers outside of Hobart. The settlement began around 1823 when a bridge was constructed across the Coal River, so named because of coal deposits in the area.

St Luke’s is the oldest intact church in Tasmania. The design by Colonial architect John Lee Archer has changed little in its external appearance over the last 180 years. For this blog entry I have used an article written by the rector of St Luke’s, Rev. C. Allen, which was published in the Hobart Mercury in 1909, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone. I have redacted the original article down from its original 2600 words, but the still lengthy piece is worth reading in full as it is entertaining and a beautiful piece of writing:

"There are few older churches, and most of those erected earlier have either been rebuilt or altered to such an extent that very little of the original building is left. For instance, old St. David's, Hobart, which was begun, as early as 1817, is now replaced by an entirely new cathedral. St. Matthew's, New Norfolk, opened for divine service in 1825, has been so altered that it would now hardly be recognised by its original builders. St. John's, Launceston, was completed in the same year, but that building is being rapidly swallowed up by the large structure that is rising around it. St. George's Church, Sorell, was commenced in 1826, but that church is now replaced by a new one. It is the same with the Longford Church, which was erected in 1829”.

"But St. Luke's Church, Richmond, stands practically the same to-day as when it was first erected….The men and women of the early days would have no difficulty in recognising the church to which they bent their steps from Sunday to Sunday. The same square, stern, massive building has watched the convicts march past in their clanking irons, has kept guard over the busy township in the days of its prosperous activity, and to-day stands sentinel over the quiet village that Richmond has now become”.

"The present parish of Richmond was originally a part of the Sorell parish or Pittwater, as it was then called. The parish then consisted of Pittwater, Richmond, Jerusalem (Colebrook), and the East Coast as far north as Bicheno. The parish was constituted in 1825, and in that year the Rev. Wm. Garrard was appointed to take charge of it. This enormous district is now divided into four parishes. Mr. Garrard visited Richmond, and conducted service in the Court-house. And it is interesting to note that the Court-house was erected in 1825-the year of the first appointment of a clergy-man to take charge of the parish of which Richmond formed a part”.

"In 1834 a movement was made to cut Richmond off from Sorell, and to form it into a separate parish…A start was made with the erection of a church at Richmond. The foundation-stone of the Church of St. Luke was laid in that year by the Governor of the colony….The church was erected on land given by Mr. Butcher. In consideration of this gift, there was granted to the Butcher family a right-of-way through one of the vestries to their pew at the top of the church. This right was carefully guarded for very many years, but is now fallen into disuse”.

“The stone for the church was quarried from the hill overlooking the township known at Butcher's Hill. The Government granted the use of a number of convicts in building it, but I can find no record as to whether the Government also made a grant of money towards the cost of erection. A part of the money required was raised by public subscription among the residents in sums ranging from five pounds to twenty-fire guineas. About two hundred and fifty pounds was raised in this way. These subscribers did not actually give the money. It was rather that they advanced it, and it was returned to them in pew rents….”.

“In 1850 there was another change. The front pews now became the cheaper, while the back pews were more expensive. Five shillings was charged for each seat in the first eight pews, and seven shillings and sixpence for each seat in the remaining eighteen pews. Evidently people were becoming more modest, and preferred to sit at the back of the church. Or could it be that it was easier to slip in late without causing much notice?…”

"The church seems to have taken some time in building, for it was not completed till 1836. I have already said that it was built by convict labour. Convict life was held very cheap in those days. The lash, or even death, was the punishment for offences not counted very serious to-day. And it is more than likely that the rising walls of the church saw the spilling of human blood. The curses of the convicts must have been built into those walls. We hardly dare think of it. The earliest associations of the church reek with crime and infamy. But there is one bright spot even in the building. There is a tradition that the convict responsible for the timbering of the roof received his liberty for the splendid way in which he did his work. The roof, as seen from the inside, excites the admiration of everyone that sees it. To us to-day it looks almost unnecessarily strong”.

"The first occasion on which the church was publicly used was the marriage of Mr. William Chambers with Miss Mary Heyward, on the 11th of March, 1836. The church was not properly finished even then. The flooring was not all in. Boards had to be laid upon the joists to allow the wedding party to reach the top-end of the church. But the parties to be married put up with these little inconveniences in order to make sure of being the first to be married in the new church. When they brought their first baby to be christened the chaplain presented them with his own Bible that he used in the pulpit…..”.

“The first baptism recorded took place on August 23, 1835. And the first burial on December 6 of the same year. But, of course, neither of these need have taken place in the Church itself. It is interesting to note that the oldest tombstone in the burying-ground, which is some little distance from the church, bears the date 1823”.

"As soon as the church was opened there was quite a rush of marriages, as many as three taking place on the one day, and a total of twenty in the last nine months of the year 1836….”

“The first chaplain of the newly-formed Richmond parish was the Rev. W. S. Aislabie. He took charge of the parish in 1835, but he arrived in Tasmania toward the end of the previous year. The Hobart Town ‘Courier,' of November 21, 1834, speaks of his recent arrival from England. It calls him an 'able pastor,' and further states that he had preached a ‘very impressive sermon' in St. David’s Church the Sunday before. Probably he was assisting at the Hobart Church till his new parish of Richmond was ready for him. It would seem that Mr. Aislabie was a young man, and, probably, newly-married. For, during his stay of about ten years, four children were born to him, and were baptised in the church, the first one being a girl, and named after her mother, and the first boy being named after his father”.

"When Mr. Aislabie took charge of the newly-built church, its interior was somewhat different from what it is now. The pulpit was a three-decker, and was placed in the middle of the church, at the top end, before the Holy Table. The clerk sat in the lower part of the pulpit. Above him the minister read the prayers. For the sermon the preacher mounted higher still, and preached from the third storey. Before entering the pulpit for the sermon, the minister retired to the vestry, took off his white surplice, and donned a black gown. The pews were of the box kind, high sides, straight backs, narrow seats very uncomfortable to sit on. They were of cedar-as were all the fittings of the church. The present more comfortable seats were made out of the material of the old ones, the change being made about thirty years later, during Mr. Galer's incumbency. The choir sat in the gallery, which had a curtain running along the front of it. There was no organ, the singing being led by two musical instruments-the clarionet and the bass viol. A little later, an instrument known as a seraphine was bought and put into the church. This seraphine seems to have required a great deal of attention. For, in the church accounts, an item for ‘tuning or repairing seraphine' is of frequent occurrence. It would seem that Mr. Aislabie advanced the whole, or a part, of the money required to buy it. For an item in the accounts just before he left reads, 'Balance due Mr. Aislabie for seraphine, £8.’”.

"The convicts who attended service sat in the body of the church on forms placed just before the gallery. The soldiers that formed their guard sat on corresponding forms, on the opposite side of the aisle. "The church does not seem to have been consecrated till 1842, the church accounts of that year showing the payment of two guineas to Mr. Aislabie for Archdeacon for Consecration Instruments”.

”Mr. Aislabie was succeeded in 1845 by the Rev. J. R. Buckland. Mr. Buckland stayed little more than twelve months, and was then called to Hobart, where he made his mark as the first headmaster ot the newly-founded Hutchins School. There seems to have followed a few months' vacancy in the cure, the Rev. James Norman supplying what help he could from Sorell”.

“But in the beginning of 1847 the Rev. A. Davenport took charge of the parish. He afterwards became Archdeacon of Hobart. Mr. Davenport stayed at Richmond till 1851. and was succeeded by another Archdeacon to be, the Rev. Wm. Tancred, who in 1854 became Archdeacon of Launceston. The Rev. Tice Gellibrand succeeded in 1853, but retired at the end of two years. The Rev. D. Galor had a longer incumbency, staying for 17 years, till 1872. It was while Mr. Galer was at Richmond, in the year 1864, that the beautiful stained glass window was put in at the end of the church over the Holy Table….”.

"Mr. Galer was succeeded in 1873 by the Rev. S. B. Fooks, who stayed till 1881. and who was in turn succeeded by the Rev. H. W. Hugill. Mr. Hugill had a long and successful ministry, till 1893”.

"State-aid in the payment of the clergyman ceased on the retirement of Mr. Fooks. And for a time the parish found itself in financial difficulties. This is probably the reason why, on Mr. Hugill's retirement, the parish at Richmond was tacked on to that of Brighton, under the care of the Rev. S H. Hughes. This impossible arrangement was soon abandoned, and for a couple of years clergymen followed each other in quick succession….”.

“These few notes have been put together in the hope that they may prove of interest to all who have now, or who have had in the past, any connection with the old church of St. Luke. At the same time they will serve to call attention to the celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the foundation of the church, which is to be held on October 17 and 18 (St. Luke's Day) of this year. In connection with this celebration a fund has been initiated for the restoration of the church. The fabric of the church is badly needing repair. Cracks in the walls are visible. Plaster is falling. The woodwork is decayed. Something must be done as soon as possible. There are many scattered throughout the island who have still a strong affection for the old church in which they once worshipped, in which, perhaps, they were baptised, or, perhaps, married ; and probably they only need to be told of what is intended to be done, and they will at once give some help…”

Since Reverend Allen wrote the history of the church in 1909, there has been only one significant alteration to the building’s appearance when in 1922 a clock was installed in the church tower.  The clock in the tower was one of six turret clocks manufactured by London clockmaker Thwaites and Reed for consignment to Australia for use on public buildings. It was first used in the original St David's Church at the corner of Murray and Macquarie Streets, Hobart. The clock was not installed in the new St David's Cathedral when it was constructed in 1874. It was placed in storage for nearly fifty years before it was donated to St Luke's by the Dean and the Cathedral Chapter. In 2004 major restoration of the Church was undertaken including the restoration of the clock.

* All the photographs below are my own (2019)


Mercury, Wednesday 13 October 1909, page 2
The Mercury, Wednesday 11 March 1936,  page 5
The Mercury,  Friday 19 October 1934,  page 6

Link to St Luke's Anglican Cemetery:


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