No. 864 - New Town - St John's Anglican Church and the 'Queen's Orphan School'

New Town is a northern suburb of Hobart. It is also one of Hobart’s oldest suburbs and consequently the area contains many historic churches. New Town became a municipality in 1907 but was absorbed into Greater Hobart in the 1920s when its municipal status was relinquished.

St John’s has the distinction of being Hobart’s oldest original Anglican church in continual use. The church’s establishment dates back to June 1828 when Governor Arthur expressing the government’s intention to build an “orphan school” at New Town. The original concept was to build a simple chapel for the orphans but those living in New Town had other ideas. Consequently a group wealthy residents persuaded Governor Arthur that a proper church should be built.

In 1830 a building committee was formed with Mr. Joseph Hone, the Master of the Supreme Court, as chairman. A subscription list was issued and a sum of £814 was raised. The government provided a grant of a further £1000 to build the church. Prior to the church being completed Anglican services took place at the Orphan School as is evident from a notice appearing in the"Courier" on April 19, 1833:

"We are happy to inform the inhabitants of New Town and its vicinity that until the parish church is completed arrangements have been made for the performance of divine service every Sunday afternoon at the Orphan School, at 3 o'clock."

On January 6, 1834 a foundation stone laying ceremony was attended by the Governor in the presence of over 3000 people. The building was designed by the Colonial Government’s engineer and architect, John Lee Archer. The church was completed and opened on 20 December 1835. However it remained unconsecrated until May 1838 when the first Bishop of Australia visited Tasmania.

In the early years the congregation was strictly segregated. It consisted of the 'gentry', who rented boxes and pews in the centre of the church. Government House had a private box close to a large open fireplace. There were also 'free' seats under the South Gallery, three steps higher than the rest of the floor. These were occupied by the family servants and other members of the community. The North Gallery (near the Bell Tower) seated the children from the Orphan Schools. The South Gallery was for the convicts, who sat on narrow backless benches securely fastened to the floor. A division in the centre of the galley separated male and female convicts. There were also two ‘warders' or guards' seats, placed strategically by the stairway and a door which was securely bolted.

The church’s tower contains a clock which was made in London in 1818 by Thwaites & Reed. The clock's bell was donated as a royal gift from King William IV. The original bell which was installed in 1834 was dislodged and damaged in a storm. It was repaired but in 1916 the bell was considered dangerous and was melted down and a number of commemorative medallions were struck. A new bell was installed in 1929.

The church is flanked by two gatehouses which were the design of James Blackburn and were added in 1841. In June 1897, trees were planted along St Johns Avenue to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.

From the very beginning the church was closely linked with Queen’s Orphan Schools. The first buildings were erected between 1831 and 1833, predating Port Arthur. The Orphan School precinct was designed by John Lee Archer.

Opening in 1833 as the King’s Orphan Asylum, it was renamed the Queen's Orphan Asylum in 1837. It was the first purpose built institution for orphaned, destitute and neglected children in Van Diemen's Land.

However, many of the young children placed in the Orphan Schools had parents that were still alive. These included aboriginal children, who were among the first generation of “stolen children”. One of these children was the renowned Tasmanian Aboriginal woman Fanny Cochrane Smith and her brother Adam. They were taken from their families and placed in the orphanage as young children while their parents were living only 30 kilometres away at Oyster Cove.

In ‘New Town: a social history’, Kim Pearce draws parallels between the Orphan School and the convict system in Tasmania:

“The Orphan Schools were an integral component of the convict system, with the same mechanisms - regimentation, discipline, punishment and control. Religion and education would transform and socialise children into 'respectable' industrious adults. If nothing else, the Orphan Schools would remove from public view children who, for one reason or another, were defined as destitute”.

Many of the children died and there are graves of more than 400 children and babies in the precinct grounds. The children that survived were sometimes claimed back by their parents when they were given their ticket of leave and sometimes other relatives might come forward to take the children. The children who grew up in the orphanage were only allowed to leave when they were apprenticed out, or found work as a servant or labourer.

The Orphan Schools closed in 1879. In the latter half of the nineteenth century the church precinct became known as New Town Invalid Asylum. Women from the Cascade Depot were relocated to the site in 1874 and men from Cascades in 1879. Many of the original residents were former convicts and were destitute. In the last decade of the nineteenth century there were upwards of 550 people resident in the precinct. There were still at over 400 people living in the precinct when the state-run facility closed in the mid-1990s. Admission to the aged facility was pejoratively known as 'going behind the clock', a reference to the dominant clock tower on St John's church.

A detail taken from a photograph (1863) - Libraries Tasmania (TAHO)
        The full photograph (1863) from which the detail (above) was taken. Libraries Tasmania (TAHO)
A design of the church and orphan school precinct approved by Governor Arthur  - June 1830 (TAHO) 

                   A drawing of the church and the precinct by Emily Bowring c.1858 (TAHO)

      A detail from a plan showing John Lee Archer's original design for the Orphan School Chapel (TAHO)

               A commemorative coin struck from the original bell which was melted down.

                        Fanny Cochrane Smith was one of the "orphans" housed in New Town. (TAHO)

                                  The church tower and clock (2020) - my photograph

                                        Part of the St John's precinct (2020) - my photograph

                                                         The tower (2020) - my photograph

                                                The altar - photograph credit - wiki commons.


Colonial Times, 25 June 1830
Hobart Town Courier, 4 September 1830
Hobart Town Courier, 19 April 1833
The Colonist, 7 January 1834
Mercury, Friday 25 August 1905, page 7
Critic, Friday 20 April 1917, page 7 
Mercury, Monday 21 December 1925, page 5
Mercury, Friday 24 May 1935, page 5
Mercury, Saturday 9 May 1942, page 8

O'Neill, C. (2011). "Queen's Orphan Asylum (1833 - 1879)". Find & Connect, Find & Connect Web Resource Project. Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved 3 April 2017.

Pearce, Kim and Doyle, Susan, New Town: a social history, Hobart City Council, Hobart, 2002, 144 pp.


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