No. 1169 - Saltwater River - The Convict Probation Station Chapel (1841)

Saltwater River (previously Saltwater Creek) is a settlement on the Tasman Peninsula approximately 25 kilometres west of Eaglehawk Neck. It was the site of two convict out-stations of Port Arthur Penal Settlement. Saltwater River Convict Probation Station was an agricultural station and is a separate site from the convict ‘Coal Mines’ which is also at Saltwater River.

The Saltwater River station was the first of six probation stations established on the Tasman Peninsula. The first men arrived on the ship ‘British Sovereign’ on the 29th March 1841. The station was established as an agricultural outpost to supply Port Arthur and in time some 300 acres of land was farmed to produce wheat and vegetables. After 1850 the station was used to house ‘invalid’ and ‘lunatic’ convicts. The last convicts arrived on board the ‘St Vincent” on 26 May 1853. In 1860 the site was closed and leased for commercial farming.

The ‘probation system’ was an experiment in penal discipline unique to Van Diemen's Land. It was introduced in 1839 to replace the ‘assignment system’ which attracted criticism in Great Britain on the grounds that it neither reformed prisoners or provided a deterrent to potential offenders. Probation was similar to the penitentiary system which was built on the belief that both punishment and reform could be achieved by confinement and a regime of hard labour, religious instruction and education. More than eighty probation stations operated in various locations for varying periods. Many were hastily and poorly built. The Probation System was abandoned following the abolition of transportation to the colony in 1853.

A chapel and schoolroom was built at Saltwater River. Religion and religious instruction were viewed as a critical part of the penal system. A 2008 UNESCO report on convict sites in Australia 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 undergoing secondary punishment. Attendance was rigidly enforced and non-attendance was a punishable offence…”.

Little is known about the convict chapel at Saltwater River. In 1846 Administrator Charles Latrobe makes brief mention of it following a visit to the site:

“The buildings at this Station, generally, are of brick and very good, with the exception of the Stores, Hospital etc., Of the Mess Rooms, the first class is very large, and it is also used as a Chapel and School. The third class room is used also as a chapel for the Roman Catholics…”.

Reverend Robert Cook who was the catechist described the daily routine:

“In summer they rose about half past 4 and after washing in tubs…were paraded…, where a religious instructor, usually a layman, read a few prayers which occupied about 5 minutes….At 12 dinner was served. Labour was afterwards resumed when payers were read again….On Sundays Divine Service was performed and all the convicts (whatever their creed) were forced to attend the Church of England ritual….”.

Following the end of the probation system, the Station deteriorated considerably. In 1855 an account by Assistant Colonial Surgeon, Dr Edward Swarbrick Hall, described the shocking living conditions of ‘invalid’ and ‘lunatic’ convicts and former convicts:

“The hospital, well situated, a neat, small, commodious building, was in a most deplorable state of filth and neglect. The walls, black with smoke and filth, floors dirty, bedsteads and bedding; disgusting. The yard strewed with bones, refuse, and rubbish of all kinds….The whitewash or the scrubbing-brush had long been strangers in the building. The barracks for the accomodation of the unfortunate, lunatics had formed a part of the original penal station, and such a wretched provision for the insane I had never before witnessed… There was a large mess-room, unceiled, unplastered, with flagged floor, one fire-place, windows unglazed, but provided with shrunken, shutters of wood….”.

Dr. Hall made no mention of religious instruction and it is likely that the chapel was no longer functioning by this time. In 1878 mention of the convict chapel is made by a visitor to the site, which by this time was mostly in a ruinous state:

“On the hill overlooking the station there were formerly some very neat buildings, two yet remain in very good order, Government cottage and the officers' quarters, on the low ground stands a blacksmiths' shop, prisoners dormitories, stores, a church, which has been convenient for a hay store, and a well-built brick building which was at one time the hospital”.

I have found no further reference to the building and it is not known how much longer it existed. As is the case with most convict probation stations, very little information was recorded or has survived concerning the places of worship or religious activities. Nevertheless these chapels are an important aspect of the convict infrastructure and one which is frequently overlooked.

Saltwater River Convict Chapel - detail from a J.W. Beattie lantern slide

A view of the Saltwater River Probation Station taken from the jetty. Source: sir Francis Boileau (c.1894) State Library of New South Wales 

A view of the station looking towards the jetty. source: Libraries Tasmania

A map of the Saltwater River Probation Station. The chapel is located in the large building on left of the plan. source: State Library of New South Wales

Saltwater River Probation Station Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office: NS4077/1/225


State Library of New South Wales: TAS PAPERS 156: Port Arthur Convict Settlement : Permits, Conveyances and Expenditure, 1858-1860, and Other Convict Records, 1857-1864, Including Plans of Probation Stations, Tasman Peninsula, 1857.

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 <>

Thompson, John : Probation in paradise : the story of convict probationers on Tasman's and Forestier's peninsulas, Van Diemen's Land, 1841-1857 / by John Thompson J. Thompson [Hobart, Tas.] 2007

Bullers, R. (2007). Convict probation and the evolution of jetties in Tasmania. Department of Archaeology, Flinders University.

Haynes, E.F. (1976). Edward Swarbreck Hall: Medical Scientist and Social Reformer in Colonial Tasmania, University of Tasmania.

Tasmanian Daily News, Friday 26 October 1855, page 3
Tribune, Thursday 28 March 1878, page 3

Boileau, F. (Francis) Sir, 1830-1900.  Bridge over Saltwater River, Tasmania [picture] / Francis Boileau  1894  <>


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