No. 1195 - Hobart - Penitentiary Chapel - Old Trinity (1833)

The ‘Penitentiary Chapel’ was the second Anglican church built at Hobart. Known as “Old Trinity”, it was the first church built for the new Trinity Parish established in 1833. The Chapel was designed by John Lee Archer and built on the corner of Brisbane and Campbell Streets at a cost of £1,763. It abutted the northern edge of the prisoner’s barracks which were constructed in the 1820s. The Chapel was built to provide a place of worship for convicts and free settlers. Prior to its construction convicts attended St David’s, where they were confined to the gallery. The new Penitentiary Chapel both freed up space at St David’s and provided a place of worship for free citizens living in Trinity parish.

The chapel was designed in the shape of a tau cross comprising of three wings of tiered seating. Beneath the tiers were solitary confinement punishment cells. The cells varied in height determined by the inclined floors. The chapel’s east and west wings each accommodated 500 prisoners who sat on bench seats. The prisoners would enter the chapel by doors in the southern wall on either side of the raised pulpit. The northern wing of the chapel was reserved for the overflow congregation from St. David’s. Parishioners entered through a doorway in the tower on the Brisbane Street. A large staircase spiralled up inside the tower providing access to cedar pews and was designed to avoid physical and visual contact with convicts. A screen was erected above the public section so as to provide a degree of privacy from the gaze of convicts seated in the adjacent wings.

Construction began in 1831 but delays resulted in the Chapel only opening in late 1833. The tower, which was only built in 1834, incorporated a dual faced clock by Thwaites and Reed of Clerkenwell, London.

The chapel’s opening was well received although it was understood to be only a temporary solution until a new church could be built for the parish. In July 1833 The Colonist and Van Diemen's Land Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser opined:

“Every one knows, who has seen the recent additions, that have been made to the Prisoners’ Barracks, especially the Chapel, will acknowledge that nothing has yet been turned out of hands by the Government in so workman-like a manner. It does great credit to the Colonial Architect and to the builder, Messrs. Archer and Addison. The work is, both stone and brick, of the most substantial kind, and is finished in a style superior to anything in the Colony. It is however, a matter of regret that this fine building, has to be subjected to an "improvement," in breaking a door into the north-west end, to admit the free inhabitants of the town into the Penitentiary Chapel; for, if this had been done at first, not only would a considerable expense have been spared, but much injury to the building would have been avoided. The regular attendance of Crown prisoners at Divine Service at the Barracks, will be much felt at St. David's Church, as it will throw open the gallery in accommodating many more of the inhabitants, who are prevented from attending the Established Church for the want of a second Church”.

“The Penitentiary Chapel will also afford some trifling further accommodation to the public, until the new Church shall be built; which will not only be a vast improvement to the appearance of Hobart Town, but be instrumental, in preventing one half the population thereof in becoming dissenters, or making their own homes places of public worship. We, therefore, hope that the temporary accommodation in the gallery of St. David's Church, or the opening, of the Penitentiary Chapel, will not delay or, prevent the erection of the new church”.

In practice the Chapel was less than ideal for for public worship. A stench emanated from Campbell Street which was near the outlet of the Hobart Rivulet which was effectively an open sewer. The free colonists also objected to the lack of adequate ventilation and lighting. Another problem was the noise of the convicts, both in the chapel and and from below it in the solitary cells. Prisoners in the solitary punishment cells sometimes took to banging on the walls and ceiling during Divine Service, disturbing the proceedings.

The Penitentiary Chapel was never consecrated as a church although services including communion, baptisms, funerals and marriages. The Chapel remained in public use until 1845 when it was closed and limited for use by convicts and prison officers and their families.

From 1845 a Wesleyan-Methodist chapel in High Street (now Tasma Street ) was rented for temporary use as the Trinity parish church until 1848 when a new church on Potters Hill was opened for worship.

In the 1850s the Penitentiary chapel was used as court rooms. In 1860 the nave and eastern transept were converted into two seperate courtrooms. The cedar pews were repurposed as jury boxes and reporter’s benches. The tiered seating was removed and the brick cells beneath the floors were demolished. Dividing walls were built to separate the courts from the western transept, which was retained as a chapel in its original state. This was used by various religious denominations for prisoner’s weekly services until 1961.

When prisoners were transferred to Risdon Prison in 1961, the chapel was dismantled while the criminal courts remained in use until 1975. After the courts closure the west transept chapel was partly restored to reveal John Lee Archer’s original design.

The south wall of the Chapel. The two bricked up doorways were entrances for convicts. Source: Tasmanian State Archives - Item Number AA116/1/120

South-west view of Trinity Church - Hobart Town : H. Melville, 1834. The Hobart Town magazine, Volume 3, May 1834, no.15 - Digitised item from: W L Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania.

A cut-away model of the Penitentiary Chapel -

Old Trinity and Penitentiary - Hobart Gaol from the Domain (c.1900).  E. Pretyman Collection, Tasmanian State Archives - Item Number NS1013/1/509

Campbell Street Gaol, Hobart - interior of chapel (1955) Tasmanian Archives - Item Number  NS2340/1/1
Campbell Street Gaol, Hobart - interior of chapel (1955) Tasmanian Archives - Item Number NS2340/1/3

Sources and Links of Interest:

Colonist and Van Diemen's Land Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser, Tuesday 9 July 1833, page 2
Colonial Times, Tuesday 6 November 1838, page 6
The Courier, Tuesday 25 February 1845, page 3
Mercury, Thursday 1 June 1933, page 10

Church and Community: The changing social role of Holy Trinity Church in Hobart, 1833-1945; Patricia Jane Graham BA (Hons), DipEd, MHum; University of Tasmania December 2015

The story of Holy Trinity: 1833 - One hundred years (1933); compiled by Frank Bowden and Max Crawford; Hobart 1933.


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