No. 1428 - Hobart - "Old St David's" (1819 -1874)

The focus of this article is on St David’s, Hobart’s first permanent church, which was elevated to the status of a cathedral in 1842. The church stood for a little over 50 years before it was demolished in 1875.

The first formal religious service in Tasmania was conducted in 1804 by Reverend Robert Knopwood, chaplain to the settlement. Knopwood's sermon was, at the request of the Governor, upon "the prosperity of the new settlement, and to pray to God for a blessing upon it.” In the afternoon of the same day, a second service was held at Risdon.

A large tent did duty as the first church then a Government workshop was used. On May 28, 1808, a Government Order was issued, intimating that Divine service would be performed every Sunday, at which the settlers were expected to attend. A small wooden church was erected in St David's burial ground, and beneath it Governor Collins was laid to rest in 1810. A storm destroyed the building a couple of years later. Services were then held in front of Government House, the clergyman and officials using the verandah, while the rest of the inhabitants sheltered beneath the gum trees.

In February 1813 Lt. Gov Thomas Davey gained approval from Governor Lachlan Macquarie of New South Wales of plans for the construction of a permanent church. Other projects, namely a Military Barracks and a Colonial Hospital took precedence.

On February 19, 1817, Governor Davey laid the foundation-stone of St David’s with the day observed as a public holiday. The inscription on the foundation-stone stated that the name given to the building was chosen “to perpetuate the memory of His Honour David Collins, Esq, Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land, and Colonel in the Royal Marine Forces”.

In 1823, Rev. Samuel Marsden, senior chaplain of New South Wales (Australasia then being part of the diocese of Calcutta) consecrated the church. In the same year Knopwood retired to Clarence Plains and was succeeded by Reverend William Bedford.

While St David’s was consecrated on 9 February 1823, the incomplete building was in use from 1819 with the first ‘divine service’ held on Sunday 25 April in that year. Three weeks later a memorial service was held for Queen Charlotte, who had died in November of the previous year. Reverend Knopwood records in his diary:

“Sunday, May 16th, 1819 - Everybody that was able appeared in deep mourning, the church was very full. I waited upon his Honor, Lieut-Governor Sorrell. The Reverend Mr Hill read prayers. He wished it owing to the church having no windows in it and no sermon been preached, the Governor would not have a funeral sermon preached at the first sermon”.

From Knopwood’s diary we also learn that the church was ‘88ft 8ins’ in length and ‘44ft 10ins’ in width and could seat 832, with 442 convicts in the galleries. The church’s square Gothic tower was originally topped with a tall wooden spire. In 1835 this was declared unsafe and was removed and replaced by a structure known as the ‘Pepper Pot’ which was probably designed by John Lee Archer. 

In 1836 New South Wales, which had been proclaimed an archdeaconry in 1824, became a bishopric, and, at the same time, Van Diemen’s Land was made an archdeaconry, under Rev. William Hutchins. The Archdeacon died suddenly in 1841 and the vacancy caused by his death led to the establishment of the diocese. This was effected by Letters Patent, dated August 21, 1842, and in the same year Dr Francis Russell Nixon was consecrated, in Westminster Abbey, as the first Bishop of Tasmania. He arrived in the colony in June, 1843, and on July 27 was conducted by the senior chaplain, Dr. Bedford, to his throne at St David’s, the Cathedral Church of the new Diocese.

Bishop Nixon resigned his office in 1863 and was succeeded by Bishop Bromby. The new bishop set to work at once to build a new cathedral, and, as the result of his efforts, a large sum of money was collected. Efforts were made to resist the demolition of the old building. Various sites were suggested for the Cathedral but the Bishop's will ultimately prevailed.

The foundation-stone of the nave was laid by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh on January 8, 1868, in the presence of the Premier, Sir Richard Dry, and a large concourse of people. With completion of the new Cathedral the old church was demolished in 1874.

A report in the Launceston Examiner records the dismantling of the old St David’s:

“A sale by auction of the fittings, pews, and gallery fronts, came off on Saturday, when the lots of old but well-seasoned cedar and Huon pine were heaped up in the Cathedral ground, and brought together a large assemblage of dealers and on-lookers. Not a few of the persons present expressed regretful feelings at seeing their old pews ruthlessly laid out to be taken hither and thither at the fiat of the auctioneer's hammer, and the reminiscences of old times obliterated and scattered. The hassocks and cushions were in heaps by themselves, but the auctioneer, Mr Roberts, declined to sell them, being the private property of the seat-holders, who had not been invited to take them away - a very wise discretion on Mr Roberta's part, for which some lovers of relics will doubtless be thankful. There was a vast array of prayer-books and bibles in graduated conditions of dilapidation, which did not seem to command attention”.

“The amount realised for the fittings was about £80, which will be appropriated to the building fund of the new Cathedral. The well-known pulpit, in which the venerable and venerated incumbents - or chaplains, as they used to be termed - officiated, is still unmolested. The next thing, we presume, will be the sale of the building itself, which is in good sound condition, and it seems a pity to have to take it down. The old familiar clock will be missed until another tower shall have been substituted…St. David's Church is not an ancient building, having been erected some fifty-five years since, and, but for the rage of modern structures according to “Pugin," the Church might have stood another fifty years at least…”.

“The tablets commemorative of the illustrious departed are still to be seen on the desolate-looking walls of the wrecked structure. The oldest of these is situate on the north side of the Chancel, being in memory of the Rev. W. Hutchins, the first Archdeacon of Van Diemen's Land, placed there by old Dr Bedford….”.

After church was pulled down a large number of of its bricks were used for the construction of private residences.

Old St. David's & New Cathedral - view from Macquarie Street - Libraries Tasmania -  Photographs and Glass Plate Negatives collected by E R Pretyman (NS1013)

State Library of Victoria - Clifford, Samuel. St. David’s Cathedral, Macquarie Street [Hobart] 1859. [detail]

Interior Old St. Davids - Libraries Tasmania - 
Photographs and Glass Plate Negatives collected by E R Pretyman (NS1013)

The demolition of the old St David's Cathedral - Libraries Tasmania - Item Number: NS16971120

Macquarie Street - looking towards St David's Church from Elizabeth Street intersection - Libraries Tasmania -  Album of Photographs of Tasmania (PH1) - Item Number PH1/1/8

St David's Church, sketch of old tower - Libraries Tasmania - Item Number: PH30-1-604

Plan-St David's Church, Hobart Town. Architect, J. Lee Archer (1834) Libraries Tasmania - 
Plans, Architectural Drawings, Elevations and Sections of Public Buildings and Infrastructure (PWD266)


Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 28 July 1874, page 2
The Tasmanian, Saturday 7 February 1891, page 15
Mercury, Saturday 17 December 1904, page 2
Critic, Friday 16 February 1917, page 3 
Critic, Friday 21 March 1924, page 3

St David's Hobart, Souvenir and Handbook, November 1902.

Henslowe, Dorothea I and Hurburgh, Isa. Our heritage of Anglican churches in Tasmania / by Dorothea I. Henslowe ; sketches by Isa Hurburgh s.n.1978 

Stephens, Geoffrey & Anglican Church of Australia. Diocese of Tasmania, (issuing body.) The Anglican Church in Tasmania : a Diocesan history to mark the sesquicentenary, 1992. Trustees of the Diocese, Hobart, 1991.

God and the City : a history of St David's Cathedral, Hobart
P. J. Boyce (Peter John); St. David's Cathedral Foundation (Hobart, Tas.), 2012


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