Hobart in the early nineteenth century was a wild place. Much of its population was made up of convicts transported here from Britain, Ireland and other colonies or from Sydney to alleviate the pressures on that penal colony. While some convicts were shipped off to Hobart for minor offences, others were hardened criminals who were never going to become upstanding citizens. Adding to their ranks were free settlers who themselves could be shady characters looking to escape the clutches of the law in the new, isolated colony.

Naturally the prisons were full and the town gaol in Murray Street, near the corner of Macquarie Street, could not cope with the prisoners sent here for offences committed locally. Besides, the structure was crumbling fast because it was built with inferior bricks.

At the same time, new convict arrivals were sent to ‘The Tench’, more formally called the Prisoners’ Barracks Penitentiary, at the other end of Campbell Street, near Bathurst Street. This facility had been built by convicts in 1821. While many of the new arrivals were assigned out, others remained here to work on construction projects during the day. The more dangerous criminals weren’t let out at all but had to work at the barracks themselves, doing jobs such as grinding wheat. By 1830, however, Van Diemen’s Land had 10,000 convicts and the new arrivals kept on coming.

An additional problem for the rapidly growing town was that its Anglican church, St Davids, was becoming too small to accommodate everyone coming to worship. The authorities quickly realised that they needed another church but also more space for housing convicts. Colonial architect John Lee Archer came up with the perfect solution.

In 1829, Archer had designed a new gaol in a cruciform shape, which was to be built next to the courthouse in Murray Street but never came to fruition. Archer then adapted these plans to come up with the design for the new Penitentiary Chapel. His design was ingenious, combining the need for a house of worship with a way to accommodate prisoners.  The arms of the chapel were enclosed by exercise yards that provided easy access from the cell blocks. The eastern and western wings each could hold 500 prisoners seated on hard wooden benches.

Underneath the chapel, Archer put in 36 brick cells, called the Dust Holes. They had no windows, so no light and no ventilation and they were of varying height so that they could support the chapel’s inclined floors above them. Some cells were so small that they had an entrance only 70 cm in height. These cells were used for prisoners in solitary confinement, often prisoners who came back drunk after the day’s work and needed to sober up. Because they were so inhumane, the smallest of the cells were later sealed up.

The northern wing of the chapel would accommodate the overflow of worshippers from St Davids Church. Because these members of the public were free, they needed a separate entrance to the chapel, so Archer added a tower to provide entry from Brisbane Street. On this side, the chapel’s floor level was 5 m above street level because of the cells underneath. Worshippers came in through the tower, where a spiral staircase took them to the chapel door high above. They could sit in cedar pews which they could reserve for £1 per year.

The chapel’s foundation stone was laid in 1831 but it took two years before the building was in full use. Even then, the final fittings were added and the tower completed only six months later. The clock in the tower, incidentally, was made in London in 1828.

Services in the chapel didn’t always go very well. The free worshippers hated being stared at by the prisoners, so a screen was put up, to which the prisoners in turn objected. Worshippers could hear the chains of the prisoners in the cells underneath while those prisoners in church didn’t always pay much attention to the sermon, instead preferring to play cards, selling sweets or tobacco and even rum, or fighting. In 1845, the chapel was closed off to the public so only the prisoners and prison staff could use it.

In 1857, the Penitentiary officially became a gaol and house of correction. Alterations were made so that the new gaol could accommodate the prisoners from the old gaol in Murray Street, which was demolished later that same year. The chapel’s western wing got an execution yard and in that first year, 1857, four people were hanged, all four for murder. Between 1858 and 1946, a further 28 people were executed here, most often for murder. Among those executed at what became known as the Campbell Street Gaol, the Old Hobart Gaol or the H.M. Gaol Hobart was Margaret Coghlin, who had murdered her husband and was the last woman hanged in Tasmania, in 1862.

In the late 1850s, the Chapel’s nave and eastern transept were converted into courtrooms. The cells underneath the chapel were demolished and the space was used for tunnels that connected each courtroom’s docks to a central entrance in the spot once occupied by the pulpit. In 1860, the first court cases were heard in the new courtrooms, which remained in use until 1983.

Not all of the original buildings of the Penitentiary site were preserved. However, the chapel has been restored to its former glory and you can still see parts of the Old Hobart Gaol, including the scaffolding where people were hanged. To visit all the fascinating nooks and crannies of the site, you need to go on a guided tour. You can add some extra fun by going on a ghost tour at night.

Day tours are conducted every day except Good Friday, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Tour times are at 10:00, 11:30, 13:00 and 14:30. On Saturdays there are only two tours, at 13:00 and 14:30. The ghost tours are held on Monday and Friday nights.

A more recent addition is a strolling theatre production known as No Mercy, which starts at 16:30 every day and focuses on the tragic story of Mary McLaughlan, who in 1830 became the first woman to be executed in Van Diemen’s Land, on the charge of infanticide.

Booking for all tours is essential.

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