Penitentiary Chapel and Criminal Courts


Henry Melville, 'South-west View of Trinity Church', 1834 (W.L. Crowther Library, SLT)

The Penitentiary Chapel and Criminal Courts are situated on a Hobart site occupied for penal uses from 1821 to 1983. The complex, containing one of the most beautiful church towers in Australia, is of national importance.

By the late 1820s increasing numbers of convicts were placing stress on Hobart's convict accommodation, and a penitentiary, 'The Tench', was built (182728) in Campbell Street. The same overcrowding affected Hobart's only Anglican church, St David's, and Lt-Governor Arthur directed the Colonial Architect, John Lee Archer, to design a second place of worship. Archer designed a building to serve both convicts and free citizens, with 36 solitary confinement cells underneath as an adjunct to the penitentiary. His design was cruciform, without a sanctuary but with a nave, while the east and west transepts had floors tiered or sloped towards a central pulpit, visible to all three wings. This clever arrangement allowed the free citizens to use the nave for worship, hidden from 'the uncouth gaze' of the (640) prisoners in the wings.

During construction (183033) it was considered that such a penitentiary needed a clock. Archer designed a clock tower plus a separate entrance for free worshippers. The result is the beautiful structure we see today: Georgian with Renaissance influences; arguably Archer's aesthetic masterpiece; acknowledged as one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in the nation.

This Chapel, called 'Trinity Church', was opened for worship in 1833. However the shortcomings of convicts and free citizens worshipping in close proximity were soon apparent, and in 1834 a new Trinity Church in North Hobart was under discussion. As the Chapel's ecclesiastical use was regarded as temporary and stigmatised by penal associations, it was never consecrated and came to be called 'Old Trinity' after the parish built the Holy Trinity Church. In 1857 the crumbling gaol in Murray Street was closed and about 500 prisoners were moved to the Penitentiary.

By this date, the Supreme Court premises, which had been established first in Murray Street then Macquarie Street, were cramped, so new courts were ordered for the Campbell Street site. The conversion of the Chapel to two courtrooms with associated offices, judges' chambers and jury rooms began in 1859. The tiered wooden floors were removed, the brick walls underneath demolished, and stone-lined passageways connected the docks with the gaol entrance. Level floors, communicating doors and requisite facilities followed.

In 1943 the gaol was described as 'unsafe and ruinous', and in the 1950s a new gaol was built at Risdon, the last prisoners leaving the Campbell Street site in 1960. The courts continued in their various uses up to 1983. By the 1960s the chapel was in bad repair, but with stewardship by the National Trust it was restored during the 1980s to its original condition again depicting the original Archer design and conserving all that this building reflects of Hobart's history.

Further reading: B Rieusset, Penitentiary Chapel, Hobart, 1986; G Brown et al, The Penitentiary Chapel & Criminal Courts, Hobart, 1990; F Bowden & M Crawford, The Story of Trinity, 18331933, Hobart, 1933; Royal Commissioners' Report to House of Assembly, 1943 (Parliamentary Paper No 8); Report of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, 1956 (Parliamentary Paper No 67); Mercury, 16 November 1988, 5 November 1988, 16 July 1989, 9 October 1990.

Jeff Ransley