It was a sunny afternoon during the weekend of the Tasmanian Wooden Boat Festival when I decided it was about time I visited the Penitentiary Chapel in Campbell Street, Hobart. This is part one of a two-part series about my experience.
Penitentiary Chapel: Prisoners Barracks and Hobart Gaol
by Mike Fry
The Penitentiary Chapel and adjacent buildings is all that remains of the original Prisoners Barracks and Hobart Gaol. Originally built in 1821 the Barracks Buildings housed convicts until 1857 when it was changed to the Hobart Gaol and served that purpose until 1963. The church was built over solitary confinement cells between 1831 and 1833. The church was converted to a prison chapel and law courts in the 1850s and continued to serve as law courts until 1983.
I was warmly greeted by Brian Rieusset who was my guide for the tour. It was fortunate that I was his only visitor at the time as we had an opportunity to chat as we toured the site.
The location of the Penitentiary Chapel and site of the old Hobart gaol has fascinated me for many years. I had often driven down Campbell Street and turned right into Melville Street without realizing that the intersection was actually the site of the original main gate of the Prisoner Barracks with two guard towers on either side of the gate.
The gift shop on the left as you enter the complex was the juror’s waiting room while the visitor’s room where we started the tour was the Sheriff and Judges Associates room, complete with a closet with judge’s robes and wig. The buildings have an eerie feeling befitting a place of incarceration and judgement.
The History of the Tasmanian Court System
Our first stop on the tour was the first of the two Criminal Courts where Brian explained the procedures and history of the court system. The prisoners dock was in the centre under which a tunnel would allow the accused to enter the court from the Vestry entrance.
We moved back towards the entrance of the court as I enquired about the tunnel whereby Brian said he preferred not to use the tunnel to go between courts as they had been known to accommodate, shall we say – spirits! I was curious but at the time quite happy to take the advice and avoid a meeting of the spiritual kind. Yes folks I am a believer, but more about that later.
The next court was similar in appearance but on this occasion we used the tunnel, apparently not as “occupied” as the other. This led us to the vestry and through a door into what remains of the chapel itself. Part of the floor and pews have been removed which reveal the confinement cells and this was done so that offenders could be moved from the adjacent courtyard to the courtrooms.
Today it gives a detailed view of the almost inhumane conditions some of the prisoners were subjected to in small, dark, damp cells. The prisoners were kept in total darkness for all but a few precious minutes each day with some of the cells not much bigger than a dog kennel.
Capital Punishment in Tasmania
Our tour finished up at the execution scaffold where so many poor souls met their fate, the last being Frederick Henry Thompson in 1946. Capital punishment was abolished in Tasmania in 1968.
Images taken around the hangman’s noose usually come out smokey. A hanged man once asked for a last smoke then butted it out and said he would smoke the rest later. Tony (my night guide) took four images, and three of them were smokey. I took two images and both were smokey for no reason.
The Penitentiary Chapel Historic Tour was one of the most informative and enlightening I have done, and it gave me an intriguing insight into the early days of the convict and judicial system in Hobart. Such was my interest that I found myself wanting to know more.
For tours and bookings for the Penitentiary Chapel, visit the official National Trust website.
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