Melbourne-based writer and journalist. Purveyor of finally crafted radio plays. A Muppet of a man.
The Penitentiary Chapel is one of those historical tourist sites in the middle of Hobart that hasn’t realised how great it is yet. It’s not overpolished and slick like many highly trafficked historical tourist attractions, instead it’s staffed by volunteers and feels pretty unique.
It opened in 1821 as the Hobart Town prisoner barracks, and has since changed over time as it’s become re-purposed into what stands today – a former gaol/former law court/former chapel with remnants from all three phases. It was originally the place where convict prisoners were kept in Hobart, although if they were particularly troublesome they were sent around the point to the settlement at Port Arthur.
Convict transport ended in 1853, after which the complex continued as a gaol for more then a century. The gaol originally stretched for a block, but little of it remains bar fragments of the walls. The old law courts and a part of the chapel still stand today.
You can only see these if you pay to go along on a tour group guided by a volunteer. They leave a few times a day and spend the better part of two hours meandering through one doorway after another, through a mishmash of rooms and passageways, and essentially through time as you go.
The judges rooms are still intact, and next to these are two courts, at one time wings of the chapel. Underneath them is a series of narrow, dark stone tunnels, allowing the prisoners to be taken from the cell directly into the prisoners block in the courtroom.
The remaining wing of the chapel is intact, a place of uncomfortable benches where the prisoners sat during services. Freemen had a separate wing to themselves, away from the prisoners, which they could enter via the bell tower and never interact with the undesirables – church services in early Hobart were limited and had to accommodate everyone.
Beneath the wing of the chapel are what is left of the solitary confinement cells. As the chapel wing sloped upwards, the cells were under the seating, each smaller and more confined the closer you got to the alter – there were thirty-six. They had no light, and just a dirt floor. The last cell was too cramped to stand up in, and these were used right up until the closure of the prison.
Through a back door and past a couple of store rooms, there’s a door that opens to… a scaffold. A scaffold with a lever and trap door… and a noose swinging slowly in the breeze.
The scaffold had been rebuilt in the 1980s, but the fixtures of it were still the originals. That particular noose was never actually used, as it was cut down each time with the prisoner and discarded – it was just there for dramatic purposes, and it worked. I was standing in the place where 32 people lost their lives.
Most of them were murders and bushrangers, accused of a variety of crimes. A couple were rapists, one was executed for sodomy, and one committed the unfortunately capital offense of robbing a signal station. For many years the bodies were sent to the hospital for dissection after hanging. The last was executed in 1946.
I stood on the platform and, with both hands, pulled the long metal lever hard. The trapdoor fell open with a dramatic clang.