A Chapel for the Gaol
The Hobart Penitentiary Chapel was built in the early 1830s.
It was used as a chapel for the convicts’ Barracks and Penitentiary which later became the Hobart Gaol. In late 1859 parts of the chapel were converted into two Supreme Criminal Courts, complete with execution yard and gallows. A more detailed history can be read here.
An Insight into Convict Lives
Brian Rieusset has been associated with the site since the 1950s. I will put some of his story in a future post. From the mid 1980s Brian worked with the National Trust Tasmania on the site, as property manager, researcher and curator.
Brian and other volunteers would take visitors around the courthouse, the chapel and other rooms, the underground cells and corridors, the gallows and the yards. The site provided an insight into the lives of convicts in the early years of the colony.
A Generous Gift
Towards the end of 2010, a visitor to the site took Brian aside to say that at home in his garage he had an old convict bed.
The visitor offered to donate the bed to the site, if someone could come collect it.
Brian was ecstatic. Beds such as these were invaluable as concrete illustrations of the lives of convicts in the earliest days of Hobart.
“Although there must have been an incredible unknown number of these beds in the 19th century, the number remaining today is exceptionally small.” (Brian Rieusset, private communication, 2017)
Within days, Brian and some friends had loaded the bed onto his trailer and taken it to the Penitentiary.
A Decaying Floor
Under the floor of the Chapel, among the solitary confinement cells, there were two “Refractory” cells. These had been created in the 1870s, out of some of the smaller solitary confinement cells, as a more permanent isolation cell for prisoners who needed to be kept separated from the others. One of them already had a convict era bed.
The second Refractory Cell was in poor condition with wall panels missing and unstable and rotting floorboards. Brian knew that the original floor joists had been laid on the dirt floor in the mid 1800s and they were badly decayed. Before the floor could take the weight of an iron bed, the joists would have to be repaired and strengthened. With two of the Penitentiary volunteers, he lifted some boards to inspect the joists.
And at that point, they found something that would eclipse even the significance of the convict bed.
Under the floorboards, lying amongst the debris and rubble on the old dirt floor, there was “a remarkable assortment of archaeological artefacts” which had lain undisturbed for over 160 years.
Brian and the volunteers could see that among these dusty shapes there were items used by convicts in the early days of the penitentiary. Eventually they were to uncover a treasure trove of history.
“At least three clay pipes, two hand-carved wooden betting or gambling pieces, a buckle from a belt or braces, an ebony knife handle and a large assortment of bones, presumably from prisoners’ meals.” Rieusset.
The volunteers could see the significance of their find immediately and everyone’s first impulse was to snatch up the incredible pieces and “run around” showing them to interested historians, or to put them on display for visitors. But Brian knew they had to restrain themselves.
“There was only one path to follow. I quickly replaced the floorboards without touching a thing.” Rieusset.
The Archeologists Arrive
The National Trust could not afford to employ professionals to investigate the find. Brian approached archaeologists from the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA) and in July 2011 the project was begun. It was conducted as a joint project between Brian at the Penitentiary Chapel Historic Site, Dr David Roe and Annita Waghorn from PASHMA, with visiting Canadian researcher Jennifer Jones, and archaeologist Dr Martin Gibbs, an expert on convict sites from the University of Sydney. National Trust Conservation Manager, Linda Clark, supervised and advised on the assessment, conservation and eventual presentation of the artefacts.
On their knees in a tiny cell
It was cramped work. Three people worked on their knees in the cell that measured around 3 ½ by 2 metres.
“It was extremely time consuming and exhausting.” Rieusset.
They brushed at the soil, lifting small samples which were taken outside, sifted and examined for tiny artefacts. They meticulously measured recorded, photographed and identified each find. The depth of the spoil and the number of artefacts it contained was considerably greater than expected.
“The archaeologists were naturally exceedingly professional with their measurements, collection of soil material, recording, photographing and identifying each find. I was greatly impressed that at all time I was treated as an important member of the team. I was carefully shown how to delicately work with the cell spoil with every aspect explained and my opinion sought. The knowledge and humbling experiences which I gained working with a dedicated team of experts was outstanding .” Rieusset.
The project had allocated one week to complete the dig, but this was spread out over a longer period of time, as the members had other commitments. The PAHSMA members were travelling 100 km from the Tasman Peninsula, arriving early every morning and returning late in the afternoon.
“PAHSMA chief executive officer Stephen Large was exceptionally considerate in allowing them to complete the project.” Rieusset.
“An unbelievable treasure trove”
In the tiny spaces between joists, they found hundreds of artefacts and bones
Pipes: The team recovered nineteen tobacco pipes, mostly clay earthenware, with markings that showed they had been made in Ireland and Scotland. There were also two wooden briar pipes.
Slate Writing Tablets: The find included many small pieces of slate inscribed with lines and hand-written words including: “Name”, “Ship” and “Date”. It is thought that the tablets were used to record prisoners’ details and movements around the barracks and gaol.
Gaming pieces: The dig uncovered many handmade wooden gaming pieces (used for gambling). They had been cut with patterns of intersecting lines and were almost identical with tokens found at other Australian convict sites. There were also pieces of slate drilled and modified, possibly to be used as gambling pieces. There was one commercially made gaming piece, similar to a draughts piece.
There was an array of glass, buttons, cloth and leather scraps, possibly from braces and footwear. There were earthenware beads that may have come from a set of prayer beads and several coins, the earliest being an 1806 English farthing.
There was also a large number of animal bones. Once identified and analysed, they will yield information about the meals provided to convicts and prisoners.
How did they come to be there?
The objects had lain undisturbed since the cells had been redeveloped in the 1860s. They were spread through a thick level of debris and rubble. It was apparent that at some stage the floor boards of the cell had been replaced over this mix.
One possibility is that there had been a heap of dirt and bits of rubbish in a passageway outside the cell and that the easiest method of disposing of it had been to sweep it into the space and lay the new floorboards over it.
An Intimate Insight
The cache was thrilling for historians because of the variety of material and the fact that it is something that belonged to and was used by the convicts themselves.
“These kinds of deposits are incredibly rare – to get what we call in situ deposits below a floor in a standing convict building – there’s probably a handful in Australia.” (David Roe on “ABC The World Today” 2011)
Most of what we know about our past comes from ledgers, descriptions and reports kept by administrators and the literate members of the ruling classes, but the items discovered under the Chapel cells belonged to the convicts themselves. They were used on a daily basis and, in some cases they were hand-made. They have been held in the hands of convicts of nineteenth century Hobart. They contribute to our knowledge of “convict material culture” (Roe, ABC World Today, 2011).
These items are invaluable to historians and those of us who enjoy imagining the past lives of others, because the knowledge they provide is intimate. They put us directly in touch with people of long ago — make us aware of how different their lives were from our own, but also of our common humanity.
One More Discovery
Deep under the debris and objects, there was one more significant discovery lying in wait.
“Probably the most exciting discovery was that huge sandstone foundations, conceivably from the original 1831 cells were still intact under all the spoil, but orientated in a completely direction to what we had anticipated. There are no known existing plans from Colonial Architect John Lee Archer’s 1831 cell construction.” Rieusset.
The objects have been returned from the Port Arthur site to the National Trust and are now being held in storage on the site.
One hope is that the cell could be displayed with the floorboards partially removed so that visitors could see the dig site, the exposed foundations. Possibly the artefacts could be displayed in a case nearby.
References and further reading
Brown, George et al (2007) The Penitentiary Chapel Historic Site. ; Eds: E and P Mercer L. Wilson and W. Boyles. Hobart: National Trust Tasmania.
Ransley, Jeff (2006), “Penitentiary Chapel and Criminal Courts”. Hobart: Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies. http://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/P/Penitentiary.htm
Rieusset, Brian (2005), Penitentiary Chapel : a brief history of the Penitentiary Chapel and criminal courts. Howrah, Tas: B. Rieusset.