Hauntingly photogenic, the Chapel at Port Arthur stops you in your tracks…especially once you delve into its past. After all, this Chapel witnessed such horrific, systemic brutality, that it’s hard to conceive how Christianity had any place here. Indeed, I can almost hear those convicts crying out: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
As I explained in my previous post, we visited the Chapel on our recent visit to Port Arthur. If you didn’t know its history, you could easily describe it as a work of art with its striking silhouette representing resilience over adversity and withstanding the ageing effects of time. Moreover, whether you believe in them or not, these ruins definitely speak of ghosts!
Last night, I went trawling through old newspaper accounts about the chapel and thought I’d provide a few excerpts to give you a feel for its former horrors and glories.
In 1842, the late Mr. David Burn, of Rotherwood, Ouse, made an excursion to Port Arthur and his account of attending the Chapel is very interesting:
“Next day (January 9,1842) being Sunday, we proceeded, after breakfast, to see the convicts mustered prior to their being marched to church. They were drawn up in three lines, each gang forming a separate division, the overseers (convicts) taking their stations in the rear. It was hideous to remark the countenances of the men, to which their yellow raiment, a half black, half yellow, P.A., and their respective numbers stamped in various parts, imparts a sinister, a most revolting expression. Scarcely one open set of features was to be found. To read’ their eyes, it seemed as though they were speculating the chance of gain or advantage to be hoped from us. Crime and its consequences were fearfully depicted in their ill-omened visages, and we turned from the disagreeable caricature of humanity with as much disgust as pity and regret.
Muster over, the men were marched with the utmost silence to church, whither we shortly followed — a military detachment, with loaded arms, being so stationed as to command the entire building. This necessary arrangement in a great degree destroyed the solemnity of the worship. The crew of the Favorite were present, their frank, manly, jovial countenances offering a striking contrast to the lowering aspects of the miserable yellow jackets. Service was performed by our fellow- traveller, the Rev. Mr. Simpson ; and the occasion being in aid of the Sunday schools, the worthy pastor took the opportunity of remarking, that as cash was a scarce commodity on the settlement, the I O U of any individual disposed to contribute would be gladly received, an observation which excited a general grin, since, however beneficial it might prove to the cause, the expression seemed more fit for the gaming table than the pulpit ; the language, nevertheless, was soon forgotten in the motive.
The Church of Port Arthur is a beautiful, spacious, hewn stone edifice, cruciform in shape, with, pinnacled tower and gables. Internally, it is simple, but neatly fitted, affording accommodation for upwards of 2,000 sitters. There is no organ ; but a choir has been selected from among the convicts, who chant the psalms with considerable effect. As yet no clergyman of the Established Church has been resident, the religious duties having hitherto been undertaken by those zealous and indefatigable Christians the Wesleyans. Mr. Manton is the present respected pastor, a gentleman who has devoted himself not only to call the sinners of Port Arthur to repentance, but who has erstwhile laboured earnestly in the same good cause at the now abandoned settlement of Macquarie Harbour.1″
On Saturday 12 January, 1952…. this account of the Chapel’s history appeared in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate:
“The church is noted for its high arches and soaring spires. It is of artistically worked freestone, and has a paved floor. Fire and time have ravaged the timber and the fine stained-glass windows. A convict named Mason was credited with having designed the church, but investigations have shown that it was designed by James Blackburn, who was later Town Surveyor of Melbourne. The church was interdenominational, and therefore never consecrated. It could accommodate 2000. Legend has it that residents of the area almost lynched a farmer who started a fire, a spark of which caught the roof and gutted it and the interior timber of the church.”2.
You wouldn’t know it looking at the Chapel now, but it was once covered in ivy.
As The Clipper reported on Saturday 22 April, 1893:
“Anyone who has been to Port Arthur, or has seen a photograph of the church, must acknowledge that the building owed much of its beauty to the enormous quantity of ivy which covered its outside walls. The preservation of this ivy was of much interest to the residents, but towards the latter days of the settlement, when discipline grew lax, the officials allowed their goats to graze within the church enclosure, which ate the leaves and tender shoots away as high as they could reach while standing erect on their hind legs. Although so thick on most parts of the wall there was one spot where it never grew at all — which was often a subject of remark by visitors and others. The reason given is not generally known. While the church was in process of erection by prison labor and when almost finished two prisoners were fixing the leads upon the roof, when they had a quarrel. The one knocked the other down, who fell heavily to the ground and was killed. In falling he struck the building, his blood staining the ground below. It is a curious fact, but the ivy never grew on that spot.”3.
However, my newspaper journey exploring all these fascinating historical details, has in swamped what was OUR visit to the chapel. As I’ve mentioned before, Geoff’s third Great Grandfather served as a convict at Port Arthur. Therefore, as we explored and experienced every single nook and cranny, we were thinking of him. Indeed, we were family coming back to a very strange sense of home.
Therefore, as I photograph the chapel perfectly silhouetted against an azure sky, I think of him hoping that against the odds, he might have found some solace here.
What are your thoughts about the ruins of Port Arthur?
- Launceston Advertiser (Tas. : 1829 – 1846) Thursday 26 January 1843 p 4 (From Frazer’s Magazine, for September. J Concluded).
2. Saturday 12 January, 1952 the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate.
3. The Clipper (Hobart, Tas. : 1893 – 1909) Saturday 22 April 1893 p 4 Article