Religious Diversity in Colonial Tasmania

Peter Blackwell (Brown Ph.D. '88), Rhode Island School for the Deaf [[email protected]]

Among the most desperate places in the world at the beginning of the 1800s were the penal colonies of Australia. English and Irish convicts, sentenced often for petty crimes, were sent either to New South Wales or its connected settlement in Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) controlled by a military bureaucracy. Van Dieman's land was administered by a Lieutenant-Governor under the direction of New South Wales. Thomas Davey, who was known as "Mad Tom" primarily because of his problems with alcohol, was administrator from 1813 to 1816, followed by the profligate William Sorrell until 1824, when he was replaced by Sir George Arthur.

By that time, the free population had increased to 6,525 (with a slightly larger population of convicts), who appealed to England to be independent of New South Wales and on the 3rd of December, 1825, the new colony of Van Dieman's Land was established.

The Van Dieman's Land Company, which was formed in London in 1824, was organized to establish a wool industry in the new colony. The Company received a Royal Charter to select 250,000 acres of land and was confined to selecting the land to the north-west quarter of the island which was virtually unexplored at that time.

Two men, Henry Hellyer and Joseph Fossey, sailed from England in 1825 arriving in Hobart after a long and tedious journey of 143 days. From there they gathered basic necessities and with two other men travelled overland through the midlands and set up base in the uninhabited north-west coast on the 12th. April, 1826. After a period of exploration, five small cottages and a blacksmith's shop were constructed at Emu Bay.

The community had hardly been established when there was a missionary contact. In 1832, two Quakers, George Washington Walker and James Backhouse conducted an evangelical mission to the little community. They described Emu Bay as "a dreary spot". Backhouse and Walker were a ubiquitous presence in Van Dieman's Land, New South Wales and Norfolk Island, objecting often to the harsh treatment of prisoners. Eventually they were instrumental in convincing authorities to experiment with more liberal and humane treatment of the convict population on Norfolk Island.

There were several attempts to attract more settlers from England with skills in whaling, cooperage, brewing, distilling, and almost any mercantile or farming without a great deal of success. To make things worse severe droughts caused a disastrous slump in the economy. The response to recruiting was meagre until June 1851 when gold was discovered at Bathurst in Victoria.

Suddenly the depression which had gripped the infant Colonies turned into a period of boom and prosperity. Prices soared and the Van Dieman's Land Company, which had almost become bankrupt, abandonned its largely unsuccessful farming activities to focus on the sale of land from its vast estates.

The news of the gold rush had spread around the world. Opportunities to be part of the associated growing industries were now attracting settlers who were willing to go to Australia under a contract where they would receive assistance to bring their families after serving two years. The rapidly increasing emigration involved a great variety of skills, experiences, and religious convictions including a number of Dissenters.

One emigrant, John Ward Margetts sailed to Australia leaving Liverpool in January of 1855 on the clipper ship Lightning, with his brother and 12-year old nephew. Their families were to follow two years later. They came from Leicestershire where in the previous generation a certificate had been awarded reading:

I do hereby certify that at the general Quarter Session of the Year of our Sovereign Lord the King holden at the Castle of Leicester in and for the said County on Tuesday the second day of October 1770, The Dwelling House of Stephen Margetts Situation Enderby in the said County was Certified as intended to be used as a Meeting place for Protestant Dissenters from the Church of England for religious Worship. Given under my Hand this sixth day of March 1770, V. Pine for Reuben Parke, Clerk of the said County.

The most identifiable Dissenters in the north-west of Tasmania initially were Primitive Methodists. The Rev. S.H. Palfreyman married another of John's nephews "according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Primitive Methodist Church" in May, 1870.

It is not surprising that the Primitive Methodists were present early as Lieutenant-Governor Arthur himself had a personal revelation of faith while serving in Honduras. He did not like to be called Methodist which suggested enthusiasm and irrationality. His faith was more in the tradition of the Methodist preacher to the convicts of Georgia prior to the American War of Revolution, George Whitfield -- Calvinist Evangelicalism. It was Arthur's goal to see Anglican and Weslyan churches throughout the colony and indeed the number of church buildings grew from four to eighteen in his administration.

Starting in 1867 monthly meetings were held in people's homes until the arrival of an interesting Irish merchant named George Shekleton. He brought with him on the ship from Ireland a prefabricated church building which he assembled on a section of a farm he purchased. For several years he preached in his little Grove Chapel at Tollimore and in January, 1873, the first annual Bible conference was held. Eventually, this chapel became a Plymouth Brethren assembly (as their congregations are called) possibly through the influence of Harrison Ord, an engineer who had been converted under Charles Spurgeon and who became a notable evangelist during the revival in England. In 1876 he moved to Australia and evangelized throughout Victoria and Tasmania.

The members of this assembly were aggressive in local evangelism and by the end of the century they saw many Plymouth Brethren assemblies established along the coast, many of which still exist today.


Coad, Roy. The History of the Brethren Movement. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1968.

Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. NY: Vintage Press 1988

Vital records -- Liecestershire, Tasmania archives

Postcolonial Web Australia Victorian Web