The Port Phillip Herald of 14th April 166 years ago has its usual lengthy report of the Town Council proceedings of that week. The newly-minted Council must have been a god-send to newspapers looking for material to fill their columns. In tedious detail are written the motions put forward, the speeches given while presenting and seconding the motions, speeches against, objections etc. etc. Not that there was much action from the council, though. Judge Willis had protested against the legality of its incorporation, rendering it unable to collect rates and hence hobbled in actually doing much.
As part of their ineffectual bluster, on 14th April 1843 Councillor Stephen (long time opponent of Judge Willis) rose to put forward a motion. The Council, he said, acted something like a Grand Jury (something that Judge Willis might not have agreed with), and it was within its rights to offer suggestions to the Government. In this spirit, he noted that Judge Willis had often commented on the dearth of spiritual education in the gaols. There were 840 prisoners per annum incarcerated in the gaol, but only 213 visits by the clergy. He gave a breakdown of these visits by denomination: 77 visits by the Roman Catholic clergy; 65 by the Episcopalians; 48 by the Presbyterians and 25 visits by the Wesleyans. He proposed that a sum be put aside for chaplains’ visits, which should be divided amongst the clergy according to the frequency of their visits.
His fellow councillors did not agree. Cr. Smith (who was himself an Episcopalian) argued that one chaplain should be appointed by the government to the position. Cr. Fawkner (Congregationalist) was appalled at the idea that an Episcopalian chaplain might minister to a Presbyterian or a Catholic, and bridled at the idea of a government church. Cr Kerr said that in Sydney, Gov Bourke’s Church Act notwithstanding, Episcopalian chaplains only were appointed to preach to convicts and those on the chain gangs. However, he thought it was none of the Council’s business. And in the end, the motion was put but defeated.
Let’s unpack this a bit. Cr Stephen was right in saying that Judge Willis had been agitating for better religious education in the jails for some time. The Port Phillip Herald of 29 November 1842 reports Willis stating from the bench that he did not know how, in his conscience, he was justified in sending a prisoner to a place beyond the reach of all religious instruction, and bemoaning that despite his utmost exertions to get the services of a chaplain at the gaol in Melbourne, he had not been successful. Certainly he had been lobbying privately to Governor Gipps, although his requests at first had been for a paid position for Rev Thom(p)son, his own Episcopal minister (and incidentally, a steadfast supporter of the Judge) who had been providing these services previously without charge. He changed tack some six months later, decrying the neglect of religious education in jail and noting that under English law, prisoners were entitled to the benefit of a resident chaplain. He pointed out that the Sydney gaol had recently allocated funding of 30 pounds per annum for one chaplain, with two additional chaplains receiving 25 pounds.
The issue of whether there was to be an ‘established’ Church in Australia was a fraught one. As Michael Roe argues in The Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-51, the Church of England was one of the bastions of conservatism in early New South Wales. Governor Bourke’s Church Act gave subsidies to the main religious denominations, thus granting legal equality between the churches. Nonetheless, the battle over Anglican establishment continued, albeit in smaller arenas- like prison chaplains. Judge Willis, who was not backward in his vehement criticism of the Roman Catholic church, seemed to be lending his support- at least at first.
The prominence of the chaplains in execution rituals is striking, but not unexpected. After all, the law drew its legitimacy for capital punishment not only from the State, but also from religious justifications involving eyes and teeth. The first executions in Port Phillip, of the aborigines Bob and Jack, were conducted with the oversight of Rev Thompson, while the bushranger executions later in 1842 involved all three chaplains: the Episcopalian Rev Thompson; the Presbyterian Rev Forbes and the Roman Catholic Fr. Fogarty. The chaplains visited the condemned men, prayed with them, accompanied the coffins and accused men in the parade to the execution spot; even physically escorted them and helped them up to the scaffolds. Their reports of their charges’ penitence and contrition fed into the script of the ritual, published in minute detail for the newspaper public.
So, if Judge Willis was unsuccessful in lobbying for paid chaplains, and if the Council motion lapsed, what happened next? Garryowen tells us that on 1 January 1847, funding was finally allocated for paid chaplain positions. Rev. A. C. Thom(p)son and the Roman Catholic priest Rev. J. J. Therry both shared 25 pounds per annum for chaplaincy services to the gaol.
Michael Roe The Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-1851