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Port Arthur and an Awakening Amongst England’s Worst Boys

by | Fri, Sep 17 2021

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Port Arthur Historical Church
Maintain Justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
Isaiah 56:1

No person, city or nation is ever beyond salvation.
Imagine young men of the most depraved and abandoned character living in a Tasmanian convict hell-hole encountering God’s truth and having their hearts revived and their lives radically turned around.
The following is an excerpt from the book “Early Evangelical Revivals in Australia” by Robert Evan – a fascinating book documenting a series of significant awakenings that have taken place throughout our modern history. With our purchase, two weeks ago, of a high powered FM radio License in Tasmania’s SE region, we can reflect on many of the small but significant awakenings that have taken place within the area this new license will broadcast cover.

Excerpt from Chapter 6, used with permission


“About 1,000 people lived at Port Arthur in 1834.  Of these, only five were women, of whom one was a soldier’s wife, and the others were wives of officers.  An educated convict taught the children of the officers.  Between 800 and 900 were felons who had been convicted several times.  It was described as a place for “incorrigible offenders”.

As mentioned, Butters became the second chaplain at Port Arthur, and the job was given to a Wesleyan (dissenting) minister, partly because Governor George Arthur had great faith in the Wesleyans because of the wonderful results at Macquarie Harbour.  There was partly another reason, as later became evident.  Port Arthur was not yet “respectable enough” for an Anglican clergyman to be appointed there.  (37.)

Port Arthur was not as forbidding looking, or as depressing as Macquarie Harbour.  The locality at Port Arthur was cheerful, and many of the surroundings were pleasant, but, the Commandant ruled with “a rod of iron”, and the settlement was regarded by the prisoner population throughout the colony with great dread.  It was known to be a place of profound misery, where the vengeance of the law was carried to the utmost limit of human endurance.  The discipline was strict, and the labour in some of the gangs was exhausting.  The authorities tried to make the place terrible not only by what was inflicted, but also by what was taken away from the prisoners.  For example, all luxuries such as tea, sugar and tobacco, were strictly prohibited.  Hundreds of men were flogged, or sentenced to solitary confinement on bread and water, or had their original sentences prolonged, for possessing only small amounts of tobacco.

But the punishments inflicted by the authorities were only a small part of the sufferings that the prisoners endured.  The prisoners were their own worst tormentors.  Their treachery and heartless cruelty to each other was appalling.

The chaplain was the only person at Port Arthur who thought that conversion and permanent reformation of character was a reasonable possibility.  All others there thought such things were quite impossible.

Butters described his first Sunday at Port Arthur.  “Early in the forenoon the prisoners were drawn up in front of the settlement, and examined by the Commandant to see that their hands and faces had been duly washed. and that their clothes and irons were in proper order.  If anyone had a complaint to make, he was permitted to state his case, after which as many as could be crowded into the building then used as a place of worship, were marched thither;  those who were the most heavily ironed being placed in closest proximity to the preacher.  Immediately in front of the pulpit was a small reading desk, in which was the clerk, an educated Scotchman, who had been twice or thrice transported; and who, in consideration of his reading the responses, and rendering some other special services, received from the Government stores a very small weekly amount of tobacco.  Before him were five or six hundred men, packed together as closely as possible; some of whom were clad in the dark or yellow clothing peculiar to the prisoners of the colony; others wore garments, one portion of which was black and the other yellow, to indicate the class of offenders to which they belonged; while probably one half of the entire company was clothed in sheep skins, minus the wool.  Some who had made attempts to escape, were, in addition to this, chained to logs of wood, which they had to take with them when they moved.  The noise made by the clanking of the chains as the prisoners rose when we commenced worship, and when they changed their position during the service, produced a strange effect upon me at first.”  (38.)

There was a voluntary week-night lecture which was attended by about two or three hundred men.  A school for prisoners was also held on four evenings per week.  The Bible was regularly read to the prisoners in solitary confinement, “when the convicts would shed bitter tears and make many strange confessions.”  Butters visited the hospital two or three times per day.

Marvellous instances of conversion were witnessed amongst these men.  One instance only will be mentioned.  Butters said,  “I knew a man whom no discipline could tame.  He was flogged nearly to death, and kept on bread and water for weeks and months in solitary confinement.  The official report on his case was “worse and worse”, till he was induced to listen to the instructions of the Missionary.  Eventually, he was enabled to believe in Christ for salvation.  He received forgiveness, in which act of Divine sovereignty the power of sin was broken, especially over what had previously seemed to be an ungovernable temper.  He became a pattern of Christian meekness, and, so far as I could judge, in every respect a consistent Christian.  And that not for a few weeks or months only, but for years, until he was removed from the settlement for “good conduct”.”

Apart from this main section of the penal colony there was a special section for boys.  Butters said that “convict boys of the most depraved and abandoned character” were sent here from the hulks on the river Thames, and from the various other prisons in the British Isles.  “There was no kind of wickedness of which they were not capable.  Most of them had been incarcerated with elder offenders before they saw Van Diemen’s Land; and some of them had spent the greater portion of their lives in prisons, and gloried in being able to outdo in villany (sic) the most experienced of the felon population.”  (39.)

There were about 280 boys in this place, and a school was run for them by an educated convict, helped by others, and all under the supervision of the chaplain.  Butters conducted a service here each Sunday evening, and visited it many other times during the week.

Butters said, “By the great mercy of God the establishment was visited in 1835 by a gracious awakening.  A boy on his knees asking for pardoning mercy, was a sight that many of them had never before witnessed.  Within a short time more than forty of these youthful convicts were found crying for mercy; they poured out their full hearts in floods of tears, refusing to be comforted till assured of God’s forgiving love.  When once enabled to trust in Christ for salvation, their joy was ecstatic.  Of their own accord they formed themselves into a kind of class, and at once commenced to help each other.  It was common for them, after the work of the day was done, to retire to a secluded spot by the water-side for prayer.”  (40.)

When Butters left, several of these youths went with him to Hobart, where they were assigned to settlers in the interior, or were apprenticed to tradesmen.  “The testimony of those with whom those boys lived was everything that could be desired.”  (41.)”


The above excerpt illustrates some of these amazing events in Robert Evan’s book Early Evangelical Revivals in Australia which can be downloaded from the Australian and South Pacific history book collection page on the Christian History Research website. 

Robert has also published a separate book titled Early Revivals and Evangelism in Tasmania. Please contact to purchase.

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