There are stories strewn throughout history that very few people have heard of before. One of these is the story of Port Arthur’s convict-built church.
Port Arthur was established in 1830 and operated for forty-seven years until it was decommissioned in 1877. 12,000 sentences were served there during that time by 7,000 men. Of these men, few of them were innocent. They weren’t convicts who’d stolen a loaf of bread to feed their starving families.
They were, in fact, repeat offenders from all over Australia (no convicts arrived at Port Arthur directly from Great Britain). The convicts dreaded coming to Port Arthur because their strength, sweat, and blood were needed to build the settlement through hard labour. On top of this, the place was remote, cold, and far away from civilisation. If any of them disobeyed or misbehaved at Port Arthur, they’d be lashed, locked away in solitary confinement, or put into chains. They were never treated with dignity; they were treated for what they were: hardened criminals.
The church at Port Arthur, the first brick-and-stone building constructed on-site, was built between 1835 and 1837. It had a peal of eight bells and a thirty-three-metre high steeple, and could sit 1,200 people at a time. In 1888, it was burnt out in a bushfire and wasn’t rebuilt. Old black-and-white photographs of it still exist, along with footage that was shot in the 1920s for the silent film adaptation of For the Term of His Natural Life. Local residents have always said that the church was baptised in blood twice.
The first “baptism” took place on 16th December 1835, when a convict work gang was digging the foundation trenches for the church. Four convicts dug with pickaxes and shovels, with spares of these tools laying on the ground nearby. Another small group wheeled soil away in wheelbarrows. William Riley, one of the convicts who was wheeling away soil, grabbed one of the spare pickaxes and struck fellow Joseph Shuttleworth, who was digging, three times on the head.
Shuttleworth didn’t die straight away, despite his skull being badly fractured. He was still alive and fully aware of what was going on. Shortly after being taken to the hospital, though, he started convulsing and died half an hour later.
After Riley had dealt his three blows to Shuttleworth, another convict named John Chidy grabbed him by the shoulders and escorted him away from the scene. Riley didn’t attempt to escape Chidy’s firm hold.
Riley only ever said three words in his defence: “I am satisfied”. He was taken to Hobart, found guilty of murder, and was hanged.
This was an unexpected murder with no apparent motive. There’s no record of Riley and Shuttleworth having any bad words or a long-lasting feud. A myth has developed that it was one out of the many suicide pacts made between convicts during the convict era. Self-inflicted suicide was a mortal sin for the largely Catholic convict population, but if one died at the hands of others (Shuttleworth at the hands of Riley, Riley at the hands of the hangman), they’d be accepted into Heaven.
The second baptism of the church took place a few months after the first, with the church still under construction. Some convicts were on top of the walls, laying bricks. One fell and hit his head on the wall on the way down, cutting it open. He landed heavily on the ground and died from his injuries. None of the other convicts came forward to tell what happened.
Did the convict lose his balance and fall? Or was he pushed?
The Riley and Shuttleworth situation was recorded in local newspapers as the most hideous and grizzly of crimes, but the second baptism of blood goes almost unrecorded.
After the church was burnt out in 1884, green ivy grew all over the abandoned walls. The thing that’s fascinating is that the ivy never grew on the part of the wall where the second baptism took place. The locals say this followed a very strong superstition that ivy will not grow where a murdered man’s blood has flowed.
The church has earned a reputation for being haunted by Riley and Shuttleworth’s ghosts. Their souls are said to have never reached the gates of Heaven, and are now shackled to Port Arthur by chains that can never be broken.