By Brian Andrews, Archdiocese of Hobart Heritage Officer

Fronting Harrington Street in Hobart is a splendid group of historic sandstone buildings, namely, St Peter’s Hall (1855), St Mary’s Cathedral (1866), and St Mary’s Presentation Convent (1868), the latter being the core of St Mary’s College. The convent building would appear to be the youngest of the three, however, the genesis of its composition dates back to the year 1847.

In December of that year, the world-famous English architect Pugin (1812–52), a close friend of William Willson (1794–1866), our first Bishop, designed a residence for him. On 9 January 1848, Willson departed London on the barque Tamar at the conclusion of a two-year visit to Europe and England.

With him were the plans for the house, comprising seven sheets of working drawings. Upon his arrival back in Hobart, he entrusted the plans to his protégé, architect Henry Hunter (1832–92). Willson’s intention was that his new residence would be erected where St Mary’s convent building now stands, with a cloister connection to the St Mary’s Cathedral sacristy.

The chronic poverty of Tasmania’s Catholic community put paid to any possibility of work on the new house being speedily commenced. In fact, at the time of Willson’s death in England on 30 June 1866 the intended site for the building was still vacant.

The second Bishop of Hobart, Daniel Murphy (1815–1907), arrived in Tasmania in April 1866, accompanied by a band of Irish Presentation Sisters headed by his sister, Mother Xavier Murphy. He chose to erect a convent building for them adjacent to the partly-completed St Mary’s Cathedral, and turned for plans to Hunter.

Its foundation stone was laid in August 1866, the selected site being precisely where Willson’s house was to have stood.

In a moment of inspiration, Hunter created—or should we say cribbed—the composition and proportions of his design from the unused Pugin house plans entrusted to him all those years ago.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that the convent building, of such outstanding beauty and refinement, has been derived from the creative genius of the man who designed England’s iconic Big Ben clock tower on the British Houses of Parliament.

Tags: Heritage Conservation