HERITAGE TREASURES

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HERITAGE TREASURES

Undoubtedly the most splendid chalice in the possession of the Archdiocese of Hobart is the one known as the Willson chalice. Its elegant engraved and gilt sterling silver body is a masterpiece of the silversmith’s craft, enriched with champlevé enamel panels in brilliant red, blue and green. Its story is a fascinating one linking together key figures in the early years of the Tasmanian church.

By 1853 our first Bishop Robert William Willson, suffering ill health as a result of his unremitting labours on behalf of convicts, the poor and the mentally ill, was advised to take a recuperative trip back to England. His clergy decided to express their esteem for him by presenting him with a parting gift—funds to spend on himself as he saw fit. Just at this time another event occurred that would have an impact on Willson’s purchase. It is best told in the words of an article that appeared in the Standard of May 1888 farewelling the great Tasmanian architect Henry Hunter who was moving to Brisbane. Hunter had been baptized in Nottingham by Willson in 1832 and had migrated with his family to South Australia in 1849, subsequently moving to Van Diemen’s Land in 1851 upon the death of both parents.

‘Shortly after his arrival with his parents in Adelaide and while he was but yet a youth, his father entered into a business which necessitated his obtaining a considerable credit from an English merchant. The venture unfortunately did not eventuate in a success but in a heavy loss, and … at his death there was a debt of some £320. [Hunter] determined, with the Divine blessing, that some day that amount should be paid to the last shilling. Two or three years later on he found his way, like thousands of others, to the [Bendigo] goldfields in Victoria, and though only moderately successful there as a miner, he returned to Hobart early in ’53 and placed in the hands of the venerated Bishop Willson nuggets of gold of sufficient value to liquidate all his father’s debts. The priests of the diocese having been made acquainted with this noble deed, resolved to purchase a portion of the gold [thirteen ounces] for a presentation in an acceptable form to His Lordship. The good Bishop visited England in ’54 and was the proud bearer of his young friend’s money and placed it in the hands of his father’s creditor; and the gold purchased for presentation to the Bishop was converted into the grand chalice which is now used on the greater festivals in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Hobart.’

This magnificent chalice was manufactured in Birmingham from design details produced by Willson’s late friend Pugin, England’s greatest early-Victorian designer. It was gilt with Henry Hunter’s Bendigo gold and engraved under its base in Latin with the text: ‘To the most esteemed Prelate Robert William Willson Bishop of Hobart Town a deeply admiring Clergy give and bestow [this chalice] on the fifth day of February in the year of the Saviour 1853’.