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A Short History of the Church of England in Victoria 1847-1947

By H. W. Nunn

Issued by the Editorial Committee of the Centenary Celebrations, Melboune Diocese, 1947.


EARLY YEARS--1803-1847.

CHURCH life began in Australia in 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip R.N., entered Port Jackson to raise the English flag on Australian soil, and to found the City of Sydney. His chaplain, the Reverend Richard Johnson was the first clergyman of the Church in Australia. He was soon followed by the Reverend Samuel Marsden another chaplain. In 1814, when the Diocese of Calcutta was founded, Australia came under episcopal supervision, although little if any actual control was effected. Ten years later however, in 1824, an attempt was made to organise the Church in Australia, when Thomas Hobbes Scott, Master of Arts, Oxford, and previously secretary to Royal Commissioner J. T. Biggs (2), was appointed Archdeacon of New South Wales. He however remained in Australia for only a short period, and the Rev. W. G. Broughton succeeded him as Archdeacon of New South Wales in 1829, and became the first and only Bishop of Australia in 1836.

The settlement of Port Phillip was coincident with the foundation of that first bishopric of Australia. In the meantime however, in the year 1803, two vessels, "H.M.S. Calcutta," and the transport "Ocean," had conveyed an expedition of 300 convicts, a few settlers, together with civil and military establishments under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins, to Sullivan Bay, Sorrento, with the intention of founding a penal settlement. The chaplain to the fleet was the Reverend Robert Knopwood, a genial, hard-riding parson of the 18th century, and on October 23rd, 1803, he conducted the first Divine Service at Port Phillip. On November 13, he preached the first sermon at Port Phillip, taking as his text the words from Psalm 139: "If I take the wings of the morning and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there also shall Thy hand lead me; and Thy right hand shall hold me," (3). On November 28th, he celebrated the marriage of "Richard Garratt, prisoner, to Hannah Harvey, free," and on Christmas Day of that same year he christened William [11/12] James Hobart Thorne, the first white child born at Port Phillip and the son of Sergeant Thorne of the Marines from "H.M.S. Calcutta." Lt.-Colonel Collins and Lieutenant Johnson R.N., acted as godfathers.

In the meantime, "Bobby" a likeable, sport-loving and unclerical chaplain, had found time to "set my white hen on 21 eggs this morn" (December 10th), and very shortly afterwards to "set the spotted hen," and to prove that the last shall be first, gleefully noting on January 8th, 1804, that "my brown hen had 7 young chickings." (4).

On May 20th, 1804, Lt.-Colonel Collins withdrew the whole expedition to Tasmania, and settled on the shores of the Derwent, where Knopwood became the first chaplain of Tasmania.

Settlement in Victoria was quiescent for the next twenty years, until in 1834, it received its first permanent English settlers in the Messrs. Henty, of Launceston, late of the Swan River settlement in Western Australia, who finally, at the end of their wanderings, set up a whaling station at Portland. Stephen Henty regularly conducted services in his thatched barn, and ultimately a church 40 feet by 25 feet was built at Portland.

Melbourne, "the place for a village," was founded the following year by settlers from Tasmania, headed by John Batman and followed closely by John Pascoe Fawkner. It is interesting to note, that on October 18th, 1835, "Fawkner read prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, and a sermon to his householders and others" (5), and very shortly afterwards opened the first public house at the Settlement, without a licence. Also Dr. Alexander Thomson, a surgeon and catechist, acting on behalf of the Port Phillip Association, held Church of England service each Sunday in his tent under a great gum tree which stood on the present site of St. Paul's Cathedral. The first Church service at the Settlement by an ordained minister, however, was held at John Batman's house or shed by the Reverend Joseph Orton, a Wesleyan minister from Van Diemen's Land, on the morning of April 24th, 1836. It was a "select but rather motley congregation, for in addition to Mr. Batman's family and attendants and his few associates, there was a sable group of Sydney natives, attired in white Indian costume, and a village of Port Phillip aborigines of both sexes, robed in opossum skins, who seemed to be [12/13] more impressed than astonished at the simple but solemn and earnest ceremony." (6). In the afternoon the Rev. J. Orton conducted a service in the open air. The Book of Common Prayer was used on both occasions.

In June, the first death occurred at the Settlement, and a small child, William Goodman, was buried in the cemetery on the site of the Flagstaff gardens. This death was shortly followed by that of two shepherds killed with tomahawks by blacks. A layman, James Smith read the Church of England burial service.

Towards the end of 1836, Captain William Lonsdale of the King's Own Regiment, was sent from Sydney, and on October 1st of that year, he took up his new duties as the first Police Magistrate of the new Settlement. To him, the Bishop of Australia, Dr. W. G. Broughton presented 32 volumes "to be preserved as a Lending Library for prisoners of the Crown." He later forwarded some Bibles, Prayer Books and elementary school books for their use also. Very shortly afterwards, Captain Lonsdale reported to the Bishop that there was no clergyman at the Settlement, and stated that "some of the inhabitants read the Church service at their own residences to such as were disposed to attend, and that he did the same to the soldiers and the convicts." (7). Two laymen however, were responsible for occasional ministrations; George Langhorne who had been appointed Missionary to an Aboriginal Mission Station on the banks of the Yarra Yarra, beyond Anderson Street, South Yarra; and James Smith who became secretary of the subscribers for the erection of a wooden church in William Street, when that subscription was started after the first death and funeral at the Settlement. The building was offered to Captain Lonsdale for use as a church and schoolroom, as he stated subsequently "for Church of England service." The Commandant collected further subscriptions, and the sum spent in plastering the walls and installing a cedar pulpit and pews raised the total expenditure to about £100. It was, however, "a mere wooden shell, and incapable of keeping out the cold." In December 1838, the building was moved to the westward, and rebuilt with additions on the site adjoining that of the future pro-Cathedral, St. James' Church. It was "surmounted by something very like the traditional gallows, carrying a large and sonorous ship's bell." (8). The [13/14] foundation stone of the pro-Cathedral itself, was laid on November 9th, 1839, by Mr. La Trobe, the newly appointed Superintendent of Port Phillip District. The cost of the church was about £6,000, of which £1,560 came from the Colonial Treasury. Further extensions were made in 1840, increasing the sittings to 200. At this period, there were three churches in Melbourne; St. James' Church of England; one Wesleyan Chapel; and a temporary wooden building which was the precursor of St. Francis' Roman Catholic Church. There were also 16 public houses, three butcher's shops, and three baker's shops.

In the meantime, however, the Reverend T. B. Naylor, of Hobart Town, a Church of England clergyman, visited the Settlement, and conducted service on 30th April, 1837. He also solemnized the first marriage at the Settlement, and christened John Melbourne Gilbert, son of James and Mary Gilbert, the first white child born at this Settlement. Until the arrival of a resident minister, James Smith and George Langhorne conducted the services at St. James' Church. The Reverend James Clow, a Presbyterian minister officiated there for about a month, and so did the Reverend James Clow for several months in 1838, but after Bishop Broughton had paid a visit in April of that year, the Commandant announced that after the arrival of the first Church of England resident clergyman, the amiable Reverend James Couch Grylls, on October 12th, 1838, the building would be required exclusively for Church of England use. Mr. Grylls received a Government stipend of £150 a year.

During his Episcopal visit, Bishop Broughton officiated at St. James' Church on Easter Day (15th April, 1838), administered the first Holy Communion at Port Phillip, christened six children, and consecrated the Church of England portion of the Melbourne Cemetery, now occupied by the western portion of the Victoria Markets. As to Port Phillip, "it is evident," wrote he, "that within a short interval there will be in the colony few stations, with the exception of Sydney herself, which will demand more assiduous care and attention on behalf of its spiritual interests, than the town whose streets extend over a spot where, not more than three years ago, the Yarra Yarra flowed through an almost uninterrupted solitude." (9).

[15] During that first year of the Rev. J. C. Grylls' ministry in Melbourne there were 55 baptisms, 42 marriages and 42 burials amongst his parishioners, who numbered between 700 and 800. There was also a day school at St. James', with an average daily attendance of 30 males and 20 females under the schoolmaster, William W. Abbott, whose salary was paid from a combination of tuition fees, voluntary subscriptions and a grant from the Colonial Treasury (10).

On January 7th, 1840, the Reverend James Yelverton Wilson, a missionary from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, in England, arrived via Sydney, and relieved the Rev. J. C. Grylls, who returned to England on private business. On his return to Australia, Grylls remained in Sydney, where he died in 1854. In the same year (September 26th, 1840) the diplomatic Reverend Adam Compton Thomson arrived in the brig "Jewess," and although during the next year a meeting of subscribers for the erection of a church took place in Geelong, in June of 1942, Wilson went to Portland to reside, where after preaching in the Court-house for a year, he then conducted service in a brick building that had been built for a schoolhouse and a temporary place of worship. In Melbourne itself during October of that same year, "Parson Thomson" as he was universally styled, was finally able to open St. James' Church, the foundation stone of which had been laid in 1839. The Church was in an unfinished state, without spire, with unplastered walls, and with pews removed from the adjoining wooden church. On November 30th, he was also able to open a little stone building at Brighton, erected at the expense of Henry Dendy and Jonathan Binns Were, as a schoolroom and temporary place of worship. The date was St. Andrew's Day, 1842. Dendy and four other men gave the site of the present St. Andrew's Church grounds and the Brighton Grammar School buildings. The Port Phillip Patriot of 15th December, stated that "Divine service is now celebrated twice every Sunday; and that a Sunday School has also been established there." Dr. W. B. Wilmot, a layman, carried on the services, until the Reverend Brickwood was appointed to minister there in 1849, after the arrival of Bishop Charles Perry.

[16] In 1843, Bishop Broughton again visited the colony, landing first at Geelong, where he found an "exceeding good, roomy brick parsonage" had been built, and a "large and substantial schoolhouse adjoining" approaching completion. (11). Whilst at Geelong, Broughton laid the foundation stone for the new church to be, consecrated a burial ground, held a confirmation in the new school-house, and conducted daily services in the Court-house. The thought of leaving the settlement there "destitute of all ministerial aid," depressed the Bishop, but it was three years before he was able to provide a resident clergyman, the Reverend Ebenezer Collins, a former missionary in the West Indies. Coming on to Melbourne, Broughton administered the rite of confirmation to 87 candidates (12), in St. James' Church. He also noted that whereas in 1838, Melbourne had "three houses deserving the name," and a population of a few hundreds souls, "it is now a large metropolis, with suburbs covering a very great extent of ground, and with a population approaching to 8,000, of which more than one half are members of our Church." (13). During his visit to Melbourne, a proposal was made to erect a new church on the Eastern Hill, but it was not until the 18th June, 1846, that the foundation stone of St. Peter's, Eastern Hill, was laid by Superintendent La Trobe, in the presence of the Reverends A. C. Thomson, incumbent of St. James', Melbourne, and E. Collins, of Geelong.

The responsibility which fell upon the one clergyman in Melbourne, prior to Bishop Perry's arrival, was truly weighty. "I have known," says a contemporary, "that most excellent pastor and worthy man, the Rev. Adam Compton Thomson, perform the burial service over six persons, the marriage ceremony on three couples, baptize several children and visit sick persons in town and its suburbs, all in the course of one day." (14). If, however, the Rev. Thomson's responsibility was weighty, that of Bishop Broughton's was even more so, for he, in addition to maintaining the pastoral care of his huge diocese, was fighting for a privileged church against the inevitable trend of the times, and for the retention by the Church of England of the control of education in the colony. As early as 1841, he had looked for the subdivision of his [16/18] diocese, and his slogan was "we must have bishops." By early 1846, the Colonial Bishopric's Fund, founded by Bishop Blomfield, of London, had borne fruit and three bishops had been selected for Australia, and when Bishops Charles Perry, William Tyrell, and Augustus Short were consecrated for the Australian church, and Robert Gray for South Africa, on St. Peter's Day in June, 1847, it became popularly known as "the birthday of the Colonial Church." Of these men, with Nixon in Tasmania and Selwyn in New Zealand, Gladstone said "there were giants in the earth in those days."

[St. James Church, William Street, Melbourne]

As for Melbournians of 1847, the appointment of Perry as first Bishop of Melbourne, showed the growing importance of a town, now to become a city, the residents of which were appealing to the Queen to shake off what was called the incubus of Sydney control.

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