THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF METHODISM IN MELBOURNE
It is well recognised that God’s Church is not about buildings, but the people that attend them – and more importantly those that then ‘go out’ to spread His precious Word. However, it is also recognised that our buildings are important too! They are places that Christian people can come together to worship collectively and regularly, places that we can come to, to learn and deepen our faith, places that we can come to, to meet in His name and provide support and comfort to each other. In recent times some buildings have become proverbial ‘millstones’, particularly to our more elderly congregations, with more effort going into managing property, than service and evangelism. This is not a problem that can be solved by the local Church, but must surely be managed by The Methodist Connexion. That said, the history recorded here is unashamedly focussed on the ‘bricks and mortar’ Churches that have been central to Methodist life in our town of Melbourne since John Wesley’s earliest visits, when it was recognised that an actual building, a meeting-house, was essential to sustain that fledgling fellowship. I have made no attempt to record the actual Mission of the Church with associated services and ministries, excepting where it has relied upon, or required changes to, the actual buildings. I will leave the recording of the Church Mission to another!
The Early Days
John Wesley was the founder of Methodism here are two extracts from his journal…
June 13, 1741 (Sat.) - In the morning (at Markfield) I preached on those words. “To him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted to him for righteousness.” We then set out for Melbourne, where, finding the house too small to contain those who were come together, I stood under a large tree, and declared Him whom God hath exalted to be a Prince and Saviour, to give repentance unto Israel, and remission of sins.
June 20, 1742 (Sun.) – I read prayers at Ogbrook and preached on Acts 17, 23 “Whom ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you.” At six in the evening I preached in Melbourne. There were may hearers: but I see little fruit.
Apart from several brief accounts in Wesley’s Journal, very little is known of what transpired in the early years of the Methodist Society in Melbourne.
It appears from the Memoirs of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, that Wesleyan Methodism was first introduced into the Melbourne area about 1741 -through the endeavours of that illustrious lady. At that period the Countess resided at Donington Park, and drew around her the most remarkable Christian men of her time, amongst them John and Charles Wesley, George Whitfield and John Bennet – the founders of Methodism. The Countess used all her influence with these men that her rank and fortune afforded to ensure the growth of the Kingdom in that area.
It was probably on his visit to Melbourne in June, 1741, that Wesley first became acquainted with the Countess of Huntingdon. That there was a little flock of Methodists in the district in that year is evident from a letter her ladyship wrote to John Wesley in the October. She was resident outside of Donington, but wrote on October 24th: “You shall hear from me as soon as I arrive [at Donington] and have heard how your little flock goes on in that neighbourhood.” It is believed that Donington became a sort of rallying-place for Christian ministers and Christian people at that time.
David Taylor, who was a trusted servant at Donington Park, became a preacher and visited Melbourne. However, it’s recorded that although he preached to many people there, because follow up visits were so infrequent there were ‘few permanent results.’ This failing no doubt led to the recognition of a need for a permanent meeting place in Melbourne itself.
There are no formal records to show the year that the Methodist cause was founded in the town, but an entry in an old day-book found in the Melbourne Estate office may years ago states “Charles Stone was buried in the Methodist Meeting House yard at Melbourne, December 28th 1757” This was most likely a building rented from the estate.
Further to this, a Sunday School banner in use in 1932 stated that the school was established in 1799.
The First Building Scheme
The earliest date, in Melbourne Wesleyan Chapel records, references a title deed dated April 16th, 1800, recording conveyancing of a piece of land to eleven trustees for £26 13s. 0d.
This deed details a piece of land “lying in Melbourne, which contains forty feet on each side, being part of a garden lately owned by Samuel Bayley; a garden or orchard belonging to Widow Foster lying on the west side thereof, a certain street in Melbourne called Back Street lying on the south side, and other parts of the said garden now in possession of the said Samuel Bayley, lying on the north and east sides thereof.”
“Upon such piece of ground a chapel or meeting-house is shortly intended to be erected.”
A group of Melbourne men, who we are told “had been brought into touch with the Kingdom of Heaven through the influence of the Methodists” and included; Dr. Ambrose Beaumont, Henry Fox, Samuel Bradley, Matthew Ingle, William Ridger, William Bookes, Thomas Richardson, Thomas Cope, Samuel Bott, Samueal Gilbert and John Dexter formed a Methodist Trust and agreed the sale of the aforementioned land with Joseph Dunnicliff.
‘Back Street’ in Melbourne later became ‘Church Street’, so we can start to recognise the location of this first purpose-built church, but it was not on the site of the present-day building. The first church was built on the neighbouring land that is on the lower side of the current building.
Another deed dated September 9th, 1826, states that the Chapel or ‘meeting-house’ was erected sometime shortly after the sale of the land in April 1800. It seems to have been a modest building with not much seating accommodation.
The Call for a Larger Church
Methodism in Melbourne grew in the next twenty years, until it became apparent that the little chapel was too small to meet the needs of the growing church. Hence, soon after 1820, plans began to be formulated for a new chapel. Some of the stalwarts had died so a new Trust was formed by Ambrose Beaumont and William Brookes – with Matthew Ingle, Samuel Bott, Samuel Gilbert, Dr. Richard Beaumont Child, Sampson Massey, John Cope, Thomas Dunnicliff, John Adcock, Samuel Shephard, John Joyce and John Hunt. The new, second chapel was begun and completed that year and is still standing in 2020 – you can still walk visit and walk around, as it is the large building now occupied by ‘Melbourne Antiques.’
From ‘The History of Melbourne’, written by John Joseph Briggs: “The Wesleyans have a neat brick chapel, which was erected in 1826 at a cost of £600, capable of seating 300, with a Sunday School of 130.
The next twenty-five years saw Methodism make great progress in the town. People were added to the fellowship continually, and we are told “preaching, both ministerial and lay, was of a very high order. Strong and sane evangelism marked the life of the Society.” Melbourne Methodism spread out its arms to other places round and about, and was a power in the neighbourhood. A body of strong young men were grouped together who preached and lived so as to commend their Saviour to many. The story of the next renewal of the Trust brings some of these men to our notice.
A New Site and Another New Building
On Monday, October 22nd, 1855, a new Trust was formed with John Adcock, the only remaining “old” trustee. The ten newcomers were Ebenezer Adcock, William Adcock, Thomas Hyde, John Earp, Joseph Oringe, Edward Grice, William Dallman, William Mann, William Clarke, and Matthew Attwood. Under the leadership of these men, ably assisted by a goodly number of choice women, Methodism went further ahead, until soon it was patent that an even bigger chapel was necessary to meet the demands of the work. In 1867 a new Trust was formed for the purpose of buying a suitable piece of ground and erecting on it a new chapel. On the 9th September these men bought “that parcel of land situated in Church Street, containing 665 square yards, bounded southwardly by Church Street, eastwardly by a small piece of land belonging to Mr. Augustine Dallman, northwardly by the Town Hall and, westwardly by premises belonging to the Misses Cantrell,” for £175.
The Trust now bolstered by the addition of John Charles Norton, William Barton, Robert Smith, Thomas Nicklinson, Tom Rooth, John Grice and John Adcock junior carried through a scheme involving great effort and much sacrifice to present to the next generation of Methodists a handsome chapel in which to worship.
The foundation stone-laying ceremony took place on the 10th May, 1869. According to the diary of John Grice, one of the trustees, the new chapel was opened on May 30th, 1870. The special preacher was the Rev. Samuel Coley, of London. The total cost of erecting and fitting the new chapel was £1,877 13s. 4d. Although this was a colossal effort for its time, there were still other works which these good Christian men wished to have done. Consequently, about fourteen or fifteen years later, they began to think about the necessary improvements for the Sunday School work, and the old chapel next door was reworked to meet these needs. During the alteration works the Sunday School was held in the Athenaeum (previous to it being owned by the Methodist Church), and the scholars walked two by two from there to the chapel for Sunday morning services. It appears, too, that the organ was built about this time, 1855. Mr. Alfred Noble, of Birmingham, was the builder. During that year the Trustees were involved in the expenditure of £873 7s. 7d.
At first, the organ occupied the position between the two doors at the front entrance of the chapel, but in 1896 it was turned around and moved to the other end of the chapel. The Preaching Rostrum (Pulpit) was brought forward and placed in front of the organ.
A Major Refurbishment Scheme is Required
The next memorable year was 1926, when the centenary of the building of the second chapel was celebrated. It was a great event, and brought the resources of the Church together. In order to give a permanent expression to their celebrations the Church decided to raise the sum of £500 with a plan to thoroughly repair and renovate the Sunday School premises, to improve the lighting arrangements in the chapel, to build a choir vestry, and to repair and improve the chapel organ.
A letter was sent out, with an appeal in the following terms: “in attempting to raise this sum (£500), colossal though it may seem, we need to remind ourselves of the sacrifices that have been made by those who, with the help of God, built and equipped, in days gone by, the premises in which the work of God is carried on to-day. There has been no demand of such magnitude in the present generation, but with centenary there comes the call for us to consolidate, in a practical way, the existing Church buildings, and preserve and equip them for useful service during the next century. If this is undertaken in a spirit of love and devotion to Him Who is the Head of the Church, success is certain.”
Thanks be to God, and to His people, this scheme did succeed, not only in realising the amount, but in the spirit of love and devotion with which it was carried out. The amount raised was £529 13s. 7d. This, however, proved to be insufficient to carry through the whole of the work intended in a satisfactory manner, and another appeal was made in 1929. A further sum of £358 10s. 8d. was then raised, making a total for the Centenary Fund of £888 4s. 3d.
The work of renovation and repair was accomplished in a most efficient manner. The church is greatly indebted to Mr Thomas Youngman, of Draycott, who not only gave expert advice, but personally superintended the execution of the work. The Sunday School (Old Chapel) was the first to receive attention. The structure was overhauled from top to bottom, inside and outside, several improvements included and all thoroughly renovated. Electric light was already installed, but the supply had been taken over by another company, who altered the current. This also necessitated an unexpected expense – a new motor for the electric organ-blower.
There still remained two other items in the original purpose of the Centenary scheme, namely, the organ renovation and a choir vestry. Following an estimate from Mr. J. H. Adkins, an organ builder in Derby, the Trustees sought further advice from Mr. F. J. Bonas and Mr. W. H. Richardson, both well-known organists in Derby. They conferred together and advised several alterations and improvements. Finally, the trustees decided on a scheme involving an expenditure of £500 on the organ alone. The organ was to be reconstructed in such a manner as to make it possible for choir stalls to be arranged in front of it. It now appeared more patent than ever that a choir vestry was essential. After much deliberation, and with the help and advice of Mr. Youngman, the Trustees decided to carry out that part of the original scheme as well.
After all this work had been completed it was seen that all that was necessary to round off a work of great worth - was to redecorate the chapel itself! This was done with the same thoroughness as had characterised every other part of the scheme. On August 27th, 1931, when the chapel was re-opened, there were many expressions of delight and admiration. ‘Transformation’ was the word used by many to describe the change that had taken place.
To turn again to the financial side of this undertaking, the amount required was more than double that which had been originally intended. It is not surprising that when all these expenses had been met there was a debt on the Trust account of £110. To raise this amount, a bazaar was arranged to be held on November 30th, 1932.
Through the War Years
In the years following these works, the world was enveloped in the Second World War (1939 -1945), the like of which had never been known before or since. The terrors of modern warfare, the demands upon church members and the blackout conditions all added to the difficulties of maintaining normal Church activities. There was good reason then, to thank God, that the church had not suffered damage through bombing raids as so many churches had. Nevertheless, it suffered much inconvenience in other directions.
In 1940 the large upper Sunday School room in the Old Chapel was loaned out as a military canteen, and while the Church was glad to facilitate the entertainment and recreation of large numbers of service men and women stationed in the town, we were very much hampered in our children’s work. Furthermore, when the premises came again into our possession in 1944, the condition in which we found them was so very different to the premises we had known and loved in former days! The following year, 1945, however opened with a far reaching possibility presented to us…