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The Athenaeum

The Athenaeum, a building in Potter Street, which adjoins the Chapel premises on the North side had recently been procured by a syndicate whose intention, it was reported, was to develop it as a ‘club with drinking facilities.’ But as a church leaflet of the time noted; “by the mercy of God and the foresight and prompt action of Mr. Hodson the resident minister, these premises have now been secured for the Service of God and Methodism in Melbourne.”

The cost of the premises including all contents was £1,800.


Here again then, in 1945 the church was confronted with another great adventure, an adventure that called forth a strenuous and consecrated challenge… The challenge was accepted with courage and enthusiasm!

A new Trust was formed on 29th June, 1945, with the task of negotiating the purchase of the new premises. The Trust included; George William Bloor, William Henry Frearson, Robert Dallman, Edwin Davis Midgley, John Edward Tomlinson, Allen Cook, Sarah Loake, Joseph Wearing, Arthur Leslie Hyde, Ruth Buck, John Henry Buck, Henry Chetwyn, Frederick Robert Stewart, Harry Wright, Reuben Robey, Maria Elizabeth Tomlinson, John Adcock, Joseph William Wearing, Ronald Walter Loake, Ellen Hatton, and Thomas Smith Starkie.

Charles Boultbee had consented to become a Trustee, but passed away on June 10th before the new Trust came into being. John Henry Buck became a member of the new Trust, but was never able to attend a meeting owing to illness and passed away on August 7th.

To meet the financial commitment of the challenge, it was resolved first of all to raise funds by gifting, the first £50 of which was to be donated to the ‘Bombed-out Churches Fund.’ The target fixed was £1,000 and a letter explaining the scheme, with envelopes in which to place the gifts was distributed and a day appointed when the Minister should be in the Vestry to receive the gifts.

The date fixed was December 31st, 1945, and in the evening the packets were opened and the sums announced by Mrs. Hoult, of Barrow on Trent - an old friend and organist of the church. It was announced that the sum of £723 1s 0d had been given and further amounts continued to come in during the weeks that followed. On January 28th, 1946, the day the premises re-opened after decoration, the Rev. Albert Hearn of the Connexional Chapel Committee paid a visit, and during the evening presented the Chapel Committee’s cheque for £200; this brought the grand total to £1,085. From that point the building was to be called “Wesley Hall” and there were prayers thanking God “for the magnificent result and that the Church be worthy custodians for Him and Methodism, and that with His continued blessing, the “Wesley Hall” may be used in His service, for His glory, and for the extension of His Kingdom.”

The Wesley Hall premises which had been acquired for the Methodist Church comprised two large halls (upper and lower), two large class rooms, a kitchen, a furnace room with a furnace providing central heating and a store room. It was originally called The Athenaeum and had been used as an infant school, a mechanics institute, and a bank. The foundation stone was laid by Lord Palmerston on Saturday, August 27th, 1853. The building was designed by a Mr. Stevens of Derby, and the contractors were Messrs Beck & Widdowson of Weston on Trent and Melbourne, and the total erection cost was about £1,200.  The stone-laying ceremony was the subject of a lengthy account in the Illustrated London News of September 3rd, 1853, which included a picture of the event and an account of the speeches of Lord Palmerston and others.

In 1879 the building was used in the daytime as a Board School, and its governors spent a further £300 in adding the two large class rooms at the rear of the property.

In 1922 the governors of the Athenaeum disposed of the premises to the Melbourne Institute Ltd., who carried on running it as an Institute, and also opened a public café. This carried on with varying fortunes until 1945 when, as described above, the premises became the property of the Methodist Church in Melbourne.

The various functions of the church were accommodated in the new Wesley Hall, namely the Sunday School, the Wesley Guild, the Women’s Bright Hour and an Institute. The outstanding financial debt was addressed through a bazaar on May 4th, 1946, declared open by Mrs Wardle (Nee Marie Tomlinson), a former scholar and worker in the school and church and presided over by the Senior Circuit Steward, Mr. W. Cedric Astle. And so, a further chapter of Methodism in Melbourne was brought to a close, but further difficult years were to follow…

As time passed the large congregations of the War years dwindled away. New building was restricted in Melbourne, fewer people now worked on the land and young married couples were forced to look elsewhere for work and homes.  The Church also suffered more than usual grievous loss by the passing of several devoted workers. The cost of upkeep and repair of the large buildings soared. The Church premises particularly had had reached a serious state of dilapidation, and in September 1967, prayerful thought was given to the launching of an appeal so that a complete scheme of repair and modernisation could take place to celebrate the Centenary of the Church in 1970.

An imaginative scheme for the interior of the church was planned by an architect. It was felt that owing to the increased cost of heating, the size should be reduced by building an interior entrance hall with adjoining cloakrooms, and at the same time lowering the height of the ceiling. As the roof was in a very sorry state of repair, this needed to be completely re-slated before any work on the interior could be commenced. In April 1970 the church was closed and services transferred to Wesley Hall so that the works of repairs and modernisation could commence. The total cost of this work was estimated at £6,250. In order to carry out the new scheme, the organ, which had given so many years of service and which was also badly in need of repair, had to be removed. Music and choral singing had always held a prominent place in Methodism and nowhere more so than in Melbourne.  It was agreed as soon as sufficient funds were available, thoughts must be given to the complete overhauling and rebuilding of the old organ, or the purchase of a new one. In time the old organ was sold and a replacement, electro mechanical organ was purchased to replace it.

A scheme for a drastic modernisation of the outside frontage of the church at that time was not taken forward. There was also provision made to create a first-floor gallery at the rear of the church to increase seating capacity in future, though this has never been taken forward, with the provision of stairs via the old tower the area is now used for general storage.

A Further Renewal

Although the Church buildings had been made more serviceable the church still struggled to attract younger families until the later 1980s when there was a further renewal within the Church. Within a few years several young families bolstered the congregation that had grown old together. Indeed, it was these groups of young people that brought about the next challenge in 1996.

Over several consecutive years, group visits were made to the ‘Spring Harvest’ Christian Conventions. On one occasion 70 people were away together for the Easter Week - enjoying worship and learning new ways of being church. Many of the ideas were brought back to Melbourne. Many of the growing congregation had experienced the moving power of the Holy Spirit for the first time and a wonderful time of renewal took place. It must be said that further encouragement was given from both the older congregation and the ministers at the time. The Rev. Rob Hawkins was instrumental in enabling the change and this continued with Rev. Dennis Smith a few years later. New styles of worship were introduced. A Sunday Evening service was re-introduced for this first time in many years, which enabled the worshippers to try new things without disrupting the more traditional Sunday Mornings. Over time the new ideas were incorporated, sympathetically, into the main service. The new styles of worship required significant changes to the building and facilities and so a new Methodist Challenge was launched.

The initial momentum was tempered somewhat by the very obvious need to completely re-roof the Wesley Hall, but once this was accomplished the ‘Methodist Challenge’ scheme was agreed. It was planned that the old water boiler and radiators should be replaced by a more efficient gas central heating system for both Wesley Hall and the Church. The old boiler room would become a spacious new kitchen, whilst the old kitchen could be turned into improved toilet facilities including disability amenities for the first time. Within the church, the modern pews, dating from 1970 were removed and replaced with 120 upholstered, individual wooden seats at a total cost of £10,444. After not being used for some time the 1970s pulpit was finally removed to make room for a worship group at the front of Church. A small amplification system that had been added to aid the elderly congregation (and preachers!) was revamped with better equipment and the old mechanical organ was finally replaced with a new electric piano at a cost of £3,149 - this could be used for both traditional and contemporary worship. The Church floor and vestries were carpeted for the first time (£3,850), the whole environment taking on a warmer, more informal, welcoming feel – which reflected the new style of worshipping. The overall cost of this challenge amounted to £80,000 – a staggering figure compared to the initial build costs!

In order to meet the financial commitment grants were sought from within Methodism and elsewhere, however the main funds were to be raised by the congregation. A gift day was arranged and Rev Rob Hawkins spent a Saturday in Wesley Hall receiving very welcome gift envelopes. A social committee was formed and for several years organised regular social fund-raising events, from Christmas bazaars, barn dances, themed fancy-dress disco nights and quiz nights – all manner of events that church members and more importantly their friends were encouraged to attend. With hindsight we can see that this was a wonderful time of growth and renewal within the church. As friends got to know church members and enjoyed the company more were encouraged to come along to church. Regular evangelistic Alpha Courses were run and further trips to Spring Harvest ensured that the Sunday congregations continued to grow so that Sunday Service congregations were up to 70 or 80 and many more for special services. Most importantly the Church had once more grown a very strong Sunday School – with an incredibly dedicated team of teachers.

A Return to the Athenaeum

Youth work was much on the mind of the Church stewards when an Internet Café was established in Wesley Hall in 2004. The upstairs rooms had not been used purposefully for some years and after direct consultation with the young people of Melbourne a design company was engaged to create a space where the young people would be safe and enjoy themselves under the watchful eye of a Christian Youth Worker. The whole of the upstairs was refurbished. It included new flooring, ceiling lights, galvanised sheet partitioning, an eye-catching colour scheme, custom designed curved refreshments bar, a food kitchen and a very large video projection screen. At the time young people were starting to use the internet and embryonic social media, so ‘pay as you go’ PCs were installed with controlled internet access. The ‘Athenaeum Youth Café’ was officially opened and re-dedicated to God’s work by the acclaimed song and hymn writer Noel Richards, who also played to a full church on the same evening. The project cost about £30,000 and was funded through significant grants and a continuation of the Methodist Challenge Social events.

Over the following years the church effectively employed several youth workers employed through Methodist funding, each of whom brought their own personality and styles to the café. In some ways the café became a victim of its own success with very large numbers attending and unsurprisingly there were often problems with visiting youngsters – true messy church! However, the cafe was much appreciated by the town and was well supported by the local SDDC council youth workers, the Parish Council and the local police officers – who recognised the Methodist Church was providing a valuable social service to the community. Many Melbourne people with no connection to the church now look back fondly on their youthful times spent ‘in the Ath!’

Today, the café is still open - though in a somewhat different guise. Young people now keep in touch on their smart phones and their demand for the café fell away. In 2015 the café was re-launched as ‘Little Wesleys Café with the addition of an inflatable soft play area in the smaller upstairs room. The Christian youth workers have been replaced by Christian café managers, and the it now hosts pre-school toddlers with their parents and carers.

The Annexe

For some time, it had become apparent that the Choir Vestry (long since without a choir!) needed either re-roofing or rebuilding. It had become the main entrance for most regular attenders and over time had become very dilapidated. There were two other significant concerns. Firstly, the Church building relied upon the availability of Wesley Hall for the provision of both kitchen and toilet facilities, which was most problematic during the week - when due to regular lettings Wesley Hall was not accessible. Secondly, and more importantly the Church had no level walkway to facilitate wheelchair and children’s buggy access. This was finally deemed unacceptable and a remedial scheme was put in place. A new Annexe was planned that would provide a much more welcoming entrance, complete with kitchen and toilets and a significant groundwork would provide wheeled access from Church Street. There was to be no attempt to match the original fabric of the church, a route no longer acceptable to the planners. Instead the architects suggested a very contemporary design, incorporating fully glazed walls at either end and a grey, zinc cladding finish and the cost difference in materials was agreed to be negligible.

The original surveyor’s estimate to complete the new Annexe was £120,000 which was an enormous total to raise, but accepted by the Church. However, when the three competitive tenders were received the cost had effectively more than doubled to £270,000 – much of this increase was due to concerns in the building trade coming out of recession and the overall international financial climate. The news was shattering. There was much prayer and soul-searching – was this really the best use of money by a Christian organisation? Eventually an extraordinary Church meeting was called by Rev John Hartley and a decision was reached. It was pointed out that the vast majority of the funding would come from grants, and these grants were only available for building purposes. It was not ‘church money’ that the Church could decide to spend in any other way. If it was not spent on the Church in Melbourne it would go to other similar projects elsewhere. The decision was agreed that despite the enormous cost the work should go ahead on the understanding that, “if it was God’s will, then the money would be forthcoming”. The church congregation made a wonderful effort and raised the first £70,000 through gifting and event fundraising, whilst the remainder was successfully sought through the aforementioned grant applications.  Rev Hartley put a small liaison team together to meet directly with the contractor each month and late in 2019 the new Annexe was opened and dedicated to the work of God and His Kingdom.

This text has been edited and updated from several documents written initially by Mr William Henry Frearson and published by Melbourne Methodist Church in 1932, 1946 and 1970 with an update to 2020 – the 150th anniversary of the present Church building. As the co-writer and compiler of this Building Blocks of Methodism in Melbourne I am conscious of the fact that I have omitted the names of many of those who have served loyally in the Church. I have consciously included the names of all members of the historic Church Trusts, as I believe that the work done by those good Christian souls should be recorded for posterity.  I hold in beloved and grateful memory those who have gone before, and those with whom it has been a privilege to associate in worship and service.  Some that I have known have now also passed to the higher service.  Others, with myself press on in the same earnest endeavour, that we too may obtain the prize of their high calling in Christ Jesus!

Mark Dale – Local Preacher and Circuit Steward, May 2020

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