Showing posts with label FW Menkens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FW Menkens. Show all posts

Monday, 25 May 2015

St Peter's Anglican Church, Hamilton

Hundreds of children were on the march, a more-or-less orderly line snaking its way from St Peter’s Anglican Church to Hamilton Station. At the front, two children held a wavering church banner aloft. They were off to the annual Sunday School picnic at Speers Point, the highlight of the year.

First, they would catch the train to Cockle Creek, then a steam tram to Speers Point. The event would have been an exciting adventure for children whose families did not own cars, and who walked everywhere within their suburb, Hamilton.

Picnic at Speers Point (n.d.)
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, from the Bert Lovett Collection, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

The small rise crowned by Hamilton Public School and St Peter’s Anglican Church has long been a place of learning for children.

Imagine the noise and bustle of 500 children gathering for Sunday School each week, taught by a small army of 40 teachers! This was peak participation, sometime in the 1930s.

St Peter’s first Sunday School Hall was an economical building - made of unpainted timber slabs recycled from the first church.

Eventually considered ‘unsafe and unsightly,’ a new hall replaced the old in 1897 - but only after much debate and dispute within the church Council about the additional debt involved. In fact, two Council members resigned.

Numbers were still on the rise when in 1921, another new hall was built. All the land was mortgaged, except where the church stood. In 1970, when the Sunday School and Church Hall was dramatically modernized with optimism and at considerable cost, church decision makers were not to know the future. Within a decade or two, Sunday schools, youth fellowships and large church gatherings would become things of the past.

St Peter’s Church and Rectory, Hamilton 2015
Photograph by Craig Smith

The first and second church buildings

The first Anglican church in Hamilton was of built timber slabs between 1863 and 1864, at 148 Denison Street. Because a church still stands on this site today, we can pinpoint almost exactly where the AA Company’s D Pit once was – just opposite.

Opening on 3 July, 1864, the first church seated 80 - 100 people. No longer would parishioners have to catch the clanking dusty rail trolley that the AA Company provided on Sundays, to worship at St John’s, Cook’s Hill.

Twenty years later, in 1883, plans were underway to have a new church built.

The influential church architect, expatriate American John Horbury Hunt, was commissioned to design it. If Councillors thought the next stage would be smooth sailing, how wrong they were. Horbury Hunt was reportedly ‘a man of quick temperament’ who ‘often fell foul of workmen and employers.’ At times he was at loggerheads with one or another Council members, and once declared Council members ‘greengrocers and guttersnipes.’ [1]

Hamilton was a large and populous centre but it was not prosperous. Still, by March 1884, £1200 had been raised by hard working parishioners towards what would be the final cost of £1900. State aid for such buildings had ended, and St Peter’s was built entirely from public subscription – a great tribute to the efforts of ‘greengrocers and guttersnipes’.

Many of those early Council members have left their names to be remembered on surrounding Hamilton streets and in Hamilton Municipal Council records – men like James Ray, William H Milton, Thomas Tudor and J Lord.

The new church, seating around 200 people, was dedicated on 29 October, 1885. This simple brick building, in Gothic style, would become historically and socially significant at a local level.

The foundation stone for St Peter’s Church is dated 1896, 11 years after it was opened

The church’s one design flourish would be an unusually shaped bell turret, a brick cylinder ascending into a pyramidal timber spine. [2] Its height is between a bell tower and a spire. Today, this turret is a significant landmark in Hamilton, and a means by which Hunt gave his buildings individuality.[3] Originally, the church was designed with a pyramid roofed lantern above the nave, a counterpoint to the turret. Thought also to be for ventilation, it was removed in 1911. Unusually, too, the church is side-on to the street, to overcome the problem of a shallow plot of land and to provide interest.

St Peter’s Anglican Church, 148 Denison Street, Hamilton NSW (n.d.)
In this this photograph c. early 1900s, both the turret and the lantern can be seen
Photograph from Bert Lovett Collection, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

As I visit with Father David Smith to research this post, he is concerned about the damage to the church roof caused by the violent April storms of 2015.

This unusual bell turret on St Peter’s Church remains a significant Hamilton landmark

The organ that was ‘a-bit-of-a-lemon’

Not much is known about the church’s first organ, but in 1890 it was sold. A replacement was purchased from All Saints Anglican Church, Singleton for £75. A Walcker, this organ dates from 1861 and is believed to be the first Walcker organ built for W H Paling of Sydney. [4] However, the organ proved to be ‘a-bit-of-a-lemon’, with major problems; even ‘entirely useless’, according to one expert, with repairs costing a further £70 over the purchase price needed to make it playable.

Much haggling ensued with Singleton, with the St Peter’s Parish Council seeking to delay the final payment and requesting compensation for repairs - without result.

In its lifetime, the Walcker was ‘rebuilt’ twice, in 1903 and 1924. It suffered water damage, and was attacked by borers. Finally, in 1967 it was sold for £700, and transferred piece by piece to the home of its new owner in Campbelltown. Until then, the organ that was ‘a-bit-of-a-lemon’ had provided 77 years of service.

One of the longest serving organists was A F (Bertie Nicholls) who played the organ at St Peter’s from 1920 – 1960. Apparently  he had some irritating habits – like bringing onion sandwiches to church. If he didn’t like the hymn selected, he’d play something else – his reason being that ‘the congregation didn’t know that one’. Still, the number of weddings, services and funerals at which Bertie had played the organ over those 40 years would be phenomenal.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the Council had set up a fund in 1962 to finance a new organ. Organ manufacturers J W Walker and Sons of London sent a recording of one of their organs to Hamilton. Once heard, it was decided that ‘this was the one’. Despite the fact that only £1000 had been raised, and the new one would cost £12,000, the purchase went ahead, in great faith. Finally, the new organ arrived in perfect condition – all parts handmade, including 433 pipes. It was dedicated on 30 April, 1967.

This is the organ that stands in St Peter’s today. Father David is acutely aware that now, after half a century of service, even this great instrument needs repair.

Interior of St Peter’s Church, Hamilton showing handsome eagle and the present organ, built by 
J W Walker & Sons, London, 1966
Photograph by Craig Smith

‘Matters of nature’

In 1900, ‘matters of nature’ had to be discussed at a vestry meeting, held
on 3 July. The Hamilton Council had written to the Parish requesting that a ‘privy’ be built for the convenience of those attending the church and Sunday School. The meeting considered this would be a great nuisance, and a motion was passed to say the letter marked ‘to be complied with’ be lost. Clearly a law unto itself - were they all men at the vestry meeting?

In due course, a privy was erected, and it did present a nuisance. One parishioner complained about a woman who ‘repeatedly left the church at the same time each Sunday and the resulting noise disturbed her in her worship. Maybe it was during the sermon?’ [5]

Rowdy youth

Again, around 1900, a problem that worried the clergy was noise and disruption by youth at the back of the church during the service. On one occasion Canon Ramm stopped his sermon short and issued an ultimatum – either they cease their noise or he would call the police.

Church group, St Peter’s Church, Hamilton NSW, 18 April 1896
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, from the Bert Lovett Collection, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

A Rectory at last

The lack of a permanent home for the Rector and his family was finally addressed in 1905. After petitioning the AA Company’s head office in London for a grant of land for the Rectory, and assisted by the influence of Mr Jesse Gregson, then AA Company Superintendent and luckily, a member of the church, the request was granted.

A fund was established and in 1906, Menkens and Castleden were chosen as the architects. F W Menkens designed many impressive Newcastle buildings, including the Masonic Hall  and the Mechanics' Institute in Hamilton.

Finance always presented challenges for St Peter’s. Reading between the lines of the historical account, it appears Mr Menkens may have gotten a bit carried away with his plans for the Rectory. After submitting three designs, the fourth was finally accepted. However, the Council must have been uneasy about how they were going to pay for even that modified design. When Menckens conveniently departed on an overseas trip, his partner F G Castleden was asked to come up with something less elaborate.

On a block of land adjacent to the church, the Rectory is a gracious brick bungalow with nine rooms, large halls and wide verandahs. Ceilings are of Queensland pine, and fittings of maple. The interiors have been updated over time.

Not far to walk to work - the Rectory is built on land adjoining
St Peter’s Church, Hamilton
Photograph by Craig Smith

Continual improvements

In the 130 years since it was built, St Peter’s has been subject to many alterations and improvements. From functional improvements such as pathways and fences, a new western entrance, electric lighting, carpets, ‘up-to-date’ pews, and replacing the original shingle roof, to installing new stained glass windows and replacing others, parishioners somehow found the necessary funds.

Creating this new western entrance was considered a major, exciting new project that would significantly enhance St Peter’s Church
Photograph by Craig Smith

Damp has been a continuing problem for St Peter’s. In 1906 the interior was painted to brighten up the church. By 1916, the damp was just as bad, so the mortar was scraped out from between the bricks in the sanctuary, and walls covered with timber panelling. Because only one quote for the work was obtained, Mr W Milton, one of the longer serving laymen of the parish, resigned. One hundred years later, the damp continues and the problem remains unsolved – a legacy, perhaps of inadequate foundations.

Ecclesiastical architect John Horbury Hunt favoured timber, as seen
in this interior view of St Peter’s Church
Timber panels installed later in the sanctuary did not stop the rising damp
Photograph by Craig Smith

Power play

In researching the early history of Hamilton, I’ve often noticed how the names of some community leaders recur again and again in businesses, churches and friendly societies, or the Hamilton Municipal Council.

I first learned about Mr FW Lean and Mr K A Mathieson when writing the story of the Greater Building Society. Together, in 1924, Lean and Mathieson created the Newcastle and Hunter River Star-Bowkett Building Cooperative Society, the forerunner of the Greater as we know it today. As influential Anglicans, deeply involved in St Peter’s Church, both men believed strongly that innovative ways should be found to enable ordinary people to own their own home.

Ken Matheison held many leadership positions within the church. As superintendent of the Sunday School, he declared that  ‘part of the aim (of Sunday School) was to make the children fit citizens of the community.’ [6] He was at various times, Captain of the Tennis Club; co-founder of the Anglican Temperance Society; Secretary of the Anglican Men’s Society; and leader of the Young Churchman’s Union.

Tennis players from St Peter’s Tennis Club, Hamilton
The Club raised substantial funds for the church over many years
Photograph courtesy of Hunter Photo Bank

Fred Lean’s commitment to the church was over 50 years, when he held various committee offices.
A prominent local businessman who contributed much to St Peter’s was Mr Fred Hely.  Hely Brothers Pty Ltd was a large Hamilton business, manufacturing tool handles, shovels, spades and wheel components. ‘Fred’, as he was known, was Chairman of Hely Brothers and had a long and almost unbroken association with St Peter’s since before the first World War. Fred’s father, his brother and Fred himself served on the Parish Council, Fred for a time as Secretary, and advisor to the Parish Paper. For his wisdom and experience, he became known as the Elder Statesman. [7]

A flourishing of groups

I often wonder what it was that impelled our forebears to make personal sacrifices to create inspiring built structures, spaces within which a community of people with shared values could flourish.

For its first hundred years or so, the community of St Peter’s was almost a world unto itself. It was not just a place for worship, learning and spiritual solace. It was a highly connected, interwoven network of groups in which friendships were sustained, social lives conducted, and new skills developed. It was a place for volunteering, and for service.

As well as the groups mentioned earlier, women’s groups such as Young Women’s Club, the Women’s Guild, and the Mother’s Union provided a friendship and support network for women, forged in practical and spiritual activities. Some parishioners today still remember the heady days of the tennis club, although the tennis court gave way to a parking space in the 1980s.

The colourful history of the choir is a story in its own right – members stood their ground on issues of principle, like whether they should be expected to contribute to the collection plate when they had to buy their own music scores and books. But they also went on picnics, social outings, and holidays together.

And since 1882, fourteen rectors have given leadership and service to the parishioners of St Peter’s, Hamilton. They have helped create the rich social capital to be found in our suburb today.

These days, our networks are in cyberspace. I remember the English philosopher and writer Alain de Botton [8] lamenting that secular society does not nourish our souls and imaginations in the way that religion has done. He asks - where do we go for the meaning and wisdom we need to make it through the day?

We might learn something from the churches of old, suggests de Botton – how to build a sense of community, inspire the desire for service, practice life-affirming rituals, and even… how to create opportunities for strangers to sing together.

A marble baptismal font honours the dedicated service given to
the community of St Peter’s Church by Mrs Ramm, wife of the much loved and respected 
Canon Ramm


The information for this story was gleaned largely from the historical and heritage references cited. My thanks also to Father David Smith for his contribution and for welcoming photographer Craig Smith and me to the St Peter’s Church and site.

Unattributed photographs are by Ruth Cotton.

[1] A History of St Peter’s Church, Hamilton, Newcastle New South Wales to mark the Centenary Year 1885-1985. Researched and compiled by Billie Coleman. Newcastle, 1985, p. 3
[2]  Turrets are generally round or polygonal, whereas St Peter’s turret ascends from circular to pyramidical. Heritage note, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, refer
[3] NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, refer
[5]  A History of St Peter’s Church, Hamilton, Newcastle New South Wales to mark the Centenary Year 1885-1985. Researched and compiled by Billie Coleman. Newcastle, 1985, p. 8

[6]  A History of St Peter’s Church, Hamilton, Newcastle New South Wales to mark the Centenary Year 1885-1985. Researched and compiled by Billie Coleman. Newcastle, 1985, p. 19
[7]  A History of St Peter’s Church, Hamilton, Newcastle New South Wales to mark the Centenary Year 1885-1985. Researched and compiled by Billie Coleman. Newcastle, 1985, p. 16
[8] Alain de Botton, 2012, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, Hamish Hamilton Ltd, London