• Vivamus lobortis
  • Ut porttitor urna ut pretium
  • Phasellus convallis tincidunt enim.

The St Kilda Uniting Church (former)

(formerly the Wesleyan (Methodist) Church)

Corner Fitzroy and Princes Streets, St Kilda

 In the early days of settlement at St Kilda, Wesleyan prayer meetings were held in private homes. One site was a two-roomed cottage near the St Kilda railway station. According to Cooper, a small iron building — about 18 metres by 12 metres —was opened on 3 June 1853. This was possibly located in Prahran on the corner of Commercial and Margaret Streets. Known as ‘iron pots’, these prefabricated iron buildings were popular imports during the gold rushes when accommodation was in great demand and local labour was scarce and expensive, but they were soon found to be unsuitable in the extreme Australian heat.[1] The Reverend Robert Young preached the opening service.[2]

The foundation stone for the new Wesleyan Church was laid on 27 October 1857 by the Honourable Alexander Fraser, local councillor and auctioneer and then a member of the Legislative Council from 1858-81.[3] As Cooper describes it: ‘The usual formalities were observed. Hymns were sung, and prayers offered up, responsive to the occasion. When the 84th Psalm was read, the stone was laid’.[4] A tea meeting was held in the evening.

The church was opened on Sunday 19 September 1858 and three services were held during the day led by the Reverends W. Hill, James Ballantyne and I. New. It was one of the first Wesleyan churches built in Victoria in the Gothic style and was designed by Crouch and Wilson. Thomas J. Crouch was a prominent Methodist and played the organ at services. He lived in the St Kilda area from 1853 until his death in 1889 and served a term as mayor of St Kilda. He also designed the chapel at Pentridge and Methodist churches at Fitzroy, Collingwood, Flemington, Daylesford and Maldon.[5]

 The blue granite Wesleyan church with sandstone dressings and a slate roof is unusual in several ways. Towered churches from the 1850s are rare in Melbourne, as is the use of bluestone south of the Yarra River because it was expensive to cut and difficult to transport across the river. Measuring 20 by 11 metres, the church could accommodate 600 people. Internally there was a low altar with a small brass cross. The central pulpit was moved to the side to accommodate organ pipes in 1927. The new organ cost £1163-10-0. The original organ had been in the gallery and in 1965 was thought to be in a church in Spotswood. The church is divided into five bays by buttresses and lancet windows are in the centre of each bay. Two aisles lead to a small sanctuary. The rear wall has a three-pointed stained-glass window and two symmetric doors. The south-east door leads to an outside porch while the other leads to the vestry. Off the gallery is a lower tower room and a stepladder to the upper tower room. The tower featured a copper deck roof and was designed to include a clock and graceful pinnacles.[6]

The Reverend Daniel Draper presided over the building of the St Kilda church. When he arrived in Victoria in 1855 following successful ministries in Parramatta and the South Australian district, he wrote: ‘If ever a circuit was a perfect wreck, my new one is that, “entirely quite”.’[7] During his time in Melbourne he oversaw the erection of three large bluestone churches — Wesley Church in Lonsdale Street and churches at North Melbourne and St Kilda. In the many churches for which he was responsible, Draper favoured the Gothic style and in Melbourne the use of expensive bluestone. Wesleyans had ‘no great architectural tradition’ when they arrived in Australia. The founder, John Wesley had decreed that ‘preaching houses’ should be ‘plain and decent’ and no more expensive than necessary.[8] Wesleyans in Victoria, however, argued that ‘God is better pleased with a good and elegant church when it is within the means of the worshippers to build it, than with one plain, unsightly and uncomfortable’.[9] Draper also argued that a better building ‘commands a better congregation’.[10]

The church building had problems from the early days. Ventilators were installed in the floor in 1863 and architects were employed to survey the roof because it was feared it was unsafe. Crouch and Billing reported no serious danger but found that it was vital to strengthen it.[11] Over the years, the roof needed frequent repairs. In July 1883 the Ladies Sewing Meeting presented five oak collection plates to the church. Perhaps they hoped superior collection plates would elicit more generous offerings to help offset those costly repairs.

In 1865 Draper travelled to Britain to represent Australia at the British Conference. A year later, he and his wife left England to return to Australia aboard the London. The ship sank in the Bay of Biscay and only seventeen people out of the 263 on board survived. These fortunates ‘reported that Draper comforted and exhorted those doomed to perish with him “by recommending that Pilot by Whom all might arrive safely at the Port of Heaven”.’[12] Draper’s death occurred the day after Wesley College in Melbourne was opened. He had been the ‘moving spirit’ responsible for its establishment.

Church membership peaked in 1864 when full members and those on trial totalled 190. In the 1860s the congregation was predominantly the well-to-do and leaders of the community. Members included Dr Corrigan, the headmaster of Wesley College, architects Thomas Crouch and Ralph Wilson, parliamentarian Alexander Fraser (a long-serving superintendent of the Sunday school) and F. E. Beaver, an insurance broker.[13] Another member was Richard Eades. A fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Eades emigrated to Australia in 1848. He was prominent in public affairs and a mayor of Melbourne. He was also a member of the Burke and Wills Exploration Committee.[14] John King, the survivor of the ill-fated expedition, also worshipped here. He never recovered from the ordeal and lived quietly in St Kilda, dying of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-one.[15] In a list dating from the 1860s, there were 127 men and fifty-nine female members. Miss Blanche Glass was the only woman for whom an occupation was given. She was a Post and Telegraph mistress. Mrs Fenton was the only other woman with an individual entry (possibly a widow). The other women were included with relatives.[16]

By 1900 membership had dropped to fewer than ninety and the decline continued in the twentieth century accompanied by an increasing inability to maintain the church. A 1965 report indicated the church interior was badly in need of renovation, with flaking paintwork, and that the freestone outside was deteriorating.[17] In late 1966 one of the pinnacles was displaced during a storm and they were all removed.

During this procedure, one was dropped causing considerable damage to the roof.[18] The congregation opted to join the Uniting Church and the church was closed. The final service was held on 25 June 1978.

By the 1990s the church and its buildings were in a sorry state. The church was used as a photographic studio in the early 1990s but was later unoccupied. Deciduous creeper had grown over the building, obscuring it. The hall was used by the St Kilda Alternative School for a time. The church was converted to flats and is now engulfed by a complex of offices and shops. The development plans were controversial and opposed by many but went ahead despite the Australian Heritage Commission citing the Wesleyan Church complex as having national estate historic values.[19] The citation stated it was ‘one of St Kilda’s oldest Churches and [it] has an association with the early development of the area. These prominent buildings, located on the corner of two of St Kilda’s main roads and forming an important part of a conservation area, are important for their aesthetic characteristics’.[20]

The Manse

A brick manse was built in Princes Street behind the church in 1856 at a cost of £500. Two years later it was altered to become a two-storey gable building with nine rooms for an extra £500. A sexton’s residence was also built in the 1850s.[21] The manse was demolished in 1888 because of weak foundations and a building in Grovesnor Street was rented until the second manse was completed in 1889. The architects were probably Percy Oakden and Ralph Wilson and the builder was T. B. Allen. A two-storey asymmetrical Gothic residence, it is typical of the late 1880s and considered a ‘particularly finely designed and detailed building’. It was converted into four flats after the new manse was built in 1926-27 and in 1955 became a men’s hostel.

The builder of the third manse was R. J. Jones with a competition-winning design by Alec Eggleston, which was however altered to provide for a more ornate facade. A single-storey red brick building in Tudobethan style, it features stuccoed dressings and a terracotta tile roof and cost £2095.[22] During the 1990s the 1887 manse was altered and some repairs were done while the 1926 manse remained in poor condition.[23]


At the end of 1853 a timber schoolhouse was built at a cost of £1750, the high cost reflecting the gold rush conditions.[24]In 1888 it was demolished and the materials recycled to build a caretaker’s cottage. A new brick school was erected. It was an important work of the architect Percy Oakden. Considered one of Melbourne’s finest examples of his work, it was gutted by a fire in 1990. Squatters were suspected of being responsible. In the 1990s large props supported the remaining walls of the schoolroom burnt out in 1990 and it was surrounded by wire fencing and ‘Keep Out’ signs.

[1]     A. Balcombe Griffiths and Yvonne von Hartel, ‘An Architectural History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of St Kilda’, undergraduate thesis, Architecture, University of Melbourne, 1965, p. 4.

[2]     Cooper, History of St Kilda, p. 355.

[3]     See: Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[4]     Cooper, History of St Kilda, p. 355.

[5]     National Estate Database, ‘Wesleyan Methodist Church’.

[6]     Griffiths and von Hartel, ‘An Architectural History’, pp. 18-21; and National Estate Database, ‘Wesleyan Methodist Church’. Note: Cooper says 500 adults on p. 356.

[7]     John C. Symons, The Life of the Reverend Daniel James Draper, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1870, p. 224, cited in Griffiths and von Hartel, ‘An Architectural History’.

[8]     Lewis, Victorian Churches, p. 10.

[9]     Wesleyan Chronicle, 2 April 1864.

[10]    Griffiths and von Hartel, ‘An Architectural History’, p. 18.

[11]    Ibid., p. 30.

[12]    Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[13]    There is a biography of Corrigan in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[14]    Ibid.

[15]    For details of King and the expedition see: Ibid.

[16]    Renate Howe, ‘The Wesley Church in Victoria, 1855-1901’, MA, Melbourne, n.d.

[17]    Griffiths and von Hartel, ‘An Architectural History’.

[18]    Margaret Gibbs, St Kilda Methodist Church, typescript, 1978. [Copy held at Uniting Church Archives.] This contains a list of incumbents from 1854-1950. The longest any served was four years.

[19]    National Estate Database, ‘Wesleyan Methodist Church’.

[20]    Australian Heritage Commission, Register of the National Estate Database, ‘Wesleyan Methodist Church Complex (former), St Kilda Vic’, database number: 014698, file number: 2/11/046/0089.

[21]    Ibid.

[22]    Ibid.

[23]    Ibid.

[24]    Griffiths and von Hartel, ‘An Architectural History’, pp. 4-5.