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Independent (Congregational) Church



       9 Alma Road, St Kilda

In the nineteenth century, Congregationalists usually called their churches ‘Independent’. This church was one of the first Independent Churches built outside the city of Melbourne. It was built on land which was sold in 1851 and was part of the second major subdivision of land in St Kilda.[1] The church had local significance because it was a landmark on St Kilda Hill, which is a historic precinct of metropolitan significance, and for its relationship with neighbouring buildings, especially the Presbyterian Church.[2]

The early history of the Congregationalists in St Kilda is uncertain. Cooper records that the first Congregational service in St Kilda was held in a tent on Marine Terrace in December 1855.[3] However, E. N. Mathews states that a wooden building in Alma Road was opened in 1853 for Congregational services and that an iron church was imported from England in 1855.[4] Timothy Hubbard concluded that the 1853 building may have been relocated to make way for the new iron church. He also suggested that a brick building may have been built in the 1860s and could have survived in the existing structure but that no tender notice or other evidence was located.[5] To support his view was the fact that the brick of the side and end walls differed markedly from the polychrome brick facade.

On 15 November 1874, the church was reopened ‘after undergoing extensive repairs, 1,000 pounds being spent on the improvements which included a new front, choir gallery and organ’.[6] The opening services were performed by the Reverend W. R. Fletcher in the morning and the Reverend J. J. Halley in the evening.

William Henry Ellerker, an important architect, a Congregationalist and mayor of St Kilda in 1885-86, is thought to have been responsible for the design of the church.[7] He arrived in Australia in 1853 and began work for Thomas Kemp of Knight, Kemp and Kerr in Melbourne. The company was responsible for the new Houses of Parliament. Ellerker later worked for the Public Works and Railways departments before moving to Queensland for three years. He returned to Melbourne in 1866 and established his own business and was responsible for the Temperance, Horticultural and Protestant halls in Melbourne and many private homes. Edward Kilburn joined him in 1885 and the firm designed the Federal Coffee Palace, ‘justly considered one of the handsomest buildings in Australia’.[8] Although a prolific and well-known architect, Ellerker designed very few churches.

The church design was ‘loosely Early English Gothic Revival and used polychrome brickwork for its chief effect. Its form was that of a simple hall church’.[9] The church had polychrome brick (cream and red) on the facade and pink bricks on the side and rear. It had a gabled slate roof. All the windowsills were bluestone. At the rear was a weatherboard extension and detached brick classrooms with bluestone footings.[10] The interior was typical for its period with a balcony at the northern end, the balustrade richly panelled with Gothic motifs. The flat floor was ‘unusual, perhaps’ for a Congregational church of this period. There were three stained-glass windows. The west window had the text, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy’ and the east window had ‘Honour thy Father and thy Mother’. The eastern banner of the centre window proclaimed ‘Suffer little children to come unto me’ and Christ was depicted with a group of children and women.[11]

A major Congregationalist benefactor was Thomas Fulton, ‘a most worthy resident of Early St. Kilda, and a pillar of the Congregationalist Church’.[12] With Robert Langlands, he started the first iron foundry and engineering shop in Melbourne. He contributed £1000 of the £5000 required to bring ministers to Australia during the gold rushes. One of the group was the Reverend Richard Fletcher, the first Congregational minister in St Kilda. Fulton was tragically killed in an accident at a mine in Bendigo. His funeral procession was more than a mile long.[13]

Three eminent Congregationalists had brief associations with the St Kilda Independent Church. William Roby Fletcher MA, the third son of the Reverend Richard Fletcher, was also a Congregational Minister. After completing his studies in England, he joined his father in 1856. They briefly shared the pastoral duties of St Kilda and Brighton before William moved to pastorates in Bendigo, Richmond and Adelaide, where he also taught and served as vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide. In addition to theological publications he also wrote on Egyptian archaeology and his broad interests had a great influence on the intellectual life of Adelaide.[14]

Alexander Gosman, a Congregational theologian and social reformer, was called to the St Kilda Independent Church in 1863. The following year he moved to the Congregational College of Victoria and was its principal from 1876 to 1913. He was a founder of the Bible in State Schools League, the first president of the Anti-Sweating League and active in the Charity Organization Society.[15] James Jefferis, Congregational minister, lecturer and journalist, married Marian Turner in the St Kilda Independent Church on 11 April 1866. His pastorates were in Adelaide and later Sydney. He worked for a more organised Congregationalism and supported Protestant union.[16]

Classrooms were built in 1875 and four years later a new organ was installed. In 1888 the congregation and the organ moved to a new church, St John’s, on the corner of Barkly and Mitford Streets, near the Village Belle Hotel in South St Kilda.[17] The church and the detached building at the rear, probably the original classrooms, were sold to the nearby Presbyterian Church. The church was used as a Sunday school for many years until the early 1970s. It was subsequently used as a dance studio. It was demolished in the 1990s and in October 2002 the site was part of a huge excavation, apparently the preparation for a high rise building. St John’s closed in 1974 and gave its hymn books, carpets and curtains to their sister church, East St Kilda Congregational Church. St John’s has also been demolished.

[1]     Timothy Hubbard, ‘The Former Independent Church, 9 Alma Road West, St Kilda: A report to the Minister for Planning and Urban Growth supporting the addition of the building to the register of classified buildings in the St Kilda planning scheme’, Timothy Hubbard Pty Ltd, South Melbourne, 1991, p. 16. See also: National Trust, Submission to the Historic Buildings Council on the Former Congregational Church 1874, 29 August 1883, HBC file 84/3046.

[2]     Hubbard, ‘The Former Independent Church’, p. 9.

[3]     Cooper, History of St Kilda, p. 70.

[4]     E. N. Matthews, Colonial Organs and Organ Builders, p. 149, cited in Hubbard, ‘The Former Independent Church’, p. 16.

[5]     Ibid., p. 17.

[6]     Ibid.

[7]     Ibid., p. 20.

[8]     Alexander Sutherland, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol. 11B, p. 516. See also: Gibbney and Smith, A Biographical Register 1788-1939, vol. 1, p. 207.

[9]     Hubbard, The Former Independent Church’, p. 22.

[10]    Ibid., p. 26.

[11]    Ibid., p. 27. The western banner has not survived.

[12]    Cooper, History of St Kilda, p. 367.

[13]    Ibid., pp. 368-9.

[14]    Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[15]    Ibid.

[16]    Ibid.

[17]    E. N. Matthews, Colonial Organs and Organ Builders, p. 149, cited in Hubbard, ‘The Former Independent Church’, p. 16.