The Fledgling Wesleyan Congregations in Glen Iris: 1865 to 1881
Early records place the date for the establishment of the Glen Iris Wesleyan congregation at 18621 when Sunday meetings took place in the home of Mr Thomas Robinson, a gardener of Albion Road. The sparse and scattered farming and market gardening community was just becoming known as Glen Iris2 at this time and it is recommended that those interested in the early history of the district read the authoritative accounts listed at the end of this document.
On Sunday, May 31st, 1863 a temporary Wesleyan church was officially opened and sermons were preached “to large and attentive congregations”. Then, on Monday evening, a public tea-meeting was held at which “upwards of one hundred persons were present”. Here money was collected which “more than covered the expenditure occasioned by repairs and alterations to the church. The building, from its numerous and tasteful decorations, presented quite a gay and attractive appearance; and if we may judge from the enthusiasm and liberality manifested during the evening, the time is not far distant when we shall witness here a commodious church and a flourishing society”. Messrs Thomas Robinson and Thomas Bainbridge, a local butcher, were jointly thanked for “kindly placing at the disposal of the Wesleyan Connection free of charge” the building which local historians have variously hypothesised may have been a house, a barn or a woolshed, and which is reputed to have stood in High Street near Seaton Street or Bellavista Road.
The Wesleyan Chronicle, in December the following year, reported that the church and congregation had increased and consequently it had been determined to erect a permanent building. “To inaugurate the new church-scheme sermons were preached on Sunday, October 9th, in the afternoon and evening...” Again, on the following Monday evening, “a tea-meeting was held in a spacious marquee, at which it is supposed upwards of three hundred persons were present”. At the public meeting which followed, “The collections in cash and promises amounted to the noble sum of £71. It is finally expected, judging from the zeal and liberality displayed by the people, that there will soon be a good, substantial Wesleyan church at Glen Iris”.3
Mrs Mary Ann Bruce was a young married member of the Glen Iris Wesleyan congregation in 1862 and attended the first meetings in Thomas Robinson's home. In 1932, when she was 93 years of age, William Lambert, the author of Three Score Years and Ten, recorded her remarkable memories which form the basis of much of his written account of the early days of Glen Iris. She recounted to him that initially the Wesleyans wanted to build the church near the bridge over Gardiners Creek with its frontage onto High Street. However the Government declined to make this land available and instead the site on what was later to be known as Glen Iris Road was chosen. A note in the Government Gazette of January 1st, 1865 states that one acre of land had been set aside for Wesleyan Church purposes in Crown Portion 136A.6 Providing land to churches was a common practice. Governor LaTrobe, reflecting the Christian values of the time, proclaimed in 1839 that it was important to acquire and maintain “sound religious and moral institutions to secure prosperity and happiness” for the country.7
It was believed that High Street and Glen Iris Road would form an intersection immediately in front of this site thereby ensuring the church visual prominence, but when High Street was properly constructed, instead of going straight up the hill from Gardiners Creek, it curved around the side of the hill to lessen the grade for the horse-drawn traffic. The Government had also promised, when this happened, to retain the land between High Street and the church as a reserve, but subsequently when it was sold for shop sites the Church trustees were extremely disappointed and went to the Government, obviously to no avail.8
When Messrs Robinson and Bainbridge, according to Mrs Bruce, went to raise loans from banks to build the new church they took the deeds of their own properties to guarantee the funds. It seems however that the banks accepted the good will of the men and they were granted sufficient money without risk to their own properties.9
There is some debate, through lack of corroborating evidence, as to the origin of the second-hand bricks used in the building of the new church. It seems likely that the bricks were purchased from the Hartwell Independents whose attempts to establish a church had foundered by 1864.10 What is certain though is that Mr Nicholas Pepperill, another Glen Iris market gardener who was still alive in 1932 and attended the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Glen Iris Methodist congregation, carted the bricks to their new home and Mr Richard Mann Snr, a bricklayer, built the church.11
The opening services of the new Wesleyan Church in Glen Iris were held on Sunday, May 7th, 1865. The Wesleyan Chronicle reported that “the congregations were good, and the [three] services were attended with a gracious influence”. The sum of £57 was raised on that day. At the public meeting which followed the tea-meeting on the Monday evening Mr H. C. Fraser presided and congratulated the congregation “on having erected so suitable and beautiful a church”. The Wesleyan Chronicle confirmed that the church was “built after a design by Messrs Crouch and Wilson”, who were much used and well respected church architects of the day.12 It was described in a National Trust publication in 1991 as “Gothic-Early English : Rudimentary”13 and is a simple brick, gabled building with stepped buttresses, a timber rose window at its southern end, and a slate roof.
2Ibid, p 10.
3The Wesleyan Chronicle, May 23, 1863, p 81.
4Ibid, December 20, 1864, p 211.
5Lambert, op. cit., pp 7-8.
6Gwen McWilliam, document BOR/99/01242, “200 Glen Iris Road, Glen Iris”, p 3, for City of Boroondara.
7W.H. Newnham, Melbourne. The Biography of a City, F.W. Chesire, Melbourne, 1956, p 76.
8Lambert, op. cit., pp 7-8.
9Ibid., p 8.
10Geoffrey Blainey, A History of Camberwell, The Jacaranda Press, 1964 p 75.
11Lambert, op. cit., p 8.
12The Wesleyan Chronicle, May 20, 1865, p 75.
13Victorian Churches: Their Origins, Their Stories and Their Architecture, edited by Miles Lewis, National Trust of Australia (Vic.), 1991, p 63.