It was already old when I was young.
From the outset, St John’s Church of England was always there, it’s influence on district life felt or implied in many ways. Later, when I knew the church, the Reverend Simondson had by then become an institution. Perhaps he had been there from the start? The Rev’s piano accordion was like a white toothed chest appendage that squeaked when he moved, his weekly pastoral crusade to the young heathens of Banyule Primary School a regular thing.
Recollections of the church in spring time, Sunday School classes moved outside into the crisp, fresh air of the park to make the most of a beautiful morning. Children singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children”, its lyrics loaded with unintended racism. Book prizes at Christmas and the annual Parish fair. The hard work of the Ladies’ Guild on the white elephant stall like an elephant in the room. A bus, lying mysteriously on its side on the banks of Salt Creek one Sunday morning some time in the 1970s. Its brakes had failed at the top of Burgundy Street and it had careered out of control with a load of schoolgirls before overturning in Heidelberg Park. The driver was killed, the girls shaken. And always the church bell calling the faithful to worship. When I was old enough I had the job sometimes of ringing it. A temperamental thing, it was harder to get it swinging than I had imagined.
It all started readily enough when we were quite small, my parents simply asking, “So where do you kids want to go to Sunday School?”
“It’s like school, but on Sunday. Sunday, school, get it. You could go to the church in Arden Crescent where you went to kinder or St John’s in the Park where we were married.”
My sister answered for both of us. She usually did. “I want to go to the place Mummy and Daddy got married.”
‘There’s a school on Sunday?’ I thought with a sinking feeling, maybe. ‘I wonder if there will be finger painting?’
The association of Yallambie with St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg, the third oldest church in Melbourne, goes back a long way. The Bakewell brothers at Yallambie, like their friends and relations in law the Howitts, were Quakers at the time of their arrival in Australia. Quakers or the Religious Society of Friends (or Friends as they call themselves), other than making porridge believed in a doctrine of the priesthood of all Christian believers. They avoided creeds and the hierarchical structure of churches and refused to swear loyalty oaths or participate in wars. The established churches “viewed the Quakers as a blasphemous challenge to social and political order” which in an earlier time, before the Act of Toleration, led to a degree of persecution.
John Bakewell’s name appears alongside that of Dr Godfrey Howitt on a grant of a burial ground in Melbourne to the “Society of Friends” by the Governor of New South Wales in November, 1847. However, by the time of his return to England in 1857, Robert Bakewell’s resignation from the “Society” was accepted by the Nottingham Monthly Meeting (of Quakers) because “he had entirely discontinued his membership during his long residence in Australia.” (Minutes of Nottingham M. M., February, 1857).
Possibly Robert and John had found that during their stay in Australia, their support for an as yet unestablished outpost of Quakerism in Port Phillip gave them little scope to advance their aim of creating a successful farm in the English character on the Plenty River. In an era when the interests of church and state were often intertwined, it was the Church of England that was at the seat of power in Port Phillip. It is believed the Bakewell brothers, like their brother in law, Dr Godfrey Howitt, lost interest in Quaker activities some time after arriving in Port Phillip. In the case of Howitt, his “gradual alienation from ‘Friends’ followed his increasing identification with ‘upper’ classes of Melbourne and with the established church”. (Quakers in Australia in the 19th Century,William Nicolle Oats).
When plans were drawn up by the Church of England diocese to build a church in the Heidelberg parish, on the list of donors alongside the names of church trustees, local gentry Hawdon, Martin and McArthur, the Bakewells’ name appears in the Church accounts book, their initial contribution being £10. (The pre gold rush wage of an agricultural labourer in 1850 was about £26 per annum).
A grant of two acres which had been reserved in the “diamond shaped” village green of the original subdivision of the Warringal village was secured from the government and the foundations of St John’s Church of England were commenced in 1849. The foundation stone “J. W. 1850”, believed to be the oldest surviving engraved stone of this sort in Melbourne, was laid the following year and the building officially opened in October, 1851.
The architectural style of St John’s is reminiscent of an English Parish church from the Decorated period of English Gothic Revival. Its idyllic setting near the river curiously drew this comparison with Yallambie in the 1987 Loder & Bayly, Marilyn McBriar Heidelberg Conservation Study:
HEIDELBERG PARK/ST. JOHN’S
Existing Landscape character
This zone is dramatically different from any area previously described. Its closest affinity is with Yallambie well to the north…
The area is characterised by old plantings of mixed conifer species and a minor sub-planting of deciduous trees.
Thomas Wragge, who purchased Yallambie from the Bakewells, was a staunch Anglican and became a regular worshipper at the church. In the words of one of his descendents, “He probably thought he owned that church.” His commitment extended also to the home. In the homestead that Thomas built at Yallambie to replace the earlier Bakewell farm, it is recorded that it was Thomas’ habit to read a service to his family every morning. On one occasion while reading an appropriately filled fire and brimstone sermon through a thunderstorm, Thomas turned to a window and indicated a horse that had been killed by a bolt from above, emphasizing by example the fate to be expected of those who wandered from God’s grace.
“(He) always had a service in the morning and (once) he was just sort of reading — blessing the gathering and there was a frightful crack of lightening and a clap of thunder together. And Olive said she was looking out and then underneath the oak tree in the paddock a horse was struck by lightening so she said she would always remember the prayers at Yallambie.” (Quote from Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996).
In an age when Sunday was still “church day” and most people attended regularly, the Wragge family were active members at St John’s, Heidelberg travelling there regularly to Sunday services along Lower Plenty and Rosanna Roads by horse and carriage, but never it seems by motor car. At least not initially. In some ways, Thomas Wragge was very conservative and it has been said that he believed that the novel machines that started to appear in the Heidelberg district at the end of the 19th century were wicked instruments. His son Harry had enjoyed the use of a bicycle for some time but Thomas forbade his family to have anything to do with motor cars. However, in the case of at least two of his sons, perhaps his wishes were not always entirely respected.
“(Before Thomas died) Syd and Harry were very keen to get a motor car, but their father would have none of the new-fangled idea. He held strong views that horseflesh had served him well all his days, and that motors were an invention of the devil. Harry would not take ‘no’ easily, and kept plaguing away for consent, until Thomas finally told him he would be disinherited if he got one of the hateful things. The family was most concerned about this, because they knew that the old man might well carry out his threat. To their horror, a little later, the whisper flashed through the family that Harry, despite all threats, had got a car (a Hurtu) and was keeping it secretly in town. Harry had, in fact, done just that. Many a quiet run he had round and about after doing all possible to find out where his father might be going, so he could go elsewhere. Cars were not registered and carried no identification numbers.
“During one of these runs, his one-lunger (sic) was snorting south in Nicholson Street a bit north of the Exhibition building where the road is fairly level. A policeman on a push bike decided he was speeding and called on him to stop. Harry began to panic, visualising his name in the newspapers and his inheritance gone, so he decided to make a run for it. The bobby came pedalling after, and Harry gradually drew away on the level road. Reaching the slight rise to the Exhibition building, the car slowed up and soon the bobby was right behind breathing heavily and gasping threats. It seemed that capture was imminent, but with a flash of genius, Harry slapped on whatever brakes he had; the bicycle crashed into the rear and the policeman took a fearful toss with a buckled front wheel. Harry and car escaped unhurt, and Harry had saved himself from the loss of perhaps £50,000.”
(Extract from Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996).
It is doubtful that if Harry had been caught that day his father would have taken such drastic steps as to disinherit him. At the end of his life Thomas had put aside his reservations and had entered into arrangements with The Motor House Company for a Brazier priced at £475. This was not delivered until two weeks after his death on 12 May, 1910. All the same, it is nice to imagine his widow Sarah Anne, who took possession of the car, driving it like Granny in Tweety and Sylvester until her death five years later. Picture the sales pitch of that car, which had by then been replaced with another. “Practically new you know. Hardly anything on the clock. Driven by a little old lady who only took it to church on Sunday.”
The children of Thomas and Sarah Wragge all became regular parishioners at St Johns, in between visits to the family’s sheep station in New South Wales. Tom Wragge (Thomas’ eldest son) was confirmed at St John’s on 20 June, 1878 and Annie (his eldest daughter) on 18 July, 1889. Caroline Victoria Wragge (Thomas’ third daughter) married Francis James Wright at St John’s on 14 October, 1896 and Annie married Wallace Murdoch there on 20 August, 1903. Annie and Wallace’s daughter, Nancy Wragge Murdoch was baptised there in 1905. Nancy would later inherit Yallambie Homestead through her mother and live there until the end of the 1950s.
In 1907, Thomas Wragge gave £500 to the vestry of St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg to help them purchase adjoining pieces of land in Yarra and Hawdon Streets to build a new church. “This land was wanted because the population of Heidelberg was then concentrated near the railway line, and it was thought that the old church was badly placed. The church hall was moved to that land, and a new vicarage was built on it.” (Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996) “…the basic wage was 7/- per day, £4.2.0 per week, so approximately £210 per annum. So Mr Wragge’s generous offer is equivalent to about two and a half annual basic wages.” (A Church in the Park, St John’s Anglican Church, 2001).
Membership of the Church of England was a spiritual comfort to Thomas and his family and they are remembered there with at least two memorials. The Holy Table or altar at St John’s was a gift to the church by the wife of Thomas Wragge, Sarah Anne in 1902. Solidly constructed of polished blackwood and with a carved front it stands appropriately before the magnificent Wragge family “Ascension Windows”. The windows were a gift to the church in 1920 and dedicated by three of the children of Thomas and Sarah Ann to the memory of their late parents. It was recorded in the church minutes of 1920 that the Wragge family at that time “desired the best position in the church” for their proposed windows and that the vicar therefore suggested the chancel in the sanctuary, the arrangement replacing an earlier design of geometric stained glass. The Wragge windows show Christ ascending with an aureole of cherub like faces adorning the perimeter. The Holy City is shown below with the apostles bowing in reverence. The left and right panels show Mary and John. The triptych bears the following inscription: “In loving memory of Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge for many years worshippers in this church. Presented by their daughter Annie and two sons Syd and Harry 1920.” I read that inscription often in bygone times, the man in the front pew perhaps looking at his watch during the Reverend Simondson’s sermon. Who were Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge in life? I didn’t know.
St John’s became the mother church of several other churches throughout the district. Upon his death on 12 May, 1910, Thomas Wragge left Yallambie to his wife Sarah Ann, excepting one acre of land on the north west corner of the property. Under his will, Thomas Wragge bequeathed this land to the Church of England with the stipulation that a church should be built on it. The transfer of land was finalised in 1912 and construction of a church began. Conceived possibly on grand lines, the Church of the Holy Spirit, Watsonia on the corner of what is today Yallambie Road and the Greensborough Highway, was never completed. It’s boarded up, unfinished end became the home of roosting pigeons. In the 1950s the congregation of the Church of the Holy Spirit moved to a new location closer to the population centre of Watsonia near the rail station. A petrol, service station would later occupy the Greensborough Road site on the edge of Yallambie. There’s probably a moral somewhere in that story.
In the early 20th century there had been a notion of relocating St John’s, Heidelberg to the land in Hawdon Street that had been given to the church in 1907 by Thomas Wragge. In 1958 however, a decision was made to consolidate Parish operations at the old church in the park. The Hawdon Street site and its hall were disposed of, the sum realized for the Parish being £17,050. The upper and lower church halls at St Johns at the front of the building were built at this time and a side chapel, vestry and porches were added to the church. In 1966, soon after the alterations were reconsecrated, the Ladies Auxiliary of St Johns organized an historical exhibition of local significance to raise funds for the Church Missions. The considerable interest which the exhibition generated directly resulted in the formation of the Heidelberg Historical Society which today bases itself nearby at the Old Court House in Jika Street. For another half century the St John’s Church of England site remained relatively unchanged drawing this praise just a decade ago:
“It must have been good to hear it (the church bell) ring out for the first time from the square tower so cunningly located that it formed the focal point of a vista through an avenue of eucalyptus from the main road. We are grateful today for the foresight that chose a lie of the land that still enables one to see the tower across a modern suburb; and for later municipal planning of parkland which saves the church from being ‘built out’.” (Extract from “A Church in the Park”, St John’s Anglican Church, 2001).
Banyule Council’s report “Heritage Guidelines for Warringal Village, 2006” describes the Warringal Village/St John’s/Heidelberg Park precinct as “historically, aesthetically and socially” significant and states that”St John’s Anglican Church, at the highest point in the township, is the dominant key structure… The church, and more particularly its spire, may be seen from a number of points in the Area. It is a highly picturesque element that underscores the early history of the Village reserve.”
The same report makes these recommendations:
“The size and shape of new buildings should relate sympathetically with those of the adjacent significant buildings. New buildings should not dominate existing significant places… New buildings should respect existing settings and neither dominate nor obscure views or sight lines to existing significant buildings.”
So just what is going on at St John’s today? If you stand at the lower end of Burgundy Street and look across Heidelberg Park to the view that was formerly of St John’s Church of England, all you will see now are medium level apartment buildings. The unit developments that have been built on Burgundy and Jika Streets along the south west boundary of the church threaten to overpower the site. But they are nothing when compared to what has most recently gone in behind the church on Vine Street on the south east boundary. “Streeton Park on Yarra” as it is styled is a Freemasons premium retirement living complex conceived on a large scale. A deep excavation has been made up to the fence line of the church and a balcony apartment block built which now completely dominates the location, rising above the dugout and standing above ground level almost as tall as the tower of the church itself.
Before this project was commenced, the then mayor of Banyule was quoted as saying in the Heidelberg Leader newspaper that not everyone wanted a garden and that many people wanted affordable living, like that which would be provided by the new project. Trouble is, that’s where the argument falls flat. “Streeton on the Park” was not conceived as affordable housing but is a premium retirement complex providing a wonderful lifestyle opposite the river.
My parents have their own accommodation nearby in the St John’s memorial garden, the site of their ashes now overlooked by the apartment complex next door. They loved St John’s in life and after their marriage they remained active members of the congregation at St John’s for decades. I still have the letter written by the vestry of St John’s formally thanking my father for the voluntary work he put into the garden in the 1980s. The garden at St John’s then was a place of solitude and quiet reflection. Now it is a place from which to wave to the neighbours.
I am told that the church protested about the Streeton Park on Yarra project and that the objections were taken to VCAT. Failing to have the project stopped there was also an attempt to have one storey removed from the high level plans and to have the buildings set back at a distance from the boundary line. VCAT passed the plans. The Church “turned the other cheek” and not only has the ambience of the location been irretrievably destroyed, but the resulting increase in land values that apartment living encourages means that St John’s itself distressingly must be seen to be under potential threat. In an era of dwindling congregations the church by default now finds itself sitting on acres of premium land opposite Heidelberg Gardens and worth potentially millions.
Streeton Park on Yarra has taken years to take shape beside St Johns. For a long time it stood as a massive hole in the ground the development apparently on hold. It was like that in 2011 when the church hosted a “Back to St John’s” service to mark its 160th anniversary.
Similarly, in the 1970s the F18 freeway project to link Greensborough Road to the Eastern Freeway stalled within the City of Heidelberg when objections were raised to a road that would have bisected the community and potentially destroyed the important landscape around the Warringal Parklands. The freeway reserve is still there in the form of a linear park called Rivergum Walk at the back of Beverley Road but it is unlikely now to ever be used. But is that the end of the matter?
Signs on Rosanna Road have been asking in this pre election week “Who will fix Rosanna Road?” Who indeed? One party has suggested a curfew on heavy transport on Rosanna Road at night. Another party wants to build a freeway elsewhere, in Royal Park. Nobody really wants to say what everyone is thinking. Like another elephant in the room the ghost of the F18 has haunted successive governments the plans “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”
Will the eventual solution of the road problem in Banyule see the destruction of parkland in Warringal as first proposed in the 1960 and 70s, or will the destruction move further out into leafy Eltham, the “outer ring” option? As I ponder this question, I picture old Mrs Wragge seated in her Brazier in the early years of the 20th century driving along a much quieter Rosanna Road to church on Sunday. Money is the religion of the modern day, the speed of living and development at any cost the maxim. Too bad we only have the one planet. In the words of someone somewhere, if a tree falls in the forest and no one blogs about it, who gives a damn?