No. 132 - Latrobe Congregational Church - 'Bennett's Bad Luck'

A Congregational church at Latrobe opened in April 1878 when a simple timber church was opened. (1)  A report in The Examiner provides some detail about this building:

“The place of worship just opened is a neat wooden structure situated in Hamilton Street between the Wesleyan and Episcopalian churches, and is capable of seating about 150 hearers. The site on which it is built is a corner allotment fronting in Hamilton and George streets. The first promoters hoped to build a more imposing brick structure, but failing this they have erected the present building, and it has been so nicely finished that it will serve the purposes of this body of Christians for some time, and will, it is hoped, at some future period serve the purposes of a Sunday school”. (2)

At this time, the church did not have a permanent pastor but was awaiting the arrival of Reverend Bennett from America, “with whom a correspondence had been opened respecting the permanent pastorate of the Mersey churches”.(3)

Reverend John Bennett was the younger brother of James Bennett of Deloraine. Bennett’s background was outlined in the Weekly Examiner:

“Mr Bennett was educated for the ministry at New College at London. [He had left for America to take up a position in the Congregational ministry.] We understand that Mr Bennett travels by rail 60 miles beyond Chicago to San Francisco, which he leaves by mail steamer…. and is due in Sydney about the 5th August. It is hoped that the rev. gentleman with his wife and family will reach Launceston about the middle of August and proceed to Latrobe”. (4)

On his arrival at Latrobe, Bennett experienced what can only be described as a run of very bad luck. Even before he had arrived a house provided to accommodate him had burnt down. In the week after his arrival he broke an arm on a trip to Deloraine (presumably to meet his brother).(5)  And to cap this off, in November 1879:

“When returning from the Don, and passing Mr Henry’s store in his gig, the horse began backing. Mr Bennett losing control over the horse jumped from the gig in time to escape precipitation down a steep bank. The horse and gig barely escaped immersion in the Don….. no injury was sustained either by the rev. gentleman or the horse and gig”. (6)

The Reverend Bennett’s bad luck seems to have rubbed off on plans to build a new brick church. At the second anniversary of church, Bennett reported to the congregation:

“During the past year they had passed through great trials, and had much uphill work… Many storms experienced only served to make them better seamen, and better able to manage their ship. It was their intention to build a new brick church at Latrobe, which should be a…worthy addition to the architecture of the town…” (7)

The cost of bringing Reverend Bennett to Tasmania had been significant to the congregation and the fire, which destroyed his house, had cost the church a further £300. This and other serious financial issues were to delay the building of the ‘brick church’ for another 20 years.

We have been left a curious portrait of Reverend Bennett in a column written for the Devon Herald in 1885 by “The Critic in Church”. The column about the Congregational Church in Latrobe was the second in a series of six. It is worth quoting at length, if only for its Dickensian style:

“The minister in charge, Rev. John Bennett, is somewhat advanced in years; tall, and of a commanding aspect; the cast of whose face is allied more to sternness than to tenderness. The forehead prominent, and of fair proportions; the whole face being covered with hair, growing to the allotted limits, whilst the crown of the head is manifesting evidence of decay. In the selection of hymns the preacher was most happy: there was sweet tenderness mingled with deep thought, at once refreshing and inspiring to the Christian worshipper; but a good deal of mannerism pervades the rev. gentleman’s method of giving out the hymns. He often starts off with power, and with some preciseness, and in travelling towards the close retards the flow of his voice by lowering its tones…. The Queen’s English never suffers, but retains its purity in his hands…. "(8)

The “Critic” then moved on to critique Bennett’s preaching:

“In his preaching extremes meet. Devotedly attached to the pages of his manuscript or notes, he rarely confronted his audience with a steady or searching gaze; and when lifted from the page, his eyes were directed to the ceiling, revealing an abundance of white, whilst the pupils were oscillating rapidly from right to left. As they journeyed down to manuscript again, the eyes were closed. There is action, animation and power, when looking intently as his manuscript…. The eye is a felt power, and in the noblest vocation man can follow should be rightly directed to help in the ministration of sacred truth. I have felt the effect of the power of the eye…It is terrible in its power!” (9)

The “Critic” concluded with a further observation and some advice:

“The prayers of the preacher were tender, and to us the most profitable part of the service; they girdled the earth in their range, and to each present there was a suitable portion. The absence of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ should never be a noticeable feature in a house built for His honour and worship. The light of a smile upon the preacher’s face would greatly enhance the power of his preaching”. (10)

I wonder what Bennett’s response to "The Critic in Church" would have been? Clearly, church doctrine was not the only test of the faithful; the quality of a preacher and the dramatic delivery of a sermon might influence the rise and fall of some congregations. Reverend Bennett must have taken on some of the advice of the “Critic” as he continued to preach at Latrobe until 1893 when he retired and was replaced by Reverend David Brown. It was Brown who at last succeeded in getting the Congregationalists their brick church.

The foundation stone of the new church was finally laid on 11 January 1900. At the reopening of the church in November, the long delay in the construction of the church was explained as being due to an “unfortunate investment” and the “demise of a gentleman who was to do the roofing”. (11)

In the speeches after the opening service, Rev. Chamberlain spoke about the title “Independent Church” which was emblazoned on the façade of the building, the word “Independent” being true to the tradition of the church. The Rev. Murray warned against the forces of “Agnosticism and Pessimism” while the Rev. Wright argued against the perception that the Congregationalists “believed in nothing”. (12)

While the Congregationalists at Latrobe had finally gained their brick church this was not to last and it seems to have closed within 60 years* of its opening. The last recorded minister was Reverend Herbert Augustus Leicester who was pastor from 1922 to 1956, surpassing the second longest service of its first minister, John Bennett,  who served from 1878 to 1893.(13) The church’s appearance has changed little since it opened although it has exchanged its ‘Independent’ title that was once emblazoned on the façade for something very different. I wonder what Reverend John Bennett would make of that?

* I have not researched beyond the period of the Congregationalists and it is likely that the building may have been used as a church beyond this date. Any information on this would be most welcome.

Notes and links:

Congregationalism in Tasmania  Click here

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018 (lettering removed)
Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018 (original photo)

The foundation stone. Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018


(1) Launceston Examiner Thursday 4 April 1878, page 3
(2) Launceston Examiner Thursday 4 April 1878, page 3
(3) Launceston Examiner Thursday 4 April 1878, page 3
(4) Weekly Examiner Saturday 13 July 1878, page 7
(5) Launceston Examiner Friday 30 August 1878, page 3
(6) Mercury Saturday 22 November 1879, page 3
(7) Devon Herald Wednesday 11 February 1880, page 2
(8) Devon Herald (Friday 24 July 1885, page 3
(9) Devon Herald Friday 24 July 1885, page 3
(10) Devon Herald  Friday 24 July 1885, page 3
(11) North West Post Thursday 8 November 1900, page 2
(12) North West Post Thursday 8 November 1900, page 2
(13) Sharples, Theo E. and Congregational Union of Tasmania. Congregationalism in Tasmania, 1830-1977 : a brief history / compiled by Theo E. Sharples Congregational Union of Tasmania Hobart 1977


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