No. 145 - St Wilfred's at Tunnel - 'Fire, Concrete and Buffaloes'

The hamlet of Tunnel in Tasmania is ‘famous’ for its 19th century railway tunnel. The 700 metre tunnel which opened to the first train in 1889, is now abandoned, much like the churches that once existed in the area. There were two churches at Tunnel, an Anglican and a Methodist church with only the former remaining. This was closed and sold to ‘The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes’ in 1977. The ‘Buffaloes’ no longer roam around Tunnel and the church has since been converted into a house.

The population of Tunnel grew after the railway and a station was built and by 1914 Anglicans felt the need to build a church. According to the Daily Telegraph:

“For some years the Anglicans at Tunnel have kept in view the building of a church. Meantime service has been held periodically in the Public Hall. About six months ago a start was made to erect a church building on a piece of land given by a parishioner, other parishioners supplying the materials”.

In August 1914, the Daily Telegraph reported (in telegraphic style) the opening of the church and its dedication as St Wilfred’s:

“In the morning, Communion service was held, the Venerable Archdeacon Beresford…officiating. In the afternoon a dedicatory service was held at three o’clock. The building was crowded, numbers being unable to gain admission, visitors coming from all the surrounding districts.”

As it was a timber structure it was very vulnerable to bushfires, which are not uncommon in this densely forested area. Only 8 years after opening, both St Wilfred’s and the nearby Methodist church were swept away by fires. The Daily Telegraph reported this dramatic event:

“Quite the worst bush fires ever experienced in the district have occurred during the past few days in the vicinity of Tunnel…the township has been threatened by fires for two or three days, but the climax was reached on Sunday, when the residents were subjected to an anxious and hazardous time. The danger was first realised at about 11:30 a.m., and from thence onwards until 5 p.m. hundreds of people many of whom travelled good distances from surrounding townships, were engaged in beating out and confining the outbreak to quarters where the least harm could come. The Church of England and Methodist church were entirely destroyed by the flames, and only the strenuous efforts of the helpers saved what furniture they contained. With difficulty the state school was saved… It appears that the outbreak commenced on the hill near the Anglican Church, and the high wind blowing favourably for a spread of the flames…" 

A report in The Examiner provided further detail explaining that 50 to 60 men from Lilydale and Lebrina arriving to help contain the fires and try to save the churches and other properties:

“It appears a party noting the danger had burnt everything back from the building and considered that all was safe. But they had hardly turned their backs when they found smoke issuing in volumes from the building. It is supposed that some flying firebrand must have found lodgement. When the full force of the flame burst from some adjacent scrub…. Men valiantly rushed back to see what could be saved of the furniture. Most of it was carried on to the road and saved.”

After the fires the community rallied and both churches were rebuilt. The dedication of the new Anglican church took place in March 1925. It was described as a ‘modern poured concrete’ building designed for low cost and to withstand future bushfires. The opening of the second St Wilfred’s was reported in The Examiner:

“Quite a large congregation attended the opening service, which was opened by Archdeacon Beresford… who commencing the service, first proceeded to the west end of the church, prayed at the entrance, blessed the font, then proceeded to the east end of the church blessing the chancel, altar table and reading desk...”

Only nine years later The Mercury reported that St Wilfred’s experienced a second close encounter with another bushfire:

“Flames passed through the church yards and blackened the tombstones in the cemeteries… Smoke and flames marked the walls of the Methodist Church…. The Anglican Church is built of concrete, and was not in such danger as the other structure.”

Having survived a second fire, St Wilfred’s was no match for rural depopulation and declining congregation numbers. Its sale in 1977 meant that the new church only had a short lifespan of about 50 years. It now looks rather shabby but its concrete structure will ensure that it will endure. Its timber neighbour, the Methodist church, was moved to a new location but that is the subject of another story.

Links of Interest:

The Royal Antedeluvian Order of Buffaloes

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018


Daily Telegraph Tuesday 4 August 1914, page 4
The Examiner Saturday 7 February 1914, page 8
Daily Telegraph Saturday 8 August 1914, page 2
The Examiner Tuesday 14 July 1914, page 6
The Examiner Monday 10 August 1914, page 8
Daily Telegraph Tuesday 14 February 1922, page 4
The Examiner Wednesday 15 February 1922, page 6
The Examiner Wednesday 1 April 1925, page 7
The Mercury Tuesday 13 February 1934, page 12

Henslowe, Dorothea, Our heritage of Anglican churches in Tasmania. Mercury-Walch, Moonah, Tas, 1978.



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