No. 177 - St Mary Magdalene at George Town

George Town’s church of St Mary Magdalene is a modern, functional and austere building therefore it may be surprising to learn that its origins go back to the first European settlement in northern Tasmania. It is located close to the site where the first Christian service took place in the north of the island. It is also at least the fifth incarnation of an Anglican church at George Town.

In 1804, a party of men led by Lieutenant Colonel William Paterson sailed into the mouth of the Tamar. A cove on the eastern side of the river was chosen as a temporary settlement for a party of 181 men which included troops, 74 convicts and one free settler. Paterson’s company had no ordained minister therefore he requested a Mr Main to read the first service. This event marks the first official religious service in the north of the island.

The first minister at George Town was Reverend John Youl (1819-24) who “performed divine service in a temporary brick built church, which was also used as a school house”. In 1832 the first dedicated Anglican church was established near this site and was used by visiting clergymen from Launceston. This building was replaced in 1838 and in 1841, the first resident priest, Reverend J. Walker, was appointed. Walker was succeeded by the Reverend John Fereday who served as minister from 1846 to 1871.

John Fereday was an interesting and remarkable man. He was a keen amateur photographer, and he took photographs of the Bass Strait Islanders while on regular mission voyages and he is credited with producing the first known visual record of the European sealers and their indigenous wives and children.

He was born on 8 November 1813 in Ellowes, Staffordshire. After becoming a Church of England clergyman he sailed to Van Diemen’s Land in 1846 aboard the Aden, accompanied by his wife Susan, and their five children. Bishop Nixon appointed him to St Mary Magdalene Church at George Town soon after his arrival. Both Fereday and his wife were amateur algologists and collections of their seaweeds were sent to the national collections at Kew Gardens.

In 1863 he produced a series of wet-plate stereoscopic portraits of the Bass Strait islands and their inhabitants. These portraits did not merely result from a casual visit; Fereday accompanied Archdeacon Thomas Reibey on regular mission voyages and acted as an unofficial agent for the islanders. He also performed marriages for the islanders as was recorded in the Cornwall Chronicle in 1847:

“(Married) at George Town, on Saturday the 27th instant, by Rev Mr. Fereday, John Mira (a native of the island of Otaheiti) [now Tahiti] to Betsy Miti (an Aboriginal native of this island). Also James Williams (a European) to Victoria Leonard (also a native of this island). The parties left Flinders Island on Thursday morning last in an open boat for George Town — a distance of 80 miles, in order that the marriage ceremonies might be performed by a duly qualified clergyman”. (Cornwall Chronicle Wed 31 Mar 1847)

In 1861, Fereday’s eldest daughter Susan married Alexander Stenson Palmer at St Mary Magdalene. Like her father she was a talented artist and it is her painting of the church that provides the sole visual record of the old stone building.

Fereday met a tragic death in April 1872 when his gig hit a tree stump on the road from 9 Mile Springs [Lefroy] on the way to George Town:

“The Ven. Archdeacon Browne and Mr Fereday left Nine Mile Springs about 4 p.m. on Tuesday, in a gig to return to George Town. As Mr Fereday was very near sighted the Archdeacon undertook to drive. They had got near to Quin's farm, when a wheel of the gig came in contact with one of the numerous stumps, which render driving on the portion of the George Town Road from within two or three miles this side the Mount so perilous. The collision was so forcible that the Archdeacon was thrown violently out, the reins were jerked out of his hand, and the horse taking fright bolted with Mr Fereday in the gig. When the Archdeacon was able to get up from where he was thrown, he could see neither horse, gig, nor Mr Fereday. He ran on towards George Town, and at last found Mr Fereday lying on the road bleeding, and quite unconscious".

Fereday never regained consciousness. Although his headstone can be seen outside the church, he was in fact “interned in the George Town cemetery, about two miles out of the town, and not in the churchyard”.

After Fereday’s death, the church continued to grow under a succession of ministers. A report from January 1881 on the annual Sunday school picnic and prize giving, provides a wry observation of life in the community and is worth quoting at length. Bishop Moorhouse of Melbourne was visiting George Town and took charge of the proceedings:

“About 2pm the children began to assemble, and the ground soon presented an animated appearance…. Cricket, rounders, and various other games caused the time to pass so quickly and pleasantly that its flight was unheeded, and 4 o’ clock, the hour when the prizes were distributed, came upon all as a surprise. The services of an amateur drummer were here called into requisition, who by his exertions speedily gathered those present in front of the prize tent. Silence being effected, the Rev. W. T. Powell…. called upon the Bishop of Melbourne to address the children. …. He said that the object of all teaching was to make the taught both wise and good. But he wondered how many of those he addressed attended Sunday school solely and simply that they might become wise and good. As they knew, he was about to distribute the prizes which had been provided by the superintendent … but before doing so he would ask them, did they understand why these prizes were given? Did they attend simply that they might receive these books, which in reality were nothing more than sugar sticks. If they met a little girl crying in one of the streets, and upon being promised a sugar stick she ceased crying, would that little child act from a right motive? No. Neither would they if they only attended Sunday school for the sake of prizes. Prizes were given because lazy people required incentives to duty – because without prizes there would be no stimulus to exertion. He would now, after the reading of the report, give them their sugar-sticks, which he trusted would in after years be valued reminders of those who sought to make them wise and good”.

It was not recorded how the children responded to the Bishop’s lecture.

A decade after Fereday’s death, agitation began for St Mary Magdalene to be replaced by a new church. In January 1881 a public meeting was held for this purpose:

“A large and influential meeting of the residents of George Town was held …in the St Mary Magdalene Church, for the purpose of taking steps for the erection of a new church. … The Ven. Archdeacon Hales, who presided in a forcible and earnest speech, advocated the object of the meeting. Of the necessity of erecting a new church, he (the Archdeacon) entertained no doubt, …the present building for many reasons was not a suitable place of worship, nor could it on account of its architectural deformity ever be made so. Again, any and all improvements would, through the unsoundness of the foundations, be futile”.

Planning for the new church proceeded rapidly and the foundation stone was laid in December 1883 and the church was opened and consecrated in May 1886.

This new church, now the fourth church, was rededicated to St Mary Magdalene and went on to enjoy a life of a little over a century. It served the Anglican’s of George Town well until a devastating fire gutted it in 1994. In was replaced in the year 2000 by the current plain brick church; now the fifth building representing the Anglican presence at George Town, which is now a period of well over 200 years.

The old weather church which burnt down in 1994 - Source - George Town Pictorial History FaceBook page - (the origin of the photograph is not indicated).

A painting of the earlier stone church by the Reverend Fereday's daughter: Susan Georgina Marianne Fereday.  LINC

The fifth and latest Anglican church of St Mary Magdalene : Photograph - Duncan Grant 2018

The ruins of the burnt church - source: Tasmanian Anglican October 2000

The Reverend John Fereday's headstone outside the modern Anglican church. Contemporary reports indicate that he was buried at the George Town Cemetery

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018
Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018


Cornwall Chronicle Wednesday 31 March 1847
Cornwall Chronicle Wednesday 31 July 1861
Cornwall Chronicle Monday 10 April 1871, page 2
Tasmanian Saturday 15 April 1871, page 12
Launceston Examiner Wednesday 12 January 1881, page 3
Mercury Thursday 13 January 1881, page 3
Tasmanian Saturday 15 December 1883
Examiner Saturday 30 May 1936, page 12
Mercury Monday 1 June 1936, page 7
Mercury Monday 29 November 1954, page 3

Boyce, James; God's own country : The Anglican Church and Tasmanian Aborigines 2014.

Stephens, Geoffrey and Anglican Church of Australia. Diocese of Tasmania (issuing body.) The Anglican Church in Tasmania : a Diocesan history to mark the sesquicentenary, 1992. Trustees of the Diocese, Hobart, 1991.


  1. Thank you. I remember well driving from Launceston to Georgetown to attend an event in the 1990's in the next to most recent church in Georgetown.


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