No. 213 - St Clement's at Derby - 'Floods and Fairs'

A correspondent for the Daily Telegraph who visited Derby in December 1887 wrote:

“Derby township is situated on the face of a steep range, and close to the Ringarooma River, and like most growing mining towns, is at present in a very rough state, but on every side new and handsome cottages are being erected…. I noticed two places of worship, the Roman Catholic Church being a really imposing building, and clear proof that the Rev. Father Marie [sic] has a most liberal flock to deal with”.

The Catholic church had in fact only been built a couple of months earlier. The foundation stone was laid on 28 February 1887 by Bishop Murphy who had visited Derby after opening the new Catholic church at nearby Branxholm:

“The ceremony of laying the foundation stone of a new Roman Catholic Church was performed in the presence of about 200 spectators. The service was an impressive as well as an imposing one, taking place as it did in the midst of fallen timber, and on an eminence facing the now well-known mines, which are the support of this flourishing place. At the close of the service a very creditable amount of £50 was placed upon the stone. The Bishop, in his address upon this occasion, spoke in eulogistic terms of the zeal, energy, and piety of the Rev. Martial Mary, especially noting his success in the matter of church building”.

Father Martial Mary had arrived in Tasmania in 1878 and was despatched to serve the isolated North East and East Coast. Before entering the priesthood Father Mary had served in the French army in its campaign against Victor Emanuel of Sardinia and the Garibaldians in the Third War of Italian Independence. Father Mary was an immensely popular priest who had the ‘common touch’. He learnt much of his English vocabulary from the miners which resulted in him making a “glaring faux pas when he used some impolite words at Government House in Hobart”.

In 1894 Father Mary was replaced by a Dutch priest, Father Van den Heyden. The new priest did not share Father Mary’s enthusiasm for building churches but he did have a penchant for investing in mining stocks and shares. The Dutch priest was not liked by Archbishop Delaney who wrote in February 1899:

“I opened a weeks mission in Derby. Father Van Der Heyden gave me no help, but much dissatisfaction, through want of his tact in dealing with the people. I must say, on his behalf, that he was very punctual with Sunday Mass, and that his receipts are very small. The people are not satisfactory. My weeks work was very depressing, yet the children soon came round, and some of the adults”. [Southerwood]

While Father Van Der Heyden may not have shared Father Mary’s ‘common touch’ he was, like his predecessor, a very generous man. When he died in 1903, he left 400 hundred shares in the Australian Tin Mining Company to a Catholic orphanage in Adelaide and other assets bequeathed were used to fund Catholic schools in the poorer parishes of Tasmania.

Another interesting priest was Father Fitzgerald, who arrived at Derby in 1925. He is remembered for one of the most dramatic events in Derby’s history. In April 1929, Derby was devastated by a flood following the collapse of the Briseis Dam when 300mm of rain fell in a 24 hour period. The dam which provided water for the Briseis Tin Mine gave way and a wall of water up to a hundred feet high surged towards the town. The volume of water was so huge that it caused the Ringarooma River to reverse the direction of its flow as far as Branxholm about five miles upstream. The flood devastated Derby. Fourteen people died, many buildings were destroyed and operations at the mine were brought to a standstill. Father Fitzgerald’s role in the flood rescue is recounted in the Hobart Mercury in a melodramatic but moving account:

“What of the men in the big open pit? Had they escaped? It was seen that some had been marooned, while many had escaped and came rushing to assure their loved ones of that safety. But out on the two small islands there were men. And at once the thought came back to all of those present of a recent disaster when the big water pipe burst and entrapped three men who were slowly engulfed and drowned before the view of the spectators, who had to stand helpless by. Out there now were eight men. Would the same fate befall them? Would the mad waters, rising by feet at a time, engulf them? Yes! Yes! It would, unless speedy relief were brought. But who could go to them in that mad rushing tide of fury that was sweeping down with such terrific speed and such horrible power? Would the very ground on which those men were be dissolved under their feet, as was the sand dune up above? What a plight! Plight for the marooned men, and plight for the helpless spectators. One young married man, Cyril Gibbons by name, came forward and wanted to swim out to them with a rope. But such a scheme, as brave as it was hopeless, was impossible. Then it occurred to one that they should make a raft, and try to go out and save the endangered men. At once experienced hands were at it. Timber was procured, and tools, and in a short time the raft was well under construction. Amongst the spectators was Father Gerald Fitzgerald, the young and popular parish priest of the district. Women came running to him to prevent their husbands from going out on that raft to what they said was certain death. Every man present volunteered to go out with this little craft to try to save their mates. But their loved ones were terrified lest any of them should venture on what seemed to all no more than a plunge to certain death. Still the construction of the raft went on.

Father Fitzgerald was seen to dash out from the crowd and make to his home not far distant. Soon he returned, and in a short time the raft was completed. But the waters were rushing on more madly than ever. There was no time for delay. A rope was fastened to the raft and two rough paddles were made ready. All that was wanting was two men of daring and heroism to man the small craft that was to go out to the rescue of the stranded men. Young Gibbons announced that he was going, and then Father Fitzgerald, throwing off his garments, stepped forward in bathing costume. He had returned to his presbytery to get it, because he was determined that no married man should risk his life, when he was available. He and Gibbons boarded the raft and commenced to paddle. But the wild mad rushing tide was too strong, and the raft was carried down stream and out past the islands where the men were marooned.  Every moment the spectators expected to see the raft dashed to pieces and its little crew hurled to death in the boiling torrent. But they stuck to their work and paddled the craft along until it was hauled back by the rope from the land. The attempt, magnificent in its daring, had failed.

But there was another brave man there. A small boat had been brought to Derby. Constable Taylor and others had made a rush to bring it to the scene. Constable Taylor entered the boat. He is a powerful rower; but what would be his skill against the rushing torrent. But with a magnificent display of courage he pulled out into the wild waters. The spectators were hushed to silence. They were watching a mighty struggle between the little boat and the mad pitiless waters. Every moment they expected to see the boat overturned or dashed beneath an avalanche of water. But the brave rower was as skilful with the oars as he was stout of heart, and gradually he drew near to the marooned men. He took the first on board. Only one at a time, and with his one passenger rowed again towards the shore. The first man was saved. Back again went the heroic rescuer, and the second man was rescued from certain death. The flood was fortunately abating a little.

Taylor kept on until the eight men were safely landed. Then the spectators burst into a loud cheer and many rushed to grasp the hand of the brave constable who had risked his life for his fellow men. Women whose husbands or sons were missing crowded round. Some welcomed their loved ones thus saved. But when the last man was brought in others realised the horrible truth, that their loved ones were not amongst the saved, but had become victims of the cruel torrent. Tasmania has witnessed many thrilling scenes and many brave deeds, such as that during the Mount Lyell disaster some 17 years ago. But it is doubtful if ever a more thrilling scene was witnessed anywhere or a more glorious display of courage given than that given at Derby that afternoon by Constable Taylor, Father Fitzgerald, and Cyril Gibbons.

I feel sure that these facts, now that they are known, concerning the courageous men who took such great risks that day will stir all hearts. Surely we cannot allow such magnificent deeds to pass unnoticed; deeds that in war would earn for those who performed them the highest honour of the Victoria Cross. We have not in civil life anything that takes the place of the V.C., but something should be done to recognise the heroism of these men in connection with one of the most thrilling rescues from certain death that has ever been recorded".

The Church Bazaar

In stark contrast to the drama of the 1929 flood is the seemingly mundane topic of the church bazaar. Church bazaars dominate reports on religious activities by the country correspondents of Tasmanian newspapers. An interesting feature of the early years of St Clement's is the large number of bazaars held to pay off the cost of the building. While the construction cost of the church was quickly paid off, unusually, the church did not own the land on which it was built. Fifteen years after the church opened, bazaars were again held to raise funds to purchase the land. The Derby correspondent for The Tasmanian wrote a lengthy piece on one of these bazaars which is worth quoting at length as it gives a unique insight into the vibrancy and creativity of the Catholic women of Derby:

“Owe no man anything”, is a mandate thundered forth from the pulpits and platforms of nearly all the churches of Christendom, and yet it invariably happens that after a church is built it is in debt, and if there is one thing better than other to liquidate the debt of a church it is a bazaar. Lectures, concerts, tea meetings, cake and apron fairs, cantatas, oratorios, services of song, and a host of other special subjects are often resorted to, but for complete financial success I give the palm to a bazaar. A bazaar and sale of fancy gifts in aid of the Roman Catholic Church at Derby was opened last Thursday, … and was continued and concluded last Monday night…. The affair, of course, was a success. The display of fancy wares, both useful and ornamental, was something grand, and the dispersal of them was carried on by ladies dressed in fancy costumes, which formed a most attractive feature of the bazaar. Mrs Webb, as Colleen Bawn, looked very nice and suited the character, and was most indefatigable in her efforts. Mrs Bomford, as the Hospital nurse, looked very neat. Miss Davern, as the lady graduate, appeared to be very studious; and Miss Hilda Davern, as a Scotch lassie, had on a most becoming dress and cap and boots, but lacked the buxom appearance of the real lassie; Miss Kennelly was dressed as “Ivy”, white dress trimmed with ivy leaves; the Misses Cotton appeared as “Pansy” and “Rose”; Miss Cavanagh as a shepherdess, but without sheep. Miss Bomford and several other ladies appeared in fancy costumes, but not being well versed in the language of classical toggery I could not make them out. The goods were chiefly disposed of, not by bona fide sale, but by a systematic method of raffling, and I am really inclined to think it is the best method, as by a raffle an article seems to bring a much higher price than by bona fide selling…. The young men seemed to think that they could do nothing better than go into the raffle. How could they refuse when entreated to do so by a Scotch lassie, or a lady student, or by an Ivy, or a Rose, or a Shepherdess, or by some nymph in classical costume. The proceeds, I hear, will amount to about £50, which will greatly assist to liquidate the debt of the church”.

The Closure of the Church

After the 1929 flood, tin mining at Derby declined and eventually ceased. With the closure of the mines, the town shrunk and eventually all three of its churches closed. St Clement's held its last Mass in 2002 and was sold in the following year. Derby is now undergoing an economic revival but it is unlikely that the churches will return. Although St Clement's is gradually disappearing behind a screen of vegetation, the pioneering priests and the faithful Catholics of early Derby should not be forgotten.

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Real Estate Photograph - Harcourts

Real Estate Photograph - Harcourts

Real Estate Photograph - Harcourts

Real Estate Photograph - Harcourts

St Clement's in 1905 - original source not known

The Mercury Monday 28 February 1887, page 2
The Daily Telegraph Thursday 3 March 1887, page 3
The Tasmanian Saturday 21 May 1887, page 11
The Mercury, Friday 14 August 1887, page 3
Daily Telegraph Tuesday 20 December 1887, page 3
The Tasmanian Saturday 22 November 1890, page 15
The Mercury Friday 3 May 1929 Page 8 

Southerwood, W. T.  Planting a faith in Tasmania : the country parishes / [by] W. T. Southerwood  [W. T. Southerwood] [Hobart]  1977

Fairburn, Margaret E and McKay, John T. (Father) The flickering flame : Catholicism in north-east Tasmania, 1877-2011. Father John McKay, Tasmania, 2011.


  1. As the new owners we have done much to preserve this wonderful old church. New guttering, exterior paint and general repairs have worked wonders. Sadly the building was stripped bare before selling. The windows that were removed now grace both the Ringarooma and the Scottsdale churches. While we reserve the right to grow a garden, the interior remains the same. Even the old confessional is still in its rightful place. Jocelyn and Dianne Northey, St Clements, Derby

  2. Hi Joss & Dianne. It is wonderful to see this building preserved where so many are falling into disrepair. Sorry about the vegetation comment. Just a bit frustrating for a photographer as I never step onto private property so views were a bit limited for this one!

  3. I have included your blog/s in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

    Thank you, Chris
    Always interesting, Duncan and I loved reading Joss's comment also. I love seeing these old churches get a new life.

  4. Hi Duncan, next time you are in Derby, come in and we will shiw you our lovely old church. We are simply the custodians for a short part of her history. We will hand her over in a much better state than when we first set foot in her

  5. That would be lovely Joss. Thank you.


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