No. 253 - The Oatlands Uniting Church - "A Great Architectural Blunder"

The town of Oatlands acquired its name in 1821 when Governor Lachlan Macquarie passed through the area and noted that it was “a very eligible situation for a town, being well watered and in the midst of a rich fertile country”. A settlement was well established by the late 1820’s by which time several cottages, a barracks, gaol and a church had been constructed.

The first Presbyterian minister to serve Oatlands was Thomas Dove who was appointed by the Hobart presbytery in 1837. However it was not until the 1850’s that progress was made towards building a ‘Scotch’ church. The foundation stone of the first ‘Presbyterian church was laid on 16 October 1854:

“There was more than usual festivity in the salubrious township of Oatlands on Tuesday last, from the fact the foundation stone of the new Free Church having been laid. From eleven o’ clock until one the town was nothing but bustle – gigs and saddle horses with lady and gentlemen riders arriving in large numbers. At the appointed hour there was a large concurrence upon the spot, which is delightfully situated near the main road, the site having been presented by George Wilson, Esq., of Mount Seymour…..The building will built after a design by Mr. Thomas, and will form a highly ornamental addition to the township”.

The moderator of the Tasmanian church was given the honour of laying the foundation stone:

“The Rev. J. Lindsay, of Launceston, as moderator of the Free Church Presbytery of Tasmania, applied the level, square, plummet, and mallet (the latter somewhat vigorously), and pronounced the foundation stone of Campbell Free Church Oatlands, duly and formally laid…. The builders are Messrs Will and Scott, arrived from Scotland, who thus have an opportunity of proving on an extensive scale their skill in masonry”.

The church was completed and opened on 12 October 1856; almost two years after the foundation stone had been laid. The Launceston Examiner reported:

“The quiet routine of this inland township was broken last Sabbath by a very interesting and important occurrence”. Up to 300 attended the morning service; “an unprecedented number in the history of our township…. The edifice is built of freestone, has a massive tower and spire 95 feet in height… and forms the most prominent object in the landscape… Internally the church is handsomely finished, and has the air of the antique – presenting as it does its array of pillars and arches, and circular windows…. Long may the church stand as a city set on a hill…”

The church did not stand for very long at all. On Friday 14 August 1858, only two years after it opened, it was destroyed in a massive storm. The first reports of this reveal that the collapse of the church tower was not simply an ‘act of God’:

“The spire of the new Scotch church fell a few nights ago, shaking and cracking the whole building in every part so seriously it will have to be entirely pulled down. This will be a heavy loss to the Presbyterians…. The lower part of the tower was too slight to sustain the weight of the enormous mass of stone above, and its fall was predicted by the masons even when they were building it…”

Later reports describe the extent of the damage and were even more damning of the church’s construction:

“The lofty steeple….was blown down to the very base, carrying away the gallery and a large portion of each wing of the Church, and starting the upper part of the main roofing several feet in a horizontal direction. The entrance to the church was completely choked up, between the out and inner doors, by a mass of rubbish. The ponderous blocks of freestone which were precipitated through the roofing of the wings into the interior of the building smashed and splintered a number of pews on either side. The present aspect of the structure is like that of some ancient pile which the unerring hand of time has crumbled and dissolved in ruins…”

“This structure had always attracted the attention of strangers, … many remarks and strictures have been passed upon the unsightly and disproportionate character of the building as a whole, and there has been a pretty unanimous opinion that it was a great architectural blunder. The professional survey of skilled architects has been invoked. A committee has been held to hear their report, and the writer has heard it whispered that it is intended to pull down the remains of the shattered structure, and to erect another in its room worthy of this our enlightened age for the fine arts….”

Work soon started on the building of a second church. This was made possible due to a generous donation made by John Wilson of Springfield, brother of the wealthy Scottish grazier, George Wilson of Mount Seymour, who had previously donated the land on which the church was built.

While construction was underway, the Presbyterian congregation initially used the small Wesleyan chapel in the town before arranging to hold services in the more commodious Court House.

Rebuilding began in mid 1859 and the church was completed and reopened on 6 May 1860. The Hobart Mercury reported on the opening service:

“The foundation stone was laid about ten months since upon the same spot which presented a heap of ruins on the 6th of August 1858…. It was necessary in determining upon a style of architecture, to select one which would afford the greatest facilities for building in the old materials of the former Church. The early English style of the 13th century was therefore adopted. The Church is 50 feet in length, and thirty-two in width, and is covered by a single span roof, having moulded principals, purlins, collars, and cornice open to view from the interior…. The Church is lighted by eight two-light windows… The entrance to the church is beneath the tower…. The tower is surmounted by a broach spire, the whole rising to the height of 71 feet. There is a bell, manufactured in Glasgow, suspended therein, weighing about 2 cwt. The Church affords sittings for upwards of 200….”

In addition to the rebuilt church, Wilson also paid for the construction of a presbytery. The heavily buttressed tower of the new church has stood the test of time and has endured over 150 years of Midland storms. It is now part of the Uniting Church and remains a landmark feature of Oatlands.

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

The old 'Scotch Cemetery' at Oatlands


The True Colonist Van Dieman's Land Political Despatch, Friday 26 May, 1837.
The Courier, Saturday 21 October 1854, page 3
Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 24 October 1854, page 2
Launceston Examiner, Saturday 18 October 1856, page 3
The Courier, Monday 16 August 1858, page 2
The Examiner, Tuesday 17 August 1958, page 2
Launceston Examiner, Saturday 28 August 1858, page 3
The Courier, Tuesday 31 August 1858, page 3
The Courier, Wednesday 1 September 1858, page 2
The Courier, Tuesday 15 March 1859, page 2
Hobart Town Daily Mercury, Friday 11 May 1860, page 2
The Examiner, Saturday 8 September 1860, page 2
Mercury, Saturday 4 May 1935, page 7

The Oatlands Story, 1861-1961, Basil W. Rait (Pamphlet)


  1. My great grandmother Mary Pennicott wife of Adam who is beside her, were convicts sent out here for the crimes. My whole family is buried in this Cemetery including my brother Bozen Pennicott who was an Elder at this Church for over 50 years... thank you for sharing your story and photos...

  2. Sorry I omitted my name. Stephanie O'Connor, nee Pennicott.

  3. Thank you Stephanie. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Do you have any information on the old Wesleyan chapel in Wellington Street Oatlands
    which has now disappeared? My ancestors Thomas (1801 - 1870) and wife Ann Fleming are buried in the graveyard there. I believe that the Methodist Church owns the site, but have considered clearing the graves and selling the land.

  5. Hi Robin, yes I do have a fair bit of information about the chapel, including a photograph. I will be posting an article about it in a few weeks.

  6. Dear Duncan, this is so interesting and thank you excellent photographs.
    Margaret Oliphant Campbell Parkinson (nee White) (great granddaughter of Revd Lachlan Campbell) my father Revd Laurence White took part in the centenary celebrations of the church, honouring his grandfather.


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