No. 397 - The Congregational Chapel at Forth - "Who Went to Scoff and Not to Pray"

The Congregationalists were among the first denominations to make an appearance on Tasmania’s northwest coast. In 1843 Reverend William Waterfield made an exploratory visit to the area preaching in the open air and in settlers’s homes. James Fenton, the first pioneer in the Forth River region recalls Waterfield in his ‘book’, Bush Life in Tasmania:

“Mr Waterfield preached to a fair gathering from a stump on the roadside twice on a Sunday. I fancy I see him now, that good little man, holding forth to those neglected, horny-handed sons of toil beneath the shade of a Devon forest; nor can I forget when he warmed on his subject, and became expressive in word and action, how he nearly toppled over and came to grief on that uneven platform, much to the amusement of some wicked young people who went to scoff and not to pray…”

William Waterfield also recounted his first visit to the north-west coast to a Congregational Mission Meeting held in 1844:

“Rev. Mr. Waterfield, in the plain and familiar style of colloquial discourse, gave the audience a narrative of his interesting labours on the north-western coast of the island. The rev. gentleman explained the scene of his labours during the last eleven months, as extending from Port Dalrymple, at the estuary of the river Tamar, to Port Sorell and Emu Bay, comprising the several settlements at Port Frederick, on the rivers Mersey and Don, the Forth, and the Bligh. When Mr. Waterfield first went there, he found that the inhabitants had never, or, at least very seldom, been visited by a minister of any denomination, as far round the coast as Circular Head; they lived as heathens, regardless of the Sabbath, and of many of those moral obligations which bind mankind together in a Christian and social state, while their actual ignorance was most deplorable; at Port Sorell there were about 250 people in this wretched condition, and al the Forth (now, we believe, called Port Fenton) about 70, while at the intermediate stations there were many small settlers. Since the rev. gentleman had visited them, they had expressed an eager desire for the attendance of some minister, that they might have the gospel preached to them. Amongst the first objects of Mr. Waterfield’s labours, was the teaching the young men to sing the praises of God, but in this he experienced the greatest difficulty, as he was for a long time unable to teach them a single psalm tune; they could now sing upwards of thirty tunes in various metres”.

In 1844, Waterfield was invited to return by settlers with the support of the Colonial Missionary Society.

“It is at Port Fenton that the Rev. Mr. Waterfield, of the independent denomination, as an agent for the Van Diemen's Land Home Missionary and Christian Instruction Society, has fixed his abode, being prompted by the destitute condition of the inhabitants in spiritual instruction, and at the same time resisting strong inducements to reside in the more settled parts of the island. It is gratifying to know that the rev. gentleman's labours have been so far successful, as that in the short space of five months a house for his residence is being finished, and a small place of worship is in the course of erection; both the house and the place of worship are to be upon land consisting of three acres, generously given by the worthy proprietor [Alexander Clerke], who, doubtless as a justice of the peace, is fully persuaded that if religious instruction be imparted to his tenantry, their morals and happiness will not only be provided for, but that others may be induced to locate themselves upon his estate. We wish the cause of religion there every success, and sincerely hope that others will be stimulated to follow the self-denying example of the minister, and the generosity of the proprietor, and that the settlers at Port Fenton and its vicinity will justly appreciate such an effort for their moral and religious improvement”.

A chapel was built in late 1844 and opened on 5 January 1845. It was built on an acre of land donated by Alexander Clerke and which included a burial ground as well as two acres for a ministers residence but on condition that a minister continue to reside at Forth.

In 1845 a visitor to ‘Port Fenton’ wrote of the progress made:

“I was very much pleased with my visit to Port Fenton. I must first tell you that I visited the place about four years ago (before it was settled.) It was then almost on impenetrable forest, with only a few sawyers living in bark huts. Upon this occasion I found the land upon the banks of the river cleared and divided into small farms, with clean and comfortable cottages built upon them most luxuriant crops of potatoes and wheat, and occupied by apparently a most industrious class of people; but what pleased me more than all was to find a neat and substantially built chapel. I attended service twice on the Sabbath day and counted fifty persons present. Mr. Waterfield delivered most excellent discourses, and I observed the very great attention paid by the people; they sung remarkably well. Indeed, they appeared to have derived great benefit from the presence of a minister amongst them, and I sincerely hope that Mr. Waterfield may be enabled to remain there."

Eight months after the chapel opened it sustained serious damaged in a storm when two tree fell on it:

“On Friday last the 8th instant, this part of the coast was visited with one of the severest gales of wind remembered by the oldest settler. Such was its violence in the afternoon of that day that those persons who were in the bush, either sawing or splitting timber, had to leave their employment and escape to their homes for fear of the falling trees and branches. Just as the gale was at its height some of the inhabitants were watching the fate of the independent chapel so recently built, and which was unfortunately cut into half, completely destroying one part of the roof, and doing much injury to the building, by the falling of two large trees, the one doing the mischief being quite sound, it was torn up by the roots, and fell with a tremendous crash. Had the people been at worship, and remained in the place at the time, the most fatal consequences would have resulted in the loss of life, for the minister and many of the people would in all probability have been killed. As it is no lives have been lost, but the inhabitants will for some time to come be under the necessity of again worshipping in one of the cottages". 

The damage to the chapel was a catastrophe and assistance was needed to rebuild it.

“The Rev. Mr. Waterfield, the minister of the place, writes, that people on the spot have no means of immediately repairing the damage. In these circumstances they must be left for a considerable time without a place of worship, unless the friends in other parts of the colony come forward to their assistance. As they have no carpenter at the settlement at this time, it is proposed to send a man supplied with materials to repair the place, and pay all expenses. Any friends who may wish to assist their neighbours at Port Fenton, by a subscription towards the necessary expenses…” 

Shortly after the chapel was rebuild the community received a further blow when in 1848 Waterfield was called to a new mission at Green Ponds (now Kempton). In 1849 The Colonial Times described the impact of Waterfield’s departure:

“When attention to the older stations of the Society necessitated the removal of the Rev. W. Waterfield from Port Fenton, he made arrangements with a Christian friend there to continue the service on the Lord’s day until the committee should have it in their power to appoint another missionary to that district. That friend has communicated from time to time with Mr. Waterfleld, who lately reports that, for a considerable time service had been conducted in the Chapel, but in consequence of a decreased attendance, caused partly by the want of pastoral supervision, the service had been removed to a private residence”.

In 1857 the arrival of Rev. Walter Mathison from England ushered in a new era for the chapel. Mathison was to minister at Forth for a period of 15 years and during this time new challenges and changes presented themselves. In 1863 the chapel was almost destroyed when bushfires raged through the area. The Launceston Examiner reported:

“A bush fire is raging at the Forth, and has destroyed about twenty pounds worth of fencing belonging to the Messrs Walker, and at one time the flames approached their dwelling house, store, and barn so close, that these were in danger from the showers of sparks which were being driven against them by the wind, but by prompt exertions the impending danger was averted. It is almost certain that the Forth Chapel would have been burnt had it not been that Mr. Ling and his men arrested the progress of the flames when they were raging in the dry grass that surrounds the building. Part of the fence around the chapel yard has been burnt, and also a fence around one of the graves close to the chapel”.

Following the bushfires, efforts began to build a new and larger church which was opened in 1864. The Launceston Examiner provides a record of the event:

“Last Sunday, November 27th, the new Congregational Chapel at the Forth was opened for divine service, which was conducted on the occasion by the Rev. Walter Mathison, in the presence of a numerous and attentive assembly. The chapel was so well filled that it could not conveniently hold any more. The Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist places of worship were courteously closed, so as to allow those who wished belonging to those denominations to be present at the dedication. Several availed themselves of the opportunity of attending. Friends from the Don were not wanting, who worshiped at the Congregational Chapel there, and some of them rendered considerable assistance to the choir.

The Rev. Mr. Mathison, who is the regular pastor, preached in the morning…. After each service a collection was made, with tolerable effect, though what was realised precisely I do not know. The chapel is a very nice building, and is capable of holding three times as many as the old one. Mr. Booner the contractor, and has carried out his agreement to the satisfaction of the Building Committee. It is not quite finished, having yet to be plastered.

On Thursday, Dec. 1st, a Bazaar was held in the old chapel, to aid in liquidating the debt on the new one. I believe it is considered to have been successful, £50 having been realised. A tea meeting was held in the afternoon of the same day, at which over two hundred people were present. The supplies were furnished by the ladies, who lost none of their former credit on this occasion, The quantity of refreshments prepared seemed inexhaustible, while the quality, as many can testify, was excellent….The proceeds of the tea are to go towards the minister's salary, as that is somewhat in arrear through the missionary society withdrawing much of their wonted assistance".

In his “With the Pioneers” Charles Ramsey says of Mathison:

“He proved to be the ideal clergyman for the young district. There were no roads in those days, and he proved to be most conscientious in his desire to carry out his undertaking. Being a strong man he was able to walk long distances, fight his way across rough country, and visit people in most out-of-the-way places. His sphere of labours embraced the whole of East Devon… He established meeting places at various centres, and he conducted services on week nights as well as Sundays. On nearly every night of the week, services were held in some cottage or at the church, and from places far and near, Mr. Mathison would return home late in the evening, often through rain and storm, over bad tracks. Later he had an old horse upon which he made his journeys, and his path led him through the farms of several settlers, with many slip-rails to be manipulated, and in the winter-time paths were very muddy”.

After Mathison’s departure the story of the Congregational Chapel is one of steady decline. This was not because of any failure on the part of the Congregational Church but as the result of the establishment of competing denominations in Forth. The Wesleyan-Methodists, Primitive Methodist, Anglicans and Catholics had all established churches at Forth by the early 1870’s.

In 1911 a report in the North West Post reveals that the church had deteriorated significantly but had been given a new lease of life:

“The renovations to the church are a decided improvement, and the old weather-worn appearance has been quite done away with. A new iron roof has been put on, new baize door added, and the building has been painted inside and out…”

However, the chapel’s closure was inevitable and in 1945 it was sold to the Methodists and removed to Abbotsham and reconstructed at a site opposite the State School. Here it was used as a church until services ceased in 1958 and thereafter it was used as a barn. It remained at this site until about 2008 when the building was removed. Whether it was demolished or moved elsewhere is not known but its disappearance sadly removes a tangible link to one of the first churches established on Tasmania’s north west coast.

A detail of a print appearing in the Illustrated Melbourne Post, 18 February 1886. Estuary of Forth Tasmania by James Fenton - Libraries Tasmania LPIC-147-3-97w150. The illustration shows the new and the old chapel shortly after it was opened in 1864.

 Illustrated Melbourne Post, 18 February 1886. Estuary of Forth Tasmania by James Fenton - Libraries Tasmania LPIC-147-3-97w150

Launceston Examiner, Saturday 19 November 1864

A Google street view screen shot of the church at Abbotsham in 2008. In the 2010 streetview edition, the church had been removed.

Headstones in the Congregational Cemetery at Forth:

James 'Philosopher' Smith's memorial stone 

James 'Philosopher' Smith's memorial stone

The headstone of James Perrin, a pioneering preacher who led the establishment of the the Plymouth Brethren in Tasmania.


The Courier, Friday 31 May 1844 p 2
The Courier, Friday 24 May 1844 p 3 
The Courier, Saturday 29 March 1845 p 2 

Launceston Examiner, Saturday 23 August 1845 p 3 
Colonial Times, Friday 6 April 1849 p 4 
Courier, Wednesday 17 August 1853, page 3
Launceston Examiner, Saturday 17 January 1863 p 5 
Launceston Examiner, Saturday 19 November 1864, page 1
Launceston Examiner, Saturday 10 December 1864, page 3 
North West Post, Monday 16 October 1911, page 2
The Advocate, Tuesday 24 April 1945, page 4

Ramsay, Charles & National Trust of Australia (Tasmania). Latrobe Group 1980, With the pioneers, 2nd ed. rev, National Trust of Australia (Tasmania), La Trobe Group.

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

Fenton, James Bush life in Tasmania fifty years ago. C. L. Richmond & Sons, Devenport, Tas, 1964.


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