No. 502 - The 'Bible Chapel' at Sheffield - "Indomitable Will and Patience"

Sheffield, “the town of murals”, is a country town in northern Tasmania approximately 25 kilometres south of Devonport. The area was explored by the surveyor Nathaniel Kentish in 1842 who was trying to find a route from Deloraine through to the north west coast. The area was subsequently opened up to settlement and by 1862 plots of land had been sold and the settlement of Sheffield had been named. According to J. R. Skemps’ ‘A History of the North West Coast’, in 1861 the first licence for a public house, the Sheffield Inn, was taken out by James Poulett, a native of Sheffield in England, and this probably gave the town its name.

Sheffield’s Bible Chapel has a long history and it is associated with the early Christian Brethren. The Christian Brethren, also known as the Plymouth Brethren, originated in Great Britain in the 1820s. By the mid 19th century the movement had spread to Australia, with the first revival meetings held in Tasmania from 1869. As a result, fellowships were formed in Hobart, Launceston, the Huon Valley, Smithton, Sheffield, Wynyard, Burnie and Scottsdale by the end of the 1870s.

The Brethren placed an emphasis on weekly communion, the baptism of believers by immersion, and evangelism. The Christian Brethren should not be confused with the 'Exclusive Brethren, a restrictive group which broke away in 1848. In Tasmania, most Brethren are 'open', that is, they do not belong to the 'exclusive' Brethren who avoid contact with outsiders to the religion. The 'open' Brethren are evangelists and carry-out community work, including overseas missions.

The Bible Chapel is located on Sheffield’s High Street and it is the third Gospel Hall that has served the town. The first Gospel Hall was established by the Plymouth Brethren in the 1870’s and was situated about 2 kilometres outside of Sheffield on the Kentish Road. The old building was replaced by a new Gospel Hall in January 1926. The opening of Hall was described by the Burnie Advocate:

“The opening of a new church building or hall is always an important event in the religious life of a community and, as such, the opening of the new Gospel Hall in the Sheffield district will make December 26, 1925, an epoch in the history of that district. The old hall which the new replaces was built some fifty years ago by those sturdy pioneers whose ranks time has sadly thinned , but whose faith and courage make their memory blessed. Money, they had none, but they had what was infinitely better, an indomitable will and patience. One gave the land, others went into the bush, felled, cut and split the material; others carted whilst the rest erected, and soon they had a building in which to worship God and teach His Word, and many a happy hour they spent therein. As the district grew the building was enlarged and renovated till the original identity was almost lost. But as it was felt that something better was needed it was decided to erect a new structure, which was erected by Mr. J. Sellars. With the addition of some voluntary labor a neat building of some 49 x 27 feet was completed, reflecting credit on contractor and helpers alike. The official opening was followed by a two days’ convention, the meetings being largely attended, many visitors being present. Missions were represented by Messrs H. Barnett (China), Ray Williams (Africa). Other Christian workers who were present included: Messrs H. Martin (N.S.W.), Fox (N.Z.), Brewster (Vic), Baird and Ferguson (Tasmanian Bible carriage)….”

Four years after the opening of the new Gospel Hall, disaster struck. The Hall and adjoining cottage belonging to the church were destroyed in a fire in October 1930. The Advocate provides the details of this disaster:

“The Gospel Hall and a small cottage on the Kentish road, about one and a half miles from Sheffield, were destroyed by fire about 9 o’ clock last night. The cottage was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. E. Heazlewood and three children, and was situated very close to the hall. Mr. M. Byard, who was passing at about 8.30 p.m. saw the cottage on fire, and gave tho alarm. Mr. and Mrs. Heazlewood were in the hall at the time engaged in their work as caretakers, and were unaware of the fire until called. At that time there was no possibility of saving anything. Beyond a few forms nothing was saved from the hall, and only a few odds and ends were salvaged from the cottage. … The hall was practically a new building, ….About a month ago another cottage a few hundred yards distant was also destroyed by fire”.

Coincidently, 1930 was the same year that Sheffield’s Baptist church burnt down, the fire similarly starting in an adjoining cottage which spread to the church.

Instead of rebuilding on the site of the original hall, the Brethren elected to rebuild in Sheffield and a site on High Street was purchased from Dr. W.B. Firth. It stood alongside the Commercial Bank in a central part of the town. Construction began in February 1931 which was undertaken by Mr C.T. Priest of Burnie. The building was designed by Mr Morris. The Hall was completed in late May 1931 and officially opened on Saturday 6 June and services were held every day over the following week. The new building was described in some detail by The Advocate:

“The building presents a fine appearance, and fills what was a gap in High street. The front is carried out in brick, with cement facings. The other walls are of weatherboard. It is lined inside with lath and plaster, the hall itself having a Tasmanian oak dado, about 42 inches high, running round the walls. At the rear of the hall itself are two rooms, one about 20 by 20 feet, for general purposes, and the other smaller. Both are fitted with fireplaces, and, as in the hall itself, with both light and electric power points. The ceiling of the hall is of stamped steel, arched and painted white. Plenty of light, both natural and artificial, is provided, and the windows are of the latest pattern, leaded, with adjustable ventilators at the bottom. A pleasing feature of the furniture is the pulpit, or platform. This is framed with Tasmanian oak, with a front of beautifully-figured blackwood and a reading desk of the same material. The whole of this platform slides on specially-constructed castors, and when moved to one side the baptistry is uncovered. The latter is of cement, and fitted with all conveniences…..”

The Gospel Hall described in 1931 looks very different today. Apart from the stunning mural which adorns the the front of the building, the hall has been extended on the sides and the weatherboard walls have been replaced with brick. I am not sure what the Brethren of 1931 would have made of the colourful mural but I am sure they would have been proud that their third gospel hall had survived and has taken on the the spirit of the “Town of Murals”.

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2019

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2019

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2019

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2019

Advocate, Friday 5 June 1931


Sources:

Launceston Examiner, Thursday 17 January 1878, page 3
Advocate, Thursday 7 January 1926, page 4
Advocate, Friday 24 October 1930, page 4
Advocate, Saturday 25 October 1930, page 8
Advocate, Wednesday 14 January 1931, page 4
Advocate, Friday 13 February 1931, page 4
Advocate, Wednesday 20 May, 1931, page 6
Advocate, Thursday 28 May 1931, page 4
Advocate, Friday 5 June 1931, page 8
Advocate, Wednesday 10 June 1931, page 6







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