No. 583 - Gormanston Methodist Church - "Men Followed Gold and Parsons Followed Men"

Gormanston is a former mining town off the Lyell Highway approximately 5 kilometres east of Queenstown. Once one of the larger mining towns on the west coast, Gormanston has slowly declined to the point of becoming a ghost town. It was originally named Mount Lyell but was later renamed in honour of Viscount Gormanston who was Governor of Tasmania (1893-1900). At its peak Gormanston and neighbouring North Mount Lyell had a population of around 2000. The decline of mining activity has resulted in a steady but dramatic fall in the town’s population to only 17 at the time of the 2016 census.

There were three churches established a Gormanston (Catholic, Anglican and Methodist) as well as a Presbyterian church at nearby Linda. In 1898 a report on the Wesleyan Church’s progress on the West Coast includes details about the establishment of the Gormanstone church:

“Three years ago Strahan was separated from the Zeehan Circuit and made the headquarters of a Home Mission Station extend over Penghana and Gormanston. To this station the Conference of 1895 appointed the Rev. R. H. Bailey who laboured for two years under circumstances of the most trying and difficult character. The work was discouraging, but the Superintendent with his much valued lay helpers kept their shoulders to the wheel and of their self denying efforts the church now reaps the benefit. Services were held at intervals the billiard room of Mr. Lucas at Penghana for some time, until the great fire of 1896 practically put an end to the existence of Penghana. As the population moved to Queenstown, Cairns’ Hall was called into use. Mr. Cairns kindly granting its use for religious service for some time. As the population increased, and as it became possible to do so, regular Sunday evening services were instituted. Sunday-school work was undertaken. At Gormanston, a church had been erected during this period. Services were first held at Mr. Johansen's, and the engine room at “the Blow" [the Mine] served also for some time as a place of work. With the erection of the church building the work became more definite. After two years of faithful labour in the district the Conference of 1897 removed the Rev. R. H. Bailey, who left, carrying with him the good wishes of many of his people….”.

The first regular services “at Mr Johansen’s” were in small corrugated iron building situated behind Johansen’s grocery store. Carl Johansen, who hailed from Denmark, was also a lay preacher and member of the Town Board. In Max Stansell’s ‘Tasmanian Methodism’, he recounts a visit of Reverend Watkins, President of the Wesleyan Conference, to Johansen’s ‘tin church’. With reference to the Book of Exodus Watkin’s remarked:

“Well, if you ever feel inclined to worship in it, you may. There is nothing that I know of to say you nay. But it is not like anything in heaven above, on the earth beneath, nor in the waters under the earth”.

The tin church, which also served as a schoolroom, almost succumbed to the heavens and its waters in October 1897, when it was partly blown down in a storm. The Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette reported:

“It is fortunate that the Gormanston Wesleyan Church, which has been used as a State schoolroom, did not collapse during the day-time on Friday last. If it had, the consequences would have been awful. The new schoolroom is just about finished, and it will be opened today or tomorrow, so that the youngsters will not have as a prolonged a holiday as they like”.

While the building was resurrected, the need for a larger and more permanent church became a matter of urgency. In November 1900 the Mount Lyell and Strahan Gazette reported:

“For some time past the Wesleyans of Gormanston have realised the necessity of having a larger building to accommodate their growing congregations, and negotiations have now been entered Into with Mr Gooding, architect, and Messrs McGillevary, building contractors, for the erection of a church with a seating accommodation for 300. The foundation stone is to be laid to-morrow by Mr C. J. Johansen at 3 p.m., and the members of the Town Board and local lodges have signified their intention of being present at the ceremony. The Gormanston Brass Band will also be in attendance. The ceremony will be followed by a tea and public meeting in Gaffney's Hall….”

The newspaper’s report of the official foundation stone-laying ceremony on 7 November also recounts the story of early Methodist activity at Gormanston:

“A large crowd assembled to witness the ceremony of laying the foundation stone of the Gormanston Wesleyan Church on Wednesday afternoon. After the assemblage had sung a hymn to the accompaniment of the Mount Lyell Brass Band the Rev J. Lloyd Haslam offered a prayer. The Rev. gentleman then delivered an address, in the course of which he alluded to the vast progress the Wesleyan Church had made at Gormanston. Six years ago the place was a wilderness, but even then no matter how small was the congregation the Methodists preached the Gospel there. Men followed gold and parsons followed men everywhere throughout the world; Klondyke, West Australia and Gormanston, the wettest place in Australia—12ft of rain a year was no joke. The minister had trying times. He himself had worn out about six pairs of boots and several umbrellas. (Laughter.) There was one person to whom they should always be grateful; and that person was Mr Bailey, who in the early days, when the church on the West Coast was in its primitive state; used to walk from Strahan to Gormanston, over lovely asphalt roads. (Laughter.) They recognised that much was needed from them in Gormanston spiritually….”

The church was officially opened on Sunday 12 May 1901:

“Yesterday special opening services were held morning, afternoon, and evening in the new Wesleyan Church. The Rev. B. W. Heath, of Westbury, chairman of the district, preached at all three services. At night the church (which is the prettiest on the Coast) was crowded. Mr Heath preached a telling sermon from the following text — Matthew 13th chapter, 11th and 46th verses. A large choir rendered several appropriate anthems in good style”.

The church seems to have prospered during its first decade. Then in August 1912, two months before the infamous Mount Lyell mining disaster, the Methodist church suffered a small disaster of its own when a storm reeked havoc in the town:

“The recent wind and rain storm evidently reached its height on Wednesday morning last, for it was then that some indication of the velocity of the wind was registered. The rear part of the Methodist Church was badly wrecked; a brick chimney blew down, and crashed through the roof. The wall was blown in and the foundation and floor damaged. The portion damaged by wind is that which it was proposed to pull down”.

The building was repaired but shrinking congregations associated with a downturn in mining activity, conspired with the harsh West Coast weather to bring about a serious deterioration in the condition of the building. In May 1930 the Advocate reported:

“Two local church buildings, St. Cuthbert’s (Anglican) and Methodist, were disposed of by public auction. The building material will be used for other building purposes by the purchasers”.

The Methodist’s presence at Gormanston continued for a number of years. In 1940 consideration as given to building a new church but this never eventuated. Thus, like the once thriving town, the Methodist community gradually faded away.

The Gormanston Methodist Church - Tasmanian Mail, 12 September 1903

Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Friday 10 May 1900

Advocate, Saturday 24 May 1930

A panoramic view of Gormanston - (undated) source: Libraries Tasmania.  The original high resolution photograph can be accessed at this link HERE

A detail of the panoramic photograph showing the location of Gormanston's three churches


Sources:

The Mercury, Tuesday 5 October 1897, page 2
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Wednesday 6 October 1897, page 2
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Saturday 22 January 1898, page 3
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Tuesday 6 November 1900, page 2
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Friday 9 November 1900, page 2
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Friday 10 May 1900, page 2 (advertising)
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Monday 13 May 1901, page 2
Mount Lyell Standard and Strahan Gazette, Friday 17 May 1901, page 2
Tasmanian Mail, 12 September 1903
Zeehan and Dundas Herald, Friday 9 August 1912, page 4
Advocate, Saturday 24 May 1930, page 10
Advocate, Saturday 26 July 1930, page 10
Advocate, Friday 10 May 1940, page 8

Stansall, M. E. J and Methodist Church of Australasia Tasmanian Methodism, 1820-1975 : compiled at the time of last Meeting of Methodism prior to union. Methodist Church of Australasia, Launceston, Tas, 1975.








Comments

  1. Thanks for this interesting post Duncan. My relative Zephaniah Lewis was a victim of the Mt Lyell disaster. Newspaper reports indicate that a mass funeral was held and that the minister for each denomination read over each individual from their flock. Zeph was the only Methodist. He and his young family had been in Gormanston since 1902 so they must have spent time in this very building.

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  2. Zephaniah was my great grandfather, Harry was one of his sons. The Lewis name lives on with one of Harry's son Dale having 7 children, 23 grandchildren and 1 and a half great grandchildren. I have heard stories of Zephaniah love of music and the Church.

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