No. 696 - Sandfly Methodist Church - 'Forged in Fire - Perished in Fire'

Sandfly is small settlement approximately 10 kilometres south of Kingston. Sandfly was first settled in the 1850s and its economy was originally based on fruit growing. Bushfires have had a significant impact in the history of the area. Sandfly’s Methodist church was established in the late 1890’s at a time of devastating fires and was destroyed in the 1967 bushfires, the worst in Tasmania’s recent history.

The foundation stone for the Sandfly church was laid in late October 1897 but two years were to pass before building work was completed due to uncontrolled fires in the summer of 1898. The foundation stone-laying ceremony was described by the Tasmanian News and this report provides a rich glimpse into the life of the Sandfly community:

“The Wesleyan body at Sandfly turned out in holiday attire yesterday to witness the ceremony of laying the foundation stone of their new church by Captain Evans, M.H.A. Webster's brake [carriage] conveyed a large number of Hobart adherents and friends to the spot, and at half-past three o'clock there was a large gathering at the site selected for the building. Proceedings were opened by the hearty singing of a hymn….The Rev. W. Shaw, (Chairman of the District) delivered an eloquent address setting forth the objects and aims of Wesleyan Methodism, and the Rev. W. H. Taylor, minister of the church read the following account of the steps that had been taken to secure the erection of the new church - Services were commenced in the Sunday school by Rev. W. Beckett, in June, 1891. The first effort to raise funds was a lecture by Mr A. J . Taylor, of Hobart, on November 1st, 1894. ….The purchase of land was effected by the Rev. C. G Lelean on October 2nd, 1896, in the name of three trustees, Messrs Round, E. Worsley, and J. Stubbings, the upset price, £6, being paid; no legal expenses incurred….Plans were prepared and presented to the trustees by Mr J . Maddison of Hobart for a building 25ft x 17ft, but afterwards it was considered advisable to make it 35ft long x 18ft wide…. The building when erected can be used as a Sabbath School, for which there is urgent need in the district. Our congregations have largely increased and the State school is altogether too small for the numbers who come to hear the Word of God….Then the goodly company adjourned to a commodious tent; richly decorated with ferns and other foliage, and partook of an ample supply of refreshments, contributed by residents of the district”.

“In the evening a concert was given at the Public Schoolroom by members of the Melville street Wesleyan Choir, assisted by local talent….The day was fine and the evening moonlight trip was a thing to be remembered by visitors from town. As usual, in all matters having to do with the welfare of the district, Miss Lovell has been to the front in organising the fund for the building of the new Church, and she deserves praise for the efforts she made with the Trustees and other members of the Church to the success of a function that was discharged without a hitch and to the satisfaction of everyone concerned”.

The summer of 1897 and 1898 brought catastrophic bushfires to southern Tasmania. A report in the Tasmanian Democrat describes in vivid detail the impact of the fires on Sandfly and the surrounding districts:

“Friday, December 31—the last day of 1897— will long be remembered in Tasmanian history as "Black Friday." On that day the whole of the country, from Fern Tree right through to Lower Longley and Sandfly was swept by one of the most terrific bush fires ever experienced in Tasmania. The whole country along the track of the fires now lies black and desolate, where a few days ago smiling homesteads and orchards nestled”.

“Towards midday on Friday a tremendous bush fire was seen from Longley to be raging in the gullies about the upper parts of the mountain to the northward. It was spreading right and left, but suddenly, about four o’clock in the afternoon, the hot wind, which was blowing from the northwest, veered a point or two more southerly, and at the same time increased in violence till it blew a moderate gale. Immediately afterwards the fire was with marvellous rapidity carried down in one immense, wide blaze of flame upon Lower and Upper Longley, then on to Sandfly and towards Kingston, the roar of the awful storm of wind and flame being itself most horrifying to hear. In one overwhelming holocaust it destroyed everything that it approached, root and branch, throughout the localities named, and all within an hour. Many poor people barely escaped with their lives, and some were unfortunately roasted alive in the attempt. Some splendid heroism was displayed by some of the rescuing party. Many of the unfortunate people took refuge under the bridge over the North-West Bay River, and thus escaped being literally roasted alive. In their haste, terror, and distress some carried their children, others helped along the aged, not being given time to look, back or rescue any of their belongings from their burning homes, or the hotel where they were guests. Under that bridge, with little pools of water at their feet they stood for some hours, whilst the. terrible destruction was going on round about them, women and children in the deepest anguish, and the men cowed and just as helpless. Presently one man managed to gallop away to the Fern Tree, where he found the police and others in authority. Mr H, E. Packer, the Secretary of Public Works, promptly got vehicle up from Hobart, which conveyed the unfortunate people from the bridge to the city. Immediately on receipt of the sad news in Hobart relief parties were organised, the police and blue jackets from the men o' war in port being conspicuous for the systematic way in which they worked. The members of the Helping Hand Mission were also indefatigable in ministering to the wants of the sufferers. The death roll to date totals five victims, but this may yet be exceeded. The present is said to be the driest time in Tasmania since 1861….”.

The loss of timber to build the church delayed its completion until mid 1899. The church was officially opened on Sunday 13 August with the ceremony reported by the Hobart Mercury:

“The new Wesleyan Church at Sandfly, the foundation of which was laid nearly two years ago, was formally opened and dedicated on Sunday, the 13th. The chairman of the district (theRev. H. Henwood Teague) preached to large congregations afternoon and evening, and Miss Lovell presided at the organ. The proceedings were continued on Wednesday, the 16th. A largely attended public tea was held at 4.30 in the afternoon. This was followed by a public meeting and sacred concert in the evening….The Pastor presented a brief statement, recounting the steps which had led np to the commencement and erection of the church, and explaining the financial position. The structure, which was of weatherboard, on stone foundation, had yet to be lined, and by the time this was done, and the final touch of painting had been given, they would have a property (including furniture) worth £200. The cost hitherto incurred had been met, with a few shillings to spare, which was considered most satisfactory….The architect and builder was Mr. J. Round….The church is of neat Gothic design, and will seat 130 to 150 persons. It was densely packed at the meeting, over 200 being present…”.

For almost 70 years the Sandfly Methodist church stood virtually unaltered. Then, during the hot and dry summer of 1967, history repeated itself. In February the ‘Black Tuesday’ bushfires swept through Southern Tasmania leaving 62 people dead and over seven thousand homeless. Around 1400 houses were lost as well as 128 significant buildings including schools, halls, hotels and churches. Sandfly’s Methodist church and St Luke’s Anglican church at nearby Longley were both lost. Neither church was rebuilt but were replaced by a non-denominational church which was shared by local congregations.

The Sandfly Methodist Church c.1960.  Original source of photograph not known


Sources:

Mercury, Thursday 4 November 1897, page 2
Tasmanian News, Thursday 4 November 1897, page 2
Tasmanian Democrat, Friday 7 January 1898, page 3
Mercury, Saturday 18 February 1899, page 4
Mercury, Friday 18 August 1899, page 4



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