No. 699 - Burnie - The United Methodist Free Church (1885-1900)

Burnie is a port city on the northwest coast of Tasmania. When it was settled in 1827 by the Van Diemen’s Land Company it was known as Emu Bay. In the 1840’s the settlement was renamed Burnie after William Burnie, a director of the Van Diemen's Land Company.

On Thursday 22 November 1900 the citizens of Burnie witnessed a partial eclipse of the sun. This was an auspicious sign for it was also the day that the old Primitive Methodist Church on the corner of Ladbroke and Mount Streets was removed to make way for a new church. This was an auspicious occasion for another reason. This new church was effectively the first church in Australia to be built under the banner of the newly established Methodist Union.

Burnie had led the way in the movement for Methodist union in as much as the town’s three Methodist denominations had effectively merged in 1900, two years before the official Australian Methodist Union.

Before the union the three Methodist denominations at Burnie were:

1. The Primitive Methodists, who had built a church in 1869 (Mount Street). A second Primitive Methodist church was built alongside the earlier church in 1891.
2. The United Free Methodists, who opened a church on Mount street built in 1885.
3. The Wesleyan Methodists who built a church on Cattley Street in 1894

The Primitive Methodist and Wesleyan churches have been the subject of articles on ‘Churches of Tasmania’. In this article I will investigate the less known United Free Methodist Church that was located on an undetermined site in Mount Street.
The United Methodist Free Churches, sometimes called Free Methodists, was an English nonconformist community established in 1857 by the amalgamation of the Wesleyan Association and the Wesleyan Reformers (dating to 1849), when a number of Wesleyan Methodist ministers were expelled on a charge of insubordination. Two ‘Free Methodist’ churches were established in the northwest, one at Penguin and the other at Burnie.

Limited information about the church has survived although the Hobart Mercury published a lengthy and somewhat droll report written by its Burnie correspondent describing the church’s opening and the subsequent fundraising ‘tea-meeting’:

“Celebrating the opening of a church as a rule generally tends to draw a crowd out. The bare thought of collections, etc., is very often an inducement to those who are over flush in the cash line to attend to display their generosity in promoting the growth of a good cause, and such was the case on Sunday, the 22nd inst., when a large audience filled up the seats to listen to the Rev. J. J. Collier in the new Methodist Free Church, on the occasion of his opening the church. I need hardly say that general satisfaction was evinced morning and evening, and it must be a source of pleasure to the rev. gentleman to know that both his sermons were appreciated, and also pleasing to the good people of Burnie to know that they had an opportunity of “shelling out,” and that the proceeds amounted to a respectable sum”.

The writer went on the describe a typically chaotic tea meeting which took place on the following day:

“Monday, the 23rd inst., was the day, looked forward to by the juveniles, and, I need hardly say, in the evening,, when the clock pointed to tea-fight time, that order was disregarded and a rush for places was the paramount impulse. There is no occasion to point out the next, which was grace, and then the first law of nature, "Self, take care,” etc., took the sway for a time, and many a “Bonny blue eye would wink awry, at a puer who was sitting and smiling close by.” But why attempt to portray in words such an everyday sketch? Suffice it to say that the place was filled with mirth for a while, and then vacated while the tables were cleared, I need scarcely say that ample justice was done to Mr. F. Carman's successful catering. As is usual on most festive occasions, the juveniles and a few on in years found their way to the sandy beach, to indulge in different gala games, the more serious and sedate waiting for the space of half-an-hour, when they had the pleasure of reseating, to hear and inwardly digest words of deepest import to the soul from some of the leading clerical talent….”.

No detailed description or photograph of the church seems to have survived. A report in the Launceston Examiner described the church as “a nice little building” that cost £90 and a further £40 for the land. In a Spurling photograph of Mount Street dated 1901 the church is not readily visible and may have already been converted into a house by this time. In October 1901, the North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times reported:

“The building in Mount Street which was used for many years as the United Methodist Free Church is being transformed into a dwelling house by Mr W.H. Atkinson, who bought it from the trustees on the union of the Methodist churches of Burnie. Soon there will be little to tell the use once made of the building; doors and windows are being altered, and a couple of chimneys built in”.

Further investigation of street maps and municipal records would no doubt reveal the building’s precise location but perhaps it is enough to be reminded of the church’s existence and its place in the evolution of the Methodist union at Burnie at the turn of the 20th century.

View of Burnie, Emu Bay. Roman Catholic chruch, Mount Street in foreground. S Spurling photo. (1901) Libraries Tasmania

Several of Burnie's church can be identified in the photograph: 1. Catholic, 2. Primitive Methodist, 4. Methodist, 4. Baptist, 5. the Gospel Hall. The Anglican church is not visible and the United Free Methodist church may have been converted into a house by this time.

A detail of the Spurling photograph showing two of the Methodist churches and the original Baptist church.


Launceston Examiner, Thursday 12 November 1885, page 4
Launceston Examiner, Friday 27 November 1885, page 2
Mercury, Tuesday 1 December 1885, page 3 
North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, Thursday 24 October 1901, page 2


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