No. 717 - West Hobart - Arthur Street Temporary Church (1919) - "This pathetic soldier's church"

The history of a temporary church hall which briefly stood on Arthur Street in West Hobart is worthy of telling. Erected in 1919 as temporary place of worship, it was never consecrated and in fact was controversially demolished before it could be used!

In 1918 a new parish was established in West Hobart, a developing and poorer part of the city. In late 1918, Reverend Thomas Gibson, the rector of the new parish of St Michael’s and All Angels, was presented with a unique opportunity to provide a temporary place of worship for his flock until a permanent church could be built. Gibson’s haste to open a hall, located at the intersection of Arthur Street and Hill Street, resulted in an extraordinary conflict between the Hobart City Council and the Anglican Church, which resulted in the buildings demolition.

At the conclusion of the Great War, the temporary military camp at Claremont (north of Hobart) was dismantled. Amongst the buildings at the camp was a “hut” used “for church purposes”. The Hobart newspaper, World, reported:

“…Owing to the fact that Claremont was required as an isolation camp as a precaution against an influenza epidemic, the church authorities had to move it at a moment’s notice”.

The building, a temporary structure, “measuring about 45ft by 12ft. 6in.”, was dismantled and taken to the Arthur Street site. After its arrival Reverend Gibson immediately proceeded “to have it re-erected, as it was inadvisable to have loose timber lying about”. Gibson intended the hall to be used for only 12 months before a permanent church was built on the far end of the block which fronted Franklin Street. Gibson apparently assumed that the sanctity of his cause and the temporariness of the building might justify his by-passing council building codes and other bureaucratic trifles. He was to be proved wrong.

In March 1919 a meeting of the City Council voted for the hall to be demolished on the advice of the Public Works Committee. An appeal against this decision was taken up by the Church led by Archdeacon Whittington. In a letter to the council Whittington pleaded:

“By an unfortunate neglect to observe the municipal laws, the church authorities have become involved in rather a serious position, from which we can only be relieved by generous treatment by the Council, and it is for this that I venture to appeal. A considerable sum of money has been spent re-erecting the building. Everything will be done to make the temporary building seemly as possible. It is hoped that the church which will, ultimately be built will be an ornament to the neighbourhood. In the meantime, we ask tor the kindly forbearance of the corporation while we are trying to tide over the trying days of preliminary operations. I much hope that the corporation will sympathise with our difficulties by meeting us in a conciliatory spirit….”.

The Archdeacon’s conciliatory approach appears to have won over some members of the Council. However, Reverend Gibson went on the offensive. He canvassed residents of West Hobart for support to save the hall and organised a public meeting at the Kingsway Hall. He also appealed to the public through the columns of the Hobart Mercury:

“Sir, - It may interest your readers to know the history of the rejected church in West Hobart. The parish of which the church was to have been the spiritual centre was formed nearly a year ago. It possesses neither church, Sunday school, nor suitable place where services can be held. When Claremont Camp was no longer necessary the church was given to us, a gift for which, in our utterly destitute state, I was extremely grateful. Then when the building was nearing completion I learnt that I had unwittingly ignored the City Council. So now, my joy has been turned into sorrow and even this pathetic soldiers’ church, which we only needed for twelve months - must go, and we are in debt to the amount of £60. In our difficulty may I beg help from your readers in our effort to erect a building which will meet with the City Council requirements? Any sum, however small, will be gratefully acknowledged… THOMAS J. GIBSON”.

A meeting of the Council was held in May to reconsider the decision to demolish the hall. It was here that Gibson’s claim of “unwittingly” overlooking the Council’s building and planning regulations was exposed as an untruth. Up until this point, councillors who had been somewhat sympathetic to Gibson’s cause, now wavered. In the World’s lengthy coverage of the saga, the newspaper reported:

“On the ground that the Rev. T. J. Gibson had "acted indiscreetly" in his attitude in regard to the building of the temporary wooden church premises in Arthur street, West Hobart, Alderman Davis stated at last night’s City Council meeting that he had altered his previously expressed opinion on the matter”.

The building was clearly unfit for purpose. One councillor stated that “the building was more suitable for a stable or cowshed”. Gibson had offered to make several improvements to appease the council. These included an undertaking to:

“(1) Strengthen the stumps and foundations; (2) straighten the walls; (3) provide architraves to the doors and windows; (4) reshingle the roof; (5) provide ventilation in the roof; (6) cover the floor with malthoid; (7) fix a plinth around the base; (8) stain the exterior of the building with creosote stain; and (9) provide sanitary accommodation”.

One of Gibson’s supporters, Alderman Bottrill moved an amendment proposing that the use of the building be granted for eight months. “If the public were fully cognisant of the position no objection would be raised to the temporary use of the premises”.

However, Reverend Gibson’s claim of ignorance of official procedures was soon to be exposed to be questionable:

“Alderman Lord read a memorandum from the assisting city engineer, stating that on or about February 14 Mr. Gibson had called at the municipal offices. He had been informed that application must be made, and plans submitted to the Council for approval, before any permission to put up a building would be granted. The Town Clerk had given Mr. Gibson similar information on February 17. Mr. Gibson wrote to the Council three days later, but before his letter was considered by the public works committee, the building had been begun….”.

This was supported by a memorandum from the Town Clerk which said, inter alia:

"I informed him (Mr. Gibson) that the building would not comply with the Building Act but that as it was to be of a very temporary character, and the area available would permit it being erected well away from other buildings, I thought he would not have much difficulty in obtaining permission. I, "however, distinctly and definitely, informed him that it would be necessary for him to apply to the Council for permission before going on with the building. This he undertook to do”.

The hall’s fate was in the balance the moment it became apparent that Gibson had in fact been aware of the required procedures and had simply chosen to ignore them:

“Alderman Lord… [then] read a letter from Mr. Gibson to the Council, dated March 8, in which he (Mr. Gibson) said that the plans had not been submitted to the Council at an earlier date on account of his general ignorance of procedure. He had not the least intention of disregarding the Council, and if he had done so it was due to want of knowledge, for which he tendered his sincere apologies".

Once it became apparent that Gibson had misled the Council, by “acting indiscreetly”, the cause of saving the hall abruptly ended:

“Alderman Davis said that he had previously thought that Mr. Gibson had been ignorant of the Council's requirements. It was with surprise that he now noted that Mr. Gibson had been informed of them as far back as February 17. He had, when the matter had previously been before the Council, been sympathetic to Mr. Gibson, but his opinion was now changed. Mr Gibson had acted indiscreetly in professing ignorance of the usual procedure. There was a difference between the statements of Mr. Gibson and of the Council's officers, but aldermen had no option but to believe their officers”.

With this new information the Council rejected the appeal.

Thus the old Claremont “hut” which had “been used for church purposes” was torn down. One positive consequence of the saga is that the dispute evoked some public sympathy, which which hastened the construction of a permanent church hall. A little over a year after the temporary hall was demolished, St Michael and All Angels was opened and dedicated. The history of this building will feature in an upcoming article in ‘Churches of Tasmania’.

World, Tuesday 6 May 1919

World, Tuesday 25 March 1919

World, Tuesday 11 March 1919
The site of the temporary church on Arthur Street

St Michael's - the Church Hall built on the rear of the Arthur street block which fronts on Franklin Street

Sources:

World, Tuesday 11 March 1919, page 6
World, Tuesday 25 March 1919, page 6
Mercury, Friday 28 March 1919, page 3
Mercury, Friday 4 April 1919, page 4
World, Tuesday 8 April 1919, page 8
World, Tuesday 6 May 1919, page 6
Mercury, Tuesday 6 May 1919, page 4
Mercury, Monday 1 December 1919, page 6
Mercury, Monday 9 August 1920, page 6



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