No. 799 - Penguin - The Primitive Methodist 'Upper Chapel' (1874-1901)

Penguin is a seaside town situated approximately 10 kilometres west of Ulverstone. It was established in the 1860s and was one of the last coastal towns in the northwest to be settled. The Victorian gold rush created a renewed demand for timber and consequently wood cutters and splitters moved into the area. The settlement was named by the botanist Ronald Campbell Gunn after the penguin rookeries that were once common along this part of the coast.

This is the second of four articles on Penguin’s Methodist churches.

The history of Methodism and Penguin’s Methodist Churches is complex. It can be summarised as follows:

1866 - A Primitive Methodist chapel was built at the Western  
           end of Main Street (now the site of the Uniting  
1868 - A Mission House was built at Mission Hill.
1869 - The chapel was lengthened by 12 feet.
1872 - A split occurred in the Methodist community. An   
           Independent Methodist group took over the chapel on 
           Main street which then became known locally as the         
           ‘lower chapel’.
1874 - A new Primitive Methodist church was built to.   
           accomodate 150 worshippers. It became known as the 
           ‘upper chapel’ and was located south of the Main Road   
           between Deviation Road and Mission Hill Road.
1901 - The two congregations reunited (the United Methodist 
           Free Church and with the Primitive Methodists). 
1902 - The United Methodist Church (the original Primitive 
           Methodist church) was moved to the rear of the Main 
           road site of the present Uniting Church, for use as a hall 
           and Sunday School.
1903 - The new church built for the United Methodist 
            congregation was built and opened. (This now the 
            Uniting Church)
1904 - The second Primitive Methodist church ( the ‘upper 
           chapel’ built in 1874) was destroyed in a deliberately lit 
           fire on Friday 21 October.
1904 - The Sunday School hall (the original Primitive Methodist 
            and later Independent Methodist ‘lower chapel) was 
            destroyed in a deliberately lit fire on Monday 28 
            October - a week after ‘upper chapel was burnt down in 
            similar circumstances.
1976 - The Mission House was destroyed in a fire.

The history of Penguin’s first Primitive Methodist Church (1866-1872) has been described in a previous article on ‘Churches of Tasmania’ [see No. 734]. When this church was taken over by the ‘Independent Methodists’ in 1872, the remaining Primitive Methodists moved off to build a new church near the lower end of Mission Hill Road.

The opening of the new Primitive Methodist church took place on Sunday 26 April 1874 and the event was described in a lengthy report published by Launceston’s Cornwall Chronicle. The report provides some detail about the new church’s establishment and mentions the conflict that had occurred in the Methodist community:

“The opening services at this place of worship were held on Sunday, the 16th instant, when the Rev. H. J. Lavers preached in the morning and afternoon, and the Rev. J. H. Brown in the evening. The building, though not yet finished, is far enough advanced towards completion to admit of the opening celebration, and is a sufficiently commodious and very ornamental structure of the Gothic style. The place of worship formerly used by the Primitive Methodists, of this locality is now in the possession of a congregation of Independents, most of whom seceded from the Primitive Methodist body about three years ago, still retaining the building In which they worshipped hence the necessity for building the new structure. As a part of the opening celebration, and to assist in raising funds, a public tea meeting was held on Monday. There was a larger attendance than was anticipated, comprising a great many visitors from the Forth, Leven and Emu Bay”.

“The building was tastefully and artistically decorated for the occasion. Ingenious and elaborate floral devices and mottoes garnished the walls, and hung in graceful profusion from the root….. At the public meeting Mr Grice presided, and after singing a prayer, called on the Rev. J. H. Brown to read the report, which showed the cost of the building up to the present time amounted to £ 108 13s. … The Rev. J. H. Brown, In bringing forward the report, said that when he landed in this “tight little island” about 12 months ago, he was a perfect stranger, and did not know where to seek for a pound to help in building a chapel. He come here, however, to work, and to work be was determined. They all knew of course of the unfortunate occurrence which had caused so much unpleasantness during the term of his predecessor, but he resolved when he came here, that so far as he was concerned, it should die….The rev. gentleman then proceeded to detail the manner in which the building fund was inaugurated, and the plans by which he intended to further augment it. He also stated for the information of those interested, that the Penguin Mission land was now formally conveyed to trustees on behalf of the Primitive Methodist Connexions, that the deeds were in the hands of the Missionary Committee in Melbourne, and that he was expecting to receive them every mail. They need not therefore fear a repetition of what had taken place with regard to the chapel….”.

“The Rev. J. H. Brown then brought forward the subscription list, placing first on it a cheque for five guineas which he had received from the directors of the Penguin Silver Mines, and explaining that the directors, having heard that his former profession was that of a mining engineer, had written to request him to inspect and report on the mines as well on to furnish them with plans and sections of the works and plant. This he had done, and on their desiring him to name his fee he had declined to receive any remuneration for his services, but had intimated his willingness to take a donation towards the building fund of the chapel. The result wis the receipt at time cheque, which he begged to hand to the trustees. Some other contributions were added to the list making the total amount of cash received up to about £45. After which, votes of thanks to the ladies who had provided the tea, the speaker, the chairman, and the lady who had officiated as collector, terminated the proceedings”.

The precise nature of the conflict between Penguin’s Methodists is not made clear but, like most divisions within religious communities, it was most likely caused by a toxic combination of inflated spiritual egos and theological technicalities. However, under Reverend Brown’s leadership, the two Methodist communities seem to have put their differences aside and coexisted.

In 1877 a visitor to Penguin, the Hobart Tribune’s “travelling reporter”, described the settlement’s three places of worship, including the 'upper' Primitive Methodist chapel, which was the first church he encountered on approaching the settlement from the west:

“…Penguin is something under ten years growth, and was only proclaimed a township 18 months since. The population is 80 souls, and there are three churches in the place. Coming into the township from the west, I first noted a neat little meeting house on the top of a hill; it had the Primitive Methodist sign board over the door, painted in legible letters. The builders of this Zion know their text, and built their chapel on high with its foundation in the rock, the only objection that I could see to the situation was to women with babies in their arms, and to old folks short of breath”. 

In 1889, the arrival of a new minister, Reverend J. T. Pithouse, resulted in a thorough renovation of the upper chapel:

“The minister in charge of the circuit, the Rev J. T. Pithouse (who has lately been appointed) was not at all satisfied with the appearance of the chapel, either inwardly or outwardly, and accordingly set to work to have it renovated and put in thorough repair. Messrs G. Hardy & Son were entrusted with the painting and their work, both on the interior and exterior of the building, reflects great credit on them. The doors have been nicely grained in oak pattern, and the windows frosted and tastefully clear-lined in a neat pattern. A decided improvement to the building is the wainscoting, which is carried right round the interior of the building, 4ft in height, and is of T and G pine, clear varnished. The ventilation has also received dueattention, and altogether Mr Pithouse may be congratulated on the pleasing and comfortable appearance of the building. The whole of the work has been done for about £30, which may be considered very reasonable”.

After a quarter of a century of separate worship, the Methodists of the ‘upper chapel’ and ‘lower chapel’ were once again brought together by the Australian Methodist Union of 1902. The chapels’ used by the two congregations were too small for use by a combined combination, thus the Primitive Methodist upper chapel was abandoned and sold. Penguin’s Rechabite Hall was used as the primary place of worship until a new and larger church could be built.

The North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times described the last service held in the ’upper chapel’ on Sunday 29 December 1901:

“The Primitive Methodist Church here is to be closed with the initiation of Methodist Union. Rev. W H.Walton, who many years ago commenced the P.M. Church at Penguin, preached on Sunday last in the afternoon, and gave the prizes to the Sunday school children, and Rev. C. Mason preached at night and referred to the origin and progress of Primitive Methodism and the union which is to take place on the first Sunday of 1902, between the various Methodist churches".

"At the close of the service the minister, on behalf of the church, presented Miss Bray, the organist, with a very large edition of Sankey's music book, and the Sunday school in the afternoon presented her with a work basket. Also, Mr Hales, on behalf of the church and Sunday school, was presented with a Family Bible. It is understood that the two Methodist congregations here will unite the 1st Sunday of January, and meet for worship for a while at the Rechabite Hall on the Sundays, holding the week evening meetings in what is now the United Methodist Free Church. It is expected that before the close of 1902 the Methodists here will build a large new church”.

The Primitive Methodist upper chapel was sold in 1902 and converted into a workshop by Mr John Ling. However, its new life was dramatically cut short when it fell victim to a serial arsonist whose activities caused ongoing and considerable damage at Penguin. The Launceston Examiner reported the chapel’s destruction in a fire on Friday 21 October 1904:

“Another fire occurred during the early hours of Friday morning, when the old Methodist Church, situated at the western end of the town, was completely destroyed. The building was abandoned as a church on the construction of the new edifice some two years ago, and was converted into a store-room and work shop by Mr. John Ling, who has used it in that capacity for some time. The fire broke out at about 2 o'clock this morning, and, like many other recent fires at Penguin, its origin is totally unaccountable. The place was locked up as usual at about 5.30 on Thursday evening, ….There was a large quantity of building materials, tools, paint, and sundries kept in the place, the owner estimating the value at about £150….. Mr. Ling knew nothing of the occurrence until, on his way to the workshop this morning, he was informed that it had been burnt down during the night….The fire is considered to be the work of an incendiary, and there is a growing feeling of alarm and insecurity amongst the residents of this usually peaceful township, and not without reason, as the number of suspicious fires that have occurred recently is certainly disquieting”.

A week later, the lower chapel was destroyed in a fire in similar circumstances.

The history of the lower chapel, while controlled by the United Methodist Free Church, as well as the new Methodist Church (built in 1903), will be the topic of two further articles on 'Churches of Tasmania'.

A rare image of the 'upper chapel' - detail from a undated photograph - see below

      A photograph of Penguin from the west, looking east.  The 'upper chapel' - source: Penguin History 
        Group (Facebook) posted 6 June 2019.  Origin of photograph not given

       A  detail of a photograph from the Weekly Courier (1903) showing the lower chapel after it was shifted 
                               to the rear of the block to make way for the new Methodist church.

                                       The two churches, new and old. - The Weekly Courier 30 May 1903


Cornwall Chronicle, Friday 1 May 1874, page 3
Tribune, Tuesday 1 May 1877, page 3
North West Post, Thursday 15 August 1889, page 2
North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, Tuesday 31 December 1901, page 2
The Weekly Courier 30 May 1903
Examiner Saturday 22 October 1904, page 6

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.


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