No. 1259 - George Town - St Mary Magdalene's Anglican Church (1841-1884) "An Architectural Deformity"

George Town is the second oldest town in Tasmania. After the establishment of Launceston as the administrative centre of the north of the island, George Town was destined to become a backwater until more recent times.

The focus of this article is on the second of four Anglican churches built at George Town.

In 1804, a party of men led by Lieutenant Colonel William Paterson sailed into the mouth of the Tamar River where a cove on the eastern side of the river was selected as a temporary settlement. Paterson’s company had no ordained minister therefore he requested Edward Main, a former lay missionary, to read the first service. This event marks the first official religious ceremony in the north.

The first Anglican minister at George Town was Reverend John Youl who conducted services in a small brick church that also served as a school. This was located on Cimitiere Street opposite Regent Square. After John Youl’s departure from George Town in 1824 there were difficulties in finding a replacement minister and services virtually ceased and the church and schoolhouse fell into a state of disrepair.

The passage of the 1837 Van Diemen's Land Church Act ushered in an era of church building as communities took advantage of government funding for the construction of places of worship. George Town was no exception and the move to build a church was led by Lieutenant Matthew Curling Friend, who had been appointed Port Officer at Launceston in 1832. The church was not to be a new building but a former blacksmith’s shop on Anne Street which was converted into a church between 1838 and in 1841.

In 1838 a scandal erupted when William Lushington Goodwin, editor of the Cornwall Chronicle, accused Matthew Friend of official neglect, embezzlement and homosexuality. Following a libel case in the Supreme Court, Goodwin was forced to pay damages of £400. Friend pledged that the damages awarded would be used towards the construction of George Town’s church, specifically for building a tower and steeple. In the years that followed the Cornwall Chronicle monitored the construction of the church and held Friend to account over the mounting cost of the building and delays in its construction.

In March 1841 a report in the Cornwall Chronicle concerning lack of progress with construction clearly reflects the animosity towards Matthew Friend:

“We looked inside the church, which is still in an unfinished state - not much we think to the credit of the Committee entrusted with the management of its fittings. Entering the Cove…the church has an imposing effect, and induces the beholder to examine it when on shore; the result of which is disappointment in the extreme. If Lieut. Friend devoted to the erection of the steeple the £400 he recovered from us in the shape of a verdict for an alleged libel upon his character - which we are informed he promised the Committee he would— and which, of course, he did, and that sum being more than sufficient to complete it, we are puzzled to account for the expenditure by the Committee of the considerable sum of money raised for the purpose of constructing the church; knowing, as we do, that the building itself (with the exception of the steeple) is the same that was occupied some years back as a blacksmith's shop. The Committee are bound to complete the church”.

In 1841 Reverend James Walker was appointed resident minister but by the close 1842 George Town once again found itself without a priest. In January 1843 the Launceston Examiner reported that the church door had been nailed up to prevent unauthorised entry:

“Last Sunday a party of ladies and gentlemen residing at Kelso, proceeded to George Town for the purpose of attending public worship. When they reached the church-door they found it nailed up. We are not aware by whose authority this Christian act was performed, but the party were much disappointed, and had to return to their residence, it may be, in no very pious frame of mind…”.

By 1844 January a parsonage had been built but the church still had no minister. The Launceston Examiner reported:

“A new house or parsonage is erected, and only wants a tenant. We trust the Bishop will no longer delay nominating an efficient pastor to the Episcopalians here…”.

The same report noted that informal services were being conducted by an “old gentleman”, Mr Neil:

“He does not gather a large congregation on Sunday, but the bell tolls, the prisoners muster, and a few resort to the church, where he reads prayers as well as a discourse…”.

In July 1845 the Cornwall Chronicle complained that there was still no minister as well as a problem regarding irregular Christian burials:

“The spiritual wants of the inhabitants of this interesting township,…are by some unaccountable, and no doubt, accidental omission on the part of Bishop Nixon, wholly unprovided for; at a very considerable outlay of money, principally subscribed by the inhabitants, a neat and commodious church, and an excellent parsonage residence have been erected, but the church is without a minister, ….but for the pious exertions of a worthy gentleman, — Mr. Neale, who occasionally reads prayers in the church on the morning of the Sabbath, the inhabitants of George Town would be wholly denied the opportunities for religious public worship; Mr. Neale is far advanced in years, and must — however zealous and piously disposed— find the performance of this duly, sometimes irksome”.

The report continued:

“The interment of the dead has necessarily been unaccompanied by any religious service;— bodies have been thrown into graves as dogs would be, save the regrets of relations and friends. Recently on the occasion of the interment of the body of an infant child of the late respected and deeply lamented Dr. McCurdy, Colonial Surgeon, …a probationer requested permission to read a prayer over the grave, which he was permitted to do, and last week the murdered remains of the unfortunate seaman of the brig. Tobago, were interred without the common decencies of a Christian burial. We repeat our belief that the Bishop can not be aware of the neglected state of George Town”.

In 1846 a minister was at last appointed and Reverend John Fereday was to be the resident minister for the next 25 years. The church was officially reopened on Sunday 13 December 1846. The Cornwall Chronicle drew attention to the expenditure and debt on the building:

“The church at George Town was reopened on Sunday last, on which occasion, two sermons were preached by the Rural Dean. Collections were made towards defraying the expenses which have been incurred in putting the building into thorough repair - erecting seats and making other important improvements…”.

Over the next two decades the church was plagued by structural and other problems. In 1853 the Cornwall Chronicle reported:

“Mr McKeon, the owner of the Cleopatra steamer, has liberally given £10 towards the repairs of the charnel wall, at George Town Church”.

In September 1854 a major section of the church’s roof was blown off in a storm:

“On Saturday night a severe gale from the southward, passed over this side of the island, leaving much devastation in its track. About one-third of the roof, on the eastern side of the church at George Town, was carried away…”.

The Cornwall Chronicle reported:

“To repair the damage will entail a cost of upwards of £120. The inhabitants of George Town are much indebted to W.A. Gardber, Esq., who has liberally undertaken to advance the cost of the repairs, on the understanding that, the funds he advances…be returned from the amount of money collected for the purpose".

By December 1854 the building had still not been repaired:

“On Sunday, the 22nd, his Lordship [the Bishop] returned in the police boat to George Town. Devine service was celebrated in the school house, the church being under repair”.

In 1856, 10 years after its reopening and at last free of debt the church was officially licensed.

By the late 1850s the church’s steeple had been removed and in 1864 a tender was advertised “for pulling down the remains of the Tower”. In the previous year the Cornwall Chronicle reported that “a subscription was made in aid of funds for some requisite repairs to the church at George Town”.

Ongoing issues with the building eventually led to a decision to build new church. In 1881 the Mercury reported:

“A large and influential meeting of the residents of George Town was held on Monday, the 10th instant, in St Mary Magdalene Church, for the purpose of of taking steps for the erection of a new church. The meeting, which was a thoroughly representative one, having been opened with prayer by the Rev. W E Powell, the Venerable Archdeacon Hales, who presided, in a forcible and earnest speech advocated the object of the meeting of the necessity of erecting a new church he (the Archdeacon) entertained no doubt, and he was sure that those present concurred with him. The present building for many seasons was not suitable as a place of worship, nor could it on account of its architectural deformity ever be made. Again, any and all improvements would, through the unsoundness of the foundations, be futile…. A number of resolutions affirming the necessity of erecting a new church, constituting a committee, and appointing a secretary and treasurer, were carried unanimously….”.

The new church, a weatherboard building, opened in 1884 and was consecrated in 1886.

The old church continued to be use for a number of years. First it was used as a temporary home for the public school. After this it was converted for use as a hall, with a stage being added for concerts. The building was eventually demolished.

A note on Reverend John Fereday who served as minister from 1846 to 1871:

John Fereday was an interesting and remarkable man. He was a keen amateur photographer who took photographs of the Bass Strait Islanders while on regular mission voyages. He is credited with producing the first known visual record of the European sealers and their indigenous wives and children.

Fereday was born on 8 November 1813 in Ellowes, Staffordshire. After becoming a Church of England clergyman he sailed to Van Diemen’s Land in 1846 aboard the Aden, accompanied by his wife Susan, and their five children. Bishop Nixon appointed him to St Mary Magdalene Church at George Town soon after his arrival. Both Fereday and his wife were amateur algologists and their collections of their seaweeds were sent to the national collections at Kew Gardens.

In 1863 he produced a series of wet-plate stereoscopic portraits of the Bass Strait islands and their inhabitants. Fereday accompanied Archdeacon Thomas Reibey on regular mission voyages and acted as an unofficial agent for the islanders. He also performed marriages for the islanders as was recorded in the Cornwall Chronicle in 1847:

“(Married) at George Town, on Saturday the 27th instant, by Rev Mr. Fereday, John Mira (a native of the island of Otaheiti) [now Tahiti] to Betsy Miti (an Aboriginal native of this island). Also James Williams (a European) to Victoria Leonard (also a native of this island). The parties left Flinders Island on Thursday morning last in an open boat for George Town — a distance of 80 miles, in order that the marriage ceremonies might be performed by a duly qualified clergyman”. (Cornwall Chronicle Wed 31 Mar 1847)

In 1861, Fereday’s eldest daughter Susan married Alexander Stenson Palmer at St Mary Magdalene. Like her father she was a talented artist and it is her painting of the church that provides a rare visual record of the building.

Fereday met a tragic death in April 1872 when his gig hit a tree stump on the road from 9 Mile Springs [Lefroy] on the way to George Town:

“The Ven. Archdeacon Browne and Mr Fereday left Nine Mile Springs about 4 p.m. on Tuesday, in a gig to return to George Town. As Mr Fereday was very near sighted the Archdeacon undertook to drive. They had got near to Quin's farm, when a wheel of the gig came in contact with one of the numerous stumps, which render driving on the portion of the George Town Road from within two or three miles this side the Mount so perilous. The collision was so forcible that the Archdeacon was thrown violently out, the reins were jerked out of his hand, and the horse taking fright bolted with Mr Fereday in the gig. When the Archdeacon was able to get up from where he was thrown, he could see neither horse, gig, nor Mr Fereday. He ran on towards George Town, and at last found Mr Fereday lying on the road bleeding, and quite unconscious".

Fereday never regained consciousness. Although his headstone can be seen outside the church, he was in fact “interned in the George Town cemetery, about two miles out of the town, and not in the churchyard”.

The original church with its tower and steeple intact. Painting by Susan Fereday c.1846 - State Library of Tasmania

The church without its steeple. (c.1856) The tower was demolished in 1864. Painting by Susan Fereday c.1846 - State Library of Tasmania

Launceston Advertiser, Thursday 10 January 1839

An undated drawing of the church after its closure. The church was used as a school and later hall. The drawing appears in The Story of the Anglican Parish of George Town (Peter Cox). No source for the drawing is given.

Launceston Examiner, Wednesday 9 December 1846

Cornwall Chronicle, Wednesday 13 April 1864

A George Town scene showing the new church built in 1884 in the background. Libraries Tasmania -  LPIC101-1-22

Reverend John Fereday - A painting by his wife Susan Fereday (National Library of Australia)


Launceston Advertiser, Thursday 10 January 1839, page 1
Launceston Advertiser, Thursday 18 April 1839, page 3
The Courier, Tuesday 20 October 1840, page 3
Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 5 December 1840, page 2
Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 20 March 1841, page 2
Launceston Examiner, Wednesday 25 January 1843, page 4
Launceston Examiner, Wednesday 15 February 1843, page 3
Launceston Examiner, Wednesday 3 January 1844, page 4
Cornwall Chronicle, Wednesday 2 July 1845, page 2
Launceston Examiner, Wednesday 9 December 1846, page 4
Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 19 December 1846
Cornwall Chronicle Wednesday 31 March 1847
The Courier, Thursday 9 June 1853, page 3
The Courier, Saturday 9 December 1854, page 3
Cornwall Chronicle, Wednesday 20 September 1854, page 5
The Hobart Town Advertiser, Thursday 21 September 1854, page 3
Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 30 September 1854, page 5
Cornwall Chronicle Wednesday 31 July 1861
Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 24 October 1863, page 4
Cornwall Chronicle, Wednesday 13 April 1864, page 5
Cornwall Chronicle Monday 10 April 1871, page 2
Tasmanian Saturday 15 April 1871, page 12
Launceston Examiner, Wednesday 12 January 1881, page 3
Mercury, Thursday 13 January 1881, page 3
Examiner, Saturday 30 May 1936, page 12

Cox, Peter, The Story of the Anglican Parish of George Town, (2006) Published by the Anglican Parish of Riverlinks

Boyce, James; God's own country : The Anglican Church and Tasmanian Aborigines 2014.

Stephens, Geoffrey and Anglican Church of Australia. Diocese of Tasmania (issuing body.) The Anglican Church in Tasmania : a Diocesan history to mark the sesquicentenary, 1992. Trustees of the Diocese, Hobart, 1991.


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