History of St John’s Church of England, Newcastle


St. John’s is the oldest, still existing church building in the Newcastle district. It was built (to hold 600) for the largely mining population of Newcastle, as Bishop Tyrrell had noted that only the wealthy of the district attended Christ Church, and in order that the people may be “reclaimed from practical atheism”. The new parish included the suburban area at that time as far as Waratah, Lambton, Adamstown and Cardiff, in addition, of course, to its mining core in the Glebe and Merewether. In 1856 a school and parsonage were commenced on 1½ acres of land “at present in a state of bush and abutting on the Lake Macquarie Road ” later to become Darby Street). This land was donated by the Australian Agricultural Company (AA Coy), and the new parish was founded on March 1, 1856 by Bishop Tyrrell. The Revd. L.H. Rumsey was appointed as the first Rector. He held a Masters degree in Arts at Oxford and came to Newcastle in 1856 direct from England for what Bishop Tyrrell described as “real missionary work”.

The building of the church was commenced in 1857 and the foundation stone, which cannot now be located, was laid on Saturday, 21 July of that year. The building consecrated on February 20th, 1860. The architect is believed to be Edmund Blacket. It seems that Bishop Tyrrell purchased designs for a school and a large church and managed to get his money’s worth by using the church design three times—St. John’s, St. Paul’s at West Maitland and St. Paul’s at Ipswich (at that time part of the Diocese of Newcastle). Although a William White is credited as the architect of St. Paul’s, West Maitland, it is possible that he worked from the design or made construction drawings.

The money was made available through the AA Coy and Mr. Walter Stevenson Davidson, a director and a banker, co-instigated in 1854 a fund to provide money for the construction of churches and schools in this area where the Company had derived considerable wealth through mining and agriculture.

The fund raised £8,357.17.9 and of this Mr. Davidson personally contributed £5,000. £2,956.9.0 was added by fifty-one other Anglican shareholders with interest of £401.8.9. A portion was allotted to the Peel River area (Tamworth) and the remainder was for St. John’s church and schoolroom.

The church is Victorian Gothic with paired stone lancet windows set in walls of hand-pressed red sandstock bricks. Unfortunately, these began to weather in a very short space of time and the  exterior was cement rendered in 1864.

After the Newcastle earthquake of 1989 when all the church buildings suffered considerable damage, parishioners had a rare opportunity of seeing the church much as it would have looked when first completed, as to enable repairs the cement render had to be removed. At that time steel rods were inserted into the walls to stabilize them.

The interior is similarly modest and effective and is much as it was when first completed with high pitched, hand cut timber roof trusses and painted hammer beams of cedar. Over time changes have been made to the layout. In July 1926 a screen was erected to transform the northern transept into a Chapel in memory of James and Eliza Porter and the main altar transferred to the Chapel. A new altar was erected in the church in memory of William Swan and Elizabeth Croker. At this time the Sanctuary carpet was replaced In the early 1950’s a major reconstruction of the interior took place. The two side aisles were replaced with a wide centre aisle and narrow ones along each wall, necessitating the rearrangement of the western porch doors. The original cedar pews were able to be used but the seating capacity was thus reduced. (The pews were lovingly restored by a parishioner in 1982). The Sanctuary was enlarged and raised, also the chancel, and the tiered choir stalls removed. The original stone pulpit could not be moved so a new timber pulpit was erected closer to the congregation. It was at this time that the ceiling was painted blue and the stars painted above the chancel.

The exterior cross on the western gable of the church was only erected in 2007. It is made of stainless steel and replaces an earlier wooden cross.

The Windows

On completion of the earthquake repairs, work was commenced to restore the flaking sandstone surrounds of the windows as well as the stained glass. The windows, once restored, have been put into brass frames and brought forward. Safety glass has been installed in the former position of the stained glass, giving protection from accidental damage or vandalism.

The original windows were stained or pressed glass, lead-lighted in a diamond pattern. There are only seven original windows remaining, three sets of two in the Vestry and one near the bell tower.

The first picture windows to be installed were those behind the altar and from an early photograph we know that at a later date (possibly 1880) new apertures were created in the Sanctuary, on either side of the altar and four windows were commissioned in England and erected by members of the Cook family whose forbears gave Cooks Hill its name.

The remainder are of more recent origin, mostly between 1944 and 1966 and are either memorials to former parishioners or the result of fund-raising. The most recent additions are near the organ in the south transept and these are a combination of original lead-lighting (restored) and work done by a local artisan, Carl Parkinson, in 1995. Restoration work is proceeding as finance allows.

The Organ

An extract from the ‘Newcastle Chronicle’ on November 7, 1866 reads “Many lovers of fine sacred music will be glad to learn that a very superior organ has just been erected in St. John’s Church, Lake Macquarie Road. It was ordered some months ago from Mr. J. W. Walker, of London and has recently been sent out by him in the Strathnaver, its total cost being  over £300…”.

It was originally sited at the western end of the church and powered manually by pumping. It was moved to its present site at an unknown date and subsequently converted to electricity.

In 1971 it was restored to its original condition by Mr. Arthur Jones of Sydney. The case and pipe front were completely restored and a new 30 note Royal College of Organists pedal board fitted. The organ was prepared for two more ranks of pipes and Mr. Jones expressed the hope that a benefactor would provide for the completion of the organ.

Other features

The stone font, located at the right of the entrance, dates back to 1866 but the cedar cover is an addition of recent years.

The fine brass eagle lectern was given in 1906 as a memorial to Archdeacon F. Dashwood Bode, rector from 1894 to 1902. He died in 1903 in Geneva and was buried at Canterbury. Archdeacon Bode was one of the few remaining state-aided clergy in the State.

In August, 1917 a Litany Desk (no longer in use but situated to the right of the Sanctuary) was dedicated by the Rev. W.J. Ritchie, rector from 1910 to 1921. The desk was a gift of the Ritchie family in memory of Corporal Harold Ritchie who was killed in the Great War (1914-1918).

Parish Hall

As previously stated the parish hall was commenced before the church and was used for worship until completion of the church building. Its original function was that of a school and there were 147 pupils in its heyday. It evolved into a community centre for the village of Cook’s Hill but returned to being a church hall early in the 20th century.

In more recent times the hall fell into disrepair, mainly due to lack of sufficient funds for the congregation to maintain two heritage buildings.

In 1983 the church approached the Heritage Commission of NSW for financial help without success; then in 1984 thanks mainly to the efforts of the then Rector, Canon Eric Barker, a grant of $153,000 was made from the Commonwealth Government under the Community Employment Program, conditional upon the parish finding a further $40,000 (this later rose to $70,000). Then in 1985, just before completion of the work, the State Government made a grant of $10,000 to help finance the restoration.

The restoration took six months and brought into use the upstairs rooms, provided a clean, modern kitchen and a spacious main hall. About 400 people attended the thanksgiving service to mark the completion and re-opening of the hall by the Governor of N.S.W., Sir James Rowland and also the church’s 125th anniversary.


Much of the historical information included in this leaflet was researched by Miss Sarah Wheeldon

Further reading

More of St John’s history is available at http://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2013/10/01/3859777.htm
Other articles are available through the National Library of Australia’s ‘Trove’ service and we will list them here as they become available.
19 July 1945: St. John’s Church Ball: Debutantes Presented