In the early
days of settlement at St Kilda, Wesleyan prayer meetings were held in
private homes. One site was a two-roomed cottage near the St Kilda railway
station. According to Cooper, a small iron building — about 18 metres by
12 metres —was opened on 3 June 1853. This was possibly located in Prahran
on the corner of Commercial and Margaret Streets. Known as ‘iron pots’,
these prefabricated iron buildings were popular imports during the gold
rushes when accommodation was in great demand and local labour was scarce
and expensive, but they were soon found to be unsuitable in the extreme
The Reverend Robert Young preached the opening service.
foundation stone for the new Wesleyan Church was laid on 27 October 1857
by the Honourable Alexander Fraser, local councillor and auctioneer and
then a member of the Legislative Council from 1858-81.
As Cooper describes it: ‘The usual formalities were observed. Hymns were
sung, and prayers offered up, responsive to the occasion. When the 84th
Psalm was read, the stone was laid’.
A tea meeting was held in the evening.
was opened on Sunday 19 September 1858 and three services were held during
the day led by the Reverends W. Hill, James Ballantyne and I. New. It was
one of the first Wesleyan churches built in Victoria in the Gothic style
and was designed by Crouch and Wilson. Thomas J. Crouch was a prominent
Methodist and played the organ at services. He lived in the St Kilda area
from 1853 until his death in 1889 and served a term as mayor of St Kilda.
He also designed the chapel at Pentridge and Methodist churches at
Fitzroy, Collingwood, Flemington, Daylesford and Maldon.
granite Wesleyan church with sandstone dressings and a slate roof is
unusual in several ways. Towered churches from the 1850s are rare in
Melbourne, as is the use of bluestone south of the Yarra River because it
was expensive to cut and difficult to transport across the river.
Measuring 20 by 11 metres, the church could accommodate 600 people.
Internally there was a low altar with a small brass cross. The central
pulpit was moved to the side to accommodate organ pipes in 1927. The new
organ cost £1163-10-0. The original organ had been in the gallery and in
1965 was thought to be in a church in Spotswood. The church is divided
into five bays by buttresses and lancet windows are in the centre of each
bay. Two aisles lead to a small sanctuary. The rear wall has a
three-pointed stained-glass window and two symmetric doors. The south-east
door leads to an outside porch while the other leads to the vestry. Off
the gallery is a lower tower room and a stepladder to the upper tower
room. The tower featured a copper deck roof and was designed to include a
clock and graceful pinnacles.
Daniel Draper presided over the building of the St Kilda church. When he
arrived in Victoria in 1855 following successful ministries in Parramatta
and the South Australian district, he wrote: ‘If ever a circuit was a
perfect wreck, my new one is that, “entirely quite”.’
During his time in Melbourne he oversaw the erection of three large
bluestone churches — Wesley Church in Lonsdale Street and churches at
North Melbourne and St Kilda. In the many churches for which he was
responsible, Draper favoured the Gothic style and in Melbourne the use of
expensive bluestone. Wesleyans had ‘no great architectural tradition’ when
they arrived in Australia. The founder, John Wesley had decreed that
‘preaching houses’ should be ‘plain and decent’ and no more expensive than
Wesleyans in Victoria, however, argued that ‘God is better pleased with a
good and elegant church when it is within the means of the worshippers to
build it, than with one plain, unsightly and uncomfortable’.
Draper also argued that a better building ‘commands a better
building had problems from the early days. Ventilators were installed in
the floor in 1863 and architects were employed to survey the roof because
it was feared it was unsafe. Crouch and Billing reported no serious danger
but found that it was vital to strengthen it.
Over the years, the roof needed frequent repairs. In July 1883 the Ladies
Sewing Meeting presented five oak collection plates to the church. Perhaps
they hoped superior collection plates would elicit more generous offerings
to help offset those costly repairs.
Draper travelled to Britain to represent Australia at the British
Conference. A year later, he and his wife left England to return to
Australia aboard the London. The ship sank in the Bay of Biscay and
only seventeen people out of the 263 on board survived. These fortunates
‘reported that Draper comforted and exhorted those doomed to perish with
him “by recommending that Pilot by Whom all might arrive safely at the
Port of Heaven”.’
Draper’s death occurred the day after Wesley College in Melbourne was
opened. He had been the ‘moving spirit’ responsible for its establishment.
membership peaked in 1864 when full members and those on trial totalled
190. In the 1860s the congregation was predominantly the well-to-do and
leaders of the community. Members included Dr Corrigan, the headmaster of
Wesley College, architects Thomas Crouch and Ralph Wilson, parliamentarian
Alexander Fraser (a long-serving superintendent of the Sunday school) and
F. E. Beaver, an insurance broker.
Another member was Richard Eades. A fellow of the Royal College of
Surgeons in Ireland, Eades emigrated to Australia in 1848. He was
prominent in public affairs and a mayor of Melbourne. He was also a member
of the Burke and Wills Exploration Committee.
John King, the survivor of the ill-fated expedition, also worshipped here.
He never recovered from the ordeal and lived quietly in St Kilda, dying of
tuberculosis at the age of thirty-one.
In a list dating from the 1860s, there were 127 men and fifty-nine female
members. Miss Blanche Glass was the only woman for whom an occupation was
given. She was a Post and Telegraph mistress. Mrs Fenton was the only
other woman with an individual entry (possibly a widow). The other women
were included with relatives.
membership had dropped to fewer than ninety and the decline continued in
the twentieth century accompanied by an increasing inability to maintain
the church. A 1965 report indicated the church interior was badly in need
of renovation, with flaking paintwork, and that the freestone outside was
In late 1966 one of the pinnacles was displaced during a storm and they
were all removed.
During this procedure, one was dropped causing
considerable damage to the roof.
The congregation opted to join the Uniting Church and the church was
closed. The final service was held on 25 June 1978.
By the 1990s
the church and its buildings were in a sorry state. The church was used as
a photographic studio in the early 1990s but was later unoccupied.
Deciduous creeper had grown over the building, obscuring it. The hall was
used by the St Kilda Alternative School for a time. The church was
converted to flats and is now engulfed by a complex of offices and shops.
The development plans were controversial and opposed by many but went
ahead despite the Australian Heritage Commission citing the Wesleyan
Church complex as having national estate historic values.
The citation stated it was ‘one of St Kilda’s oldest Churches and [it] has
an association with the early development of the area. These prominent
buildings, located on the corner of two of St Kilda’s main roads and
forming an important part of a conservation area, are important for their
A brick manse
was built in Princes Street behind the church in 1856 at a cost of £500.
Two years later it was altered to become a two-storey gable building with
nine rooms for an extra £500. A sexton’s residence was also built in the
The manse was demolished in 1888 because of weak foundations and a
building in Grovesnor Street was rented until the second manse was
completed in 1889. The architects were probably Percy Oakden and Ralph
Wilson and the builder was T. B. Allen. A two-storey asymmetrical Gothic
residence, it is typical of the late 1880s and considered a ‘particularly
finely designed and detailed building’. It was converted into four flats
after the new manse was built in 1926-27 and in 1955 became a men’s
of the third manse was R. J. Jones with a competition-winning design by
Alec Eggleston, which was however altered to provide for a more ornate
facade. A single-storey red brick building in Tudobethan style, it
features stuccoed dressings and a terracotta tile roof and cost £2095.
During the 1990s the 1887 manse was altered and some repairs were done
while the 1926 manse remained in poor condition.
At the end of
1853 a timber schoolhouse was built at a cost of £1750, the high cost
reflecting the gold rush conditions.In
1888 it was demolished and the materials recycled to build a caretaker’s
cottage. A new brick school was erected. It was an important work of the
architect Percy Oakden. Considered one of Melbourne’s finest examples of
his work, it was gutted by a fire in 1990. Squatters were suspected of
being responsible. In the 1990s large props supported the remaining walls
of the schoolroom burnt out in 1990 and it was surrounded by wire fencing
and ‘Keep Out’ signs.
Balcombe Griffiths and Yvonne von Hartel, ‘An Architectural History of
the Wesleyan Methodist Church of St Kilda’, undergraduate thesis,
Architecture, University of Melbourne, 1965, p. 4.