Fremantle Stuff > books and papers > Hitchcock 1921c

Early Days of Fremantle:

An Old Church and Its Pastor

J.K. Hitchcock

Hitchcock, J.K. 1921, 'Early Days of Fremantle: An Old Church and Its Pastor', Fremantle Times, Friday 4 February 1921: 2.

One of the oldest buildings in Fremantle stands at the rear of the Johnston Memorial Church in Adelaide-terrace. I refer to the old Independent Chapel (or "Congregational Church" in modern parlance) which is now used as a church hall and Sunday school. Its genesis ante-dates the period of which I can write with personal knowledge, but from records kept by the Rev. Joseph Johnston up to the year 1869, to which I have had access, I have been able to glean a few particulars which I think will prove interesting to some of our old residents who were associated with it in days of yore. The historical traditions of this old church are still in the living memory of a few who were connected with it in the 60's, and even before that date, while there are others who, although they belong to a later generation, take a pride in the fact that their forebears were identified with its early history. Apart from the members and adherents of the denomination, old residents of all creeds and classes cherish tender memories of the revered pastor of the church, the Rev. J. Johnston (or "Father" Johnston as he was affectionately called) who held the pastorate for nearly 40 years and won the love and respect of all with whom he came in contact. In a former article I deplored the fact that no biography of this estimable man had ever been written, notwithstanding the promise of the Revs. E. J. Dunstan and B. C. Matthews that they would undertake its compilation, and that ample material for such a work was available at the time the promise was given. Nothing was done in this direction, however, and no permanent record exists of the manifold and benefieient activities of this grand old man. This is only another proof of the fact that the most self-sacrificing and conscientious discharge of the highest duties seldom receives lasting public recognition. A case in point is the neglect of Fremantle to erect a fitting memorial to its gallant sons who gave their lives in the Great War, though, in fairness to other localities, it must be admitted that the chief port of Western Australia is the only town in Australia upon which this unenviable stigma rests.
It was in the year 1852 that about half a dozen persons met in a private house in Fremantle for the prpose of discussing ways and means of establishing the Independent form of Divine worship in this town. A resolution was passed that it was desirable that an Independent Chapel should be built as soon as possible, and the small sum of £5 was subscribed towards this object. It was further decided that application be made to the Colonial Missionary Society for a minister, and that the Rev. Jas. Leonard, B.A., and Mr. H. Trigg, of Perth, be requested to communicate with the society on the subject.
Other contributions towards the contemplated chapel having been received, a piece of ground was secured, and a contract entered into with a Mr. Bates to erect the walls. The foundation stone of the new building was laid by the contractor without any formal ceremony on September 7, 1852, but although the chapel was of very moderate size, so slowly did the work proceed, owing to the want of funds, that the bare walls were not completed till February, 1853. In the meantime the Rev. J. Leonard wrote to the Colonial Missionary Society in London, stating that as a chapel was in course of erection, it was desirable that a minister should be sent out. The Society, at the time of receiving the letter, were in correspondence with the Rev. J. Johnston, who had been labouring for several years in the mission field at Tahiti, and were deliberating whether they should send him to Ipswich, in Queensland, or Pietermartizburgh, in Natal, when the letter from Mr. Leonard decided them to offer the appointment in this town to Mr. Johnston. He accepted the appointment and with his family embarked at Birkenhead in the Sabrina in March, 1853, arriving here in June of the same year.
On landing he was much disappointed at finding that the chapel was not finished, and that, for the time being, the work had been suspended. Mr. Johnston met with a very warm reception from Mr. Trigg, Mr. Leonard, and other friends in Perth, but was discouraged by learning that, owing to the excitement occasioned by the discovery of gold in Victoria, those persons in Fremantle who had been cheifly interested in the erection of the chapel had gone to Melbourne, and that a letter had been sent to the Colonial Missionary Society requesting them to leave the appointment of a minister for Fremantle in abeyance until the prospects of the town improved. That letter, however, arrived too late to effect its object. Under these discouraging circumstances Mr. Johnston doubted the propriety of remaining in Fremantle, as besides the services held in the English church, there were then regular services held in the Wesleyan chapel, and a minister named Boyd had gathered a small Presbyterian congregation in the old Court House, which was situated near the present site of His Majestv's Hotel, in Mouatt-street. The Colonial Missionary Society had been under the impression that on his arrival Mr. Johnston would find a congregation readv to receive him. This was not the case, and it became a serious question with him whether he should not remove at once to another Colony. He determined, however, to remain until he should receive further instructions from home. There being no other room available for the purpose, Mr. Johnston commenced Divine service in his own hired house, and preached for the first time in Fremantle on Sunday, July 17, 1853. His first congregation consisted of 16 persons, and some of these became his constant hearers.
It was now determined to make an effort to complete the chapel, and, in order to interest the public in the object, a tea meeting was held on August 10, 1853, in Yelverton's store in Essex-street (afterwards the Port Mill) at which 150 persons were present, and tho profits of which were devoted to the building fund.
A contract was entered into with Mr. J. J. Harwood to finish the erection of the chapel, and soon afterwards the work was recommenced. In November, 1853, Mr. Boyd, the Presbyterian minister, left the Colony, and Mr. Johnston thus obtained the use of the old Court House, and his congregation there increased to about 40 persons. At the beginning of 1854 Mr. Johnston was invited to occupy the pulpit of the Wesleyan chapel which he did for several months, preaching in the old Court House on Sunday morning and in the Wesleyan chapel in the evening.
At length the chapel was finished, and was opened for Divine service on Sunday, June 4, 1854, the congregation consisting of about 80 persons, many of whom became regular attendants. As the members of the congregation were of various denominations, and held conflicting views respecting church government, it was found impracticable to form a church at that time on the Congregational model. A Sunday school had been opened in Mr. Johnston's house, but was removed to the chapel on the completion of the building, and in the early part of 1855 it numbered 50 scholars. In March of that year the first Sunday school festival was held, and at the close of the year, on Christmas Day, the first distribution of gift books took place. I wonder how many of the receipients still survive!
In the years 1855-6, the emigration to the Eastern Colonies continued, the gold diggings being, the great source of attraction. In consequence of this serious loss to the colony of many young and enterprising settlers, all interests suffered; the progress of the cause was hindered, the congregation remained stationary, and the prospect of the church being able to support the minister seemed remote. It may here be remarked that in those days all Christian sects received State aid, but this the Congregationalists always refused to accept.
In the year 1856 Mr. Johnston received a letter from the Colonial Missionary Society intimating that in view of the small prospect there was of a self-sustaining cause being established in Fremantle, and the many applications they were receiving for ministers from more populous Eastern Colonies, they did not feel justified in continuing the grant in aid to Fremantle much longer, and they thought it advisable that Mr. Johnston should remove to Adelaide. Mr. Johnston placed this letter before his friends, and they resolved to do what they could to retain the minister, and determined to raise at least £100 per annum towards his support. Mr. Thos. Pope and Mr. Wm. Pearse were the largest contributors towards this fund. A letter was sent to the Society pointing out the injury the infant church would receive by the removal of the minister, and appealing to them to still grant some aid towards his maintenance. In due time a favourable answer was received, the Society agreeing to still continue a grant in aid to Mr. Johnston of £80 per annum. This had a happy effect upon the congregation, and in the following year (1857), notwithstanding the continued emigration to the East, the chapel was found too small for the number attending, and it was decided to enlarge the building and erect a gallery. This was accomplished, and the chapel was re-opened on Sunday, June 13, 1858, when the Rev. Samuel Hardey, Wesleyan minister, conducted the service. Mr. Pope, on leaving the Colony contributed £80 towards the improvement fund.
In August of the same year a committee of management was elected to attend to the financial affairs of the church. In January, 1860, a union prayer meeting was established by Mr. Johnston and Rev. L. Barry, the incumbent of St. John's Church of England. These meetings were held in the room then used as the Girls' School, in a house situated in High-street where Messrs. John Church and Co.'s establishment now stands. These union meetings, which were attended by about 40 persons, created a pleasant and harmonious feeling amongst the people, and were continued until Mr. Barry left for England.
The manse (since enlarged) was commenced on December 10, 1861, and was completed early in the following year, Mr. Johnston and family taking up their abode in it on April 3. 1862. The total cost of erecting the old chapel and minister's house was £1,300. They would cost twice that amount now.
On June 22, 1864, the congregation commemorated the tenth aniversary of the pastor's ministry by holding a tea meeting in the large room of the Port Mill, when they presented him with a handsome Bible and a purse of twenty sovereigns as a token of their affection and esteem.
From that time nothing of importance occurred until, in the early part of 1869 it was considered that the time had arrived when a Congregational Church should be duly formed. At a meeting held on Friday, April 2, when about 20 persons attended, it was resolved that those present should form themselves into a Congregational church. This was done, and Mr. G. B. Humble (who is still hale and hearty at the age of 81) was chosen as first deacon and secretary. Through many difficulties and discouragements Mr. Johnston persevered in his labours, sustained by the sympathy and prayers of his people; his congregation gradually increased in number, so that it was not long before a larger building was required to accommodate his flock. Accordingly the foundation stone of the present church (the Johnston Memorial) was laid in 1876, the tragic year in which the pastor lost his only son by the foundering of the ill-fated "Gem," whilst on a voyage from Dongarra, where he had been on a visit to his only sister, Mrs. S. F. Moore, now of Claremont.
The contractor for the new church was a Mr. Geo. Heal, but his workmanship was so faulty that when about three parts erected the whole length of the western wall suddenly fell, due to the use of too little lime in the mortar. No one was injured, but Mr. Johnston, who was in his study near by, sustained a severe shock from the violence of the crash and the fear that loss of life had taken place.
The contract was then taken out of Mr. Heal's hands, and the building, was finished by Mr. J. J. Harwood, who, by a singular coincidence, had come to the rescue in connection with the completion of the old church nearly a quarter of a century before. The new church was completed and opened in 1877.
Never very robust, and with his strength impaired by his unselfish devotion to the tasks he had set himself, Mr. Johnston found, before the new church had seen its first decade, that he could no longer disregard the solicitations of his friends who were urging him to curtail his activities before he broke down under their pressure. It was therefore arranged that a young minister should be engaged to assist him, the first one appointed being the Rev. Joseph Odgers, who was succeeded by the Rev. G. A. Palmer. Eventually the infirmities of age compelled Mr. Johnston's retirement, and a successor, the Rev. A. G. Fry, was appointed, but so loth was the aged minister to give up his Master's work that he still continued to act as supernumary pastor) almost to the time of his death. The Johnston Memorial pulpit has had many occupants since those days, but the founder of the church left as an example for his successors nothing for them to excel, and much for them to equal.
At the close of his active ministry the venerable pastor retired to a little cottage in Beaconsfield, and for a time enjoyed the quiet relief from his arduous pastoral duties. Mr Johnston appeared to pass his days happily in his suburban retreat, but his intimate friends could notice that his physical strength was gradually declining, and hence the announcement of his death on February 16 1892, while it gave a shock to the community, was not wholly unexpected as he had attained the ripe old age of 77 years. His death was deeply deplored, and the remembrance of his inestimable public services and private virtues was gratefully acknowledged by all sections of the community for whom he had laboured so long and faithfully. He was, in truth, one of God's own gentlemen, unostentatious, unobtrusive, but gentle, lovable and overflowing with the milk of human kindness. In his long and useful career he had a loving and faithful helpmate in his devoted wife who from the days of his young manhood in the mission field, had shared his joys and sorrows. This good lady was born at Emis, South Sea Islands, in 1821, and passed peacefully away at the residence of her daughter at Dongarra, in 1896, beloved by all who knew her.

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