The cold snap this week has given me a chance to revisit the book by James Bonwick Western Victoria, It’s Geography, Geology and Social Conditions: The Narrative of an Educational Tour in 1857. Although I have read the book several times, I still enjoy flicking through to my favourite parts. One of those is the description of the Belfast (Port Fairy) Methodist Church
“…this building has come in for it’s share of carvings, in the shape of wreaths, flowers, vases, etc. There is John Wesley’s benignant countenance regarding his incoming followers, and a noble shell expands over the front doorway. An extraordinary monster is beheld crouching beneath the shell. What he is, and what he does there, is a solemn mystery, known only to the artist. Guesses as to character and description seem to run into one line, that it (is) neither more no less than the representation of the Arch One, who certainly looks uncomfortable with the shell and John Wesley over his head. The mason may have intended it to exorcise the neighborhood, or to terrify little children into good behavior at chapel” (p84)
When I first read this book I penciled in a visit to the church when next in Port Fairy. The fishing port town of Port Fairy is one of my favourite places in Victoria and is a summer playground for many in the Western District. I didn’t know on my many visits to Port Fairy in the 1980s, that I had a link with the town. The Harman family had lived there in the 1850s and as Wesleyan Methodists would have no doubt attended sermons in the church.
While spending a few days there a couple of years ago, my small research assistant and I, walked to the church. I was keen to see the carvings as described by Bonwick and I was pleased to see they lived up to his description. It is a little difficult to make out in the photo, but the “extraordinary monster” is in the bottom centre of the shell, its mouth is most easily seen. John Wesley is depicted in the stone above the shell. The carving directly above the door cannot be clearly seen here. Wire netting had been placed over the carvings in an attempt to protect them.
We were lucky enough to run into a church volunteer doing repairs and he allowed us to go inside the church. The interior is still in its original condition. I allowed myself to imagine the sermons of the 19th century with a preacher placing the fear of God into his parishioners with talk of fire and brimstone.
The church was new when Bonwick visited. On September 5, 1855, The Argus ran an article from the Belfast Gazette. It reported the laying of the foundation stone for the Wesleyan church on August 21. Many townspeople gathered for the occasion, with the Reverend Hart beginning proceedings with prayer, scripture reading, and song. The ceremony then proceeded to the laying of a time capsule. That honour was given to William Witton a long-term resident of the colony. Witton was about 45 at the time and had been a builder in Melbourne before taking up the life of a grazier in the Western District. His obituary credits him as the builder of the first Melbourne offices of the Bank of Australasia and for being one of the driving forces behind the foundation of Wesleyan churches throughout the colony.
According to the Gazette, a bottle containing “the Belfast Gazette and Banner of the week, and an inscription, of which the following is a copy: “The foundation stone of James street Wesleyan Church, Belfast, laid by William Witton, Esq., on Tuesday, August 21,1855. Minister, Rev. R. Hart; chairman of the district, Rev. D. J. Draper; president of the Conference; Rev. W. B. Boyce: building committee, Messrs. Tillotson, McMahon, Bellett, Cole, and Scott; treasurer, W. W. Watson, Esq. ; secretary, W. N. Hosking, Esq. ; contractors, Messrs. Barnes, McGut, and Trevaskis.” I thought it was unusual that local sculptor Walter McGill was not mentioned among the contractors, but I now believe that Mr McGut is in fact Mr McGill. McGill was an interesting character who was not only a sculptor and stonemason but also a phrenologist and has been credited for making the death mask of Captain Moonlight.
Next time I visit the church I am going to look for the foundation stone, and hopefully get some better photos! The church is now classified by the National Trust, which describes it as “one of Port Fairy’s finest buildings”. I would have to agree with them.
ENDNOTE: My small research assistant, now seven, has since resigned from his position.