Just as I’d taken a jetlag break in Manila only to see the San Sebastian Church, in my epic journey from Hobart in Tasmania to Cairns in Queensland I took a side-trip from Sydney to Canberra specifically to see one building.
All Saints’ Church, Ainslie, deep in the Canberra suburbs, is of unique interest to anyone who studies Gothic architecture, railways, nineteenth-century funeral practices and conservation.
The stonework of All Saints’ started out as the Haslem’s Creek Cemetery Station, the terminus of the rail spur into Rookwood Cemetery from Lidcombe Station, ten miles from Sydney Central. This imposing structure accommodated a single track under cover, with platforms on either side and open arcades through which coffins were transferred to horse-drawn hearses to reach their burial site. The funeral station was a highly elaborate Gothic essay, matching the high quality of the Mortuary Station alongside Central Station. Both buildings were designed by the Colonial Architect, James Johnstone Burnet (1827-1904).
Trains entered through a Gothic arch, from which spring carved angels, the left-hand one holding a scroll with closed eyes, the right-hand with open eyes holding a trumpet: the pair presumably symbolise death and resurrection. The station originally ended in an octagonal apse which was removed in 1891 when the line was extended further into the cemetery to Cemetery Stations 2, 3 and 4: the stones of the apse became the ladies’ waiting room of Cemetery Station 3 and the Haslem’s Creek station was renamed Cemetery Station 1.
The cemetery railway closed in 1948, and Cemetery Station 1 was vandalised and then burnt out, leaving only the masonry standing, sometime in the 1950s. The stones were purchased by the parish of All Saints’, Ainslie, for A£100 and transported to Canberra in eighty-three lorry-loads in 1958. The total cost of transport and reconstruction was A£5,101 3s 2d.
This remarkable transaction was led by the Rector, Rev Edward G Buckle, and a parishioner, Mr Stan Taunton. Some people were not in favour. According to Mr Buckle, “anonymous phone-calls were received, from sincere people, declaring the venture foolhardy, and urging its abandonment”.
None of the stones were lost, though there was a worrying moment when a truck carrying carved stonework including keystones of the arches and interior columns, broke down on the road and apparently disappeared. It reappeared two days later after the driver had arranged a replacement clutch at a remote country garage.
There is a poignant photograph of the clergy and parishioners holding hands in a circle around the footings of their new church in a service based on 1 Peter 2:5 – “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”
The architect, Mr W Pierce, ingeniously adapted the 782 tons of stone, including the apse rescued from Cemetery Station no 3, in a three-dimensional jigsaw in which nothing was wasted. To fit the site the bell-tower was re-erected on the opposite side of the building from Burnet’s original layout. The entrance arch with the angels was taken inside to frame the sanctuary, and the rear arch became the west front. The sanctuary itself was built from most of the stones of the original apse, except for the angled stones which became the pulpit. The top of the chimney of the apse is now the font.
The result is a very beautiful and original building. The Tasmanian Mountain Ash roof and interior fittings all date from 1958 and a new floor of ceramic tiles, coloured to match the sandstone stonework, was installed in 2011. There is a west gallery with a Bishop & Starr organ from Wealdstone Baptist Church, Harrow, purchased in 1988.
The proportions of the interior are unlike a conventional Gothic church – wider, lighter and lower, big enough to accommodate an Australian-sized train. Its proportions work perfectly as a worship space.