When I lectured to the Camden Decorative & Fine Arts Society, on the south-western outskirts of Sydney, my hostess Nola Tegel insisted on taking me to one of the oldest intact churches in Australia, St Paul’s Church, Cobbitty, which otherwise I might never have found.
Cobbitty was developed around the pioneer ranch of Rowland and Elizabeth Hassall, missionaries who arrived in Australia in 1798. Their son, Rev Thomas Hassall (1794-1868), founded the first Sunday School in Australia when he was nineteen years old, was the first Australian-born Anglican priest and became the first rector of Cobbitty in 1827.
He built the Heber Chapel, a simple stone schoolroom dedicated in 1829 to the memory of the much-travelled Rt Rev Reginald Heber (1783-1826), who was Bishop of Calcutta at the time when the whole of Australia was one of its archdeaconries.
Known as the “galloping parson”, Thomas Hassall farmed sheep and acted as magistrate while serving a huge parish: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hassall-thomas-2167.
The later church, a simple Gothic building with a spire, was designed by John Verge (1782-1861), the English-born architect who is best-known for a series of fine villas in the Sydney suburbs, and was at least partly responsible for Elizabeth Bay House (1835-9).
St Paul’s Church was completed in 1842. In the churchyard is the grave of Edward Wise, aged 21, who was struck by lightning while building the steeple.
Recent renovations have revealed, so I’m told, that the unusual shape, with a vestigial sanctuary and broad transepts, results from a decision during construction to extend and reorientate the church.
The church has one of the very few surviving organs by William Davidson (1876): http://www.sydneyorgan.com/Cobbity.html.
Thomas Hassall is buried at Cobbitty, and his family are still linked to the parish: the grandson of his great-great-nephew was christened there in 2011: http://macarthur-chronicle-camden.whereilive.com.au/news/story/path-of-restoration-for-cobbitty-church.
Brits used to be sniffy about the lack of history in the former outposts of Empire. In fact, Cobbity has all the history you’d expect in a traditional English village – buildings going back to the roots of the settlement, fascinating characters, archaeology, and family links back to the Australian equivalent of the Norman Conquest: http://www.dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/cobbitty.
Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Gothic Down Under: English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand. For details, please click here.