When I started attending my church I didn’t realised I’d stumbled upon the oldest building in Ashfield – listed on the Register of the National Trust of Australia. It wasn’t the first building in the area (by decades) but it is the oldest authenticated building still standing. The foundation stone of St John’s was laid in 1840, and last week the church had a 175th anniversary celebration. I was fascinated by some of the history I learned, and hopefully you’ll find it interesting as well.
Before English settlement this was Wangal land. While there doesn’t seem to be a record of what happened to the Wangal people in Ashfield, they were likely decimated by a smallpox outbreak the year after the first fleet landed. About half Sydney’s aboriginal population died as a result, and most of the survivors moved away from the places where outbreaks occurred.
Sydney’s first two settlements were Sydney Cove and Parramatta (23km/14mi inland); Ashfield is roughly halfway between the two. The first land grant in the Ashfield area was given in 1793, and the whole area had been parcelled out by 1810. In 1838, Elizabeth Underwood began to subdivide her land (Ashfield Park) to form the village of Ashfield. The village was at a key spot, the intersection of Parramatta and Liverpool Roads. In 1855 a railway line from Sydney to Parramatta opened with Ashfield as one of its six stations, leading to rapid population growth. The population went from 200 to 11,000 in the next 35 years.
Elizabeth Underwood set aside land for an Episcopalian Church in the new village of Ashfield; church services had been held in her house before this. To this day, streets on either side of the church property are named for her daughters Julia and Charlotte. (Julia’s husband was the fourth rector of the church). Building commenced with a dedication service on September 9th, 1840 – although the foundation stones were torn up two years later before an inspection by renowned colonial architect Edmund Blacket (they knew from his report he was going to make them do it anyway!) St John the Baptist’s Anglican church, the first church between Sydney and Parramatta, was licensed for operation on 1 October 1843. In 1845, the year it was consecrated, the church bought another 2.5 acres of land from Elizabeth Underwood, who attended the church until she died – and was buried in the church cemetery. The church was extended in 1875, and the tower built 1901.
The church cemetery is interesting in its own right – walking the path from the church to the hall there are plenty of 19th century headstones. Of particular note is the grave of John Limeburner (or Linburner), who died in 1847 aged 104. John was a convict transported to Australia on the First Fleet, convicted of stealing clothing worth one pound. Many notable early residents of Ashfield were buried there as well. There is also a memorial to Australian Air Force Cadets (the only one in Australia), and the cadets have an annual memorial service at the church. Plus, I learned that the church has an annual outdoor film festival – Cinema in the Cemetery. (I’ve gotta say, it makes me like my church just a little bit more!)
Inside, the church has a bunch of stained glass windows, and beautiful woodwork. Apparently the third rector, Frederick Wilkinson, did much of the carving himself. The church’s pipe organ is two years older than the one in my grandparents’ church, and also still in use. Although in a funny twist the restorer decided to start working on it to get it ready for Christmas a little early, and cut the wrong wire – so it couldn’t be used for the anniversary celebration!
Speaking of the celebration, it was a lovely service, with history and interviews. Ashfield’s mayor, Lucille McKenna, attended, and the archbishop of Sydney spoke at Sunday services the next day. Another VIP was Joyce, who has attended St John’s since the 1930s. There was a fascinating history display in the church hall (along with devonshire tea!) They had original documents on loan from a descendant of Elizabeth Underwood, a map of Ashfield in the 1880s (still very recognisable), correspondence, photos, and some beautifully made old vestments. I was particularly impressed by incredibly delicate passionfruits stitched on a stole.
There was also a church fete as part of the celebration, and I spent a while doing facepainting. I hadn’t done it for years but I enjoyed myself. The best moment was with a boy who wanted to be a scary blue monster. I took a photo of him with his eyes closed to get the full effect, and when I showed it to him his jaw dropped and he clutched the phone close and stared at it. Totally made my day! I didn’t get my face painted, but I did get a lovely henna design drawn on my hand (part of a fundraiser for a school in Bangladesh). It was a lovely day, and I really enjoyed learning more about the history of the church community I’ve joined.