THE FIRST CHURCH
Inseparable from the history of the present Church of St John the Evangelist is the first church built by George King. King came to the Colony of Western Australia as a result of a letter from John Burdett Wittenoom, Colonial Chaplain, to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in London asking for a priest for the people of Fremantle.
For some years, the SPG had been receiving similar requests from influential settlers, including Attorney General G F Moore and Lieutenant Governor F C Irwin, and George King was just 28 years old when he arrived in 1841. John Wollaston describes him as ‘a pleasant, single-hearted, young man and the Society could not have chosen a fitter person. He has an amiable wife and two little girls. They are broad Irish.’ One reason the SPG chose King was that Wesleyans were already building a chapel in Fremantle, and King had no time for Dissenters or Roman Catholics! Indeed, wasting no time at all, King immediately called a public meeting about building a church. Tenders were called only a week after this meeting, and the building was completed and opened by 4 August 1843, just fourteen years after Captain Charles Fremantle had claimed the Swan River as a British settlement.
The site of the first church, bounded by Adelaide, William, Newman, and Queen Streets, is still known as King’s Square. The new church, Georgian in design with a tower over the entrance, faced down High Street towards the Round House on Arthur’s Head, the colony’s first gaol. Prior to building the church, King used the tiny Court House next to the Round House for worship. The first recorded Anglican service in Fremantle took place on 20 December 1829, conducted by T H Scott, first Archdeacon of Australia. The church cost £1600 at a time when the Fremantle population was less than 400 people. It was not consecrated, however, until 1848, by Bishop Short of Adelaide, whose diocese then included the whole of Western Australia.
The interior was furnished with breast-high pews, each having a door, located centrally, along the walls, and in an upstairs gallery. Contemporary commentators described the building as ‘very chaste and pleasing and reflecting great credit on the skill and taste of the contractors. The structure is surmounted by the triumphant emblem of our redemption smiling back upon the wilderness beyond.’ With scant assistance from the Colonial Government, King completed St John’s, built churches at Mandurah and Pinjarra, and established schools for both Caucasian and Aboriginal children within two years.
As well as his parochial responsibilities in Fremantle itself, he also ministered to widely dispersed settlers of the Murray and Canning Rivers, necessitating long and tiring expeditions on horseback through summer heat and winter floods. These labours eventually took their toll on his health, and King reluctantly sailed for Adelaide in May 1849, travelling then to Sydney where Bishop Broughton appointed him to complete St Andrew’s Cathedral.
THE NEW CHURCH
The old church stood in the centre of King’s Square between the present building and the Town Hall, thus closing off the High Street, which was obviously intended as a main thoroughfare. By the mid 1870’s, St John’s was proving too small for the growing port, and the new rector, Daniel Glyn Williams, prepared plans for a new church.
The Town Trust, meanwhile, was looking to extend High Street, coming to agreement with the church to demolish the old church and purchase a right-of-way through the Square, with a Town Hall to the south, and a new church on the northern half of the square. In June 1876, William Smith, an architect based at the University of London, was commissioned to draw up plans. After a certain amount of wrangling among the stake-holders who constituted the building committee, construction eventually began in 1879. The Foundation Stone carries this inscription: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. The Foundation Stone of this edifice hereafter to be devoted to the service of the Anglican Branch of the Catholic Church, was laid by the Right Reverend Father in God, Henry Hutton Parry, by Divine Permission Bishop of Perth in the Colony of Western Australia on the 28th day of January, 1879, in the presence of many witnesses. Glory to God in the highest.
This fine example of ecclesiastical architecture in Australia is a mixture of early English and Gothic, a style very popular at the time thanks to the Oxford Movement and subsequent Catholic Revival in the Church of England. Constructed with limestone from the Government Quarries in Cantonment Street, the beautiful roof timbers were transported overland from WA’s southern Jarrah forests to Rockingham and then by sea, before being stored on site for two years to season. The nave roof is probably the finest craftsmanship of its kind in WA, king-posts alternating with four arches in the roof trusses, all with molded finishings. In 1907, a bell turret was added, and in 1922 a Choir Vestry as a tribute to those who served in the Great War 1914-1918. St John’s contains some fine stained glass, including the Rose Window depicting the Four Evangelists, and the seven lancet windows above the entrance representing the seven Corporal Works of Mercy. The three-panel High Altar mosaic reredos of the Ascension of the Lord is of German origin. The brass Lectern is a fine example of 19th century English craftsmanship, and the pulpit crucifix was carved in Oberammergau. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the Lady Chapel, and the Chapel of St Michael is set aside for private devotion.
St John’s Church was placed on the State Heritage Register in 1997.
RECTORS OF FREMANTLE
George King 1841-1849
Robert Postlethwaite 1849-1853
Zachariah Barry 1853-1860
George James Bostock 1860-1875
Daniel Glyn Watkins 1875-1905
Frederick James Barton-Parkes 1905-1911
Robert Henry Moore 1911-1921
Frederick William Gunning 1921-1924
Edward Mallan Collick 1924-1950
Walter Bradley Kirby 1950-1963
Ralph Thomas 1964-1974
Alan Brian McGowan 1974-1988
David Owen Murray 1988-1994
Dennis Peter Claughton 1995-2014
David Graeme Wood 2015-2017
Patrick Stewart King 2017-