23-07-1883: St James’s Old Cathedral, Melbourne.

The foundation stone of St Jame’s was originally laid in 1839 by the newly appointed Superintendent of the Port Phillip District, Charles La Trobe, later to be Governor of the Colony of Victoria. The Church was opened in 1842 and the first Bishop, Charles Perry, installed in 1848.

In 1883 the church underwent extensive renovations and one of the alterations was the replacement of the plain chancel window with a handsome stained glass window, enriched with scripture textswhich was made by Ferguson & Urie of North Melbourne.

In 1891 St James’s status changed back to that of a Parish church when St Paul’s Cathedral opened in Swanston Street. When the church was condemned in 1913 there were concerns that the parish could not afford the repairs or rebuilding of St James’s on the current site. Considerable funds were subsequently realised for the sale of the land which enabled the church to be dismantled and moved to a new location. Whelan the Wrecker was contracted to perform the move in 1913 and so it was relocated stone by stone to its present site on the corner of King and Batman streets under the direction of Messrs Thomas Watts and Son, architects. The church was re-consecrated by Archbishop Lowther Clark, and opened on the19th of April 1914.

A close inspection of the stained glass window in the chancel clearly shows that it had been shortened from its original height and this would have most likely occurred as a result of the ceiling height being reduced when the church was reconstructed in 1914.

Photos taken 21st August 2010.


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The Argus, Melbourne, Vic, Monday 23rd July 1883, page 5.

“St. James’s Church, which has recently undergone extensive repairs, was re-opened yesterday morning by the Bishop of Melbourne, assisted by the Dean. There was a very large congregation. The bishop preached the sermon. One of the alterations is the substitution of a handsome stained glass window, enriched with scripture texts, for the plain coloured glass window that was formerly in the chancel. There is also a new altar cloth, in red velvet, beautifully decorated by some young ladies of the congregation, and the drapery of the reading-desk and pulpit is likewise new and of the same material. The bishop’s throne has been re-covered and the chancel has been re-carpeted, and the whole interior of the church has been brightened up. In the renovations the organ has not been neglected. A tablet in memory of the late Rev. M. H. Becher, who was incumbent of the church for 22 years, has been affixed tot he walls by parishioners. A very interesting relic in this church is the marble font which was formerly in St. Catherine’s Church, London, but was secured by the late Governor Latrobe when that church was pulled down in order to make room for docks, and presented to St. James’s. The age of the vessel is not known, but it has been in use in St. James’s for 35 years.”

The Argus, Melbourne, Wednesday 21st May 1913, page 12.



Those citizens of Melbourne who are interested in the historic landmarks of the city in the shape of old buildings, will regret to hear that St James’s Old Cathedral, situated between William and King streets, in Little Collins street, Melbourne, is marked for destruction. The information was made public by the incumbent of St James’s, the Ven. Archdeacon Hindley, vicar-general of the diocese, during the course of his sermon on Sunday. The Archdeacon stated that the building had been condemned as unsafe, and that the conduct of services therein would have to be discontinued. It appears that recent rains had left pronounced damp stains on the walls of the chancel, and the trouble became so aggravated that an expert architect’s advice was sought. A close inspection of the building disclosed the fact that the chancel was in imminent danger of collapse. The chancel arch was discovered to be not an arch at all, but a lath and plaster screen covering the stone wall, and resting for support upon an Oregon pine girder. This girder in turn was found to rest upon a layer of mortar, which is crumbling away. The girder itself is badly affected with dry rot, and the whole position was found to be so unsatisfactory that the church wardens decided to suspend worship in the church rather than run any risk of accident. The foundation stone of St James’s Church was laid on November 9, 1839, by Governor C. J. Latrobe, and the church at one time filled a very prominent place in the religious life of the city. However, the residential population which might provide a congregation for St James’s has long since ebbed far out from its area. The question of the reconstruction or demolition of St. James’s church is one for the council of the diocese to settle, and that body will probably consider the matter at its next meeting on June 7. It is certain that the present casual congregation could not raise the funds necessary either for the repair or rebuilding of the church. When speaking on the subject yesterday afternoon, the chancellor of the diocese, Mr. McLennan, said that for a long time past a great city mission, under the aegis of the Anglican Church had been talked of, and this projected movement might influence the determinations with regards to St. James’s. He did not speak officially, but his own views were that the St. James’s site might be found of great value in relation to such a scheme, while the church, as a place of worship, was admittedly very near the Cathedral for rebuilding. In any case, great interest attaches to the fate of the historic edifice”.

 Annear, Robyn. 2005: A City Lost & Found: Whelan the Wreckers Melbourne; Black Inc Publisher, Melbourne, pages 21-22.

 “It was Jim Whelan’s task to dismantle the church and cart it in pieces to the new site, less than a mile away. The solid stones of the outer wall were kept – each one carefully numbered for re-erection – but the inner walls, of compacted shells and rubble, were replaced on the new site with reinforced concrete. Changes were made, too, in the old cathedral’s design. The ceiling was lowered, supporting columns omitted, and the tower altered once more, this time to improve the peal of the bells – it was a long time since it had been safe to ring them.

One stone that didn’t make it to the new site was the foundation stone of the old St James’. Charles La Trobe, newly landed Superintendent of the Port Phillip District, had laid the stone in 1839. There being no monumental mason in the town at that time, the foundation stone had gone unmarked. The words that ought to have been inscribed theron were read aloud by La Trobe from a parchment which, along with a few coins, was poked into a bottle and thence into a niche in the foundation stone. Seventy-five years later, neither bottle nor foundation stone came to light. It was supposed that, being unmarked, the stone had simply escaped notice in the course of relocation and its contents lost – or else, that both had been missing since 1850 when the original foundations were replaced. In 1929, however, the then-minister of St James’s claimed to have discovered the truth of the matter.

‘I found that the carter who transferred the material to the new site was responsible for destroying the foundation stone. He accidentally broke it and then threw the parts on the rubbish heap and gave the contents to his friends, keeping the most valuable himself’.

Had the carter unburdened himself, I wonder, or been unburdened on?. Aside from his fee, Jim Whelan didn’t carry much away from the St James’ job. The only lasting trace would be an in-house joke, that ran like this – One of Whelan’s men wrote to his folks in Ireland: “Australia’s a great country. Back home we wreck Protestant churches for nothing; here, they pay you to do it.” Years later, an alleged relic would occupy pride of place at Whelan the Wrecker headquarters. It was a wrecker’s bar with the inscription: “Used for wrecking Protestant churches.”

Related posts:

27-07-1885: St Paul’s Pro Cathedral, Flinders St, Melbourne, Victoria.

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3 comments on “23-07-1883: St James’s Old Cathedral, Melbourne.

  1. Thankyou for this information–ive read that the font was a personal gift from Queen Victoria to the colony ( Jenny Sinclair -A Walking Shadow-the remarkable double life of Edward Oxford, P109)
    Im wondering if that is how Governor Latrobe came into possession of the font. I haven’t been able to locate any Googling mention of any letter or documentation etc from the Queen re gifting the font.

    Ive read in Jenny Sinclair’s history that prominent members of the congregation rented pews in the church e.g. Robert Hoddle ( P. 110)
    As Edward Oxford -who had tried to shoot Q Victoria in 1840 and who moved to Melbourne in 1867 after 24 years in Bethlem and under the name of John Freeman became a Churchwarden in 1873,Im wondering too if he rented a pew as well?

    Any further information would be most welcome–cheers-Don Vogt

  2. Thank you for this information. I am the current vicar of St James’, and our last church historian had nominated 1863 as the date of the window, so it is good to have the correct information.

    She also records that the glass was donated by Very Rev. Hussey Burgh Macartney, Dean and Archdeacon of Melbourne and at various times incumbent of St James’, and that it may have been by Ferguson and Urie.

    Does any further evidence exist that the window is definitely by Ferguson & Urie? And are you aware of any evidence of the involvement of Macartney in the commission?

  3. Thanks to Dr Bronwyn Hughes for alerting me (email 27/01/2013) to the article indicating when the chancel window was erected in St James’s. (Argus, 23 July 1883, p.5).

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