HISTORY & ARCHITECTURE
‘Light of life, seraphic fire, love divine thy self impart’ Charles Wesley, 1707–1788.
In the spirit of these words of Charles Wesley, music has played an integral part in shaping the history of this church named after the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. This church stands like a beacon on a small hill just 2km from the City centre, alongside Green Hill Rivulet (now First Creek).
KENT TOWN A place of diversity
From South Australia’s foundation in 1836, the majority of people in the early years of the colony lived in either the country or the central area of the City of Adelaide. By the mid 1850s the Eastern districts of Kent Town, Kensington and Norwood developed as urban places with an egalitarian spirit which offered cheaper land and rents than in the city centre. Proximity to the city, the hills aspect, good alluvial soils, the fresh water of the nearby creeks and the River Torrens and the many wells in the area, meant Kent Town was a prized place to live.
Kent Town had large allotments along all the main roads for the grand double storey and balconied houses such as those along Dequetteville and North Terraces and Kent Terrace, now Fullarton Road. Many belonged to church members like the Rhodes of Wakefield Street and the Robins of Flinders Street. Smaller allotments were designed for cottages, terrace houses and industrial sites along the subsidiary streets with the lanes providing coach houses and tiny cottages with all enjoying the amenity of this diverse sub-division. The Sands and McDougall Directories show builders and contractors present in Little Rundle Street mixing with engineers, master mariners, boot makers, grocer’s assistants, mining agents, school inspector and the prestigious Wesleyan Prince Alfred College3 for boys, with the Headmaster in residence on Dequetteville Terrace. Diversity abounded and was of course part of the inclusive nature of Methodist congregations.
The Wesleyan Methodists were a strong part of the founding dissenting population of South Australia. In 1861 this totalled around 53,300 people, including the Presbyterians, Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Bible Christians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Lutherans. Along side these were 44,000 Anglicans and 15,500 Roman Catholics. Adelaide was therefore a unique colony in Australia and was also known as the ‘paradise of dissent’5.
The suburb of Kent Town was named after Dr B A Kent who was the first resident of the area. A large number of Wesleyans lived in the newly developed suburb. As early as 1850 they held services in a cottage occupied by Mr. Henry Broad on the corner of Beulah Road and Fullarton Road.
As the worshipping congregation expanded the Wesleyans recognized the need for a suitable House of worship. When Dr Kent had his land surveyed, subdivided and offered for sale, the Rev D R Draper (Adelaide Circuit Superintendent) was anxious to secure an allotment for a Wesleyan church. He selected the present site at the corner of Kent Terrace (Fullarton Road) and Grenfell Street. Eventually the three allotments came into the hands of the Hon J Colton MP, a prosperous ironmonger, who presented them to the church. Other generous benefactors included Francis Faulding, a pharmaceutical business proprietor and Thomas Waterhouse, who had vast interests in copper mining and land speculation.
Construction of the church nave was completed by Opening Day on Sunday 6 August, 1865. A gathering of estimated 7,000 people packed the space inside and outside the church for the services of celebration. The church was named the Jubilee Wesleyan Methodist Church. The Minister at the opening was the Rev W Taylor, from California.
The “lecture hall” and classrooms were built to accommodate a Sunday School for the large number of children attending the church. Mr W Rhodes laid the foundation stone of the hall on August 31, 1874.
The plan of the church is recognisable as the traditional cruciform layout. However, when opened in August 1865 only the central nave was built, with the north and south transepts being added in 1867 and the vestries at a later date.
It was built of local bluestone from Tapley’s Hill, the stone itself representing the permanence and continuity of our faith. A true place of worship and prayer, it is the largest church of the Uniting Church in South Australia with a seating capacity of 1,100.
The architectural style is Neo-Gothic, which was popular for church architecture at the time. It also suited the materials used in its construction, primarily locally quarried bluestone ashlar walls with dressed sandstone corner quoins, window surrounds and external buttresses, timber roof supports and originally slate roofing, and timber floors. The arched doorways and windows are typical of the Neo-Gothic style.
The cedar roof construction is steeply pitched with a main structure of six large wooden arches over the nave, supported by stone buttresses at the bases of the arches. At the intersection of the nave with the transepts two impressive intersecting wooden arches, whose form is called hammer beam, support the roof above the local space of the church. The base of each of these arches rests on an individually carved stone corbel projecting from the wall.
Of the three larger stained glass windows, that in the east wall is based on a design found in Waltham Abbey, England, whilst that in the north transept is based on a famous Holman Hunt design in Lincoln Cathedral. That in the south transept, donated by the Gartrell family, illustrates “Christ in the Garden” (Luke 22 v 39-46) in the left hand panel and “Christ the Good Shepherd” (John 10) in the right hand panel.
The single lancet windows in the walls of the nave illustrate a variety of biblical themes, and were donated by several families in memory of relatives.
Above the north and south transepts are galleries supported by ornamented columns, with a further gallery at the eastern end of the nave over the principal entrance. Originally there was another central gallery above the pulpit, linking the north and south transept galleries and accommodating the choir and organ, but this was removed early in the nineteenth century when a larger organ was installed and the pulpit repositioned in front of the organ pipes, with the choir stalls placed in front of the pulpit. In front of the choir stalls is the organ console, and in front of this is the communion table, flanked by the cedar communion rail supported by forged iron arches and terminated by large carved acorns.
Whilst the decorative details of the church are chiefly influenced by Neo-Gothic design, an interesting feature is the art-nouveau style brass lighting brackets cantilevered from the north and south transept balconies.
The large volume, the roof shape and general form and materials of the interior give good acoustic properties, and the church has a long and continuing role in musical performances and celebrations. Overall the church’s verticality of form, high pitched roof, elegance and general ambience give visual delight and serve to uplift the spirit.
The architects E W Wright and E J Woods were engaged by the Wesleyans to design the church. Edmund Wright (1824-1888) was born in England and trained as an architect and civil engineer in London. He arrived in South Australia about 1850 and after a short period in Victoria, returned to Adelaide to establish his architectural practice. In 1863 he and Woods won the competition for the design of the Adelaide Town Hall, and Wright contributed to the design of the State Parliament House, the original Union Bank building in King William Street (later the ANZ Bank), St. Paul’s Church in Pulteney Street, St. Luke’s Church in Whitmore Square, and several imposing residences.
Edward Woods (1837-1913) was also born in England and trained in London, working there for several years before arriving in Adelaide in 1860. After a short period as an employee of Edmund Wright, the two architects became partners from 1861 to 1865. During their partnership they designed Wesley Methodist Church at Kent Town, but in 1865, the year the church was opened, their partnership was dissolved. Woods set up his own practice, later being appointed the first Government Architect-in-Chief in 1878 before returning to private practice in 1884. As Architect-in Chief he supervised the construction of Parliament House. He also supervised the construction of St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral and St. Peter’s Cathedral, and designed the Anglican Church Office and a number of significant residences.
From its opening in 1865 as the Jubilee Methodist Church, considerable importance has been given to the musical life of the church and in particular to the maintenance of an adequate pipe organ.
The first pipe organ was purchased in 1873 from Hill and Son in England. It was installed high in the organ loft, with access to the console from the transept galleries. This organ was removed at the end of the nineteenth century to make way for a larger instrument. It was installed for short periods in the YMCA building in Adelaide and Malvern Methodist Church and is now in the Aberdeen Baptist Church, Geelong, Victoria.
The present organ, installed in 1898, was built in South Australia by J E Dodd and Sons and had mechanical action, a water engine to produce the wind pressure in the bellows and chests, with back-up of a hand pump for use in emergency. The organ pipes were manufactured in Melbourne by Fincharns and in England by the firms of Bishop and Palmers. Modifications were made to the sanctuary to permit the choir stalls and console of the considerably larger instrument to be placed in their present positions.
In 1964 the Gunstar Organ Works, successor to J E Dodd and Sons, rebuilt the instrument. This entailed extending both keyboards by five notes to sixty one notes with the addition of all the necessary pipes, replacing the pedal board with a standard radiating board, replacing the worn mechanical action, adding five ranks of pipes and taking advantage of the new action to extend the range of couplers and accessories.
This very fine organ with a range of tonal qualities made it one of the best examples of’ high quality organ building achieved in this state over a century ago. If you would like to contribute a tax deductable donation to the organ fund you can down load further information here: (add the PDF)
Wesleyan Methodists held a passion for high quality education and played a pivotal role in the development of educational and training work provided by the church. They developed the Mailbag Sunday School that grew state-wide. Kent Town Church was home to Wesleyan Book depot and numerous educational programs held in sixteen or so classes during the average week not long after the church opened. At different stages the Church classrooms have been used by Methodist Ladies College (now Annesley College), Prince Alfred College, Hackney Mission and for other Methodist educational activities. In March 1942, preparatory school students3 from Prince Alfred College moved to the church halls while their classrooms at the college were occupied by American troops and during 1947, one hundred girls from MLC Junior School6 were relocated at Wesley Church for two years after fire damaged their school and repairs were undertaken.
Women’s guilds, fellowship groups, missionary groups, Bible studies, craft societies and the Sunday school all flourished during the early history. Arnold Hunt4 identifies Kent Town’s educational emphasis as supporting the primacy of preaching. He draws attention to how ‘with its high central pulpit, set against a background of organ pipes, it is above all a ‘preaching place’. By the lack of a central aisle and the full half circle of a communal communion rail and by the fact that overall the prime space is occupied communally by a large number of people, the church provides an educational witness that is inclusive and egalitarian
Due to its architecture and large seating capacity, the church has a long history as a venue for notable services of worship. It has been a place associated with Wesleyan traditions in South Australia. Examples include the Ordination for Methodist Ministers until the formation of the Uniting Church in 1977 and school services for Methodist Ladies College, Annesley College, Pembroke School and Prince Alfred College.
On the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia from the union of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, the inaugural service was held in this church for the South Australian Synod. For some time thereafter the church was used for the Induction Services of the Moderators of the Synod of South Australia.
Wesley Church has always sought to maintain a mission of outreach. As the urban development of Adelaide expanded new churches were required. Members of Wesley Church congregation were influential in the establishment of the Hackney Mission, East Adelaide Methodist Church (Spicer Memorial) and Rose Park Methodist Church (Gartrell Memorial).
In the 1960’s, the congregation established and administered the retirement village, Kingsborough Homes, on two sites, one behind the church in Grenfell Street, now known as College Green, and the other in William Street, Norwood. These homes now form part of Eldercare.
For twenty years just after its inception, the congregation of the Austral Asian Church of South Australian worshipped in this place and in recent times the church has become home to the Norwood Preaching Centre of the Chinese Methodist Church.
All buildings on the site are included on the State Heritage listing of significant places and the National Trust of South Australia has attached a plaque to the front of the church in recognition of its importance to the history of the state.
Building on the Wesleyan tradition of music, this church is a vibrant and innovative place for spiritual enrichment seeking to meet the spiritual hunger of people in this city. Resident choral groups contribute to the musical excellence and add to a variety of spiritual experiences and the affirmation of sacred and creative aspects of life. Music and the arts are encouraged and supported by Wesley Church which has an open door policy and welcomes all people.
- City of Kensington and Norwood, “The Hundred Years History of Kensington and Norwood”, McCallum Printers, Norwood,1953
- City of Kensington and Norwood, Kent Town Village Historical Walks, Manning 1980. Schumann, 2004.
- Gibbs, R. M., “A History of Prince Alfred College”, Second Edition, Peacock Publications, Norwood, 2008
- Hunt, A. D., “This side of Heaven: A History of Methodism in South Australia”, Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide, 1985
- Nicholas, R. J., “Private and denominational secondary schools of South Australia”, Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1952
- Twynam, P.M., “To Grow in Wisdom”, Gillingham Printers, Adelaide, 1977.
Diana Chessell, Historian and Church Member
Financial assistance from the Uniting Church Historical Society
A donation towards the upkeep and heritage of Wesley Kent Town always greatly appreciated.