Historic St Johns in Stroud was built in 1833

Historic site: Dating from 1833, St John’s Church at Stroud remains one of the most intact early Anglican churches in Australia. Pictures: Mike Scanlon

Historic site: Dating from 1833, St John’s Church at Stroud remains one of the most intact early Anglican churches in Australia. Pictures: Mike Scanlon

ST JOHN’S Church is typical of those humble Hunter Valley churches on the road to somewhere that you always meant to visit, but never did.  

No, not St John’s Anglican Church in Cooks Hill,  Newcastle. I meant the more remote one in the historic village of Stroud, on the Bucketts Way, en-route to Gloucester.

Weekender took the gamble recently and wasn’t disappointed after stopping the car there to wander around this unusual and surprisingly old church. Ages ago I’d visited the old cannons perched on nearby Silo Hill and my original interest in the church was checking out the legend that bushranger Captain Thunderbolt once married a local girl there.

Built in the Gothic Revival style, St John’s is on the crest of a hill in the middle of Stroud. According to renowned Aussie architect Clive Lucas, St John’s is “comparable to anything of this scale surviving in England”. It is also regarded as one of the finest and possibly the most intact Anglican church of its era in Australia. The design is actually 18th century in character and overall the building is of  “outstanding importance”, Lucas said.

Rather surprisingly, to me anyway, with Australia having a relatively young colonial past, the Stroud church dates back 184 years. It also has very strong links with early Newcastle’s development straight after its penal settlement days.

The first clue is the church being in Cowper Street, Stroud. That street name recalls the popular Cowper Street bridge linking Newcastle to Carrington.

Just down the road, at the southern end of Stroud, motorists have to pass over Laman’s Creek from where clay was sourced for bricks to build the church. Does the name Laman ring any bells? As in Laman Street, in inner Newcastle, above Civic Park? It’s the street, of course, housing the monolith of Newcastle Cultural Centre, best known these days perhaps as the site of Newcastle City Library.

Both Cowper and Laman were connected with the giant Australian Agricultural Company, or A.A.Company, which originally tried to breed sheep flocks around here.

Message in brick: Interior of St John’s Church, which harks back to the earliest European settlement of the district.

Message in brick: Interior of St John’s Church, which harks back to the earliest European settlement of the district.

In fact, the pioneering A.A.Co built St John’s in 1833 for the company settlement it had founded seven years earlier. According to parishioners today, it was really a company chapel for a company village. 

William Macquarie Cowper became the first Anglican rector at St John’s after succeeding a company chaplain and Congregationalist, the Rev Charles Price in 1836. Cowper then served the parish until 1856 and later became the long-time Dean of Sydney.  

Thomas Laman was the A.A.Company’s chief carpenter and he supervised building Stroud church. He had a long productive life, later serving as Stroud’s Clerk of Petty Session and died aged 83. He’s buried in St John’s graveyard.

Former Royal Navy captain Sir Edward Parry, who was knighted for his Arctic explorations, actually had St John’s built at his own expense in 1833. 

Parry, the A.A.Co commissioner from 1829-34, and his wife Isabella, were dedicated to the religious, moral and educational welfare of the company’s servants. The church, rectory, parish hall and historic Quambi house (originally a school) formed the original hub of Stroud. The company later passed ownership of St John’s to the Church of England in 1851.

Lovingly maintained to this day with the help of The Friends of St John’s, the Stroud church contains original cedar furniture and joinery, a gallery and barrel-vault ceiling (probably a later addition). The rear gallery is supposed to have been originally reserved for convicts attending services.   

Striking interior features include highly unusual pews carved in a ‘wave’ design and the beautiful east window depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd. Dating from 1883, this large stained glass window is complemented by seven diamond-patterned coloured glass windows.

One window was a gift from E.C. Merewether, general superintendent of the Australian Agricultural Company from 1861 to 1875 and based in Newcastle.

Other mementos of the past to link Stroud with inner Newcastle (much of which the company later subdivided after the coal began to run out) include old memorial wall tablets bearing two familiar names. One commemorates former commissioner Lieut Col Henry Dumaresq (died 1838) and the other Archibald William Blane who died at Booral in 1852. Blane was an A.A.Co director and later the company’s deputy governor. Much of Hunter St Newcastle was once named Blane St in his honour.

So, what about the legend of bushranger Thunderbolt marrying Mary Ann Bugg at St John’s in 1860? I’d like to believe it, but author and lecturer Carol Baxter says it would be ‘impossible’. Stroud was a police town anyway, and Bugg and the bushranger were both living in Mudgee at the time.

FORGOTTEN FIGURE

MOST of us drive past the green expanse of Smith Park every day without giving it a thought. It is off Griffiths Road, almost directly behind Newcastle Showground and I’ve sometimes wondered who this Smith person was to be so honoured by having parkland named after him.

I found out this week his full name was James Edward Smith, but I didn’t expect there would also be a link with the official opening of the original parliament house in Canberra 90 years ago. 

The information came to me in an email from former Newcastle city councillor Mary Gayner. She wrote: “James Edward Smith was my grandfather and a state politician. He was a master bricklayer and resided at 11 Thorn Road, Hamilton North.” 

She believed Smith Park was named after him. “It was across the road from his home and it gave him endless pleasure seeing organised hockey teams etc playing competition sport there, as well as the many children and families who enjoyed the park. He spoke of days when this land was very low and in very wet weather he had to row across to his home there.”

She was reminded of her grandfather and the park link after coming across his 1927 Australian Government invitation to the nation’s ‘ceremonies’ function: “With May 2017 being the 90th anniversary of the ceremonies connected with the opening of Canberra’s (now old) Parliament House, I thought it interesting enough to alert you.” mikescanlon.history@hotmail.com