Migration from Westbury’s Wesleyan Church

What is quite unique about the pioneers of Upper Barrington is that so many of them belonged to the thriving Wesleyan Church at Westbury, whose circuit included district churches at Hagley, Whitemore, Genore, and Exton. Commencing in 1865, young families from these districts were part of a planned migration, that not only had the blessing of the local Westbury minister, but indeed was initiated and supported by the three main Wesleyan church-planting missionary leaders in Tasmania – Rev John Smithies, Rev Joseph Waterhouse, and Rev William Quick.

In the late 1850s & 60s, the Wesleyan Methodist movement began spreading rapidly throughout Tasmania, doubling their adherents in little more than a decade. This reflected similar growth throughout the British colonies, particularly in the Pacific islands like Tonga and Fiji, where Wesleyan missionaries were transforming cannibals into Christians. These were ‘the glory days’ of the Methodist movement, and locally in Tasmania many high-profile business & civil leaders were among its adherents. In 1868, four years after the American evangelist Rev Wm (California) Taylor held evangelistic meetings in Tasmania, the Wesleyans counted 47 chapels erected around our island, plus another 44 preaching places.

Rev John Smithies (1802-1872) was born in Sheffield, England to a prominent Wesleyan family. From 1828 John spent nearly a decade as a missionary in Newfoundland where he married Hannah Witt in October 1830. Their first three children were born in Newfoundland, two back in England, one aboard a ship bound for the new colony in Western Australia, and their last seven at the Swan River settlement of Perth. Rev Smithies became the founder of Methodism in Western Australia and was highly regarded. In 1854, John (54) and Hannah brought their large teenage family to VDL, where most of them settled. Over the next decade or so, Rev Smithies served several times as President of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference of Tasmania. By 1864 the ageing Rev Smithies qualified for a clergy pension, but instead volunteered to accompany a young minister to Torquay (East Devonport) to establish a new church circuit in the fast-growing Mersey River region. This circuit included the uninhabited forests of Barrington, where the Government had just advertised about 40 newly surveyed bush blocks for sale. Rev Smithies was at Torquay for three years and it seems more than reasonable to assume that this church-planting pioneer was behind the migration of many Wesleyan families from Westbury to Barrington. In 1868, Rev Smithies (66) returned to Westbury to help Rev Joseph Waterhouse (40) appointed to the new brick Wesleyan church built there in 1867. Three years later, Rev and Mrs Smithies moved to Upper Barrington where he ended his days helping the fledgling church there.

Rev Joseph Waterhouse (1828-1881) was one of three clergy sons of the late Rev John Waterhouse (1789-1842) who arrived in Hobart Town in 1839 to take up his appointment as General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Missions in Australasia & Polynesia. He was responsible for all the separate British colonies on the mainland, including VDL, NZ, and Pacific Islands. He had completed two lengthy missionary voyages to the Pacific islands before becoming ill and dying of cancer in Hobart, March 1842 aged 53. Following in his father’s footsteps, young Rev Joseph Waterhouse (22) was ordained and married in Adelaide in 1850 before leaving for Fiji, where he undertook three lengthy periods of pioneering missionary work. Known for his compassionate character and astute business mind, he was the first man to enter the house of the cannibalistic King Cakoabau of Fiji and is credited with his conversion to Christianity. Because of deteriorating health, Rev Waterhouse returned to Tasmania in 1864, where he played a leading role in Wesleyan church matters and in 1867 was made minister of the newly erected church in Westbury. 

The first Wesleyan chapel at Westbury was built in 1840 where shortly afterwards Rev Jabez Waterhouse (Joseph’s brother) established the Westbury circuit in all the surrounding districts. By the early 1860s, this original wooden church needed to be replaced with a much larger building. At the next State Conference, it was decided that the replacement churches needed at Westbury, Launceston, and New Town should be of a ‘superior nature, built of stone or brick, gothic in style, with stain-glass windows and modern pulpits.’ The foundation stone for this new Westbury church was laid on 24 October 1865 by Rev Wm A Quick, from Horton College, Ross. It was officially opened 17 March 1867 with a seating capacity for over 350 people.

Rev William Quick (1820 -1910) was another nationally recognised Wesleyan leader who in 1843 went as a missionary to Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa, but because of ill health was forced to return to England. He was next sent to Australia in 1856 and, after 3 years in NSW, sent to Tasmania as Principal of Horton College, the prestigious Wesleyan institute at Ross, that between 1855-1894 provided superior private education to nearly 800 Tasmanian boys and young men.

1865 Migration to Upper Barrington

Settling Wesleyan pioneers in new districts was a strategy Rev John Smithies used successfully in Western Australia and Rev Joseph Waterhouse on islands around Fiji. The idea certainly had acceptance with young married families around Westbury because there was no longer any vacant land to purchase their own properties. The first group, having visited Upper Barrington and made their selection in 1864, began moving their families on site early in 1865 to commence the arduous task of establishing their homes, farms, and a Wesleyan church community. The first arrivals included the families of John & Charles Coleman, Alexander G Smith, John Harman, Benjamin Green, Charles Packett, and William Smith. Before leaving Westbury, John Coleman was appointed their spiritual leader with the responsibility of caring for these Wesleyan families in their new environment.  It was also arranged that Rev John Smithies‘ young offsider, Rev George Heywood at Torquay (East D’port),  should periodically push up through the heavy forest to visit Upper Barrington, which he began to do even before they had completed constructing their homes.

John Coleman took his spiritual responsibility seriously. As soon as his house was completed he opened it twice on Sundays for Wesleyan services and once through the week for prayer meetings. Young Alex G Smith became his loyal co-worker in these spiritual endeavours. When the Mersey Wesleyan circuit was first formed, John Denney of Melrose, accompanied by his son-in-law Frank von Bibra, were the first local preachers to visit Upper Barrington. Their arrival, one Saturday afternoon, was well remembered by John and Chas Coleman, who were splitting timber slabs at the time. A few words of greetings and they all knelt on the ground to lift their voices in grateful prayer. Over the following years, a steady stream of Wesleyan Methodist families, such as the Thomas Bennetts, Billings, Byes, Frenches, Huntingtons, Huttons, Ivorys, Masons, Nevins, Poultons, Powells, Pullens, Ratcliffs, George Waterhouses, Weeks, and Wyllies came to Upper Barrington, completely out-numbering any other pioneers. Some Scottish families, such as Cottons, Huttons, Kerkhams, Robertsons, and Tuxworths, finding no Presbyterian church, initially joined this flourishing local Wesleyan Church community.

Leading Clergy invest in Upper Barrington

Just when it seemed so unusual to have a church denomination invading a new district, things became even stranger still. In the late 1860s, the three most imminent Wesleyan church leaders in Tasmania all bought property in Upper Barrington. First was our pioneer missionary to Fiji Rev Joseph Waterhouse, currently in charge of the new Westbury church. He bought up 12 unsold bush blocks between Morey’s Road and Nowhere Else corner. Next was Rev Wm A Quick, President of the famed Horton College, Ross, who purchased 85 acres at the end of Hendersons road and 200 acres in Allisons Rd. Then Rev Nathaniel Bennett, another leading clergyman from Adelaide, then Hobart, currently in charge of Launceston, purchased two 105 & 79 acre blocks along Weeks Road. This unprecedented action followed shortly after the first big National Wesleyan Conference was held in Launceston in January 1867. The only plausible explanation is that, at this conference, these leaders discussed and approved of the concept that purchasing prime property was a far more profitable investment strategy than leaving their funds in local banks. All these blocks bought by the clergy were leased out and later sold off, often to new Wesleyan settlers.

1869 Building the First Chapel

In addition to weekly church services in John & Isabel Coleman’s house at Upper Barrington, Miss Annie Smith, together with Charles Coleman, commenced a Sunday school in May 1869. This only increased the need to erect their own local Wesleyan Chapel. On 23 Dec 1869, Rev Joseph Waterhouse transferred 1 acre of land, part of a block he had recently purchased from Alexander Smith, to the following trustees: John Coleman, Chas Coleman, Chas Packett, John Harman, John McFarlane, Benjamin Green, Alex Smith, & Thomas Smith. To commence clearing, the first tree felled was a small blackwood by Rev Andrew Inglis from the Mersey circuit. Six months later on 29 June 1870 Rev Ed Nye, having replaced Rev Inglis at Latrobe, rode up to Barrington through mud up to his waist to hold their first ‘love feast’. The new chapel was opened on Sunday 18 December,1870 by the Rev Nathaniel Bennett of Launceston, who also led the public tea meeting next day. Mrs Euphemia Wyllie offered to cook on her out-sized camp oven while Mrs Best sent a wagon load of cakes from Deloraine. A charge of 1s 6d was made for the refreshments to aid the Building Fund.

It was during the building of this chapel, Rev John Smithies (68) and his wife Hannah decided to move from Westbury to Upper Barrington. He occupied one of Rev Waterhouse’s farm blocks and their unmarried daughter began a school teacher. For the next 18 months, with declining health, Rev Smithies shepherded his fledgling flock. Then, after nearly 44 years of continuous Christian service, this faithful pioneer minister died there on 17 June, 1872 aged 70, of ‘accelerated paralysis.’ He was one of the first to be buried in a graveyard of the Upper Barrington church. To honour this first Methodist minister’s pioneering work in WA, the Rev John Smithies Park was established in Kingsley, a northern suburb of Perth, while the Methodist Church of WA have attached a special memorial plaque to his gravestone here in Upper Barrington. Rev Smithies’ grandson Fred Smithies OBE became the well-known Cradle Mt mountaineer and photographer.

Having regained his health, in 1870 Rev Joseph Waterhouse left Westbury for Victoria to  prepare to return to Fiji the following year. Wm Varnham Smith of ‘Ferngrove’,’ Upper Barrington, became property agent for Rev Waterhouse’ real estate around Barrington. Interestingly, Joseph Waterhouse donated his extensive library of fine books on all subjects to the people of Barrington. He appointed three trustees to be responsible for the ‘Public Library of Barrington’, almost certainly housed in their new Chapel.

After completing a further seven years in Fiji, Rev Waterhouse retired from missionary work. He visited Barrington briefly in 1879, prior to becoming clergyman of the Sandhurst circuit (now Bendigo, Vic). After his first Sunday sermon, Rev Waterhouse requested urgent leave to sail to New Zealand and bring home their 25-year old son who had become serious ill. Returning with his son aboard the ss Tararua on 29 April 1881, their boat was shipwrecked off Dunedin with the loss of 131 passengers. Rev Joseph Waterhouse (54), his son, and three other missionaries were all drowned. Back in Bendigo, his widow was left with 9 surviving children in a new church where she knew no one. It took some years to issue deeds for the various properties Waterhouse owned in Upper Barrington.

1885 Church replaced after Bushfire. 

Sparks smouldering from a hollow stump blazed up and ignited the dry shingle roof of the chapel on 8 March, 1884. First to arrive on the scene were Alex Hutton and eldest son Robert.  They were helped by Misses Hutton, Cooper, and Pullen, who between them saved all the chapel furniture just before the roof caved in. Within months after this destructive fire, a large committee was formed to build a new church – this time to be insured, have an iron roof, and a 100-gallon tank placed on site. Designed by Wm Gadsby, Latrobe, the new 35ft x 25ft building was erected by William & Charles French for £250 and opened on Sunday 25 January 1885 by Rev. R. Thompson, minister in charge of the Mersey Circuit. The next day a popular tea-meeting was held with food provided by Mesdames Mason, Russell, Cotton, Smith, French, and Packett.

Wesleyan Methodist Heritage

The unique Wesleyan beginnings of Upper Barrington had an incredible impact upon the district for generations. Several young men like Bertram Wyllie, Reg Bye, and Doug Packett became ministers, while others served overseas with various missionary organisations.

For decades descendants of these pioneering families held significant roles in the Upper Barrington church, such as trustees, deacons, local preachers, SS teaching, organ playing, and Women’s Guild. Offspring from families like the Colemans, Coopers, Frenches, Masons, Pullens, Rockliffs, Russells, Smiths, and Wyllies have distinguished themselves as Wardens of Kentish, State politics, or in other various academic fields.

So much must be omitted in this brief summary, but after 130 years, changing circumstances saw this historic church sold in November 1995 for a private dwelling. Though now closed, the church’s rich spiritual heritage, combined with the district’s fertile chocolate soil, still makes it one of Kentish’s most desirable locations to live.