TABLELAND ROAD, MORRISONS
Idly dreaming beside the pines.
This church is remote and hard to find among the stands of green-black pines and the straggly gums that screen it from the road, until you round a bend and there it is. It looks abandoned, idly dreaming in pinaceous solitude without even a cart track across the grass to the door. Only a diminutive notice with service times, affixed to a front buttress – one of those much altered notices with previous times heavily blocked out – betrays this to be a still living church. A newish house over the fence and a shed or two represent the physical presence of Morrisons, the locality in which St James’s church stands.
Morrisons is on a tableland south of Ballan, 99 kilometres west of Melbourne, though probably few people outside the district have heard of it. St James’s comes as a surprise: a substantial church for such a lonely place – solid brick too, in a district where many churches are built of timber or bluestone. It’s the sort of church you’d see on a Melbourne suburban corner. But Morrisons was bigger when St James’s was built. The 1903 Australian Handbook lists the locality as having two churches, two schools, two pubs, four stores, a creamery and as being a centre of alluvial gold-seeking on the Moorabool River. All that is past. At the last census Morrisons had a population of 128, of whom few these days are attenders at St James’s. “About five or six,” a local told me when I asked how many usually turn up for the two monthly services. I asked if he thought the church at risk of closure. “I can’t see much of a future for it,” he said. St James’s in fact is living off the capital of the past, with an endowment to keep the building in repair.
This is not the first Anglican church at Morrisons. An earlier weatherboard structure was dismantled and moved to Lethbridge near Geelong in 1924 (it has since disappeared). On 3 July that year the foundation stone of the new church was laid by Frances Hill Molesworth, wife of John Matheson Molesworth of Ballark, a sheep property not far away, still lived in by the Molesworths who have been there over a hundred years. The consecration took place on Trinity Sunday 1927.
The newer church is of red brick with cement dressings and a tiled roof (which may not be original. Slate would have been more usual). I have been unable to find any record of architect or builder. The Ballark homestead looks as though it had modernising work carried out in the 1920s so there may be a connection with the building of the church around that time.
Yet there must have been an architect because for a remote country church the design is not simple and correct detailing has not been spared. For example all the windows have hood moulds, a decorative device but one with the original practical purpose of deflecting rainwater. Construction would have cost quite a bit too. Apparently the Molesworth family paid for most of it, as large landowners in a more devout age sometimes did.
St James’s was designed, according to an account at Ballark, to look like “an English parish church”. It doesn’t really, in part because of the very Australian red brick and tiles, but you can see what they were driving at. The building style could be defined as Australian vernacular Gothic, very common among churches of the first half of the twentieth century. In plan the church consists of a rectangular nave of three bays with buttresses and a single-bay chancel, both under one roof. A vestry is attached at the (geographical) north-west (the church is not oriented). A gabled baptistery alcove with single pointed window projects from the middle of the nave façade with a trefoil in the upper nave wall above it. At the south-east corner is the church’s most prominent feature, a low square tower with louvred bell openings and a coffered parapet with quatrefoils in the coffers. There is a weathervane on top and the entrance porch below.
The end wall of the chancel is blank but there are two lateral windows and windows in each bay of the nave, several with good stained glass. The chancel roof has an uneven gable, where the roof slopes further down on one side over the internal chancel wall to cover an organ chamber and intersect with the gabled roof of the vestry.
Morrisons, now spelt without the possessive, is short for Morrison’s run or land. Minor country roads in Victoria are often known by a past owner’s name but seldom geographical localities. Hugh Morrison bought the sheep run then called Moreep in 1856. He later retired to Geelong but there was still a Thomas Morrison farming at Morrisons in the early twentieth century. On 18 May 1915 he was away in hospital in Ballarat with “miner’s complaint” – tuberculosis; he had presumably been at some point a prospector – when his wife and young son were shot and bludgeoned to death by Mrs Morrison’s brother, who then set the farmhouse on fire and killed himself. The remains of their bodies were discovered in the ruins.
As the sun dips low behind the pines and the west wind shears across the tableland, this is a haunted-seeming place and St James’s, enfolded in shadow, could be a ghost church. It isn’t, yet, but if rural churchgoing declines further, who knows?
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY