(BYERS ROAD, BLACKWOOD)
A mine of history shut down and sold.
Another plain and simple country church transformed into a house. This one had quite a history behind it.
Melbourne was but thirty years old when All Saints’ was consecrated on 29 October 1865 by Victoria’s first Anglican bishop, Charles Perry (1807-1891). It is one of the few churches he consecrated that survive. The bishop’s journey to conduct the ceremony must have been something of an endurance test. The two roads into Blackwood were rutted cart tracks in 1865 and even today require cautious driving as they wind up and down through the hills and gullies of the western stretches of the Great Dividing Range.
About ninety kilometres from Melbourne though it seems much more, Blackwood today is a hamlet of scattered houses in and around the deep valley of the Lerderderg River. Dense forest surrounds it and many of the houses are submerged among the trees (how the township has not succumbed to bushfire must be considered a miracle). Blackwood sprang up during the gold rush, and at one point had a population estimated at 30,000 as well as the usual proliferation of banks, pubs and so on. One pub remains.
According to a detailed account on a local history website, Anglican services were held not only in Blackwood but in schools and other premises on the surrounding diggings at Simmons Reef, Golden Point – where there was a Chinese congregation – and later at Barry’s Reef. Barry’s Reef eventually acquired its own church, now long gone along with the rest of the township, its three hotels and 1000-volume Mechanics’ Institute library. The church at Simmons Reef has likewise vanished.
These were all part of the extensive parish of the new All Saints’, which from 1866 had its own rector. He was helped out from time to time by clergy and lay readers from Bacchus Marsh. One of the readers, George Andrew Scott, a candidate for the Anglican priesthood, was scarcely a model of ecclesiastical virtue. He augmented his stipend by bushranging under the name of Captain Moonlight, in which capacity in 1869 he held up the bank at Egerton, another mining township. He was jailed, released and eventually hanged for killing a policeman in New South Wales.
Scandal reared its head again in 1877 when Mrs Harriet Turnbull, wife of Blackwood’s then rector, had an affair with a local bank clerk while her husband was away on his distant peregrinations around the parish. She and her lover eloped and the rector obtained one of the very rare divorces of those days. In 1908 another lay reader, Harold Robinson, was shot and killed at Blackwood while walking on his verandah reading a doctrinal work entitled On Faith and the Creed. The assailant was a “mentally disturbed” neighbour (perhaps of different theological views). The bullet went through the book, which years later turned up, still holed, at a church bazaar. It was bought and presented to All Saints’ where until the church closed it could be seen on request. It is now with the Blackwood Historical Society (see comment).
The site selected for All Saints’ was one of the higher points in Blackwood. The new church, built of timber with an iron roof, was described when opened as “exceedingly neat and well-constructed”. It is rectangular in plan with a short chancel at the east and porch at the west with side entrances. The façades of church and porch are relieved by corner pilasters with curved brackets in place of capitals. Originally there was a square bellcote on the front gable but this has gone. So workmanlike is the design that All Saints’ could be a village hall apart from its pointed windows with their pretty Gothic glazing bars. The blue window glass is not original. It was put in place in 1993 when All Saints’ was used as a set in the television series The Man from Snowy River, in the course of which it was “burnt down”. The church celebrated its century and a half in 2015 and is registered by the National Trust. Well-constructed though the building may have been, its sides are now buttressed with timber props.
The later history of All Saints’ is a familiar one. As Blackwood declined in population it lost its parochial independence and was attached first to the parish of Trentham then to Bacchus Marsh. Weekly services became fortnightly until regular services ceased with perhaps a service at Christmas and Easter and the occasional wedding and funeral. By 2016 there were only two practising parishioners. The Anglican diocese decided the church was “surplus to requirements” and put it on sale in 2018.
Blackwood had two other churches, similar in style and construction to All Saints’. The Uniting church is closed and – naturally – in process of being turned into a house. The Roman Catholic church, St Malachy’s, has Masses “by arrangement” according to a notice on the door and on Sundays at 4pm according to a notice by the gate and the parish website. It might be well to phone (03 5422 1261) before turning up.
For some of the information in this post I wish to acknowledge historical researches by Margot Hitchcock of the Blackwood & District Historical Society, author of The History and Pioneers of Blackwood, Penny Garnett, and the website Blackwood Publishing, a “Genealogical and early history of Blackwood Victoria”.
COLOUR PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY