A superb church which must be preserved at all costs.

A fine example of Gothic Revival design, the Thomson Memorial Church stands out against a stormy sky at Terang.

This is a magnificent church which would not be out of place as a provincial cathedral – indeed it is more imposing than some of the cathedrals of rural Australia. As a building it is a product of generosity and imagination. As an ornament to a townscape it is unsurpassed. Long before you reach Terang its splendid spire, 136 feet (41.45 metres) high, can be seen above the roofs of the town. The Thomson Memorial Church and a 1930s pub with a church-like Neo-Romanesque tower are Terang’s most prominent buildings. But while the pub is well frequented (at least when the Chinese virus permits) the church has a very small congregation. It would be a grievous loss if it were to shut down and be demolished or turned into an “arts hub” or flats.

What has happened to the Scots who were once so prominent in Victoria’s Western District? The Scots who brought their Presbyterianism with them and built some exceptional churches in which to practise it? The churches still stand – at Hamilton, Warrnambool, Geelong and Ballarat, though the last two are closed and empty, and Terang, the most architecturally accomplished of them all, is hardly flourishing. But the Scots, or their descendants, must still be there too. You just down encounter them at church; they would seem in the main to have abandoned their religion. The sea of faith, as Matthew Arnold put it, has withdrawn, ebbed away, leaving the churches like great beached ships on the shingle behind it. 

The Thomson Memorial Church, Terang from the east.
The spire is a landmark on the Princes Highway and from far outside the town.  

Most Victorian country towns of any size have three substantial churches – an Anglican, a Roman Catholic and a Presbyterian (which is often now Uniting). But Terang, with a population of about 2,500, has only one of note, the Thomson Memorial. The Anglican church is a timber hall of the kind you would see in the outback. The RC one was a standard bluestone Gothic building of moderate dimensions, now superseded by an awful 1970s construction, substantial, yes, but looking as if it were designed by a jukebox manufacturer. This stands awkwardly across the Princes Highway from the Thomson Memorial. Its architect was Kris Kudlicki whose specialty was railway stations.

The west façade of the church. Note the arcade of four blind arches and
eight lancets beneath the tripartite main window.

The Thomson Memorial Church was designed by the Melbourne firm of Reed, Henderson & Smart. Joseph Reed was the architect of the Scots’ Church, Melbourne, which according to the Camperdown Chronicle of 7 January 1890 was the model for the Terang church. The Thomson in the church’s name was John Thomson, a very early pioneer, who had arrived in the district in 1839 and settled at Keilambete outside Terang. He had earlier built a manse (now long since sold off and replaced by a cream brick bungalow) for the Presbyterian minister, and the new church, replacing an earlier one on the site, was to be a jubilee benefaction in celebration of his fifty years on the land. He did not live to see his gift. Soon after commissioning the architects in 1890 he was killed in a buggy accident. His widow arranged that the church be built and dedicated to his memory, and it was opened in 1894.

The foundation stone with its restrained inscription stating the circumstances in which the church was built.  

One of the best things about this church is its remarkable architectural completeness. Not only does it have a tower and spire, when many churches of the era were left without, it has a proper Gothic nave of four bays with arcaded side aisles and a clerestory. The nave buttresses rise above the walls of the aisles. It has transepts and an apse. True, the architects have had to take a certain liberty with the apse. It looks from outside as though it is the eastern arm of the church, in which you would expect to find an altar (or you would have in the Middle Ages when all Gothic churches were Catholic) but it is actually closed off from the body of the church and houses a vestry. This was no doubt at the request of the client and is the standard arrangement in most Presbyterian churches: they usually have a pulpit, elders’ stalls and communion table at the far end and the vestry in a room beyond. But I know of no other church where the vestry is disguised externally as a chancel.

The graceful curve of the apse is inspired by French Gothic design, though it is not a true apse and houses a vestry.
Rough-cut stone with smooth stone dressings on a doorway. Architectural detailing on the building is remarkably “correct”.

The apse, or its exterior, is the most French-looking element in the design, though the whole building, seen from the street, could almost be a church in Normandy. The details of windows and doors are correctly Gothic to a degree not always seen with nineteenth-century churches in Australia. The satisfying massiveness of the tower is visually reinforced by the external stair turret with stepped-up window openings. The arrangement of the clustered pinnacles at the base of the spire is almost identical to those on the spire of Christ Church, South Yarra, in Melbourne, which is not to be wondered at since Joseph Reed designed both.

The church is built of Barrabool and Waurn Ponds sandstone with its attractive grey-greenish tinge. The walls are of rough-cut blocks and the dressings of smoothed stone. The foundations and crypt are of bluestone and the roof of slates. Inside, fittings and furnishings are much as they were when the church was built. There is some excellent joinery and good stained glass. The organ, an 1879 instrument by William Anderson, was originally at Holy Trinity in the Melbourne suburb of Kew. It was brought to Terang in 1902 and has twice been rebuilt, most recently in 1971.

Angle of transept, nave and aisle. The massive walls are of rough-cut Barrabool and Waurn Ponds sandstone with smoothed stone for the dressings. The roofs are slate.

The plaque shows the burning bush seen by Moses (Exodus 3: 1-10) with the words Nec tamen consumebatur (“Yet it was not consumed”), symbol of God’s indestructible eternity.

The Thomson Memorial Church is now part of a ministry district with two other churches, at Camperdown and at Noorat, the last one a smaller bluestone building in Early English Gothic, also built as a memorial, in this case to the pioneering squatter Niel Black, whose family are still prominent in the area. One must hope that the strength in numbers derived from unity is sufficient to keep this noble church in use. It is a building which must be preserved at all costs, and the best way is to keep it open for the purpose for which it was built.

The nave from the north. With its clerestory, aisle windows and buttresses, it is an essay in correct Gothic Revival.



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