Were churches full in the comfortable 1950s? One or two were, but an informal assessment of church attendance in one Melbourne suburb in my childhood suggests that there was wide indifference to religion even then.

Census statistics and everyday observation indicate that institutional Christianity, especially of the Anglican and Protestant sort, is slowly declining in Australia. It is becoming more rare to meet people who regularly go to church. Congregations tend to include a high proportion of elderly people, although it is worth noting at once that to some extent this has always been so. I have attended many churches over many years, and, although there were and are notable exceptions, in my experience Australian congregations have always been largely elderly, as though the supply of older churchgoers replenishes itself from one generation to the next.  

Generally, though, in most places congregations were larger in the past in all churches, not excepting Roman Catholics (the catastrophic decline in Catholic congregations in the years since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s deserves to be examined as a separate case and has been compounded by the failure of the Catholic establishment to try to arrest it). But even if Anglican and Protestant churches used to be better attended, there was never a golden age of churchgoing in Australia, a time when the community more or less as a whole turned out to services on Sundays. Yet most people were Christian believers of a passive sort – they knew who Jesus was and they expected Heaven to be the reward of a virtuous life and religion formed the basis of their morality: they even had their children christened in numbers far greater than today. But actually attending church on Sunday seems to have been regarded as optional, for those who “liked that sort of thing”.

In front of the ‘villa pair” in Auguste Street. Me aged nineteen months with my father.
The neighbouring Sinclairs’ half of the pair is beyond the low fence.

My own family, in my grandparents’ and parents’ generation, were churchgoers on one side and mixed on the other. My father’s parents were observant Anglicans and his brother and two sisters and their families all went to church, if not every Sunday certainly once a month and at Christmas and Easter. My mother’s family was Methodist. Her mother went to church fairly often (once, reeking like a brewery, after a bottle of beer my father had brought for his future father-in-law, sprayed over her as she was about to go out the door). Her father as far as I know never went, though he considered himself a Christian man. Her brothers and sisters were all occasional churchgoers and, when younger, attached to Methodist social and sports clubs. Among the children of the two families – my first cousins – churchgoing has with one exception been totally abandoned. In the case of their children, the once de rigueur family rituals of baptism and church marriage have now gone too.

For the first ten years of my life we lived in a middle-class suburb called Glenhuntly which I think was typical of whole tracts of eastern and southern Melbourne. When I say middle-class it was rather mixed in socio-economic terms and I suppose what you would call “culturally”. None of the neighbours were upper-middle, some were a sort of middle-middle and quite a number lower-middle. Some of these last lived in the only block of flats in the streets near us or in a half of a “villa pair”. Few of any of these neighbours were churchgoers, though one or two of the non-RC parents sent their children to Sunday School, and as far as I can tell, apart from the fact that none of the lower-middles ever went to church, there was no obvious class-based pattern of church affiliation among those who did. This was a time, between 1942 and 1954, when just over 40 per cent of the Australian population claimed in the census to be members of the Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist churches and around 20 per cent Roman Catholic.

How did that statistic correspond to the reality in Glenhuntly at that time and the neighbours I knew? I think we might have been below the national average in terms of faith. To test this contention, I have returned autobiographically to the street where I used to live as I remember it circa 1950.   

Our house was half of a “villa pair” in Augusta Street which my parents had lived in since 1942 and considered themselves lucky to have found during the wartime housing shortage. In our part of the street there were three neighbouring families living in villa pairs, semi-detached single-storey bungalows of uniform plan with stuccoed façades and exposed brick sides and back – individuality was achieved by some having gabled fronts and others hipped roofs. In the northernmost, on the corner of Beverley Street, were Mr and Mrs Carman and their curly-headed Shirley Templish daughter Faye, with no church connection, not even Sunday School for Faye. I believe Mr Carmen drank. I can picture him as a short sallow man in a grey hat. Hats seemed to me to be generally worn by men who were known for drinking. Pub bars in 6 o’clock swill photographs of the era are always a sea of hats. The thing I most remember about the Carmens was their brass front-door knocker in the form of the façade of Bath Abbey with the sculpted angels going up and down on the ladder to Heaven as dreamt by Jacob (Genesis 28 10-19). This image of Bath Abbey in miniature was the Carmans’ sole association with religion.

No. 36 Augusta Street now.

Between them and us were the OTooles, who you would think from the name might be Catholics but if so never went to Mass. Mr O’Toole was a barber in Glenhuntly Road, South Caulfield, with two teenage sons, one of whom I think I heard had been a server at St Agnes’s, the Anglican parish church in Booran Road not far away, whose tinkling single bell high in its red-brick neo-Romanesque tower could be heard over the rooftops three times each Sunday. St Agnes’s was chronically under-attended, an unusual enough phenomenon to have been commented on. Its sparse congregation might have been a result of its being quite “High” when most Anglicans, from the archbishop down, were “Low”. Indeed, my parents knew an Anglican family who lived almost opposite St Agnes’s but never went to it, preferring to travel several miles away to St Mary’s in Caulfield, which was resolutely Low (and thriving). Or perhaps its thin attendance had something to do with the vicar, Mr Harwood, who, though genial and scholarly, was not much of what we would now call a “communicator” whereas Canon Cooper, the incumbent of St Mary’s, was silver-tongued. Mr Harwood was the only Anglican cleric I have ever encountered who took a keen interest in the races. Providentially for him, Caulfield Racecourse was within the parish, and he was to be seen there many a weekend. He began my brother’s baptism with the words, “No more talking about races now till after the service, then if you’ll come to the vestry I’ll give you my tips for Saturday.” His cat used to wander up the aisle of the church and sit gazing at him from the sanctuary step when he was officiating at the altar.

Next to the O’Tooles came us, and next to us, in the southernmost half of the “pair” we occupied, were the Sinclairs. Mr Sinclair, a middle-aged stocky rather gruff man, was a projectionist at the Hoyts Esquire cinema in Bourke Street. He was prickly, and once asked my father who he thought he was when my father, urged by my mother, asked him to make less noise chopping wood late in his backyard because I, supposedly, couldn’t sleep. But since he was usually busy showing movies day and night, we never saw much of him. Mrs Sinclair was large in rather flowing garments like a literary “Soul” and gave the impression of having come down in the world. She gave me a somewhat battered copy of David Copperfield whichI still have. She told me that they were related to the Earl of Wemyss, a Scottish peer whose territorial title was their daughter Valerie’s second name. She didn’t say how they were related but I have looked up Debrett and in the seventeenth century a Wemyss married a Miss Sinclair, so perhaps it was through her. The Sinclairs also had a son called Graham. The family had no church connection. So far, then, that’s one family (us) I know went to church out of four.

Augusta Street was a dead end (agents would have called it a cul-de-sac). At right angles to the Sinclairs were the back gates of two quite substantial houses in Hawson Avenue, a slightly more upmarket address. One of these houses belonged to an elderly couple called Mr and Mrs Davies. Mr Davies was a carrier with a leather apron and truck. Mrs Davies was slight, shrivelled and nervous-looking. She was also unusual in being a parishioner of St Agnes’s. Every Sunday morning you could see her pass our front gate en route to the 8 o’clock service, never accompanied by her husband. Next to the Davies’ were the Trewhellas. To “the man on the land” this was once a very familiar name. The Trewhella family were the inventors and patenters of the Trewhella jack, used across Australia for grubbing up obstinate tree roots. They had a foundry which was a principal source of employment in the small town of Trentham, between Woodend and Daylesford, where I was born when my father was working at the garage there, and where the Trewhellas, like a snooty family in the big house on the hill whose son falls for the girl from the wrong side of the tracks in a 1940s film, had the most imposing house in the town.

The Glenhuntly Trewhellas were certainly not snooty. Jack Trewhella, who I imagine was a younger brother of the foundry-owning Trewhellas, was in his sixties (or he may have been younger: it’s difficult to tell when you’re a child) and did odd jobs as a carpenter. I think he was a widower, and his sister, Miss Trewhella, the sweetest and kindest old lady I have ever met, kept house for him. She befriended me and used to reminisce about Trentham while going about such old-fashioned country pursuits as cutting green beans into wedges and laying them out to dry in the sun on wide tin trays. She was very old-fashioned in dress, always in a long skirt and apron. There were two other members of the household, who were either Jack Trewhella’s daughters or nieces. One, Gladys, left to get married and I had little to do with her. The other, Jean, who lived in her own little cabin, or “sleepout”, in the backyard, was headmistress of the school for children with “special needs” in Montague Street, South Melbourne. Jack Trewhella was a friend of my maternal grandfather, who had an eclectic variety of friends in all sorts of places, and it was through him that my parents learned about the villa pair to rent in Augusta Street. We had to come to Melbourne from Trentham when I was three months old because my father took an “essential war job” repairing aircraft engines at Essendon aerodrome. The house in Glenhuntly was a godsend. It meant my mother could be close to her family and it had the additional merit of being far from Essendon, with less chance of being bombed in the Japanese air raids that, in early 1942, seemed imminent. (If the bombs had fallen on my father in Essendon during the day, that would have been just a risk of the job, I suppose).

None of the Trewhellas, as far as I know, ever went to church, though I imagine Gladys, like most brides at the time, was married in one.

At right angles to the Trewhellas’ back fence, facing our house across Augusta Street, was a handsome Edwardian house with verandahs and high roofs, lived in by Mrs Baker-Smith and her son Robbie Bobbie. I never saw a Mr Baker-Smith but I suppose he was there somewhere. Robbie Bobbie’s mother was buxom, curvaceous with a cascade of dark hair and always smiling. There was no indication that she went to church nor Robbie Bobbie to Sunday School. Next to them, in another Edwardian house – these would have been the original houses in the street, when Glenhuntly was market gardens and before spec. builders in the 1930s began lining the rest of the street with villa pairs – was a Miss Nichols. Every Melbourne suburban street in those days had at least one elderly single lady living alone in a family house, left to herself after years of having looked after an aged parent (few people went “into care” then) who died only after all marriage prospects for the daughter had vanished.

Perhaps because there were no children among them I didn’t know the families further up the street from Miss Nichols. But I knew two of those on the other, eastern, side, the Balls and the Jollys. They were very different. They both lived in villa pairs but not in the same circumstances. The Jollys were respectable. The Balls were borderline. The Jollys, Frank and Betty (they sound like characters in a children’s primer of the time) were not conspicuous churchgoers, though Mrs Jolly was later active in the Mothers’ Union at St Agnes’s and their elder son Billy became an Anglican priest in Tasmania. Mr Jolly was an industrial chemist who worked at Sigma. I remember him building a beautiful model steamship in his garage-workshop every weekend. Mr Ball, several doors away, was one of those husbands and fathers who were never seen. This was quite common then, though whether it was due to drink or depression or shyness or long hours of work was never clear. Where the garden and drive of the Jollys’ house were tidy and well tended, the Balls’s were neglected, with weeds and patches of bare earth in the drive that led to a rickety-looking garage without a car in it (also quite common). Neglected front yards of the time always seemed to include a broken pram or rusting bike, and the Balls may have had some such assortment of detritus. Mrs Ball had a faded, unmade-up look (again quite common) of the sort you see in photographs of housewives in food queues during the War. Their son Alan had jug ears and, a couple of years older than I, was sometimes available for masturbatory experimentation on himself, with me as a pre-pubescent audience, in the empty garage. I doubt that they ever went near a church.

Suburban life in many manifestations was on display around the corner from Augusta Street in “Otira”, the block of flats that took up much of Beverley Street. The tenants had the variety of a TV soap cast. The ones I knew were the ones who had children, though there were two women living alone in their flats whom one knew by sight. Miss Lewis had a cake shop in nearby Glenhuntly Road to which my mother sometimes went. She could be described as “quiet and refined” but I have no idea whether she was a churchgoer. And sometimes to be seen with her head out of an upstairs window, surveying the grassy yard in front of the flats with bulging exophthalmic eyes, was old Mrs Williams. A perpetual invalid, she couldn’t have got out to go to church if she’d wanted to.

The flats in Beverley Street now. The Mackenzies lived in the front ground-floor flat, Mrs Williams above them.

The children belonged to the Mackenzies and the Satchells on the ground floor. Mrs Mackenzie, Leslie, was a milliner, the kind of woman who spoke her own mind, tartly, with language not always of great refinement. She would not have been out of place presiding over a public bar. Her husband, Jock, large, bovine, red-faced and sandy-haired, was a groundsman at the Caulfield racecourse (though I once heard Mrs Mackenzie telling the Watkins door-to-door salesman that he was a plumber, which I imagine she thought more socially acceptable). I was particularly friendly, except on occasions when we fell out and I, weakling that I was, got “bashed up” by him, with their elder son Robert. I induced him to come to Sunday School at St Agnes’s, and once to church, to which he decided to ask his mother. I heard her, with theatrical eye-rollings, recounting this to the ogre-like visage of old Mrs Williams at her upstairs window, making it sound as though Robert had asked her to go to the moon. “You won’t believe what Robert wants me to do now.” “Oh?” “Go to church.” “Up here?” asked the Williams, nodding in the direction of St Agnes’s tower. “I wouldn’t be going any further” was the theme of her answer. I think she got out of going by telling Robert that they were Presbyterian. The Presbyterian church in Glenhuntly was safely distant across the railway line.

Robert was by tacit consent leader of the “gang” of neighbourhood kids which included his younger brother David and Ken Ritchie from further along Beverley Street. The Jolly children, Billy and his younger brother Edward, were never members, probably because their parents (rightly) thought the gang members “rough” (Billy and Edward were regarded in turn by the gang as “cissy”, though quite unfairly). The gang’s recreations were playing with cap pistols – the Mackenzies always had the largest giltest six-shooters – and going to the Saturday afternoon “matinee” in the cavernous mock-Moorish interior of the Hoyts Glenhuntly cinema with its Juliet balconies and wide blue ceiling in the guise of a starry firmament from which, over the years, the stars had one by one dropped out. This faded edifice has now, naturally, been demolished. Unlike my companions, my presence there was permitted “only on wet afternoons”.

Robert used also to go with me each Friday night after tea to visit a curious lady called Mrs Watts, who lived in a rather gloomy Victorian villa around the corner half-way up Augusta Street. She would make cake for us and we would sit and chat to her. The three of us were a strange combination. I would ask her about churchy things – she was a clergyman’s widow – and she would deliver herself of various arcane facts. (I don’t remember what Robert’s contribution was.) She told us once that the then Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Mowll, had been a missionary in China where he was a prisoner for a time of communists or rebels who “did something odd to his private parts.” She had very decided opinions. She detested Anglo-Catholics and thought the Anglican and Presbyterian churches should unite. She also loathed the Labor Party, and when I mentioned once that some of my mother’s family voted Labor she ordered me from the house (the ban was rescinded when I said that I wouldn’t vote Labor, whatever they did). I had met Mrs Watts through Sunday School at St Agnes’s. She was happy to teach there – although she once told the Superintendent, Mr Hinneberg, a tailor, that his theology was “up the spout” – but would never go to a service in the church, walking instead all the way across Caulfield Racecourse to the more acceptably Low St John’s in East Malvern, where, she said, the vicar and vestry would never countenance the “goings-on in St Agnes’s”. She would be very upset to know that St John’s is now High and has taken over the parish of St Agnes’s.  

Roman Catholics, even more than Anglo-Catholics, were among her bêtes-noires. She regarded them as scarcely Christian. The reason RCs could afford such capacious churches, she explained, was that the priest would approach parishioners who had contributed and say, “I want to see more than that next Sunday or you’ll have a front seat in Hell.” “She has some odd opinions, that lady,” said my mother when I related this aperçu.

St Agnes’s church in Booran Road.

In the Beverley Street flats the Satchells’ flat was next door to the Mackenzies’. Mr Satchell wore a leather jacket and went to whatever his work was loudly on a motorbike. Mrs Satchell was neat and brittle and wore very high heels you could hear some distance away, clacking on the concrete path as she made her way up the street. They had two sons, Barry and Paul, who never went to Sunday School nor their parents to any church. There was an embarrassing incident with Mr Satchell after Robert and I had been carrying out an informal and intimate exploration of each other’s lower parts in the communal laundry at the back of the flats, unaware that the laundry could be seen into from a bedroom window of the Satchells’ flat. A few days later Mr Satchell took me aside in the yard. “I saw what you were doing,” he said. He kindly didn’t tell my parents but I have occasionally wondered how long he was at the window.

I sometimes heard “the flats” dismissively referred to at home or by genteel neighbours and although my parents were in no way snobbish, nor would have considered themselves to have anything to be snobbish about, the impression was that the flats, particularly the children and particularly the Mackenzies, were a bit “common”. They were too – the Jollys were quite right. The boys didn’t do well at school and would drop the “g” on participles and say “was” instead of “were” as in ‘we was there yesterday”. This did not apply to the Palmer family, who lived over the Satchells in the flat next to Mrs Williams, and were “quiet”. They were slightly a breed apart, for they were Roman Catholics, or at least Mrs Palmer, a round woman with a bun, was, and their daughter Louise, who attended the local Catholic school, St Anthony’s. Mr Palmer, Dick, was either non-Catholic or non-practising. He was a quiet man, mild in manner, a plumber and a friend of my father. Their flat seemed foreign territory to me. I once gained access and noted, with a frisson of awareness of the exotic, something I had never seen before, a picture of the Sacred Heart with a little electric light in front of it. 

Opposite the flats was a substantial 1920s house where the only other Roman Catholics I knew of, the Hale family, lived. They were definitely a cut above the rest of us. Mr Hale had a large American car. Their son, Ross, also went to St Anthony’s. The large block next to the Hales’ was empty for years, with tall grass and dumped bits of junk. Each 5 November it was the site of a bonfire to celebrate the then widely observed Guy Fawkes Night, for which we would all stack high garden rubbish and branches of trees and, once alight, gather around and let off fireworks and crackers. Most of us had no idea who Guy Fawkes was, and had also forgotten, if anyone ever knew, that this was an anti-Catholic festivity, but as far as I know there were no protests from the Hales.  

Beyond the flats in Beverley Street were two detached houses whose occupants, partly by virtue of not living in a flat were more respectable. They were Mr and Mrs Ritchie, parents of Ken, and grumpy old Mr Morgan and his somewhat younger wife. I should say that neither family had any church connection. All the children were terrified of Mr Morgan, the builder and owner of the flats, who appeared only occasionally at his front gate in a bad temper to tick them off for no other reason than that they were there. He seemed to us ancient and must have had some debilitating illness which made his existence miserable.

Further on from the Ritchies’ was the largest house of our quartier on the corner of James Street. It was moderately grand, its two storeys making it unique in the neighbourhood, grey roughcast and with a walled garden which contained a fish pond, the elusive goldfish in which Robert Mackenzie and others and I sometimes sneaked in through an unlocked side gate to try to raid. The owners, who were called Furneaux and who, it was said, were plumbers, though they must have been on a larger scale than Dick Palmer, never caught us, little cowards that we were.

Beyond Beverley and Augusta Streets I knew no one. How many households was I familiar with in the quiet confined area where I felt at home? I have mentioned nineteen. How many had any association with a church? Five that I know of, of whom two were Roman Catholic, four I have no idea about but suspect were not churchgoers and ten with no connection at all. That makes the churchgoers 26.32 per cent, possibly higher but still less than half of the national 60 per cent represented by the principal Christian denominations. The three non-Catholic households with a church connection were Anglican, a denomination that in 1950 claimed 25 per cent of the population as adherents.

There are three caveats. One is that it is entirely likely that a large proportion of the non-church-attending claimed church membership on their census forms. It was unusual in 1950 to put “no religion”. It is also possible that some had had an association with a church earlier in life, or – though this is less likely – would acquire one later. Further, when we moved from Glenhuntly to Caulfield I encountered a much higher proportion of churchgoers, particularly Anglicans. St Mary’s, the parish church, was crowded every Sunday, and in our own street of twelve houses, three were actively Anglican and a fourth and fifth had an Anglican connection through occasional churchgoing or enrolment in an Anglican school. This was probably typical for a solidly middle-class suburb of that sort at that time, one that was certainly more “middle” than Glenhuntly. It would not have been typical over a wider area.

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