CORNER OF LA TROBE TERRACE AND RYRIE STREET, GEELONG
Closed and to all appearances forgotten.
This is one of those mysterious cases where a church shuts its doors after a service and shut they stay without anything further happening. Time goes by and no attempt seems to be made to reopen the building or to make any change to it. No estate agent’s board appears outside spruiking its potential, with the wit property salesmen reserve for churches on the market, as a heavenly home or a divine development site. It remains unmeddled with and undemolished. Which of course is a good thing, as long as it lasts, particularly for a building of such architectural merit as St George’s, Geelong.
This church closed for services in January 2015 for a “one-year operational review”. At the end of May 2021 it is still closed, its Presbyterian owners apparently having come to no decision about its future. During those six years the church and its surroundings have received basic maintenance and there are no signs of vandalism, which is itself these days unusual.
St George’s is an imposing church, built for a wealthy and influential congregation, which included the philanthropist Francis Ormond of Ormond Hall and Ormond College fame and sundry Western District squatters of Scottish provenance. They engaged the architect Nathaniel Billing (1821-1910) to prepare the design. Billing had emigrated from England direct to the Western District town of Port Fairy, where he had designed St John’s Anglican church and supervised the construction of the Roman Catholic church of St Patrick. In Melbourne his most notable work is the vast All Saints’ Anglican church in East St Kilda.
Billing described himself (there appears to be no corroboration) as a pupil of the renowned Gothic Revivalist Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), architect of over 800 buildings, of which perhaps the best known is the soaring red-brick hotel in front of St Pancras Station, London. If so, the influence shows. Billing’s work is certainly more disciplined and “correct” in his style than other ecclesiastical architects working in Victoria at the time, with the exception of William Wardell, architect of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
The foundation stone of St George’s was laid on 12 June 1861. The building materials are bluestone and Hawkesbury River freestone for the dressings. The first completed section was the large nave with vestry and square-ended chancel. The church faces west and a porch the width of the nave was built, with a principal doorway and gabled portal opening onto La Trobe Terrace. Transepts and vestibule were added in 1908 and the tower and spire on the north-west corner to mark the church’s 75th anniversary in 1936.
The design is English Gothic of the early Decorated period. The nave is six bays long, the bays marked by buttresses, and under one roof. The window in the main west façade is traceried, with four principal lights and three cinquefoils. The tower, in three stages and buttressed at the corners, is distinctive for its unusually tall bell chamber. A broach spire rises above it, a landmark in the west of Geelong and to some extent a companion to the higher spire of St Mary of the Angels further east. The stone-built Gothic manse behind St George’s, now tenanted, was also designed by Nathaniel Billing.
The church contains some fine stained glass, including windows by Ballantyne & Company of Edinburgh and a war memorial window by William Montgomery (1850-1927), described by his biographer as “Melbourne’s leading stained-glass artist” of the period.
It would be nice to think that this church could reopen. There is a precedent for that in the former Presbyterian, then Uniting, now Presbyterian again church in St Kilda, which, set on a hill with a tall spire, is the most prominent nineteenth-century building in Melbourne’s inner southern suburbs. It was briefly made redundant by the Uniting Church but was reopened and then thoroughly restored inside and out about ten years ago by a Presbyterian congregation that took responsibility for it. But perhaps St George’s has been shut for too long. Its interior fittings, according to someone who managed to see inside, are thickly covered with thick dust. One fears the worst.