Kew Baptist in Colonial Victoria: A church full of migrants
Australia was first settled at least 40,000 years ago and has had unknown numbers of people move here over the millennia since then. The Europeans arrived in 1788 and reached the rich grazing lands of Victoria by 1843. After much agitation the district was separated from New South Wales and on 1 July 1851, La Trobe was appointed Lieutenant Governor of the new colony and Victoria was open for business.
The marquees were still being put away when on 7 July gold was found at Clunes. The new colony was swamped with so many people that one ‘tent city’ was established in South Melbourne and another in Elizabeth St to provide accommodation for them.
John Denbigh was an early arrival and lived on the corner of Wimba Ave and Cotham Rd. He scored a job as a clerk in the new Victorian Civil Service and was soon transferred to the Gold Commissioners Office. In 1852 he was attending the church led by Rev W P Scott in the Mechanics Institute in Collins St when Joseph Foy came to preach. They became friends and I believe John invited Joseph to Kew.
Joseph had arrived from England in 1851 and built his house in Kew in 1853 in ‘the primeval forest, with bush tracks leading to widely separated habitations’. Other newcomers were living in tents under the large shady trees. Nearby there was an aboriginal camp.
In April 1853 Joseph began holding regular worship services in his house. The first attracted 3 visitors, John Denbigh, Courtney Walrond and Thomas Merritt. Thomas brought along a tuning fork to lead the singing. In September they opened a Sunday School, with John Denbigh as Superintendent, and Mrs Foy and Mr Hodgson as teachers. One student turned up on their first day. By Sept 1854 they had built a small weatherboard chapel on the corner of St John’s Parade and Cotham Rd and the Rev W P Scott was invited to open it. Joseph took up his position as pastor the following week and served for 27 years until he died in 1879.
In November 1856 the church was formally constituted as the Kew Baptist Church with John Denbigh the only deacon. He served the church until his death in 1875.
It was a church full of new arrivals.