In the beginning was a patch of Gadigal land.

After a very long time, one hundred hectares of the patch was ‘given’ to the 4th incoming governor of the colony of NSW. His name was William Bligh. Yes, the same William Bligh from the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty. In an effort to downplay the mutiny, Bligh proudly named his land grant Camperdown - after his most victorious sea battle, the Battle of Camperdown, fought off the Dutch coast a decade prior.

At that time, in 1805, the colony was not a stable place. Governor Bligh and his accompanying daughter, Mary, knew the appointment would be tough, and sure enough, Bligh’s worst nightmare unfolded when another mutiny – later known as the ‘Rum Rebellion’ had them under house arrest in Government House* for over a year. Once released, Bligh returned to England, happy to be rid of the god-forsaken colony. Daughter Mary, however, had other plans. She married her father’s assistant, Lieutenant Governor Sir Maurice O’Connell. In time, they inherited a land parcel known as Bligh Terrace near New Town Road (now King Street) and Bligh Street (now Carillon Avenue). The locality then became known as O’CONNELL TOWN.

Bligh died in England in 1817. Over time, a section of his Camperdown estate was gifted by the Bligh daughters to build a new church of Church of England in the colony. In 1844, the foundation stone was laid on the site of “New Town Road”, near Victoria Street. The new church was named ‘St Stephen’s, Camperdown’. A decade later this area then became known as Newtown.
This majestic St Stephen’s Anglican Church that we all know and love was not the first St Stephen’s in Newtown! The original one, built in 1845, stood in Stephens Street just behind Campos Coffee. And yes, the name Stephen Street isn’t coincidental. In those days, people turned their horse and carriage off New Town Road (now King St) and onto Stephen Street to reach the church.

Not long after the original St Stephen’s was built, the congregation realised they had a problem: their building was too small. So, with abundant prayer, they set out to build a bigger church. Nearby land within the Church of England cemetery, established in 1848, just 300m along Victoria Street, was the obvious location.

The new St Stephen’s building, consecrated in the graveyard in 1874, did not mean an end to the old one. The two would overlap for another 64 years.
The original St Stephen’s was converted into a Church of England school until 1907. After 1907, it served the congregation as their parish hall. During the 64-year overlapping period, it was commonplace on a Sunday morning to see hundreds of children walking and skipping from the new St Stephen’s in Church Street down Victoria Street to the original church building for Sunday School.
Sadly, the original church burnt down in 1938 when a gusty gale flung sparks from a neighbour’s burn-off onto the church roof. The children inside, rehearsing for a Sunday School concert, relocated outside and watched the disaster unfold.
The original St Stephens Newtown, built in 1845 and today’s St Stephen’s Newtown, built in 1874, were both designed by architect Edmund Blacket. When Blacket arrived in the Colony in 1842, he was immediately employed by the Church of England’s Bishop Broughton to design and supervise the building of their churches, rectories, and schools. One of the first churches he designed was the original St Stephen’s in Newtown (then called Camperdown).

So talented was Blacket that within a short time, he was appointed the New South Wales Colonial Architect. This role placed him in charge of the government's public building projects across the state. As the Colonial Architect, Blacket designed courthouses, police offices, bridges, a lighthouse and a hospital, as well as tackle the issue of the leaking roof at Government House. As prestigious as this position was, Blacket’s passion was designing churches, and so after just 5 years, he resigned from this government role.
During Blacket’s time in the colony, he designed well over a hundred Anglican church buildings in New South Wales, as well as the cathedral in Perth. One of the last churches Blacket designed and supervised was our majestic St Stephen’s Newtown. It is neat that Blacket’s two St Stephens churches in Newtown bookended his career in the colony.
Once the land, given by Governor Bligh’s family for the church site had been prepared, Edmund Blacket’s architectural design completed, and the necessary funds raised, the building of the first Church of England in Newtown (then known as Camperdown) commenced. The building began with the customary Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony, which took place on December 26th, 1844.

And here lies the answer to our question: December 26th, which we think of as Boxing Day, back in 1844 was widely known as St Stephen’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Stephen - a Christian saint’s day honouring Stephen, the first Christian martyr that we read about in Acts 7. And so, the date of this ceremony determined the name of the church.

The ceremony commenced with the reading of Psalm 132 and a sermon from 1 Corinthians 3 by Rev. Dr. Steele, the incumbent of St Peter’s Church, Cook’s River. It climaxed with Bishop William Grant Broughton, the first and only Bishop of Australia, laying the foundation stone with the following words:
“I lay this as the foundation stone and cornerstone of a church to be built on this place and to be named St Stephen’s, and to be set apart for the preaching of the right Catholic (meaning universal) faith, which we believe and confess. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
This year, St Stephen’s Church turns 150. This graceful building has stood overlooking Newtown and Camperdown through an eventful season in Australia’s history. Built in the midst of Camperdown Cemetery, it has shielded and sustained a Christian community on the edge of the city of Sydney through the end of the Victorian era, the turmoil of the first half of the twentieth century, and the emergence of contemporary Australia. One of Edmund Blackett’s most mature architectural achievements, it is the much loved spiritual home of many people. More than once in the twentieth century, St Stephen’s was nearly bereft of a congregation. Yet today it hosts a vibrant church community that matches the theological emphases with which it was established. In many ways, it feels like St Stephen’s has come into a new flowering.

150 years is a mere drop compared to the ocean of time of which the native grasses in Camperdown Cemetery are a reminder, in which the Gadigal people dwelt and cared for this place. Yet it is also enough time for a building to show its age, and there are now a number of pressing and challenging maintenance needs. We are grateful for your interest and willingness to help sustain St Stephen’s in this wonderful new season of life.
Did you know that churches didn’t always have seats?

In the early church people usually stood for the service, which involved lots of kneeling, standing, and moving around. But in the 1500s, the Reformation meant that church services became more focused on sermons, and involved a lot more listening, for a lot longer. People needed seats!

Most seats were wooden benches, or ‘pews.’ Very quickly, pews became both a status symbol and a way to support the church. Wealthy families would rent or buy pews from the church. These would be the best seats with the best views. The better the seat, the more you paid. The money went to the church and helped pay for all kinds of things like maintenance and paying the minister.

Families could add gates, curtains to keep out cold winds, and sometimes even a fireplace to keep the pew warm! These pews were enclosed and called ‘box pews,’ which let a family sit together in a regular spot. They were personal property and could be handed down in your will. Most churches provided some ‘free’ pews at the very back for poor people and visitors. But some churches were ‘closed’ churches: if you didn’t buy or rent a pew, you couldn’t attend.

Pew rental became controversial in the 1840s. People thought everyone should be able to come to church and gather with God’s people, whether they were rich or not. Robert Taylor was one person who thought this. He was the minister at St Stephen’s Newtown when it was being built. When they raised the money to build the church in 1871, he promised that half of all the pews would be free pews: open to anyone. Even better, these pews aren’t at the back or hidden away where it was hard to see – they are right up the front with some of the best views.

On one wall of the church, you can see a plaque which reads:
The subscriptions for the erection of this church were obtained on the express condition that an equal half of the sittings should be free and unappropriated.

#7: Cinematic Moments at St. Stephen's
A captivating aspect of St. Stephen’s history lies in its frequent appearances as a filming location. Some people might remember E Street and My Place, both filmed at St Stephen’s. As well as the recent ABC series of Marcus Zusak's The Messenger, which has several scenes shot at the church (https://iview.abc.net.au/show/messenger).

There have also been many music video’s filmed at St Stephen’s. You might like to watch Temper Trap performing ‘Love Lost’ Live at the Chapel or Guy Sebastian’s filming at St Stephen’s (featured from about 1:30) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hABe9v1TnU.

Although we reckon the absolute winner is Tim Finn’s ‘Made My Day’, filmed in St Stephen’s in 1983. Worth every second https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGteFIr_Wpg.

What a cultural history!
#8: The St. Stephen’s Gallery
During the Victorian era, a church’s gallery usually housed a large pipe organ or was exclusively utilised by the choir, often referred to as the choir loft. But neither the organ nor the choir occupied the gallery within St Stephen’s Newtown.

At that time, music was considered most desirable when heard from behind the seated audience. This was the closest the Victorian era could get to achieving surround sound. However, St Stephen’s forfeited this pleasure. The gallery at St Stephen’s was assigned to the children. To accommodate them, low benching was specially crafted to pack in as many children as possible. This simple seating remains in the gallery today. The doors placed at the bottom of the gallery steps allowed the children to enter and exit the building easily, without disrupting the adults in the church.

It would be interesting to know if St Stephen’s sacrificed the sound of lofty hymns wafting from behind for the lively chatter of children or did the Victorian thinking ‘children should be seen and not heard’ prevail.
#9: The St. Stephen's Organ
Architect Edmund Blacket’s job was not complete at the laying of the church’s foundation stone on November 11th, 1871. Quite the contrary, he concerned himself with every detail including the ordering of the organ, providing the London organ maker Walker and Sons with an organ sketch that would suit his ‘decorated gothic’ architecture.

Blacket briefed the church’s building committee on the cost and proposed placement of the organ. The latter caused heated debate, with some arguing for a traditional placement in the gallery, whilst others successfully argued that it be placed in the Southern Transept. Passion for the organ was strong. Its £800 cost was mostly covered by an anonymous donation.

When the church opened in April 1874 the congregation were conflict free over the organ for there was no organ – it was still being crafted in London and did not arrive for a further year.

However, just before the organ arrived, debate on the position of the organ re-arose. “Blacket reported several objections to the practicability of the siting of the organ in the gallery at this late stage, and so the issue was dropped.”
The organ was finally installed 13 months after opening and can still be heard heralding the birth of Christ at carol services each year.
#10: The Church in the Graveyard
The imposing gates and Cemetery Lodge, nestled under the darkening branches of the fig, are the first point of entrance to St Stephen’s, Newtown. Walking up the original carriage way, it is difficult not to notice the proximity of the gravestones to the building, in the way the roots of the fig tree disturb the earth, these sandstone graves emanate from the church.

The fact that the church sits amongst the graves in Camperdown Cemetery is owed in part to an Act of Parliament in 1871 which granted the Church permission to build within the cemetery grounds.

In the years leading up to this Act of Parliament, government inquiries had taken place into the state of Sydney’s cemeteries. Poor drainage, complaints of effluviant odours, the practice of the “packing system”, and overcrowding contributed to the decision to effectively close the cemetery.

As the cemetery had been established in 1848 as a Company and then dissolved in 1868 by Acts of Parliament, the parish of St Stephen’s required parliamentary permission to build a church there.

As the 1871 Act states, “And whereas divers portions of the said land have not been used for the purposes of burial and some of such portions have not been consecrated... said unused portions of the said land are suitable for the erection there on of a Church and of a residence for the Minister.” Thus, the church within the cemetery was born. These graves, crowding around the building, are revenants of the site’s complex history.
#11: The St Stephen's Windows.
Have you ever noticed what is missing from the windows at St Stephen’s? It’s something found in many other stained-glass windows around the world…

The windows at St Stephen’s have no images of people in them!

The reason there are no people depicted in the stained glass at St Stephen’s is largely due to the theological convictions of Robert Taylor, the minister who oversaw the building’s initial construction. He held strongly to the beliefs of the evangelical Church of England tradition which sought to distance itself from the rituals and aesthetics of the Catholic heritage that shaped much of traditional Anglicanism at the time. Instead, Robert Taylor was dedicated to making the study of the Word of God, and obedience to God’s written instructions, a characterising feature of the parish.

As a result, the windows of St Stephen’s were designed to avoid bearing a “graven image” of anything in Heaven or on Earth, and so to uphold the Third Commandment (Exodus 20:4). So, rather than featuring illustrations of Bible stories or scenes from the lives of saints, the church’s windows interweave complex geometric designs with fragments of Scripture from across both the Old and New Testaments, including Proverbs, Psalms, Matthew, Acts, Titus, Hebrews and Revelation
#12: The St Stephen's Roll of Honor 1914-1918
The St. Stephen’s Honour Roll is a perpetual memory of the 129 men of the Parish who made the supreme sacrifice during World War One. The genesis of honour roll boards in churches was part of a community and nationwide attempt to honour those who served. The scale of death in WW1 was beyond the expectation and administrative management of a fledgling nation and military administration, with Australia quickly accepting that their war dead were not going to be brought home.

So how would we commemorate the war dead in Australia when there were no graves to visit in Australia? After much debate, the decision was made to establish monuments, cenotaphs, shrines, memorial gates, columns and Church Honour Roll boards; to name just a few. So, the plethora of honour roll boards in churches can rightly be seen as part of the communal attempt at commemoration and provided a focus for remembrance and grief at the local community level. Most Church Honour Rolls list the names of all who served and mark with a cross or symbol those who died. However, St Stephen’s Honour Roll is unique in that it only lists the names of those who died.

All of the 129 men named and remembered have a story. One of those was Gunner Frederick Mahood, who served with the 15th Field Artillery Battery, 5th Field Artillery Brigade. Frederick lived with his sister Mrs Lily Newman at 200 King Street Newtown, he was a tinsmith who enlisted in the Army as an 18-year-old on the 8th of September 1915. Frederick sailed from Australia on the 18th of November 1915 never to return home. He was wounded on 23rd of April 1917 and returned to duty on the 18th of November 1917. Frederick was killed in action on the 15th of April 1918 in France; he was 21 years old. Frederick was buried the following day by Chaplain A.W. Tonge (an Anglican Minister from Melbourne) in Henencourt Cemetery, France.
#13: Who was the first Rector of St Stephen’s?
The parish of St Stephen’s Camperdown began in 1845 as a ‘branch church’ of St Peter’s Cook’s River under the care of their minister, the Reverend Dr. Thomas STEELE. Reverend Steele would have been relieved when St Stephen’s Camperdown became a ’separate charge’ the following year, and granted their own minister, saving him his horse ride from Cook’s River to Camperdown to run the evening service.

In 1846 Reverend Charles Campbell Kemp was appointed the first Rector of St Stephen’s Camperdown – a sparse and poor suburb. Rev. Kemp supplemented his stipend by running a boys’ school but, the majority of his time was spent conducting funerals in the nearby Camperdown Cemetery opened in 1848, a few years after his appointment. In the two decades Kemp was Rector he buried close to 18,000 souls until the cemetery was declared full. This is possibly a world-record for a minister to bury this many souls! During Kemp’s time the local area grew rapidly, the Municipality of Newtown was formed changing the name of the parish to St Stephen’s Newtown.
In 1866, under the immense pressure of the population explosion, and an overflowing church, Kemp acquired a young curate to assist him, Reverend Robert Taylor. The two worked together for two years until Kemp was forced to stand down due to failing health. Taylor became the Curate-in-Sole charge during 1868-1870 and inducted as Rector in 1870. Taylor then oversaw the massive building project and became the first Rector in the new St Stephen’s building.
#14: St Stephen's Newtown on a firm foundation.
Story #14: St Stephen's Newtown on a firm foundation.
It’s not every day that the Governor of New South Wales is invited to a church service.But the parishioners of Newtown were so thrilled by the prospect of replacing their crowded church with a spacious new building that they wanted the highest official in the colony to lay the foundation stone. He also happened to be an earl!

At 3pm on Saturday, 11 November 1871, Earl Belmore joined an expectant crowd in Camperdown Cemetery, where the new St Stephen’s Church would be built. The opening hymn was well chosen:
Lord of Hosts! To Thee we raise
Here a house of prayer and praise,
Then thy people’s hearts prepare
Here to meet for praise and prayer.

A scroll containing the details of the ceremony was put into a bottle and placed in the hole where the stone would soon sit. Then His Excellency took up a trowel and mallet and laid the stone in place. But the highlight of the day was still to come. Standing on the foundation stone, the Dean of Sydney spoke of the extraordinary generosity of the St Stephen’s parishioners. Before the foundation stone had even been laid, they had promised about half of what would be needed to open the church. This would happen three years later, in time for Easter in 1874.

It’s not every day that the Governor of New South Wales is invited to a church service. The current governor, Margaret Beazley, will be there on 7 April 2024 to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the church’s opening. What could be more fitting?
Story #15: The Blind Bellringer
The steeple of St Stephens contains a unique mini carillon comprising a "peal" of 20 hemispherical bells struck by hammers, originally operated from a keyboard on a floor below. The bells were purchased with an anonymous donation of £750 in 1876, cast in England, and first rung at the Sydney International Exhibition in the Botanic Gardens in 1879. In 1880 they were hung in the church when it was reported:

The residents of Newtown .. have a musical treat in the shape of a merry ring on the new church bells in the steeple of St. Stephen's .. The mechanical contrivance by which they are rung is the only one of its kind ... and psalmody of the most difficult kind are performed on them, a feat that cannot be accomplished on any other set of church bells in the colonies.

For the next 70 years they were rung entirely by men organised in the Society of Bellringers, until 1947 when Miss Dorothy Juleff, who was "able to see enough to go about unaccompanied, but not to read" began to play. She memorised every tune and later recorded them in braille, playing before regular morning and evening services, and on other special services.
"The weddings are the nicest. When the bride comes out of church you can really let yourself go. You just cannot afford to make mistakes - it would be too hard on the neighbours!"

Today, no mistakes are made as the recently restored bells are played remotely via electrically-actuated strikers and a wireless app.
Story #16: The Steeple
Blacket’s St Stephen’s Newtown, being ‘gothic revival’ in style, was inspired by buildings from the medieval period. Basically, Blacket wanted to create a building that looked like it belonged in the 1300s instead of to the 1800s when it was built! He had spent a year sketching English medieval architecture, so he had plenty of inspirational examples.

Medieval churches are known for their tower, also called a steeple, with a pointed spire on top. The tower was used as a look-out but, in time, became a place to house the bells. The pointed spire, however, is purely decorative, signifying heavenly aspirations. I like to think of the spire representing our hands in prayer because we can speak with God since Jesus has given us access to him.

The St Stephen’s tower was the trickiest part of the church to complete. Labour shortages meant it was not completed in time for the church’s opening. Blacket estimated an additional £750 to build the tower and a further £1000 to add the spire.

During construction, local boys kept playing on the tower walls so the entrance to the tower stairs had to be blocked. And later, in 1877, Blacket had to return as the spire was leaking! To correct the problem, he decided to repoint it with cement.
Story #17: The First Easter Service
By the time the church was in use in April 1874, there appears to have been no great celebration of the parish’s new creation, for the spire wasn’t finished, the bells not installed, the approach and gates not completed” and the organ was still being crafted in England. But no celebration can ever exceed the joy of Christ’s resurrection and so the parish pushed to have their very first service on Easter Day, four days before their ‘official opening’.

People who attended that Easter Day service, on the 5th of April, 1874 and the 'official opening' on Thursday the 9th of April had to bypass scaffolding snaking up the spire to enter the church.

It was not until June 1881 that the people of St Stephen’s Newtown began to enjoy a sense of completeness - the organ was installed in 1875, the tower and spire finished in 1876, major repairs completed on the spire in 1879 to stop leakage, and the bells hung in 1880. Finally in June 1881, the folk of St Stephens gave generously to liquidate the entire remaining debt of £1,000.
Scaffolding and St Stephen’s are not unfamiliar friends. The inside walls of the church were lined with scaffold for the induction of the 17th St Stephen’s rector, Reverend Peter Rodgers, in July 2002 to replace fluorescent lights with soft up-down lighting. In 2009 the spire was covered in scaffolding for seven months for extensive restoration work. Again, this month, even as St Stephen’s celebrates its 150th anniversary, the rectory residence in front of the church is surrounded by scaffolding for replacement of its slate roof.
Quote by Stephen Frith.

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