Sunday schools were initiated throughout England in the 18th century to provide basic lessons in literacy to poor working children (on their only day of leisure) who otherwise would receive no formal education. The Sunday School Society was established in London in 1785 by William Fox, a Baptist philanthropist, formalising rules, providing religious tracts and funding. In 1799 the Religious Tract Society was founded to publish materials written by evangelical Anglicans and nonconformists for use in these schools.
The Sunday School movement quickly spread to the colonies, reaching Van Diemen’s Land in the early 1820s, by which time government-assisted free schools [sometimes referred to as “national” schools] were provided in settled areas, although attendance was not compulsory. On his appointment to St John’s in 1828, one of the duties of the rector, the Revd William Henry Browne, LLD, was to supervise and inspect these schools in Launceston and George Town. Having arrived from Ireland, he would have been familiar with the Church of Ireland Sunday School Society which was founded in 1809.
The first known references to a Sunday School at St John’s feature in the journal of Chaplain Browne who wrote on 7 November 1830 that he ‘gave notice for Sunday School being opened this day week’. By 28th November he reported that ‘the number at Sunday School increased to 12’. There were further such journal entries in early 1831, then no mention until on 6th November 1831, ‘ today the SS (sic) was opened by Mr Dowling and my brother’, 16th November, ‘Gave Mr Dowling some books and cards for SS‘ and 20th November ‘Visited the SS, it is getting along well’.
According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography – Henry Dowling, Henry Dowling’s eldest son, Henry Dowling junior (1810-1885), printer, publisher, bank manager and philanthropist, was born at Gloucester, and educated at the Free Grammar School, Colchester. He arrived in Hobart in September 1830, and was employed at the Hobart Town Courier office under James Ross. He soon went to Launceston, joined the Advertiser owned by John Pascoe Fawkner and in 1831 became its editor and publisher. On 10th February 1832 he opened Launceston’s first Sunday school with five boys and three girls at St John’s Church. There on 6 November 1833 he married Eliza Tayspill, newly arrived from Colchester; they had seven sons and three daughters.
An article published in the Launceston Examiner in 1890 outlines the founding of the Sunday School movement. LAUNCESTON SUNDAY SCHOOLS The Rev. Chas. Price supplies the following interesting reminiscence : The following will be of much interest to many who are now assisting in Sunday schools. It is copied from the Launceston Advertiser of Wednesday, April 11, 1832: At a meeting held in the National school-room, Cameron-street, Launceston, on Wednesday, March 21, 1832, George Yeoland, Esq., A.C.E., in the chair, it was resolved unanimously
- That this meeting, impressed with a sense of the benefits resulting from Sabbath -schools, have great pleasure in hearing of the establishment of a school in Launceston, for the gratuitous education of the young upon religious principles.
- That it appears desirable that support be given to the first promoters of this object by the constitution of an acting committee and election of officers for the general management and direction of the said institution.
- That the following gentlemen pledge themselves to perform the duties of a committee, etc., until a general meeting of subscribers shall take place:-Committee – Rev. W. H. Brown, L.L.D.; Dr. Westbrook; Messrs. T. Bartley, St. John Brown, Champion, Dalrymple, J. W. Gleadow, W. H. Gough, R. C. Gunn, H. Jennings, H. Priaulx, D. Robertson, Whitcomb, Wilson, G. Yeoland, A.C.S.; treasurer, Mr T. Sherwin; secretary and superintendent, Mr H. Dowling.
- That the institution shall be supported by annual subscriptions (not exceeding 10s) and collections, together with the donations or legacies of any who may be disposed to contribute to its support. Subscribers of 10s per annum to be entitled to vote at the annual meetings of the Society.
The building used for the first Sunday School stood on part of the land later occupied by Holy Trinity Church, and had Methodist origins. Eric Ratcliff reported in 2009, “After the failure of the first Methodist congregation in the town, the government took over the chapel and used it for an elementary school. As the schoolroom for old Holy Trinity Church, it lasted long enough to be photographed.”
On 16th March 1832, Browne had attended ‘a meeting of Gentlemen in the evening assembled to form a society to render the SS more extensively useful’ and on 22nd March remarked ‘ attended mtg (sic) of SS committee’ which was made up of worthy citizens of Anglican and Nonconformist persuasion. This meeting formalised the Launceston Sunday School Society.
During the following year, however, there was some contention between the rector and the nonconformists. On 30th September, ‘was much annoyed to find that the Superintendent of our SS [Henry Dowling jnr] prevented children attending our church as usual but took them in spite of the muster to the Dissenting place’, and 1st October ‘Paid several visits to the parents of the Children at the national school respecting their being taken to the dissenting place of Worship. Called a meeting of the Committee specially for the evening where I made a full statement of the interference prefacing with a full statement of the liberal principles upon which she (sic) has ever acted towards all classes of Xtians, the result was that the Children for the future should be taken to the place of worship to which the parents belonged.’
The issue obviously continued to fester as on 20 June 1833 Browne ‘called on Mr Dowling according to his wishes to effect a reconciliation and stop the hostile proceedings between the [Sunday] schools.’ After further negotiations, at last on 27 July , he ‘wrote to the Secretary of the SS assenting to their proposition to re-unite with us’.
A wide-ranging talk on Early Launceston History given by Ernest Whitfeld in 1897, reports, “In 1832 our first Sunday school was started, in what is now Trinity school-room, by Mr. Henry Dowling, Mrs. Theodore Bartley being the first lady teacher. In 1833 the first anniversary took place, and the children were all taken over to Mr. Fawkner’s Cornwall Hotel, and regaled with roast beef and plum pudding.”
L.S. Bethell’s Story of Port Dalrymple (1957) gives a little more of the background. Henry Dowling jnr was the first superintendent, with Mrs Bryant Bartley as teacher and Henry Priaulx as secretary. The society was “undenominational”, and after starting in February with 9 children, had an enrolment of over 100 by the end of the year. Every Sunday morning, the children marched two by two to St. John’s Church. Dowling was followed after 4 years by Peter Jacob, and he gave way to William Henty. In 1835, the Wesleyans (Methodists) opened a Sunday School in Canning Street, soon transferred to Paterson Street. In 1842, St. John’s schoolroom was built to take the overflow, and in 18943, it was decided that the children and teachers of every parish should attend their parish schools. This marked the end of the Launceston Sunday School Society, and thereafter, the Presbyterians, Baptists and Independents joined the Van Diemen’s Land Sunday School Union which had been formed in Hobart in late 1840.
The last entry in Chaplain Browne’s journal was on 19th February 1845, but up until then he continued to refer to Sunday Schools at St John’s, also at the Penitentiary and Female Factory and an Adult Sunday School. Each year he invited an Anglican priest from a northern parish to preach a sermon at St John’s to raise funds for the Sunday School. On 18th December 1842, ‘Mr Bishton preached on behalf of the SS Society, collected £26..7..6d’. He made frequent references to correspondence with the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Sunday School Society in London requesting funds for Bibles and tracts. There is reference to meetings of Sunday School teachers. On 3rd May 1843, he opened the new Sunday School building in Elizabeth Street, adjacent to the church and on 18 December 1844, ‘ Attended Anniversary of the Church Sunday School for children of which upward of 150 after examination proceeded to a festival at the Horticultural Garden.’
Further research is needed on the development of the Sunday School during the latter part of the 19th century, but the “anniversary” was a major event that continued into the 20th century. We are given a glimpse of the progress of the Sunday School in an Examiner article published 24th November 1874, which publishes details of a sermon given by the Revd. Marcus Blake Brownrigg on the occasion of the anniversary services. At the conclusion of the sermon he gave some little information as\ to the working expenses of the school, which he said amounted to about £40 a year. There were over two hundred scholars on the books, so that the institution was carried on at less than a penny per scholar per Sunday. He instanced this as showing the economy that was practised, though he considered the factor of pounds, shillings, and pence should never be allowed to enter into the calculation of the good done by Sunday schools. The children were seated in the chancel, and at both services rendered the responses and chants occurring in the service, together with seven or eight special hymns most beautifully, and so faithfully had they been trained, that though the organ was at the farther end of the church and could be of little or no assistance, time and tune were kept with remarkable precision. The collections amounted to £38 10s 2d, of which only £10 was taken in the evening, though the congregation on that occasion was by far the larger.’
In the 1990s, an elderly parishioner, Mrs. Elsie Jessop recalled that during her childhood before World War I, when the Sunday School children went into the church, they would go upstairs to the old “convict” gallery and sit on the narrow, uncomfortable benches built after the convicts ceased to attend St John’s. The children would lean on the railing and look down at the “grand” people below, ladies always in their ‘Sunday best’ with bonnets. The children of the rich did not attend Sunday School with the poorer classes!
The Sunday School movement was very strong at St. John’s for most of the 20th century. It provided generations of children with the basics of the Christian faith. The Sunday School consisted of three divisions, senior, intermediate and kindergarten. While the kindergarten section had a different program from the older classes, Sunday School was generally quite strict and examinations held to measure progress. The main hall was set out with tables, under strict supervision with forms placed around. The Sunday School building, now mostly demolished, catered for large classes as well as parish activities. The remaining front section has been incorporated into the present Colonial Motor Inn (currently called Quality Hotel Colonial).
The serious nature of the lessons was offset by the annual picnics, also recalled by Mrs. Jessop; “Sunday school picnics were grand occasions. Four or five open horse drawn buses would line up in St. John Street, and all the children would go on them and away they would go, along Elphin Road cheering and yelling, on the way to the showgrounds. At the showgrounds, flags would mark the place for each class, and each child would be given a bun and a mug of ginger beer when they first arrived. Activities would continue until lunchtime, and then the Sunday School bell would ring. Children would then sit down, and boxes of sandwiches and meat pies would be brought around, with more ginger beer and a bag of lollies. Sports and other interesting activities would fill the afternoon, with the teachers entering fully into the races and other amusements. Parents would be invited to attend afternoon tea, and the children would return to the church in the horse-drawn buses. These picnics took place on Saturdays. Later, train excursions took the picnics to Rocherlea or the Mowbray racecourse; then completely out of town, and at Evandale showgrounds.”
(See also 1900 Sunday School Picnic photo gallery)