A sower went forthA sower went forth to sow (see footnote 4)
History of Kangaroo Ground Presbyterian Church

The first Europeans to own land in Kangaroo Ground were James and Isabella Donaldson, arriving in Port Phillip (Melbourne) on 17 December 1841 from Scotland[1],[2]. They purchased 1 square mile (258.6 hectares) southwest of the present Church and their first house was a bark hut. As they were of mature age they employed tenant farmers to cultivate the land. These farmers were all Scottish emigrants, many of whom purchased land surrounding the Donaldson’s in subsequent land sales[3].

Like other settlers, as soon as they had made a home for themselves and their families, they desired church services as in their homeland. The Rev. James Forbes, the first minister of Scots Church, Melbourne, had written in 1840 to the Colonial Committee of the Church of Scotland asking for suitable ministers to be sent out. In response to this appeal the Rev. Peter Gunn arrived in January, 1842 and was specially appointed to serve the Gaelic speaking people in and around Melbourne.

The records state that there is no photograph available of Rev. Gunn as he declined to be photographed on the ground that “the making of images is forbidden”. In the “Early History” he is described as “a quiet young man” and one of the present parishioners says that her grandfather, as a small boy, apparently told his mother he should have been named “Pistol” rather than “Gunn”. Such an image is inconsistent with that recorded by Mr Woiwod: “(He was said to have been of) ample proportions and to have exercised…

forcible pulpit manners, including the frequent taking of snuff or ‘sneeshin’. To drive home his lessons more cogently he would lean over the edge of the pulpit until his congregation was afraid – and the younger ones hoped – that he would overbalance and tumble out.”

The Donaldson's built a substantial home at the centre of their property called Kangaroo Hall. From 1843 to 1853 the Rev Gunn conducted church services at regular intervals in the Donaldson's barn.


1. The sources for this material are:

    1.  Woiwod, M (1994). Kangaroo Ground - The Highland Taken, Tarcoola Press.
    2. Jackson, V and Ness, J (March 1978). Early History of Kangaroo Ground Presbyterian Church
    3. Anderson, Jenny (2007). The light on the hill: 150 years of the Presbyterian Church in Kangaroo Ground. Prepared for the author by Ginninderra Press, [Charnwood, A.C.T.] (Available from the Church for $20.)

2. The original inhabitants of Kangaroo Ground were the Aborigines of the Wurundjeri Willam clan. These had largely died out by the time of white settlement.

3. The land holdings in Kangaroo Ground from 1841 are shown in this map (courtesy of the Andrew Ross Schoolhouse Museum, Maps Collection) Kangaroo Ground landholders from 1841

4. "To the glory of God in loving memory of Jessie Agnes Haughton 1882-1956"

Development of the school

Mr Donaldson donated half an acre of land as the site for a building to be used as both a school and church. Mr Samuel Furphy[5] built a substantial slab building, 30 feet by 18 feet (9.1 metres by 5.5 Church bellThe Church bell (see footnote 7)metres). It was to serve the community as school and church for 27 years until September 1878.

Mr Andrew Ross, a Scottish immigrant, was the first schoolmaster in the region, deeply involved in community activities as well as being a keen recorder of contemporary life. Throughout his adult life he kept a diary. Years later when he returned to Scotland he published a long series of newspaper articles chronicling the district’s life and times. His diary and the articles have survived to provide present-day readers with details of early Kangaroo Ground.[6]

Mr Ross had been teaching in Melbourne and studying to become a Presbyterian minister. However, his health failed and his acceptance of the position as schoolteacher at Kangaroo Ground was to reduce his workload. Given that background it meant that as well as teaching, he would conduct divine service on the Sundays when Rev Gunn or another minister did not preach. He also read many grave-side services, the first within weeks of his arrival.

For the first few months after their arrival, he and his wife Mary Ann used the school-room as both bedroom and kitchen. During the day Mr Ross taught the farmer’s children; of an evening he ran classes for those of the community, who due to the disruption of emigration and settling had missed the benefits of a formal schooling.

The School Inspector, Mr James Bonwick, described the building in 1863 as "rudely constructed of slabs of timber and sapling logs covered up, partially, with mud to stop the wind holes". Mr Bonwick also praised highly the people of the district for the attention given to religious instruction and scholarship, and he wrote of the area as a "moral oasis".

The school was closely associated with the Church as officially it was Kangaroo Ground Presbyterian Church School No. 27. By 1853 the name had changed to Scots Church School and by 1854 to Church of Scotland School. There is a note within the Church records stating that repairs to the school house in 1871 required expenditure on "palings, calico, nails, weatherboards, spouting and glass, carriage of timber, labour and cleaning" for a total outlay of 12 pounds and eight shillings (about $1,300 in today’s values).[8]

The school was transformed into State School No. 352 by the Education Act of 1873. The slab school finally closed its doors on Monday, 1 October 1878. The following morning classes recommenced in a new schoolhouse some 50 metres to the north, officially known as the Kangaroo Ground State School No. 2105. (This is now the Andrew Ross museum. ) In 1880 "The Australian Handbook and Almanac and Shippers' and Importers' Directory" still recorded the school as No. 352 as shown in the following extract:



5. Samuel Furphy was the father of Joseph Furphy, the writer of Such is Life and John Furphy, the manufacturer of Furphy water carts.
6. The Diary and Reminiscences of Andrew Ross, 394 pp., Andrew Ross Museum 2011.
7.The bell was donated in 1892 by Mr John Bell. Originally located on a wooden structure on the north side of the Church, it was placed on a steel pole on the south side in the 1960s. It was moved to its present location adjacent to the porch in 2013 as part of the landscaping works associated with the new hall. The present mounting was made by the late Mr Bruce Ness, but it incorporates what is probably the original mounting; a horizontal axle made from an old miner's pick, the supporting tongue of the bell going through the handle hole. The bell rope is connected to a curved bar crudely riveted to the axle. In the early 20th century the bell was rung to warn of bushfires, as well as for Church services. 
8. Approximate current prices have been determined using Fitzherbert, R, Price Conversion Factors for Historians, Australian Actuarial Journal, 2004 Vol 10 Issue 3 pp. 617-622. The “today figures” are quoted in dollars of 2004.

Present Church

The first formal step to establishing the present church building was in 1872. Mr John Donaldson, son of Mr James Donaldson, donated a quarter acre of land for a new church. The Church records notePulpit Bible fly leafFly leaf of the original Pulpit Bible (Footnote 9) that the Deed of Conveyance cost £8.18.6 (about $890 today)

Subscriptions for the new church of £353.19.0 (about $39,000) were collected from the congregation and friends in 1877. These ranged from 5 shillings to 50 pounds (about $30 to $5,500 today), the larger amounts being donated by John Bell, James Donaldson, John Donaldson and James Thomson.(A good indication not only of their faith but of their success as farmers on the area's rich black soil). The building was designed by the architect Mr Charles Maplestone. It was built in 1878 by Mr Self using hand-made bricks and a slate roof. A Celtic Cross surmounted the front gable.

It was consecrated by Rev A D Kinninmont at a special service held on 9 June 1878.

Mr Woiwod records “Kangaroo Ground was entering its phase of respectability. Already, most of its Scottish born pioneers of the early years had passed away. Already, a smart new school and public hall stood in line above the church. Above that again was the hotel in the front parlour of which the Shire of Eltham met. Next to it, within a year, would appear brick offices built by Donaldson to house the district’s proud newspaper, the Evelyn Observer; further along were a blacksmith’s shop and a house or two. Opposite the church would soon appear James Burn’s commodious General Store. Kangaroo Ground was finally attaining true village status.”

At first the grounds of the Church were unfenced. Later, a neat picket fence was added to the front with post and rail to the other three sides. Pine trees were planted within the fence to provide shade and shelter for the congregation and its horses. In 1912 three of the pine trees were cut down and sold to the Hurstbridge Sawmillers “for 1/- per 100 feet super”. The last of the pine trees were sold to the Hurstbridge Sawmillers in 1936 to pay for new fencing. 

The only change to the design of the present building was the addition of a timber vestry in 1892. A stable (since demolished) was built in the grounds in 1886 at a cost of £4 (about $458 today) as many people rode to church or came in jinkers or buggies and shelter was needed for the vehicles.

The Minister travelled by coach from Heidelberg at a cost of 8/- (about $46 today).

9. The writing on the flyleaf in the original pulpit Bible is faded and the page is discoloured but the endorsement can still be read: "Presented to the Kangaroo Ground Church Together with the Pulpit Cushion & Psalm Book by the Female Members & Adherents of the Congregation February 1871". (The words "Psalm Book" must have been an afterthought as they are written in a smaller size.) This Bible was used well before the present Church was built.

The Earliest Photographs

The following black and white photographs, provided by the late Joy Ness, are the oldest known of the Church and are labelled "1900" on the back. The photographer is unknown. They appear to be taken on different dates as one of the East-West bracing bars (installed in 1907) (see "Problems") is apparent in the interior photograph but the ends are not apparent in the exterior photograph.  

 The exterior photograph shows the north side of the Church with a lady in late Victorian/Edwardian dress.  The post and rail fence can be seen on the south side. The dappled light on the Church will be caused by the sun shining through the pine trees that surrounded the site.  A roofing slate can be seen resting in the guttering near the front of the Church. When the Church was being tidied up for the 150th anniversary celebrations in 2007 a roofing slate had to be retrieved from exactly the same position and reinstalled. (On Christmas Day 2013  a severe hailstorm smashed or cracked many slates and they all had to be replaced.) 

The picket fence shown in the view of the front of the Church was later replaced by a woven wire fence.

The interior view appears to show that the walls were painted in two colours (the walls are now rendered and painted cream). The declaration "Glory to God in the Highest" was not painted on the wall but sewn on a banner. The door on the left leads to the vestry. It is not known when the reed organ on the right hand side was replaced. (The present organ is on the left hand side.) In 2005 a gas heater run on bottled LPG was installed on the right hand side that supplements small electric fan heaters. As far as we know, the Church was not heated until electric power reached Kangaroo Ground in 1958. Initially the Minister had a small radiator in the pulpit, sometime in the 1960s heaters were mounted on the walls for the congregation but they were inadequate.

The lamp closest to the front is believed to be a Miller Jumbo hanging lamp (made in the USA around about 1880 - 1890) and the other is believed to be a three armed iron chandelier with anucapnic burners and chimney/shade combined with glass fonts, possibly made in the USA around the same era. (We don't know what happened to these lamps.)

A recent photograph of the interior of the Church can be seen  here: Weddings

 Church 1900 originalNorth side of Church around 1900Church 1900 front gateFront gate and fence around 1900

Church interior 1900Interior of Church around 1900


Problems with the present Church building

The Church was built without any foundations, the first course of bricks being laid in the dirt about 450mm below the ground surface. (This compares with up to 2 metres for the foundations for the new hall constructed in 2009/2010.)  The walls are always cracked, the width of the cracks depending on the season. As the reactive soil dries out in summer, the cracks open up and close again with the rains of winter. This problem has existed for many years as around 1907, Mr Weller, the local blacksmith, installed iron bars free of charge to brace the walls. These are believed to be the two bars that run east-west along the length of the building on each side and are finished with nuts at the top and bottom of a reverse "S". Each of these bars is in two sections which hook together in the centre. At some earlier date, a single bar was installed at each end that runs the width of the building and is also finished at each end with a nut through the centre of a large iron “S” that distributes the load. 

Although eyesores to modern eyes, they were not out of keeping with the original building as the roof is tied together at each buttress with an iron bar (although the ends are concealed on the outside).

A second problem is that building is constructed of hand-made bricks. These are quite soft and some have crumbled. At some time during the early 20th century the south-west corner of the building was replaced by hard red machine bricks, in contrast to the orange-red colour of the remainder of the building.

In the absence of a Church Hall the congregation held its social functions in the public hall further up the hill. The gradual disintegration of that building saw the church in urgent need of alternative
accommodation. In 1965 a decision was made to build a church hall that could also be used as a weekday kindergarten. In 1966 a former building display centre was transported in sections and re-erected alongside the church. The hall was used by the Church for Sunday School and by the Primary School for before and after school activities. (The weekday kindergarten moved to the CFA Emergency Operations Centre in 1989). As the hall was only intended to have a limited life when it was constructed as a building display centre, it rapidly deteriorated. In 2009/2010 a new hall was constructed at the rear of the vestry.

S double rodCorner buttress from the North showing the nuts terminating East-West reinforcing bars in a reverse "S" Joins in the barsJoins in the parallel reinforcing bars inside the Church S single rodCorner buttress from the South showing the nut terminating a North-South reinforcing bar


The Donaldson pew

It is people that form a church, not buildings, and not even Presbyterians are perfect. Mr Woiwod reports on a falling out between the Donaldson family and the Kangaroo Ground congregation in 1853: pew number north sidePew number, north side of Church“(Andrew) Ross recorded the imbroglio in his diary:

A disagreeable circumstance led to much ill-feeling between the settlers on the ground and gave me much uneasiness. Mr Donaldson as owner of the half acre upon which the school buildings were erected, considering himself entitled to a pew for his family, got the same placed in the school. It was alleged that he had no right to this privilege, and it was unsuited for school purposes. It turned out that although the land had been given by him, no deed had been obtained.

The pew referred to is unlikely to been what is generally understood today by the term ‘pew‘. Instead it was probably some cumbersome affair designed to accommodate the Donaldson family at one remove from a congregation clothed as they were, in home-spun, work-a-day fustian and cabbage-tree hats. … The people of Kangaroo Ground no longer saw themselves as the humble villagers and farm servants they had once been in their ‘Old Country’ village. They said ‘No!’ to Donaldson. ‘He must remove his pew!’ … Rather than a return to the old ways, they would search out another piece of ground to build themselves a church. However, it never came to that! The issue subsided when James Donaldson removed his pew.

Despite some bitterness, outward relations with the community appear to have remained harmonious. Even so, it would be a further eighteen years before James’ son, John, signed over the church land. The family had indeed been hurt!"

pew number south sidePew number, south side of Church

Each family had its own pew or pews in the church and in 1878 these were rented for 10 shillings per half year (about $55 today). The same pews are still in use today and the last pew on the right hand side contains some interesting social comment of years ago.

Although the same pews are still in use three changes were made to the original design in the last 50 years: a shelf was installed under each seat to hold Bibles and hymn books, wedges were screwed to the front legs to raise the front edge of the seats by 40 mm and cushions were provided for the wooden seats. (Although it can be argued that the second change was necessary as the members of the congregation are taller now than they were 130 years ago, the third was clearly for comfort!).

It was only when we prepared the first version of this web site in 2006 that we realised the differences between the pew numbers; those on the north side are silver on black, those on the south side are black on silver.


Finance in the early days

The Early History of Kangaroo Ground Presbyterian Church provides some interesting details on the costs of running the church:Chained kettleChained kettle (Footnote 10)

"By 1873/74 the Minister's Stipend was £124.13.0, (about $12,600 today), Kangaroo Ground paying £54.13.0, Lilydale £45.0.0 and Yarra Flats (now Yarra Glen) £25.0.0, though frequently only £60.0.0. was paid." (The stipend was paid by quarterly subscription rather than through a weekly collection).

It goes on: "Amongst church expenditure at this time were the following: 'lamp glass 6d (about $2.50 today), printing notices £1 (about $100 today), postage stamps 6/2d (about $31 today), Sacramental Wine 9/- (about $46 today), cleaning 2/6d (about $12 today)."

Special collections were regular features and included those for 'the Precentor'[11], 'Widows and Orphans', 'Day Spring Sabbath School', 'Heathen Missions' (by 1890 these became 'Foreign Missions') and others."

The 1890s were particularly stormy years, largely because of financial difficulties. (Kangaroo Ground Presbyterian Church has always been a small church in a sparsely populated district and has suffered financial stringencies several times in its life.) In 1897 the Church was divided over a disagreement with the Minister. Several of the Board of Management refused to pay the stipend contributions until the bank overdraft was settled. This must have led to a split in the congregation as services were held in the Church and the local community hall for a time. The Rev. John Darroch resigned as also did several Elders. It was decided to have a Student Minister jointly with Christmas Hills and Yarra Glen.

The problems in the 1890s were due to the difficulties of paying the Minister's Stipend of £100 per year (about $12,000 today) and the rent of £10 per year for the Manse, "The Bungalow" at Christmas Hills. This cottage previously housed the engineer employed on building the Watts River (Maroondah) aqueduct that supplied Melbourne with water. Yarra Glen was committed to its own building fund and Kangaroo Ground, with a debt of £38.3.6 (about $4,900 today) borrowed £35 from the Heidelberg Commercial Bank at 7% interest.

In 1897 a special effort was made to clear the overdraft. Members promised the value of a load of chaff worth £3 (about $380 today) and decided to ask all farmers to contribute.


10. The chained kettle - prior to the construction of the Church Hall all meetings were held in the small timber vestry. Water was boiled in the kettle on the open fireplace for the essential pot of tea. Washing up was done in a kerosene tin cut diagonally. (The tin was opened out so that it looked like a "W" from side on. One half was for the water, the other half for the crockery and cutlery to dry). (No one in the present congregation knows why the kettle is chained.) 
11. The Precentor led the singing prior to the purchase of an organ. It is not known whether the congregation forswore the use of a musical instrument at the time (as is still the practice in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland) or whether lack of funds prevented the purchase.

Finance in the 20th century

The financial problems continued into the 20th century and there were other issues as well. In 1900, the Rev Dr Rentoul, Professor in the Theological Hall, Ormond College, University of Melbourne, was quoted in the daily press as supporting the Boers against England in the war in South Africa[12]. This offended the patriotism of the Kangaroo Ground congregation so at a special meeting they determined that no contributions should be made to the Theological Hall.

To raise funds, a special Anniversary Service was held followed by a Concert and magic lantern slides. But it was not until 1903 that “the ladies of the congregation” came to the rescue holding a “Variety Fair” which raised £91 (about $10,000). The bank overdraft was finally paid off. (A glass dome filled with native stuffed birds wasn't sold at the Fair and E. H. Cameron, the local Member of Parliament, took it home to "Pigeon Bank". It was still in the front hall in the 1980s and may be seen at the Andrew Ross Museum.)

The Annual Harvest Thanksgiving Service commenced in 1897 and continued to be held until the 1960’s. This produced a wonderful display in the Church of farm, garden and home produce given by the Congregation, the pulpit being decorated with sheaves of wheat and barley and trails of vines with grapes. These gifts were auctioned in the hall next evening to raise funds for the Church.

Tea meetings were also held. A decision was made to hold evening services on moonlit nights[13] to bring in more money as there was £2.15.5 owing to the Organ Fund and £2.17.1 for Sabbath School expenses (about $350 and $360 today).

In 1912 the Kangaroo Ground and Christmas Hills Churches joined Yarra Glen and Healesville; the Rev. J Stuart Drummond was inducted to the united charge and a decision was made to build a Manse at Yarra Glen. The ladies of the Kangaroo Ground congregation held a Jumble Fair and raised £88.7.0 (about $9,200 today) towards its cost.

It was decided in 1928 to sell the Minister’s “turnout”, a horse and buggy valued at £15 (about $900 today) and allow the Minister, Mr Laity, £20 (about $1,200 today) per year towards the upkeep of his borrowed car, with Yarra Glen providing £25 (about $1,500 today).

In 1930 the Minister’s stipend was again in arrears[14] but the Minister, Mr Brown, did not complain. He said “he was glad of the opportunity to preach the Gospel, to get a bit of food to eat and a roof over his head.” The problem was solved by a donation from one of the parishioners.


12. Short biography of Dr Rentoul ("Fighting Larry")

13. This was well before electric light came to Kangaroo Ground. Even now, there is very little street lighting and it is very dark around the Church.

14. Probably because Australia was suffering the Great Depression

The architecture and fittings

Kangaroo Ground Presbyterian Church is not like the great cathedrals of Europe or the historic wool churches of England. It is only a small Australian country church but it is well loved by its congregation. We have provided some photographs on the previous pages. Here are some of the architectural details and features:

Typical windowTypical window (see note 15) Windows above porchWindows above porch Celtic crossCeltic cross on front of Church
 CeilingCeiling  Wall ventilatorWall ventilator  Front door and porch pavingFront door and porch paving
PulpitPulpit (see footnote 16)


15. The technical term for the multi-coloured arch over the window is a "polychromic voussoir". The motif is repeated in the arch of the porch and in the bricks around the round ventilators in the front and rear walls.

16. One of the quirky aspects of the Church is that the centre of the pulpit is not on the centreline of the Church. Presumably it was made too wide and had to moved to the right so that the door to the vestry was not obstructed.