The First Ten Years of the Congregation


Cunningham Atchison – The first Church is built

John A. Stuart and the Free Church

Stirling Muir – The Church extended and the Manse built

Looking for a Minister



By 1842 the sparsely settled North Shore could support a school in the village of St Leonards, and by 1844 the need was sufficient for the Presbyterian Church to take responsibility for it – but that, once established, was the local school, and children of Presbyterian families never the majority. We can estimate that about a quarter of the settlers would have been nominal Presbyterians: their weddings and quite likely their funerals would have been conducted by Presbyterian Ministers in private houses, as was then the custom – Dr John Dunmore Lang is recorded as presiding at a Milson family wedding, for example – but the number of potential members was too few to make a regular congregation. The pious had the choice of travelling to St Andrew’s in Kent Street, or remaining content with family prayers.

In 1848 the Moderator reported to the Synod that the Government had granted sites for a church and a manse at St. Leonards, and that the survey had cost three guineas. But having a site was one thing – buildings had to be paid for, a minister needed a guaranteed stipend. Once there was a congregation of more than 100, the Government would help to maintain a minister, but without sufficient people, no permanent arrangements could be made.

In 1854 the Presbytery of Sydney appointed Rev James Milne to add oversight of the North Shore to his primary duties as Minister at Paddington. Once a fortnight, between morning and evening services at Paddington, he would hold an afternoon service at St Leonards, probably in the small schoolhouse. In 1856, Rev Milne’s health and family circumstances meant he could not continue; after that, the Presbytery made sporadic provision for services, but no arrangement lasted long. By 1863 a regular congregation had come together at the North Shore, and were looking for a minister. Overtures were made to Rev C. Atchison, then at Wollongong; in 1864 a call with 58 signatures was issued. The signatories were not strictly members of the Church, for there was no Church – it was another year before a Kirk Session was constituted – but they were members nevertheless of a cohesive congregation which has continued to the present day. The documents that follow are some of those that illustrate the first ten, sometimes chaotic, years of that congregation, until, in 1873, the regular succession of Ministers at St Peter’s began.


Cunningham Atchison

Rev Cunningham Atchison was originally a protégé of John Dunmore Lang, but fell out with him over Atchison’s consistent support for compromise in dealings between the factions of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales in the 1850s. Lang was to launch an attack on Atchison in 1866, claiming that Atchison had destroyed the charges where he had been Minister. Perhaps, in view of Atchison’s uneasy relationship with the congregation at North Sydney, there was some substance in Lang’s charge. Advertisements of the Sunday services in 1864 show that even after Cunningham Atchison’s induction he was not in the pulpit every week:

This last may just have been an arrangement to do with the Assembly. The use of the word ‘church’ suggests that whoever placed the advertisement was ignorant of the actual situation.

Services continued to be held in the school, but while the school trustees were happy to rent out the building for public meetings and as a polling station when it was not otherwise in use, their relationship with the Minister was not always easy. In 1864, they had agreed to the use of the school for Sunday services for twelve months, but when the time ran out, it seems they were unwilling to extend that permission. The result was that services were suspended.

From official records we learn that the Presbytery of Sydney, at a meeting held in St. Andrew’s Church on 1st November, 1865, dealt with a complaint against the trustees of the school property at St. Leonards, North Shore, “for refusing the use of the school for public worship on the Sabbath in connection with Mr. Atchison’s congregation.” Three months later a petition signed by 59 Presbyterians on the North Shore was forwarded to the Presbytery, requesting the supply of religious ordinances. (Rev J. Calder, One Hundred Years of Presbyterianism on the North Shore)

What Rev Atchison was doing in the meantime is unclear. In any case, he would be back there by the time the new Church was built. The next two advertisements will have been the response of the Presbytery to the congregation’s appeal.

The lack of a permanent home seems to have spurred the congregation to action:

Just a fortnight later, a more ambitious scheme was in view – perhaps wealthy donors had come forward. Who the successful tenderer was is not known, but it may well have been William Eaton, who did much of the subsequent work on the Church.

This first Presbyterian church on the North Sydney site was a plain rectangular building aligned east-west. There were three windows on each side, a vestry at the western end, perhaps a porch at the entrance. It is possible that the western wall, behind the pulpit, had a shallow recessed arch in the stonework as a decorative feature. The western gable, and it can be guessed the eastern one as well, had a high trefoil window. The window above the rose window in the western transept of the present church may preserve some of that original stonework; otherwise little remains. This church was about 30 feet by 25 (9 by 7.5 metres), and held about 120 people. In September it was opened.

Presumably Rev Cunningham Atchison continued to officiate there until the end of 1868. On October 17 of that year we read that Rev Daniel Blue was taking the services, but that would have been a special arrangement because of the General Assembly. On the first Sunday in 1869, however, Dunmore Lang was in the pulpit:

As this notice antedates Rev Atchison’s appeal to the Presbytery (below), it is likely that, apart from his other troubles, his indisposition at this time was genuine.

The Rev C. Atchison craved leave to make a statement. He requested the Presbytery to grant him leave of absence from his congregation for a month, on account of indisposition. Such leave was granted, and Dr Lang promised to supply a day for him, and Mr Smith promised to supply another day. Mr Atchison further requested the Presbytery to appoint a committee to meet with him to receive a statement from him respecting the state of his congregation, and that such committee may report thereafter to the Presbytery. (Presbytery of Sydney Minutes, 5-1-1869)

Rev Atchison’s concern appears to have been that he was losing his congregation. The Presbytery continued to give supply:


John A. Stuart and the Free Church

But there was a competitor in the field. To the Free Church, a splinter group which held out against Presbyterian union in 1865, news of Atchison’s unpopularity was an opportunity to establish themselves in a new area.

Rev Stuart’s church was proving attractive to many of the St Leonards congregation – though, as later events were to show, the congregation were too strong for the church. Meanwhile, the Presbytery continued to try and manage the situation:

The committee appointed at last meeting of Presbytery to meet with the Rev C. Atchison to receive a statement from him respecting his Church and congregation, and to report to next meeting of Presbytery, submitted their report and laid it on the table.....Mr Atchison craved leave of absence from his congregation till next meeting of Presbytery. (Presbytery of Sydney Minutes, 2-2-1869)

Supply was continued through February:

Mr Thompson reported that the Church Extension Committee had appointed Mr Kilpatrick to supply the North Shore on the forenoon of the 14th of February, and also both morning and evening of the 21st of February, and that the above services were advertised in S. M. Herald, and Evening News of the 13th February, for which the Clerk of Presbytery paid 5/-. (Presbytery of Sydney Minutes, 2-3-1869)

Later in this same meeting the Presbytery accepted Rev Atchison’s resignation; the next step was to meet with the congregation and sort out some solution.

Of the representatives of the congregation, Henry Allan was to remain prominent in Church affairs for many years, while Mr George was an elder, and, with his wife, in charge of St Peter’s School.

Dr Steel reported that Dr Steel, Mr Thomson and Messrs Moon and Whytlaw visited the North Shore, and met with some of the Presbyterian people there but there were very few present. However those present wished the Presbytery to take charge of the Presbyterian Church at the North Shore and to give supply for some time. (Presbytery of Sydney Minutes, 6-4-1869)

The Presbytery continued to do its best:

The Clerk reported that he made one advertisement in the S. M. Herald respecting the supply of the North Shore which cost him 6/-; another which cost 2/-; and procured one hundred posters which cost 7/-. These posters he sent over to the North Shore to be distributed from time to time in the most public way possible. (Presbytery of Sydney Minutes, 4-5-1869)

At this meeting, the Presbytery was offered £50 (about $13,000) from an anonymous donor to support the continuation of supply at the North Shore. In the end they refused the money, no doubt because there was by now no congregation. A month later, there was a new proposal for them to consider:

There was laid on the table a petition bearing to be from the acting committee for the Presbyterians now worshipping in the School of Arts North Shore, praying the Presbytery to grant to said Presbyterians the use of the Church on the North Shore for twelve months at a rent. The Presbytery heard two of the petitioners in support of the petition; whereupon Dr Fullerton moved and Mr Smith seconded the following motion, which was unanimously agreed to, viz, that [a committee be appointed to meet the petitioners and report back]. (Presbytery of Sydney Minutes, 1-6-1869)

The Presbyterians were no doubt the same ones who had previously formed Rev Atchison’s congregation – certainly, by the time they have appointed representatives to meet the Presbytery, one of their spokesmen is none other than Henry Allan, who had represented the previous congregation before the Presbytery on the 24th of March. The report brought back by the committee was

That the Presbytery be recommended to let the Church to the Presbyterian congregation there in connection with the Synod of Eastern Australia for a period of twelve months. (Presbytery of Sydney Minutes, 6-7-1869)

So it was that services in the church at St Leonards began to be held by Rev Stuart:

Yet somehow, two months later, services at North Sydney are now being conducted under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales again:

Before the end of 1869, the situation had changed once more:

A petition from the Presbyterians worshipping at St Peter’s Church, North Shore, was laid on the table; from which it appears that they respectfully pray the Presbytery to take steps to form them into a congregation in connection with the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales. Messrs Henry Allan and N. Mohrman appeared in support of the petition and were heard. Several questions were put to the commissioners, which were satisfactorily answered. The prayer of the petition was granted, and the Rev C. McCulloch, and the Rev R. S. Paterson were appointed to proceed to the North Shore on Tuesday evening the 21st instant, at ½ past 7 o’clock, for the purpose of forming the Presbyterians there into a congregation, and making up a communion roll; that notice be given from the pulpit on the two preceding Sabbaths of this meeting and the purpose of it
A petition from the Rev John Anthony Stuart, St Leonard’s North Shore, was laid on the table. From this petition it appears Mr Stuart is a licensed probationer of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia; that he has resigned his connection with that Church, for reasons given, and prays this Presbytery to receive him as a probationer of the Presbyterian Church of N. S. Wales. (Presbytery of Sydney Minutes, 7-12-1869)

It seems that Rev Stuart had fallen out with the Free Church – perhaps on the subject of including instrumental music in his services. His congregation is likely to have been more liberal in its views than the church to which they had given their temporary allegiance. The Presbytery lost no time in making clear what the new situation was:

This was followed by a meeting with the congregation:

Mr McCulloch and Mr Paterson met with the Presbyterians at the North Shore who had assembled on the night named, in the Presbyterian Church there, and after the preaching of the word, made up a communion roll. This roll contains the names of 9 communicants, 6 applicants for membership, and 3 adherents
Captain Bremner and Mr H. Allan appeared before the Presbytery and offered to wipe off the debt on the Church property at the North Shore which is £110; but wished the Presbytery to direct him how to proceed in this matter. (Presbytery of Sydney Minutes, 4-1-1870)

The congregation are now back in their church building, and back with the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales, but free now to choose a Minister who will suit them better. In the meanwhile the Presbytery has promised supply. The offer to pay the remaining debt on the church (about $25,500) was accepted by the Presbytery subject to the assent of the General Assembly. By the 11th of January it had been discharged, and the Presbytery informed the congregation it might appoint new trustees. All that was necessary now was a minister, and before long, an invitation to preach led to that requirement being satisfied too:


Stirling Muir


Rev Muir had been on his way back to Scotland when his enthusiastic reception at St Peter’s prompted him to accept appointment. Perhaps he only ever intended to stay 18 months, for by October of the next year he had resigned. But now that a minister had been found, the next requirement was for somewhere to put him (Cunningham Atchison had rented a house in Miller Street).

This is probably an invitation to submit tenders for building a manse. Extending the Church soon became a higher priority, but fund-raising for the Manse probably enabled that to go ahead more quickly than it otherwise would have. Mr Munro, the architect of this house, was the same man who was later responsible for the additions to the Church.

If a revival meeting could be held in the Church, rebuilding had clearly not yet begun by June. Fund raising, of course, was always necessary:

By October, just a year since the congregation had moved back into the church, the new building was ready:

At this time collections were not a regular part of Church services, and so required special mention. Most of a Church’s revenue would come from letting sittings – the right of a person or family to occupy a particular pew.


The Church was enlarged by demolishing the eastern end of the then existing structure and extending the building by about 20 feet (6 metres) in that direction. The interior stonework was coloured – what colour is unknown – and the Church lit with kerosene lamps. The tower, with its spire clad in galvanised iron rising above the porch at the new entrance to the building, would have been the most striking feature of the North Sydney skyline until Holtermann’s tower was built in 1874. The £700 subscribed is equal to about $162,500 in 2012.

The Church and Manse in the 1870s

On November 5, 1871, Rev J. Niven preached in North Sydney in the morning and Rev J. S. Laing in the evening, which would have happened because of the General Assembly in any case. Supply on the following Sunday, however, tells its own story: Rev Muir had resigned.


Looking for a Minister

A series of expedients followed:

The Rev Roger McKinnon made such a favourable impression on the congregation that an attempt was made to call him – meanwhile, supply continued:

In June came the news that the Presbytery of Illawarra were refusing to let Roger McKinnon go.

The Chairman read a letter from the Clerk of the Presbytery of Illawarra to the effect that said Presbytery could not sanction the transfer of Rev Roger McKinnon from the charge of Wollongong to that of St Leonards. Proposed by Mr Eaton and seconded by Mr Gilchrist that arrangements be made with Mr Turnbull to continue his services here for a period of six months, and that he be paid at the rate of £150 per annum together with the use of the Manse. Carried nem. con. (Committee of Management Minutes, 21-6-1872)

The stipend offered to Rev Turnbull was equivalent to perhaps $35,000 – clearly not enough, as events were to prove. Whether paying for supply or employing an organist, the Committee of Management tended to err on the side of prudence: offering too little and asking too much.

In October, as in the year before, an Anniversary Service was held, to be followed with a fund-raiser:

It was the fund-raising side of things that proved Mr Turnbull’s undoing, as shown by a series of Minutes from the Committee of Management:

Mr Turnbull opened the meeting with prayer. Mr Turnbull explained that owing to the fact, that the accs. connected with the Tea-meeting were not furnished he (Mr Turnbull) was not prepared to give in a report as he anticipated, but he added that he thought there would be a balance in favour of the committee of about £10.0.0 and promised to give his report next meeting of committee. (Committee of Management Minutes, 25-10-1872)

The report of the Tea Meeting from Mr Turnbull was read by Treasurer, showing that the amount received from all sources was £20.3.3, and that the expenditure amounted to £11.19.8, leaving a balance of £8.3.7 as the proceeds of the Tea Meeting. Proposed by Mr Macafie and seconded by Mr Munroe that the report be adopted, and that a vote of thanks be awarded to the Ladies who took part in the preparations for their endeavours to make it a success. (Committee of Management Minutes, 17-12-1872)

The balance of £8.3.7 is about equivalent to $1900 (the ‘Mr Munroe’ referred to was not the same man as the architect of the Church and Manse, though his name, like that of the architect, was properly spelt ‘Munro’).

Proposed by Mr Gilchrist and seconded by Mr Munroe and carried that Mr A. Turnbull be sent for and requested to hand over to the Treasurer the balance as shewn by balance sheet received and adopted at last meeting. Mr Turnbull was sent for. But on Mr Gilchrist and Mr Hamill requesting him to give up the £8.3.7 balance due to treasurer he stated that he had not got it and that he had used it. Mr Gilchrist reported the circumstance to the Committee whereupon Mr Eaton proposed and Mr Mohrman seconded that the balance held by Mr Turnbull be handed over to him to assist to assist him in his present pecuniary difficulties. (Committee of Management Minutes, 23-12-1872)

At this stage the Committee may have forgiven their minister for having been found with his hand in the till, but it was not prepared to forget:

Secretary read letter addressed to him from A. Turnbull requesting the Committee to exonerate him from blame in connection with balance of Tea Meeting not forthcoming. Secretary instructed not to reply. Letters addressed to Mr Allan from Mr Turnbull, one in reference to one week’s salary, which was considered by the Committee to be very inconsistent indeed. (Committee of Management Minutes, 6-1-1873)

The final note on Rev Turnbull’s career comes from the Session:

Dr McGibbon explained the object of the meeting viz. to state the treatment of Archibald Turnbull by himself and the Session. (Congregational Meeting Minutes, 20-1-1873)

There is no further explanation of this cryptic entry. Rev Turnbull seems to have continued his career in Victoria; the congregation were still looking for a minister who was prepared to stay.