St George’s Cathedral (Port Jackson Fig Tree)
Building a cathedral is no easy matter, so it is no surprise it took from 1877 to 1888 to raise the funds, draw up the plans and erect Perth’s premier place of Anglican worship. St George’s Cathedral owes its existence to the energy and foresight of Bishop Henry Parry who arrived in WA in 1877 and quickly realised his first task was to build a cathedral which would meet future needs.
The building committee decided to put up a “good, plain Gothic building” and initially approached famous English church designer Arthur Blomfield, before finally settling on Sydney-based architect, Edmund Blacket. Since he died in 1883, sadly Blacket never got to see the finished cathedral, his only work in Western Australia.
Funds were sought both in WA and in England, with one anonymous donor (who later turned out to the chair of the building committee, Sir Luke Leake) offering £2,000. With enough money raised to start works, it was decided to lay the foundations, build the naïve, aisles and transepts, and worry about towers, chapels and vestries at a later date.
The foundation stone was laid on 2 November 1880, although it took until 8 August 1888 before St George’s Cathedral was ready for its first service. To complete the cathedral, a sum of more than £17,000 had to be raised, which is all the more impressive when you realise there were only 40,000 European settlers in all of Western Australia.
The first church in the Swan River Colony was a small, hastily erected building of wood and rushes, constructed by soldiers of the 63rd Regiment. As the only ordained Minister of religion in the Colony, Archdeacon Thomas Hobbs held the first service there on Christmas Day 1829. The little Rush Church remained in use until 1837, serving not only as a church but also as courthouse and schoolhouse.
In 1837, a new courthouse (now called the Old Court House) was constructed by the Colonial Engineer, Henry Reveley, and it was also used for church services and school until the construction of the purpose-built Church of Saint George. Located to the north-west of the present Saint George’s Cathedral, the foundation stone was laid on 1 January 1841 by Governor John Hutt and was built to the design of Joseph Brown.
The new church seated 600 people and was opened on 22 January 1845, although the consecration was delayed until November 1848. Nine years later, Mathew Blagdon Hale was consecrated as the first Bishop of Western Australia and the Church of Saint George became the first Saint George’s Cathedral.
By the 1860s, the number of Anglicans in Perth had grown and it was decided to enlarge Saint George’s Cathedral. Two transepts were added in 1864 but, as the population increased, the need for a larger cathedral became pressing. Bishop Hale’s opposition to the building of a new cathedral, he did not believe there was sufficient money for the project, influenced his decision to leave Perth, in 1875.
The second Bishop of Perth, Henry Hutton Parry, established a building committee to organise the construction of a new Cathedral, and fundraising began. Sir Luke Leake, a Member of the Legislative Council, donated £2,000 towards the building. The design was by Sydney-based Edmund Blacket, who created a modest building in the then fashionable Gothic style.
However, Blacket never visited Western Australia, and after his death in 1883, his son Cyril helped to complete the Cathedral.
Although the foundation stone was laid by Governor William Robinson in November 1880, work was slow, often halting because of lack of funds. St George’s Cathedral was not consecrated until 15 November 1888, exactly forty years after the consecration of the first Church of Saint George.
To save money, some of the interior fittings of Saint George’s Cathedral came from the earlier building, including the organ and brass lectern. Inside the cathedral is a small square of wood which came from the jarrah tree under which the first Church of England service was held in Western Australia. In 1902, a square bell tower was designed by WA architect, Joseph John Talbot Hobbs, for a set of bells cast as a memorial to Queen Victoria. These were hung in the traditional English way for change ringing, in which each bell can rotate 360 degrees.
In 1919, Archbishop Riley decided to erect a memorial for the Western Australian soldiers who had fallen during World War I. He wrote to all those who had lost relatives in the war, asking for donations. The Soldiers’ Memorial Chapel was built in Donnybrook stone and brick, with a roof beam from the old Stirling market. Three windows of the chapel came from the earlier Cathedral.
In 1932, concerns were raised about the safety of the bell tower, as it was moving when the bells were rung. As a result, the bells were locked down until 1964, when ringing was resumed even though no repairs had been. The 1968 Meckering earthquake badly shook the cathedral and engineers estimated that $90,000 was needed for repairs. When bricks fell from the tower in 1973 during bell ringing, the practice had to stop. In 1974, the turret of the tower was sawn off and the bells removed and sent to England to be re-cast into a lighter set.
In 1975, a successful Restoration Appeal for the cathedral was launched, and as a result the bell tower was strengthened and the bells rehung in 1976.
From 2005 to 2008 the cathedral was extensively restored with the tile roof replaced by slates as originally built, and the fleche was replaced. Earthquake protection was added to two walls to provide bracing and much other work was undertaken. Another change came in 2011 with the unveiling of ‘Ascalon’, a dramatic sculpture at the front of the cathedral representing St George slaying the dragon.
Saint George’s Cathedral continues to be used as a place of worship in Perth. The bells are rung regularly for Sunday Services, for civic occasions and for weddings, while the red and white flag of Saint George is flown daily from the top of the bell tower.