“This is a wonderful country. Very many have been attracted to it in the last two years by its reputation for gold. Naturally, I regard it as one of the finest countries in the world; but the minds of its people are nearly all intoxicated with “the gold that perisheth.” Many thousands here do nothing else but hang about the diggings searching for gold, marring the face of the land with pits and mounds, so that none can pass in the night, and in the day the diggings are disgusting to behold. Instead of cultivating the fields for the production of food for man and beast, the generality allow the shrub and wattle to grow with the gum tree, under whose branches the natives have reclined for ages before us. There are, however, a few attending to the cultivation of the soil. In short, in a country where there is so much gold, we cannot expect that there will be much inquiry after the things relating to the Kingdom of God; gold and worldly possessions being the things lusted after by the carnal mind.” (Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, April 1854, pages 77-78)

So wrote David Leishman to Brother John Thomas on 18 October 1853, from “Pentridge, near Melbourne.” Pentridge later became known for its prison, but at this time it was a village 10km north of Melbourne, within the suburb of Coburg today. Leishman and his family arrived in Melbourne from Britain in January 1849.

Earliest arrivals

It is clear that, at the time of his writing, Leishman believed the Gospel of the Kingdom but I have not been able to determine if he was baptised subsequent to gaining that knowledge. Sadly, he died a year later in December 1854.

On 31 July 1852, Brother John Coghill and family arrived in Melbourne from Scotland. He had been baptised in Edinburgh, Scotland, soon after hearing Brother Thomas speak in that city from October to November 1848. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Brother Coghill was the first baptised believer in the Gospel of the Kingdom (the name “Christadelphian” was not known until 1864) in Australasia. There is evidence that Leishman and Coghill each met at a Church of Christ congregation in Prahran, and therefore probably knew each other.

Brother Coghill was the first of many early baptised believers emigrating to Australia from Scotland, reflecting the fact that about two-thirds of all brethren in the UK at that time were Scottish. From August 1873, Brother Coghill advertised in a Melbourne newspaper for any Christadelphians to contact him at his home in Collingwood. Earlier on 22 June 1873, Brother Coghill had baptised two couples in Warrnambool, about 260 km south-west of Melbourne.

The Argus newspaper in Melbourne on 8 June 1872, (pages 5,6) reported on the results of the 1871 Census of Victoria. It stated that there were 14 Christadelphians (nine male, five female) in the colony—all of whom at this time would have been ones and twos in isolation from each other, and possibly unknown to each other.

  1. Beechworth 1873

A few months earlier than Warrnambool there were four baptisms in the gold mining town of Beechworth. In September 1872, William Willis (an invalid in hospital) wrote to Brother Robert Roberts regarding John Allan (also in hospital), David Pfeffer (also in hospital), Robert Tucker and himself desiring to be baptised. In February 1873, John Allan, David Pfeffer, Robert Tucker and William Willis were baptised in Beechworth by Brother Bott from Wagga Wagga (see The Christadelphian, April 1873, pages 183-187).

Perhaps the following announcement captures as well as any the spirit of excitement and joy that came from seeing the true Gospel light:

“Beechworth. — Mrs. Jane Ladson thus writes: “It is with deep thankfulness I feel I may address you as brother, and though so far away, having read so much of your writing, both in The Christadelphian and other books, I do not feel as if you were a stranger. I rejoice with joy unspeakable, that after, I think nearly eight months’ study of the Bible, with the help of other books lent me by brother Pfeffer, I have been enabled to see its true beauty and simplicity. At first, I saw very many difficulties, but as I read on, truth after truth revealed itself and I could not help thinking you must be right.

And although I have had to go against a great many very dear relations and friends, I could not feel happy until I had put on the saving name, but amidst the sorrow of feeling so many are against me, I have one great joy that my dear husband is not. I know he earnestly desires to find the truth as it is in Jesus, and although he has not yet decided, he is deeply interested, and I believe and pray soon will. It is a great relief to my mind not to have to teach my dear children anything about the terrible devil and hell of orthodox belief.”” (The Christadelphian, 1873, page 571)

Jane was baptised about August 1873, and her husband, Alfred Ladson, a few months later. Their eldest child was Charles Alfred. He met Robert Roberts, his wife Jane and daughters Sarah Jane and Eusebia when the Roberts family moved to Melbourne in 1897. Charles was baptised in 1892 and moved to England in 1901 to further his friendship with Sarah Jane and became engaged later that year. He returned to Australia for three years and then travelled back to England in 1904 where he married Sarah Jane. In 1907 he joined the staff of The Christadelphian.

  1. Warrnambool 1873

We first hear of the Warrnambool meeting when Brother John Coghill baptised four people in June 1873, about four months after the baptisms in Beechworth. They were Charles and Jane Mitchell and William J and Rebecca Evans, who thus formed the second ecclesia in Victoria.

We must be impressed with John Coghill’s commitment to the Gospel of the Kingdom and his efforts to persuade others of its truth. For 19 years it appears that no-one heeded his message. Such perseverance is a powerful example for all of us today. Whilst he did not stay long in Warrnambool, his work was effective.

The three subsequent baptisms were of James Falconer and Eleanor Evans (1873) and Alexander Matheson (1876). In 1874 Brother David Pfeffer moved from Beechworth to Warrnambool (and died in 1876), and in 1875 Brother and Sister John Betts from England (via New Zealand) came to stay. However, many of the members soon moved to other places, so that the numbers in Warrnambool were never great and at times no brothers or sisters lived in the town.

  1. Wandiligong 1875

The third place where we hear of believers in the Gospel of the Kingdom was the gold mining town of Wandiligong, 4km south of Bright.

William Kirk of Wandiligong was baptised in 1874, and his mother the following year. In 1876 John and Sarah Hearn were also baptised. John was a devout man, well read in the Scriptures, who, after reading the Twelve Lectures and other books, exclaimed, “I wonder I could not see this before! I am so glad I have found the truth. Truly darkness covers the earth and gross darkness the people” (The Christadelphian, December 1876, page 528).

  1. Melbourne 1877

John Kitchen was head of a large soap and candle making company, later to produce Velvet soap and Solvol. In 1871 he placed advertisements in The Argus newspaper asking for any Christadelphians in Melbourne or suburbs to contact him, and he also wrote to Brother Robert Roberts. Soon afterwards he established “a depôt of Christadelphian works in Melbourne, the metropolis of the colony, and to advertise the same in the newspapers.” We last read of him in The Christadelphian in 1880, and sadly, when he died in 1890 aged 91, he had left the Brotherhood.

The commencement of the Melbourne ecclesia has been traced to March 1877, with a membership of nine. Brother William J Evans wrote:

“The first meeting was held in the house of Joseph Brown, Park Street, Emerald Hill, [South Melbourne] the following members being present: Samuel Jackson, Ellen Jackson, Annie Fincher, Robert Brown, John Bishop, Joseph Brown, Annie Jane Brown, the writer, and sister-wife Rebecca Evans. It was then resolved to form an ecclesia, on the basis of the propositions embodied in the Declaration of first principles…

The first meeting for the breaking of bread was held about sixteen months back—March twelve months. [1877] We met for some eight weeks at brother Brown’s, when himself and family removed to another part, at brother Bishop’s, in Dorcas Street, Emerald Hill…” (The Christadelphian, October 1878, page 478)

Strangely neither Brother Coghill nor Brother Kitchen were listed as members of the Melbourne ecclesia at this time, perhaps having left the ecclesia over some dispute.

The following year the ecclesia had grown to 16, to 30 in 1879, and to 52 in 1882. This growth period was also one in which Melbourne’s population doubled in 15 years and experienced a property boom in the 1880s.

  1. Buckland 1877

Buckland was another gold mining town 15km west of Bright. Gold was discovered in the Buckland River valley in 1853, which attracted thousands of miners, including many Chinese. At one time the valley contained several schools and hotels. Today there is no longer a settlement in the picturesque Buckland Valley overshadowed by Mount Buffalo on its west.

Brother Kirk of Wandiligong travelled to Buckland and as a result, Catherine Hepburn was baptised in 1876. A little over a year later her husband, Thomas, was also baptised. The brethren in Beechworth, some 60km to the north had many contacts with the small ecclesias in Buckland and Wandiligong over these early years. By 1878 the ecclesia in Buckland numbered five.

  1. Bendigo 1877

From 1854–1891 Bendigo was named Sandhurst. It was another gold mining town about 130km north-west of Melbourne. Kangaroo Flat, which was 5km to the south-west, is now a suburb of Bendigo. In late 1878 the first report from the Bendigo ecclesia was submitted:

“Sandhurst. — Brother Buchanan reports that during the last twelve months, he has assisted the following persons to put on the saving name by immersion: December 16th, 1877, Henry Gordon (45), and his wife Elizabeth Gordon (42), formerly Wesleyans; June 14th, 1878, George Edward Anderson (60), and his wife Hannah Maria Anderson (53); also, Elizabeth Kenley (21), formerly Wesleyan; and Hy. Thomas (47), formerly neutral. He adds: “We meet on the first day of the week to break bread at brother Gordon’s house.”” (The Christadelphian, February 1879, page 93)

Henry Gordon was a ‘coloured’ man born on the Caribbean island of Dominica, living with his wife and children in Kangaroo Flat. The Gordons moved to Melbourne in 1881, and it was in his house that he baptised Charles Curwen Walker later that year. CC Walker later became editor of The Christadelphian on the death of Robert Roberts in 1898. Later in 1879 the ecclesia numbered 12.

  1. Gippsland 1878

Four members of the Warrnambool ecclesia moved to near Trafalgar in Gippsland, probably in 1878. They were Charles and Jane Mitchell, James Falconer and Alexander Matheson. By late 1879 there were five brothers and sisters in the ecclesia:

“Windsor (Victoria). — Brother Hardinge reports two visits to Trafalgar, Gippsland, where he delivered two lectures on March 25th. The brethren in that place number five: viz., brother and sister Matheson, brother and sister Mitchell, and brother Falconer. They are now “Selectors,” and have for the last four years been subduing the wild forest.” (The Christadelphian, August 1883, page 383)

Many other ecclesias were established in country areas (listing only those established prior to 1906). In some localities there were individual brothers or sisters before an ecclesia was formally established:

1884 – Ballarat

1886 – Daylesford

1889 – Mildura

1890 – Warragul

1893 – Tyers/Traralgon

1894 – Ringwood

1897 – Geelong

1899 – Beulah (S. Mallee)

1901 – Inglewood, Jeparit, Koonwarra (S. Gippsland)

1902 – Coburg, W. Melbourne

1903 – Wangaratta, Binginwarri (S. Gippsland)

For further information read Brother Ian Hyndman’s books, Early Christadelphian Families in Country Victoria and A Lightstand at Beechworth. Brother Kelman Baum has also provided much early documentation.