Fragments of History, Not Lost, Just Forgotten

St Andrews Scots Presbyterian Church Rose Bay

In 1911 tradesmen arrived in Kent Street near Sydney’s Town Hall. They had instructions from the church leaders to dismantle St Andrew’s Scots Presbyterian Church which included the removal of several memorial plaques, stained glass windows, a stone font, the timber rafters and cedar pews. One of the memorial plaques commemorated the life of Allan Cunningham a botanist and explorer and his brother Richard. The plaque had been on the walls of the Kent Street church since Allan’s life ended in 1839, at the early age of 48. His life was cut short after years of plant collecting and exploring Australia’s wilderness with a tenacious dedication of impressive proportions. He was truly a child of The Enlightenment.

The church fittings were transported to Rose Bay and installed in the new Scots church a few kilometers from Sydney Harbour’s southern headland. This is where The Allan Cunningham Research Team found Allan’s plaque in 2008.

St Andrews Scots Presbyterian Church Rose Bay Sydney
Rose Bay Sydney Australia

W G McMinn mentioned the memorial in his 1970 biography of Allan Cunningham, so we knew that it may still be in existence. A phone call to Reverend Bruce Christian confirmed the existence of the memorial at Rose Bay and he kindly invited us to visit his church and see it for ourselves. We made arrangements for a convenient time to meet and were warmly welcomed by the Reverend and his wife Pat when we arrived.

Rev Christian showed us the interior of the church. There was a wonderful sense of calm in this spiritual place. The walls were red brick, the timbers were a rich deep dark polished brown and all the interior reflected the coloured light pouring through the beautiful stained glass windows. We found Allan’s plaque on a side wall and next to it, separated by a simply styled stain glass window, was another memorial plaque commemorating the life of his brother Richard. It seemed “right” that the two brothers were commemorated together. Rare fragments of Australian colonial history, not lost, just forgotten.

St Andrew's Scots Presbyterian Church Rose Bay Sydney - Windows

From the fragments we are building a personality profile

These fragments when put together help us understand Allan Cunningham through stories linked to him. His claim to fame is the discovery of the Darling Downs in Queensland and Pandora’s Pass and he collected thousands of plant specimens which assisted the global effort of naming the world’s flora. From the fragments we are building a personality profile. What he did is recorded in the history books but the records don’t tell us much about who he was. We are interested in how he behaved, what he did, where he did it and why he bothered. It’s a little like getting to know someone.

As we build a profile of Allan Cunningham, we attempt to measure the significance of the fragments. What makes one piece more important than another? Having some knowledge of the stories linked to a fragment gives them an extra dimension.

Children of the Enlightenment

His early story defined him and his brother as children of the age of enlightenment when the study of plants developed into the science of Botany. They were both destined to be plant explorers. Their early botanical experience was given to them by their father , Allan Cunningham Senior 1744-1828, who was the Head Gardener at Wimbledon House, the home of the Spencer family. His work very probably brought him into contact with William T Aiton Head of Kew Gardens, Sir Joseph Banks who sailed with James Cook to Australia in 1768 and Robert Brown the famous botanist who sailed with Matthew Flinders in 1801.

Allan was the more famous of the two brothers. He was appointed the Kings Botanical Collector in 1814 on Sir Joseph Banks recommendation. He spent the years 1816 through to 1831 in the Australian colony sending plants back to Kew Gardens in London where his brother Richard, working at Kew as an amanuensis, catalogued his specimens. During his travels Allan spent four years accompanying Phillip Parker King and his crew as they mapped and circumnavigated the coastline of Australia. He later explored inland of the Australia’s east coast.

Richard came to Australia in 1833 taking up the position of Colonial Botanist in Sydney. He had been recommended by his brother and Robert Brown. In his first few years he distributed vine cuttings, shrubs, fruit trees and seeds throughout the colony, extending the vinery with the French and Spanish grapes. He died after only three years in the colony so there was not enough time from him to make his mark on history however his violent death, while exploring the Bogan River with Thomas Mitchell, at the hands of startled aboriginals led to a great deal of discomfort for all the people involved. The police investigated and arrested three men who supposedly readily confessed. Two of the accused later escaped and a third, Purimal, ((Source: Aboriginal Convicts – Race, Law, and Transportation in Colonial New South Wales by Kristyn Evelyn Harman 2008 – PDF File)) was taken to Sydney and incarcerated on Goat Island without trial.

It is possible that Allan returned to Australia to investigate his brothers death. We would like to think so. Allan was a sick man and would have known that he was not strong enough to endure more adventures so there had to be a strong pull to draw him back to the colony. Like most life changing decisions there are many layers of reason. Putting the decision into context of the times, we should also take into account the importance of Kew Gardens had diminished during the Regency period. Possibly Allan wanted to be “in the field” once again and not stuck in the herbarium sorting out his specimens. For whatever reason, Allan returned to the scene of his past glories encouraged by his good friends Phillip Parker King and Hannibal Macarthur.

The Botanist’s preference for a conservative approach to life

His later story places him within the conservative group of the colony. The decision to place Allan’s memorial in Reverend John McGarvie‘s Kent Street Church is significant because it hints at a personality trait of religious conservatism.

We know Allan was a member of Reverend John McGarvie’s congregation, this is confirmed by his Last Will and Testament where he bequeathed a portion of his assets, fifty pounds of his three thousand pounds worth of assets, to the Reverend who was the Scots spiritual leader at the Kent Street church. The second fact is the memorial plaques themselves having been cared for over a long period of time, attached firmly in a prominent place on the walls of the Scots church firstly in Kent Street and then later on the brick walls of the church at Rose Bay.

These facts lead us to believe Allan chose to be a member of Reverend John McGarvie’s congregation when he returned to Australia in 1837, preferring a conservative approach to religion in contrast to the other Presbyterian congregation who had chosen to follow the “fire and brimstone” Reverend John Lang.

In the early 19th century the Australian Scots Presbyterian Church split into two congregations as a result of the differences between the two spiritual leaders. Reverend John McGarvie and Reverend John Dunmore Lang. Reverend Lang was a divisive and formidable character where Reverend McGarvie in comparison was more moderate, more reasonable.

Allan, as described in his obituary In the Sydney Herald in 1839 as “frank, unaffected, firm in principle, with warm feelings tempered by a most kind and benevolent heart, deservedly beloved by his friends” would not choose as his spiritual leader the Reverend Lang who was continually waging a personal war against many people. His activities, as documented, seem to be vexatious in the extreme.

From this information we are building a profile of a conservative religious man and using that trait as a beginning we can now build an understanding of where his religious practices placed him in the social stratosphere of New South Wales.

When trying to understand Allan and how he behaved, his religious life is all important because the foundation of the society within which he lived was religion.

The Allan Cunningham Memorial at St Andrews Scots Presbyterian Church Rose Bay
at St Andrews Scots Presbyterian Church Rose Bay
Allan Cunningham FLS MRGS
Associated in the pursuit of botanical discovery
with Oxley, in exploring the interior of New Holland,
with King, in four times circumnavigating its coasts
and by subsequent personal research, having more
fully developed the geography, and flora, of the
northern districts of this colony, and of Norfolk
Island, and New Zealand, he has left enduring
monuments of devotion to the cause of science, and of
eminence in those branches which he most assiduously cultivated.
Frank, unaffected, firm in principle, with warm
feelings, tempered by a most kind and benevolent
heart, deservedly beloved by his friends some of
them, in the foremost rank of science in England,
France, and Germany, he died, in unrepining
submission to the will of God: and in a calm
dependance, on the merits of his adorable redeemer.
27th June 1839 Aged 48.

Although the British had managed to separate science and exploration from religious dogma, their whole society was based on Christianity. Status in the community was based on which “brand” of Christianity you followed. If you were an Anglican in Britain in the 1800’s you had a higher social status than if you where Catholic. This class system was transplanted into the new colony of New South Wales.

It isn’t clear how Allan Cunningham identified himself to the New South Wales establishment when he arrived in 1816 however we can assume that when questioned he would have told the story of his lineage. He was descended from the Scottish clan of Cunningham who lived in Renfrewshire Scotland. Born in London in 1791 his home was in Wimbledon in London, near Wimbledon House where his father, a Scot, was the Head Gardener.

We can trace Allan’s religious beginnings back to his christening on 4th August 1791 in London’s George Yard Chapel. I believe this chapel was a Congregational Church and considered a non-conformist one. The history of the Presbyterian Church is too complicated to discuss here, however, in brief, the Congregational Church was a break away group within the Presbyterian Church. So it was only natural for Allan to join a congregation that he perceived to be close to his religious expectations.

Allan’s choice of religion, his Scottish heritage and more importantly his patron Sir Joseph Banks and his connections with Kew Gardens would have given him a gilt edged introduction to people of influence, the “exclusives”, within the new colony. Strangely, although Allan had important connections back in England, Lachlan Macquarie, the Governor, was not overly generous with his support of the Botanist’s needs, possibly because he had his own problems trying to keep down costs. Governor Lachlan Macquarie was a Scot himself from the Isle of Mull. Many of the early colonists were of Scottish extraction and carried with them the seeds of “The Scottish Enlightenment” along with the Presbyterian religion.

Allan did not have much time to socialise when he first arrived in the colony as he was to join John Oxley‘s expedition along the Lachlan River very soon after arriving. When he returned to Parramatta much the worse for wear after his trek through the wilderness, he set up lodgings. He soon found he was accepted by the “elites” sometimes known as the “exclusives”, of the colonial society and would have received many social invitations both in Parramatta and Sydney. As the son of a Head Gardener in London it is not clear what his social status might have been back in the mother country however his access to the “elites” of London society would have been minimal. That all changed once he was in NSW, here he became a person to be respected and accepted at the highest level. Australia gave Allan Cunningham an opportunity to rise to a social status undreamed of back in England.

 St Andrew's Scots Presbyterian Church Rose Bay Sydney -  Windows

As we sat quietly contemplating the wonderful stained glass windows of this peaceful church in its harbourside suburb. Sitting, possibly, in the same seat that Mr Cunningham once sat, singing melodious hymns, we felt a wonderful sense of history. The memorials we came to see served their purpose. A character’s profile had emerged from the historical fragments and linked stories leading to a partial understanding of someone who walked on this earth many years before.