|Historical notes: ||The site for Sydney’s second church was chosen by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1812, but it was not until 31 August 1819 that the foundation stone was laid, on George Street, for his ‘grand metropolitan church’ of St Andrew. On 7 October 1819 the Governor laid the foundation stone for another new building, a courthouse at the north end of Hyde Park. Shortly afterwards, following objections by the British government’s newly arrived Commissioner of Enquiry, J T Bigge that St Andrew’s would take five years to complete, a more modest plan for a second church was adopted and the intended courthouse site arrogated to the purpose. By February 1820 a church, to the design of the Civil Architect, Francis Greenway, was under construction by government (convict) labour. Work on St Andrew’s was suspended and finally abandoned in May 1820.
During 1820 work proceeded swiftly on the new church. By June the tower basement had been completed, by October a disagreement about the form of the entrances was settled in favour of square porticos and by November, as the brickwork was nearing completion, the building was referred to as St James’ Church. A stone plaque inscribed ‘St James’s Church Erected 1820 Lachlan Macquarie Esq. Governor’ was placed on the east gable and in 1821 the building was roofed. In January 1822 the Revd William Cowper held the first (and only) unofficial service in the empty building to shelter his congregation from the Hyde Park Barracks from the weather. The Principal Chaplain, the Revd Samuel Marden insisted that the building should not be used until the legal formalities had been properly attended to. In September 1822 the timber framework of the spire was under construction. In November Greenway was dismissed from government employment. Nothing is known of the work following Greenery's departure, including finishing and furnishing the interior, but by the time the church was ready for use the south portico had been enclosed for use as the vestry.
St James’ Church was consecrated on 11 February 1824 by the Revd Samuel Marsden, using a form of service for non-Episcopal consecration, approved by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The first baptism was held on the same day. The church has been in continuous use for divine worship, according to the rites of the Anglican Church, ever since. The building was part Macquarie’s ‘official Sydney’, a group of government buildings along the eastern ridge of the town. Bordering the Domain, Macquarie Street and Hyde Park these included the Government Stables, the Light Horse Barracks, Hospital, the Hyde Park Barracks, St James’ Church, the Supreme Court and the Georgian School. Although the plan had been the governor’s, the functions of the buildings on Hyde Park and the vagaries of their construction, were a direct result of the intervention of Commissioner Bigge and of the consequences of his Report on the administration of the Colony. The church’s connection with ‘official’ Sydney was to be a formative and enduring aspect of its ministry.
The interior of the church was a simple, rectangular ‘preaching box’, with a small holy table and tall, three-decker pulpit against the east wall and a gallery at the west. All levels of society were accommodated and the seating arrangements reflected the social divisions and distinctions of the time. The high box pews were rented and free open benches were provided at the back of the church for the poorer inhabitants and visitors. A single entrance on the north portico served the main body of the church. The prisoners and military were in the gallery which was served by its own entrance in the tower. A small group of musicians and choir led the music. In 1827 an organ by John Gray of London arrived and was placed in the gallery. It was played for the first time on 7 October, the anniversary of laying the foundation stone of the intended courthouse.
By the early 1830s more accommodation was needed and was provided by the construction of a separate eastern gallery. In order to provide access, an addition was made to the east end of the church with entrances on the north and south sides from which stairs led up to the gallery. The small sandstone ‘Doric porticos’ were modelled on the original porticos and the architect was John Verge. The room in the centre of this addition was used as the vestry. Changes were made to the interior arrangement of the church to accommodate the new gallery and the loss of its original eastward facing orientation. The pulpit was moved to the centre aisle, facing the eastern gallery and the whole of the pews in the eastern half of the church turned round to face the pulpit. The holy table was brought forward of the gallery and surrounded by a circular communion rail. This seating arrangement continued in use for the remainder of the 19th century.
From the 1830s to the 1850s St James’ was the fashionable town church. As such it became the place in which to memorialise not only those who worshipped there but also eminent colonists. In 1836 he church gained ecclesiastical status when Bishop William Grant Broughton was installed as Bishop of Australia in St James' and continued to use it as his official church until he moved to St Andrew’s temporary cathedral in 1843. The first ordinations were held at St James’. From 1846 prisoners no longer attended but with the growth of population after the gold rush more seating was still needed and the galleries were extended to almost encircle the interior. The pulpit was moved to the south wall (by the present chapel) and the church retained this form until the turn of the century.
From the 1840s under the Revd (later Canon) Robert Allwood (ultimately to be the church’s longest serving incumbent) a Tractarian form of worship was adopted. With more frequent celebration of the Holy Communion and more elaborate music, St James’ developed a distinctive liturgy, divergent from the increasingly Evangelical Diocese of Sydney, a tradition that it still retains.
By the middle of the 19th century a move had begun to live in the suburbs and the church was losing its resident population. Its architecture was considered antique (even pagan) by comparison with the fashionable Gothic style, for some the only ‘correct’ ecclesiastical architecture. By the 1880s St. James' was in decline, its congregation dwindling and the building in a bad state of repair. Moves for change were stalled by its Parsonage Trustees, who did not wish to see the internal arrangement of the church altered and who controlled the available funds for doing so. Eventually in 1894-1895 an extensive programme of external restoration was carried out by Varney Parkes. Much original fabric was replaced including the roof timbers and the spire which was completely rebuilt to a different design with new copper cladding. A new entrance was made on the north side of the tower with a small portico modelled on John Verge’s 1832-1833 additions. The north portico was opened up and rebuilt and many late-Victorian details added to the building.
In 1900 after long discussion, the interior was totally remodelled to the design of J H Buckeridge. To provide for a more elaborate ritual and a liturgy centred on the altar, the interior of the church was totally re-oriented. An apse, in the manner of St Matthew’s, Windsor, was created by breaking through the original east wall of the church into the Verge addition and a raised chancel and apse built against the east wall, flanked by the organ. Almost all of the existing fittings and furnishings were removed with the exception of the memorials and the western gallery and new bench pews were installed. A modern interior was created within a nineteenth century exterior. In 1902-1904 the south portico was made into a side chapel and some decorative elements of the 1900 scheme were completed. The architect for the works was J Burcham Clamp. With a renewed church building, the charismatic Carr Smith as its rector and a distinctive liturgy the congregation of St James’ grew once more. No longer resident in the city, its parishioners came from the suburbs making the deliberate choice of association with St James’, rather than their local church.
The interior arrangement of the church has remained essentially unaltered with some changes to lighting and decoration, the dedication of the war memorial in 1922 and the decoration of the semi-dome of the apse with gold mosaic in 1961.
A programme of stonework repair and replacement was carried out in the 1950s, followed by much more extensive work in the early 1970. The crypt was extensively renovated in 1976-1978.
In 1988 the side chapel in the south portico was redesigned as the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, a bicentennial project. The original infilling between the columns was demolished and replaced with glasswork. The design, by David Wright, represents the landscape formed by the interaction of earth, air, fire and water, symbolic of the action of the Spirit in creation, in life and in rebirth in Christ. The furniture by Leon Sadubin was specially commissioned for the new chapel and is of cedar, in keeping with the rest of the church furnishings.
The large brick-vaulted undercroft or crypt beneath the church has served many purposes including the verger's residence for over a century. From the 1820s to 1840s the space was used by two of the parish schools and some of the bays enclosed. Following the work carried out in the 1890s and the revival of the congregation in the early 1900s, the space began to be used for parish purposes. Various bays were converted for use for meetings, offices, parish records and a columbarium. In 1929 the bay next to the west entrance on the south side was painted by a group of modernist artists, the Turramurra painters, under the direction of Ethel Anderson. Designed as a chapel for children, the colourful murals depicted the Christmas carol I Saw Three Ships, in the familiar setting of a contemporary Sydney Harbour with the bridge under construction. Officially named the Chapel of St. Mary and the Angels, it was better known as the Children’s Chapel. Salt in the walls eventually caused considerable deterioration and the loss of paint surface and the murals were restored in 1992-1993.
A peal of eight bells was installed in the tower in 2003. (Annable 2004)