The Iron Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney

For over 50 years the site next to the Parliament of New South Wales on Macquarie Street was occupied by one of the Colony's more unusual pieces of architecture.

This was the old church of St Stephens built on the site now occupied by the 1988 extension of the State Library of New South Wales. Commonly referred to as the 'Iron Church' it was an early example of large-scale prefabricated ironwork and had been shipped from Scotland and erected on Macquarie Street in 1855.

The Free Presbyterian Church was organised in Sydney in 1849. Their church in Pitt Street became too small and they purchased land for a new church in Macquarie Street for £2060. Due to the shortage of skilled labour in Sydney caused by large numbers of workers who had left for the gold fields they decided to send to Glasgow for a prefabricated iron church large enough to seat 800 people. 

The Iron Church was one of a pair completed by Roberston and Lister, of Glasgow in 1854 and shipped to Australia. They were similar in size and general appearance, except the one bound for Macquarie Street had two small spires on each side while the one shipped to Sandridge in Port Melbourne had one spire springing from the centre of the pediment. The Melbourne church, erected in 1854, was destroyed in a gale on 23 September 1908.

The chief features of the churches were their arcades of ornamental columns on arches. Each church was 22 metres in length and 14 metres wide while the interior was lit by a series of circular-headed windows, each six metres in length. At the back, there were two large stained-glass windows. The prefabricated façade was not the only iron, the crown of the arched ceiling was iron with perforated gratings for ventilation and the external roof was corrugated iron.

By 1875 the Iron Church had become too small for the congregation and they built another church, in Phillip Street. After the congregation vacated the building it was used as a clothing factory, before being fumigated and repurposed as a branch of the Free Public Library in 1881.  In 1874 the Free Public Library wanted to extend their services to include a lending library but the Library building on the corner of Bent Street was not large enough to hold both a reference library and a lending library.

The Free Public Library started its lending service in the Iron Church in August 1881. In June 1890 the Free Public Library's lending branch and newspaper room were moved again, this time to the second floor of the Queen Victoria Markets. On 22 December 1908, an Act of Parliament saw the books and fittings of the lending branch of the Public Library made the responsibility of the Municipal Council of Sydney. 

Soon after the lending branch of the Free Public Library was removed from the Iron Church, the building was taken down, section by section and erected in the grounds of the Lidcombe State Hospital. Here it was used as a chapel and recreation hall. Although the State Government of NSW in 1944 pledged £10,000 for the creation of a ‘suitable’ recreation hall it was still being used in 1953.  Sometime after this, the church was removed from the site but it is unclear whether it was demolished or moved to another location.
 

Sepia photograph of a church with two intricate columns.
St Stephen's Iron Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney
Digital ID: 
FL1228322
View collection item detail
Iron Church being pulled down, Macquarie Street, Sydney, ca. 1899
unknown
Digital ID: 
FL915670
View collection item detail

 

Geoff Barker
Senior Curator, Research and Discovery

2019

 

Old Sydney, Truth (Sydney, NSW : 1894 - 1954), Sunday 24 December 1911, p. 9.
Old Sydney, Truth (Sydney, NSW : 1894 - 1954), Sunday 6 September 1925, p. 16.
Church of Iron, The First St. Stephen's, Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), Saturday 11 January 1930, p. 11.
New Deal for Old Men at Lidcombe, Truth (Sydney, NSW : 1894 - 1954), 17 September 1944, p. 18.
At Lidcombe & Liverpool State Homes, The Australian Worker (Sydney, NSW : 1913 - 1950), 7 January 1948, p. 7.
Sydney's Iron Church Now A Chapel, The Sunday Herald (Sydney, NSW : 1949 - 1953), 31 May 1953, p. 13.