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Religion, church and missions in Australia

Sunday school

Robert Raikes was the founder of the first Sunday school in England. Established in 1780 for factory children in Gloucester, Raikes was passionately concerned with the need for prison reform and believed that prisons were full of people who had endured deprived childhoods. He believed that education, especially religious instruction, would enable children to avoid the pitfalls of poverty and crime in adult life.

[St John's Church, Parramatta]

Children between the ages of five and fourteen were encouraged to attend, no matter what the state of their clothes. The Sunday school curriculum largely consisted of simple lessons in reading and spelling in preparation for reading the Bible, memorising Scripture passages and hymns.

In the early colony of Sydney it was the children of missionary families, the Hassalls and Marsdens who established and taught at the first Sunday school at Parramatta in 1813.

Sunday schools in New South Wales taught reading, writing and arithmetic, alongside spiritual subjects and often children’s libraries were attached to the schools. The State Library of NSW holds two Sunday school library collections: Bourke St, Darlinghurst Congregational Church Sunday school and St Matthias, Paddington Church of England. These collections represent typical Sunday school lending libraries that were in use in the mid 19th century through to the early 20th century. Most of the items were published by the Religious Tract Society and illustrate the social and religious attitudes of the time.

The inclusion of secular subjects continued until the introduction of the Public Instruction Act of 1880, which initiated compulsory attendance of children at day school. The centenary celebrations were the high tide mark of the Sunday school movement - then the largest youth movement in the world.

Thomas Hassall, ca. 1818 - portrait

Thomas Hassall

Thomas Hassall (1794-1868) established the first Sunday school in NSW when he was nineteen. He was the eldest son of Rowland and Elizabeth Hassall who had been missionaries to Tahiti. The family left their ministry work in Tahiti and settled in Sydney in 1798. Rowland received a land grant of 100 acres in the Dundas district and the family lived in Parramatta.

Thomas opened up his family’s house (on the corner of George and Charles Streets, Parramatta) to Sunday school classes in May 1813. 

A small class of six or seven children, some of whom were children of convicts, soon increased to more than 200 children, including 19 Aboriginal children. Thomas asked permission from the Rev. Marsden to accommodate the school at St John’s church, Parramatta.

Teachers at the Sunday school included Rowland and Thomas Hassall, along with Marsden children, Ann and her younger sister, Elizabeth and Charles Simeon Marsden.

Once the first Sunday school had been established, many more followed, including schools at Concord, Prospect and Liverpool.

In a speech to Sunday school teachers in England in 1821, Thomas recalled how his interest in teaching children began. As a teenager, he had befriended an Irish boy called Jemmy Mullins in Sydney. Thomas spent every Sunday evening teaching Jemmy to read and write, using the Bible as his tool. Jemmy began attending church with Thomas, however he died shortly after. Thomas’ only consolation was his belief that he had been instrumental in bringing the boy to “a better world at his death”, and it was this friendship which had inspired him in his ministry to children.


Hassall family - Papers of Rowland Hassall 
Hassall family - Correspondence


Three years after starting a class at his father's house, Thomas Hassall formalised the Sunday school movement, with requirements and rules established and printed for the guidance of teachers. A meeting on December 1, 1815 resolved to form the Institution 'for the Establishing and Promoting of Sunday Schools throughout the Colony, with a view to the Instruction of poor Children of both Sexes, to read the Holy Scriptures'.

As there was only one printing press in the colony, it was thought to be too costly to print Sunday school material on it. The Rev. Marsden set up the Missionary Press in Rowland Hassall’s house for the printing of Sunday school literature and this was used to print the first set of Rules and Requirements for persons engaging themselves as teachers in the Parramatta Sunday School.

The Institution was supported by voluntary subscriptions and donations by members.


View the Requirements and rules via the Library's catalogue

View the Requirements and rules via the Library's catalogue

Thomas Hassall's Anecdotes

Thomas Hassall recorded his memories from his time as Sunday school leader and described some of the children who were drawn to the school and their enthusiasm for learning, despite being reviled as "Methodists" by their peers.


Picnics and Celebrations

The social highlight of the year was the annual Sunday school picnic day. This tradition had begun in England alongside the development in rail transport. Urban children were transported to the countryside on race day, in order that they avoid 'the demoralising fascination of the race-course day'.

The first Australian Sunday school picnic was organised by Thomas Hassall in 1821, where the children were served a picnic dinner of roast beef and plum pudding.

For many years the Sunday school picnics were a popular local pastime, held on Parsonage Hill at Parramatta, a particular favourite of the Rev. Marsden.


Children were transported to Sunday school picnics on hay wagons, paddle-wheelers, steam trains, ferries as well as on foot. The picnics would begin with hymn singing before lunch; grace was then said, followed by grand feasts of turkey, goose, sandwiches, puddings, tarts, cakes and buns. Afterward there were nut and lolly scrambles, foot races, tug-of-wars, croquet and cricket matches.

By the mid 19th century, the largest Sunday school in Sydney was St Barnabas’ Broadway which had 1,750 children and 300 teachers in its heyday. All traffic came to a standstill on George St west when the children of St Barnabas and their teachers left for their annual picnic. Carrying banners and accompanied by a brass band, Sydney’s main streets would be closed to traffic until the parade had passed.

The International Exhibition, from Lady Macquarie's Chair / photographed by C. Bayliss, 419 George Street [Sydney]

Garden Plalace centenary celebrations

In July 1880 worldwide celebrations were held to mark 100 years of the Sunday school movement, which had been founded by Robert Raikes in England in 1780.

In Sydney over 10,000 children, representing 61 schools, were mustered in Hyde Park and marched with banners down Macquarie Street toward the Exhibition Building singing hymns.

This impressive structure had been built to house the International Exhibition of 1878-1880 and encompassed a huge seven and a half acres of floor area with four massive towers supporting a central dome. It dominated the city during its short life. It was destroyed by fire in 1882.

On the afternoon of the 26th of June, 1880, the Naval Brigade Band and the processing children filled the Garden Palace to capacity. The space was so limited that some children were accommodated in the orchestra area and some climbed on to the Governor’s platform.

Hymns and speeches by guests of honour, including the Governor, were conducted and appropriate mottoes and inscriptions were displayed in front of the galleries. The celebration was generally viewed as highly successful and very well organised, considering the numbers of attendees, estimated by newspapers as being 30,000.

Separate centenary celebrations took place in Newcastle and at St Leonards on the North Shore, 'For some reason or other the Sunday school workers on the other side of the harbour did not find the arrangements of the general committee sufficient for their purpose and they resolved upon a special celebration on their own account.' Town and Country journal, July 3, 1880.

Made possible through a partnership with Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation