The first church

The 1820s saw the start of residential settlement on the north side of Sydney harbour. Early Government surveys show the site granted to the Anglican Church in St Leonards (later North Sydney) to be heavily wooded and contemporary paintings attest to this. The first St Thomas Church was probably designed by Conrad Martens the Australian Painter and watercolourist. This first church building was completed in 1846 when the population of Sydney North Harbour was less than 400. By the 1870s the first church was not large enough for the influx of new parishioners so it was decided to enlarge the church by firstly building a new sanctuary, chancel and transepts to be attached to the existing original church acting as the nave. When funds permitted the old church (nave) was to be replaced and a new nave built .The church as we now know it was completed in 1886.

The current church

The church as we now know it was completed in 1886.  The new church was designed by Edmund Blacket in the English Gothic Revival style using

stone quarried locally. This stone is considerably whiter than the stone generally used in Sydney Town. Consideration was given to building the church from brick but it would have cost an additional 1,000 pounds. The cost of the new church was 17,000 pounds.The church from the west door to the east wall measures 160 feet( 48.768 metres) which makes it the longest Anglican church in NSW. (It is three feet longer than St Andrews Cathedral).


Our tour begins at the west door. Upon entering we should pause to take in the beauty of the splendid arches which progress down the nave to meet the four greater stone arches of the crossing with the transept and chancel .We note the eleven circular engaged stone columns carved with foliage capitals. It is interesting to note that each capital is different. The transepts are particularly fine with their effect of height and simplicity. 


The roof is constructed from large New Zealand Kauri timber beams. They are ornamented with understated chamfered edges. The roof purlins are supported from collar beam trusses with heavy beam arches which follow the theme of the stonework arches .The stonework where it meets the timber roof together with the timber cornice is particularly well executed though quite understated.


Observe the stone corbel with its little black appendages running along each wall under the clearstory windows.  These are the remnants of the gas lighting employed in the church until 1916.They were augmented with large circular gasoliers hanging from the top of each side arch together with standing floor gasoliers. The effect must have been most dramatic.


Attached to the west wall is a marble head representing a seraph. This marble formed part of the reredos of St. Pauls Cathedral which was badly damaged by enemy bombs during world war two. It was a gift from St Paul’s Cathedral London. 


The Baptistery is placed near to the main door surrounded by the tower piers and extra thick stone walls of the yet to be completed tower. The two stained glass windows are worth noting.


The bell is the bell from the first church on this site which was later installed in the new church and was used preceding each church service up until the 1960s. Note the picture of the first church and also the contemporary description from one of the early parishioners.


When you read the description of the paths to the church you can imagine that this foot scraper was greatly used. The foot scraper is now used as a door stop.


The Font in the baptistery is the work of Conrad Martens the artist whose drawings of Sydney and Port Jackson provide a valuable record of his time. Martens came to Sydney in 1835 after serving as topographical draughtsman on the voyage of the Beagle, the scientific survey made famous by Charles Darwin. He and his family were closely associated over many years with this Church.


The Pozieres Cross serves as a focus for the traditions of the17th Battalion, which reach back to the formation of the volunteer St Leonards Rifle Corps in 1860.The Corp initially used St Thomas school hall as its training venue. At Pozieres France in1916 the battalion engaged in 12 days of grim trench fighting which cost it 55 killed and 350 wounded. The wooden cross which marked the graves of those killed was brought to Australia in 1932. Note the two photographs alongside the cross. The Colours of the battalion are displayed in the South Transept


As you walk to the Northern transept note the names on some of the kneelers which commemorate former parishioners many of whom were significant pioneers of North Sydney.


Commodore Goodenough son of the Dean of Wells saw service in the Royal Navy during the Crimean War. In 1873 he was sent to the Pacific to command the Australian station with the rank of Commodore and spent two busy years visiting many of the islands lying within his command. On August12 1875 he and five of his men were wounded with poisoned arrows which produced tetanus and eight days later he died. He was buried in St Thomas church cemetery between the bodies of two of his sailors both aged 19. Goodenough House in Grosvenor Street Sydney as well as Goodenough Bay and Goodenough Island in Papua New Guinea were named after him.


The stained glass window was erected as a public memorial to Goodenough. It was made in England by Clayton and Bell at a cost of 200 pounds


Owen Stanley (1811-1850) son of the Bishop of Norwich, naval officer and marine surveyor. In 1840 he assisted in the foundation of Auckland New Zealand. In 1847 he arrived in Australian in command of H.M.S. Rattlesnake and for three years he surveyed the waters around Australia. His charts are still used to this day. Stanley’s name is commemorated in the great Owen Stanley Range in New Guinea. He was buried in St Thomas Church Cemetery.


Lt. Col. George Barney (1792-1862) arrived in Sydney in 1835 with a detachment of Royal Engineers. His work included the design of Circular Quay Sydney, Victoria Barracks, and the Martello Tower on Fort Denison. He is buried in St Thomas Church cemetery. The Crossing of the nave has the fine carved eagle lectern by James Cunningham similar to the one in St Andrews Cathedral and Bathurst Cathedral. This is a memorial to Conrad Martens.


The stone pulpit is a memorial to Rev. G. C. Bode. The pulpit is carved from three blocks of North Sydney Stone and weighs more than four tons. Carved in the centre panel are the emblems of the four evangelists.


Above the oak Communion Table (given as a memorial to Michael Boyd) is the east window which is a memorial to Rev. W. B. Clarke the first Rector of the parish.  The window comprises three lights depicting five events in the life of Jesus. The left hand window shows Jesus with the Samaritan woman John lV:14 The centre window shows Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The right hand window depicts Jesus parable of the Good Samaritan Luke X:33. Also depicted is the conversion of St Paul Acts lX:4 and Jesus and St Thomas John XX:24.


The Nave windows starting at the south eastern side wall and continuing to the west (back) wall then continuing along the northern side wall are of particularly fine quality having been supplied from prestigious English, German and Australian glass manufacturers. They depict scenes in the life of Jesus from the annunciation of His birth to His resurrection.


The Blacket memorial window is in the western wall above the book stall where you will find a short history of his life and work.

William Branwhite Clarke - First rector of the new St Thomas'

William Clarke borne 1789 in East Bergholt in the Constable country of Suffolk, England. Whilst studying at Cambridge he was introduced to the infant science of geology.. Due to his poor health it was suggested that he should seek more suitable climes in the new country of Australia. He arrived in Sydney in 1839.


He was appointed as Headmaster of the Kings School Parramatta and later served in other parishes before being appointed to St Thomas  St Leonards (North Sydney) He was responsible for establishing the school in the grounds of St Thomas. Clarkes parishioners considered a true man of God and was loved by all. He was considered a “warm hearted and devoted friend”.


The parish extended over a large but sparsely populated area. It stretched from the mouth of The Lane Cove River to “Manley” to “Barrenjuee” to Cowan Creek. It also included the settlements of Gordon and Willoughby. Clarke travelled by foot and horse visiting and ministering to his parishioners. At that time there were few roads so his visiting task was not an easy one.


The Government encouraged him to explore and travel throughout New South Wales to follow his interest in Geology. It is said that it was Clarke who first discovered gold though “ he was requested to keep quiet so as not to start a gold rush.”


W. B. Clarke died on June 1878. He was buried in St Thomas Cemetery.

Edmund Thomas Blacket - Architect

Edmund Blacket (1817-1883) was Australian architect best known for his design of the University of Sydney, St Andrews Cathedral, Sydney and St Saviours Cathedral, Goulburn.


He and his wife arrived in Sydney from England in 1842 when the settlement was rapidly expanding with new towns being established and the outback being explored and opened up. He had an introduction to the Bishop of Sydney and soon became the favoured architect of the Church of England in New South Wales. He was sometimes referred to as the “Wren of Sydney”.


 Between 1849 to 1854 he was the official Colonial Architect of New South Wales. He designed many churches and also commercial buildings and houses using various styles but he was most comfortable with English Gothic and European Gothic. Although lacking formal training his experience with the British Stockton and Darlington Railway as a surveyor together with his habit since his youth, of doing detail drawings in his many scrap books which he later used in his designs gave him the experience he needed.


Blacket was regarded as “a man of the strictest probity “with a great love of Architecture, who also studied the classics, and was considered an authority of Classic Greek. He loved music, played the organ at St Andrews Cathedral and was an amateur mechanical engineer. He had an abiding faith in The Lord Jesus. Sadly he died (of apoplexy) in 1883 before St Thomas Church was completed but his work was continued on to completion by his sons.

Do you have more information?

If you have information or photos about St Thomas’ history, please reach out! We would love to add information about the church’s more recent history, past rectors, building projects and ministries, accompanied by photos and illustrations.