- A.N. Other
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney I
- March 2022 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Mary White
The following article is taken from the July 1948 edition of The Navy magazine and is reproduced by kind permission of the Editor.
The parish of St. John’s Church, Birchgrove, New South Wales, embraced three shipyards. The church and the then Rector, the Reverend Arthur Rix, occupy a unique position in their association with ships launched from their yards. The beautiful Helen of Troy is said to have been the face that launched a thousand ships, this is beyond our attainment but the Reverend Rix was involved in launching perhaps more ships than any other individual on our shores.
Come with me to the Parish of St. John’s Church of England, Birchgrove, New South Wales. The church has an association unique in the history of Australian shipping and shipbuilding, and those of you who are interested in the sea, and to those that go down to it in ships, will find much here to intrigue you and to enlist your attention.
From our approach, the Church, clothed in its grey stone, seems at first slightly austere. We must go through this gate, down the path towards the Rectory, to find the softer side to its character. Here its wall is creeper-clad. The soft green lawn, the shady trees, endow the scene with a rural quality of peaceful charm. And there, beyond a stone bird bath and sanctuary, is the key to the peculiar quality of St. John’s. In the distance the hazy ridges of the Blue Mountains form the skyline. Nearer, the limpid waters of the Lane Cove and Parramatta Rivers wind. In the left foreground is Cockatoo Island Dockyard, and as our gaze travels to the right it embraces a glorious panorama of Sydney’s waterfront, the Harbour and foreshores, the Bridge, and on to the lighthouse on South Head.
The Parish of St. John’s is a parish of the sea. At the centre of a great port, it is the centre of a shipping and shipbuilding population. Within its boundaries it includes three shipyards, from whose launching ways war vessels, and merchant ships, instruments of that sea power on which the foundations of our Nation were first laid and the edifice firmly built, have taken the water. They are the yards of Cockatoo Island, of Mort’s Dock and Engineering Company, and of Poole and Steele.
Within these yards, and with the ships that have come from them, the Church of St. John’s and its Rector- the Reverend Arthur George Rix – have a long and enduring fellowship. Many fine vessels were built by Cockatoo Dockyard, Mort’s Dock, and Poole and Steele during the war, and Mr Rix was appointed by the Naval Board to conduct the Religious Service at every launching from each of these three yards. In the carrying out of this duty, Mr. Rix and the Choir of St. John’s Church have officiated at the launching of no fewer than 62 vessels.
As an appreciation of the splendid service rendered by him and the Church, the Department of the Navy honoured the Rector in a memorable fashion by inviting him to name two of the vessels, HMA Ships Armidale1 and Latrobe2. This was a singular distinction, as the honour of naming a vessel at her launching is reserved for a lady.
In the numerous ceremonies at which he officiated, Mr Rix spared neither himself nor his choir in the effort to make every service dignified and impressive. Many important personages visited the three Yards in St. John’s Parish to attend and participate the war time launchings. They included His Excellency the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, and Lady Gowrie; His Excellency the Governor of New South Wales, Lord Wakehurst, and Lady Wakehurst; Mrs Douglas MacArthur, wife of General MacArthur, Commanding the South West Pacific Area; and the wives of Prime Ministers and Premiers and Cabinet Ministers, among other socially prominent people.
Nor were representatives from the country districts wanting. Many of the vessels concerned were corvettes, which were named for country towns. A number of these were christened by the wife of the Mayor or the Town Clerk of the town concerned. Very often a town formed its Comforts Fund, and in this way a personal bond was established between town and the ship, which lasted throughout the ship’s life, and made and cemented friendships.
The weather was not always propitious at launchings. On the occasion of that of Latrobe it rained heavily, and the Rector had to perform the christening ceremony against a background of umbrellas. The members of the ship’s company suffered in damp silence, for although silence is a tradition of the navy, umbrellas are not.
The period of the war did not see the commencement of the association of St. John’s Church and of Mr. Rix with naval launchings. It goes back far beyond that. The Rector carried out his first service at a launch in 1928, when the seaplane carrier HMAS Albatross took the water at Cockatoo Island Dockyard, and Lady Stonehaven, the wife of the Governor-General, performed the naming ceremony on that occasion. Since then Mr Rix has taken part in launchings with manywomen well-known in Australian public life, including Dame Enid Lyons, Lady Crace, Mrs McKell, Mrs Scullin, Mrs Muirhead-Gould, Dame Mary Hughes, Mrs Frank Ford, Mrs Menzies, Mrs Beasley, Mrs Quirk, Lady Kelso King, and Mrs Fraser.
In April 1946, Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester were present at St. John’s Church at a service to commemorate the achievements of the Royal Australian Navy, and all visiting admirals, Admirals-in-Charge at Sydney, and Generals of the Army, have visited St. John’s at one time or another.
The connection of their Church and their Rector with the launchings and with the public figures who officiate at the ceremonies – many of whom have attended the Church on several occasions as worshippers – is a source of pride to the parishioners of St. John’s, to whom their Rector is affectionately known as ‘Our Cappy’. And the close link of the Parish with the sea and the Navy goes deeper than dockyard ceremonies. Many boys from Balmain and the district served, and are still serving, in the corvettes, a number of them being from the Parish of St. John’s.
The Church itself is rich in reminders of its place in the sea annals of Australia. In many of the seafaring towns in England, where the company lives by and through ships, a model of a vessel is placed in the church. It serves to remind the congregation that their living comes through ships, and its presence exhorts them to offer prayers for their comrades afloat, and for those in peril on the sea. There is such a model – of a barque – in St. John’s Birchgrove, and a notice drawing the analogy between the ship and the Church, which also carries people safely from port to port – from the port of Earth to the port of Heaven. St. John’s was from its beginning linked with the dockyards. The stone from which it was originally built was given by Mr Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, the founder of Mort’s Dock and Engineering Company Ltd. The building has been added to since, and the additions have enriched its associations in mementoes from past and present parishioners, and from varied fields.
The beautiful wrought bronze Sanctuary gates were fashioned from the turbines of the original HMAS Sydney which sank the German Emden during the First World War. They were presented to St. John’s by the men of Cockatoo Dock in memory of Mr Jack Payne, who was the manager of the Dockyard. Three lovely stained-glass windows which were unveiled last month replace a narrow window which previously served as memorial to the men who fell during the wars. In the Church grounds immediately outside the windows will be placed a fountain, a bird bath, and a fish pond. Thus, outside and within the Church there will be constant reminders of the boys from the Parish who gave their lives.
Flowers, kept constantly fresh, are a living memorial in the Church. They are grown in her small garden by a Balmain mother, whose son was the first soldier to be killed in the Owen Stanley Ranges.
Sir Harry Rawson laid the foundation stone of the Chancel, and to mark the Jubilee of the Church in 1932, Sir Phillip Game, Governor of New South Wales, laid the stone for the new Jubilee Vestry.
Mr Rix was at one-time Rector at Moruya, on the South Coast of New South Wales. Moruya is famous for the fine quality granite quarried there. The pillars of the Sydney General Post Office are of Moruya granite, which has also been extensively used in the ornament-tation of other Sydney buildings. When the Sydney Harbour Bridge was projected, the Moruya quarries had, for some time, been closed down; but they were re-opened, and the tall bridge pylons are fashioned from their product – the hardest granite in the Southern Hemisphere.
That establishes a personal link between Mr Rix and the foundation stone of the Jubilee Vestry, and, also of the sundial in the Church grounds. Each of these is of Moruya granite. And not only was the Rector at Moruya, the home of the granite, but he was intimately associated with many of the men working on the Sydney Harbour Bridge when it was building. A number of them lived at his home at different periods.
St. John’s Church commemorates in an inscription on a brass plate the fact that the Naval Board on one occasion gave permission for the White Ensign to be flown there. It was when a Commemorative Service was held at the Church, at which Lord and Lady Gowrie and Sir Guy Royle were present. At the time Admiral Sir Guy Royale was First Naval Member of the Naval Board.3
THE WHITE ENSIGN
WAS DEDICATED ON JUNE 18TH 1944
AS A MEMORIAL TO THE MEN OF THE RAN
WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE WORLD WAR
AND TO MARK THE CONNECTION OF THIS
PARISH WITH THE LAUNCHING OF SHIPS OF
THEIR EXCELLENCIES LORD AND LADY GOWRIE
Mr Rix, in his capacity as a clergyman, has been associated with the radio and the films. He was the first clergyman to broadcast a religious service in Australia. He was then Acting Rector of St. Mark’s Church, Darling Point. There were some who were doubtful if the experiment would be a success. But it was. Mr Rix conducted the service, and Canon Lee preached. That the idea bore fruit is evidenced in Church broadcasts today. In his association with the films, Mr Rix directed the church scenes in the Australian Cinesound production The Silence of Dean Maitland, and he received warm congratulations when the picture was released. Incidentally the well-known producer, Mr Ken Hall, is his nephew.
The Rectory contains many tangible expressions of the esteem in which the Rector is held by his parishioners and friends.
There is a magnificent grandfather clock, which was ‘presented to Mr Rix by the parishioners and friends on the occasion of his twenty one years in the Priesthood’; two old pictures are the property of the Pope family, founders of the well-known Sydney firm of Palmer and Company, and presented to Mr Rix by the company when the Pope home was sold recently; a rare service of Copeland Spode; ornaments; and some beautiful articles of cedar and mahogany furniture; while the Rector’s study houses a large collection of autographed portrait photographs rich in memories and personal meaning.
Above all is the atmosphere of the sea, and the association with ships. That is part of the heritage of St. John’s and of its Rector. And, with the Australian Shipbuilding Board renewing its activities, it seems that this Church of a Shipyard Parish will continually renew and refresh that association, and that Mr Rix4 will add to his already unusual record of service at the launching of ships that go down to the sea from Sydney’s building slips.
1 HMAS Armidale will be forever associated with Ordinary Seaman Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean, the first member of the RAN to be awarded the VC.
2 HMAS Latrobe was not traditionally launched but floated in the dry dock in which she was built. This ceremony was marked by a blessing conducted by the Rev. A. G. Rix.
3 The Editor recently (January 2022) visited St John’s and met Canon Peter Yeats for a tour of his church. The Rector has had an interesting career serving in PNG and as a Mission to Seamen Chaplain in Japan before coming to Birchgrove. The White Ensign was dedicated on 18 June 1944. This poor ensign has seen nearly 80 years of service and is now in tatters – a request will be made through the HMAS Kuttabul Chaplain’s Office for a replacement.
4 Arthur George Rix remained at his post until the last and when still Rector he unfortunately died at Balmain Hospital on 2 April 1953 aged 72. He was a bachelor and is buried in a family grave at the Camden cemetery.