Inside the Collection

A covering uncovered

Copper sheeting from St James Church, Sydney (1819-24)

Copper sheathing
H4731, Copper sheathing of around 1822 taken from the 1894 repair of St James Church Spire, Sydney Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Circular hand-beaten copper coping
H4732 Circular hand-beaten copper coping of around 1822 taken from the 1894 repair of St James Church Spire, Sydney Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Occasionally we happen upon the previous lives of objects in our collection. Two pieces of roofing copper have been in the Powerhouse Museum’s collection since 1946. They are recorded as having come from the steeple of St James Church in Macquarie Street, Sydney, designed by Francis Greenway and completed in 1824. The copper had been given by a Mrs Watson of Gladswood House, Double Bay in 1946 and the steeple had been last renovated by Wunderlich Limited in 1894. Until recently this was all we knew.

Book opened up to reveal photograph Wunderlich Metal ceilings
(A7437-31/2/22/22) St James Church 1894 spire restoration (on right side of page) from ‘The Wunderlich Manufactures 1912 catalogue ‘Section IV Metal Roofing and Exterior Decoration, Wunderlich Limited, Redfern, New South Wales Collection:Powerhouse Museum

One of the Museum pieces is a roofing sheet or tile, and the other a circular portal. Through the green patina of each can be seen ‘convict’ broad arrows stamped into the metal by the Board of Ordnance. These symbols effectively identified the material to be government property and would have made them more easily recognisable had they been stolen (and recovered prior to melting down!). Over the last couple of years the steeple has been undergoing its first renovation since 1894. Research was undertaken by the architects and archaeologists to make the current work as authentic to the original 1820s as possible. Suddenly the Powerhouse’s intriguing but otherwise unremarkable roof pieces were important and informative survivors of use to the architects. In return for our help, one of the researchers, Dr Rose Annable, gave the Powerhouse some copies of information from the St James archives. This included a cutting of a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald written around 1930 by Frederick William Watson, who we now know to have been the custodian of the copper pieces prior to his death in 1945, and their donation in 1946.

 Broad arrow symbol on edge of portal
H 4732 Broad arrow symbol on edge of portal Collecton: Powerhouse Museum

In his letter Frederick Watson laments the potential loss of many of Sydney’s colonial buildings, and he describes how his thoughts were prompted by the presence of the two objects now in the Powerhouse Museum,

Certainly some features [of St James] were changed about 40 years ago. As I write there hang in front of me a large sheet of copper and a moulded copper porthole (so to speak), covered with broad arrows to prevent theft. These form part of the old roof and one of sixteen holes in the steeple, removed [he wrongly speculates] because exception was taken to broad arrows on the roof of the church.

Frederick Watson (1878-1945) was a medical doctor and historian of note – editing the initial volumes of the Historical Records of Australia. Expecting to be appointed government archivist, Watson moved to the Canberra district in 1927 where he contemplated these copper pieces from St James that spurred his letter to the Sydney Morning Herald. Thankfully buildings such as the Mint and Hyde Park Barracks that he feared would be lost to development have survived, and so too have his pieces of St James church …

Wunderlich Limited catalogue pages, 1899, 1901, 1904, 1912. (A7437-31/2/3/79; A7437-31/2/5/104; A7437-31/2/7/89; A7437-31/2/22/22)

Ann M. Mitchell, ‘Watson, James Frederick William (1878 – 1945)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, Melbourne University Press, 1990, pp 398-399.

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