The entire history of St James' Old Cathedral has taken place on the ancestral lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay them a symbolic annual tribute to express our intention to continue to seek understanding and reconciliation.
St James' Church of England was originally built on a crown grant site on the corner of William and Little Collins Streets. The foundation stone was laid by Charles La Trobe, Superintendent of the District of Port Philip, on the 9th November 1839.
Mr Robert Russell, a London architect and surveyor, designed the building in Colonial Georgian style, inspired by Francis Greenway's work at St James' King Street in Sydney. The unfinished building was opened for worship on the 2nd October 1842.
The Anglican Diocese of Melbourne was founded in 1847 and on the 29th June that year Charles Perry was consecrated in Westminster Abbey as Melbourne's first bishop. Upon arrival in the colony, he was enthroned at St James' on 28th January 1848 and St James' became the Cathedral church of the new diocese. It was not consecrated, however, until 1853. Melbourne's first peal of bells - six of them - was also hung in St James' Cathedral that year, replacing an old ship's bell. (Two more were added in 1885.) A group of miners banking their profits from the goldfields saw the bells being hung and resolved to stay in town to form a team of ringers.
St James' enjoyed a season of civic prominence in the 1850s and 1860s but the rapidly expanding city meant it was too small for purpose almost as soon as it was consecrated. Increasingly the church sold off lands around St James and it was hidden from view on the main streets, retaining only its Little Collins Street frontage.
Much more expressive of the ambitions of "Marvellous Melbourne", by then the wealthiest city in the world, St Paul's Cathedral was built during the 1880s and opened on 22nd January 1891, whereupon St James' reverted to the status of a parish church. Congregations at St James' dwindled. Since St James' occupied a substantial amount of valuable city land, and its modesty was something of an embarrassment to proud Melburnians, plans were made to demolish it in the early 20th Century. A vigorous protest by key pioneer families of Melbourne saved St James' and an agreement was struck to move it stone by numbered stone to a new site on King Street, opposite Flagstaff Gardens. It was reopened at the new site on the 19th April 1914.
Visiting today, many are struck by the beauty of the well-maintained symmetrical interior, one of the finest examples of a Colonial Georgian aesthetic in Australia today. A fuller sense of the history of St James' can be attained by a visit to the church. Entry is free and tour groups are welcome if organised in advance.
St James' has records of many kinds, including marriage, burial and baptismal registers dating back to the earliest days of the colony. These are stored in a fireproof safe at the Old Cathedral. We also have the records of St John's La Trobe Street. Family history and other researchers may direct enquiries to our records team .