29 October, 2012

...and they went down to the River Barwon...

Whilst researching my recent posts on Geelong's criminal classes, I came across an article which made reference to a visit to Geelong by the English evangelist John Wroe.
Wroe was the founder of the Christian Israelite Church which he established in England in the 1820s after recovering from a serious illness. Claiming to have visions, he gave up his farming life and took to preaching and prophesying. Initially he joined a sect which had been established by the prophetess Johanna Southcott, soon convincing them that he should lead them and that he was the new messiah.
Wroe must have been a seriously convincing speaker as he is described as a small man with a slight stoop, piercing eyes and scruffy appearance.
Backed by a variety of wealthy merchants, they built a temple and a large house for Wroe and developed strict codes of conduct. Diet and clothing even down to jewellery were dictated and conventional medical care was not allowed. Shaving was forbidden as was the graven image. They believed that the ten scattered tribes of Israel would be reunited at the second coming of Christ and followed the teachings of both the Old and New Testaments, observing both the Jewish and Christian sabbath, attending divine service on both Friday and Sunday evening. Only through complete compliance with Christ's laws could followers expect resurrection.

The only known depiction of the prophet John Wroe
In establishing his mission, Wroe underwent public circumcision and dictated the same for all his male followers. He further decreed that seven virgins should be chosen from amongst his followers to accompany him on his missionary journeys and there were suggestions made by his critics that there was a definite sexual element to his religious practises. Perhaps not surprisingly, support for Wroe's movement waned somewhat when two of the "virgins" were rumoured to have fallen pregnant in 1830.
He was forced to move away from his base at Ashton-Under-Lyne and there was a riot when he attempt to return to his home town of Bradford. Finally he settled at Wakefield where his followers built Melbourne Hall for him. From this base, he concentrated his efforts on spreading the word further afield, travelling to parts of Europe before making his way to the US and Australia.
 He first preached in Sydney and surrounds in 1847, but returned a few years later in September, 1850, arriving on the ship Digby. By this time, the Israelite movement was well established in Australia (indeed this was the strongest branch of the sect and still exists in Sydney and Melbourne to the present day) and Geelong was no exception. A report taken from the Geelong Advertiser noted that during his visit in 1850, Wroe addressed a local gathering of followers at their temporary chapel in "Welsh's old store" which as far as I can tell was possibly located in Corio Street roughly opposite where the Scottish Chiefs now stands.
Wroe was accompanied by followers from Melbourne and local leaders from Geelong addressed the throng which had gathered to hear him preach. So well attended was the gathering that "a great many were obliged to go away".
It was soon after on 9th December, that the foundation stone of a more permanent chapel was laid in Spring Street, Geelong West, close I gather to the corner of LaTrobe Tce.
Christian Israelite Sanctuary, Spring St Geelong West. Image held by the
Geelong Historical Records Centre
 So, the connection between the Christian Israelites and the Barwon River?
Well it was probably during his 1850 visit to Geelong that the following sequence of events (described the in the Horsham Times Friday of 5th August, 1904) were alleged to have occurred.
[NB: as can bee seen from the comments below, a letter debunking the following article is alleged to have been in circulation at the same time. I can find the 1918 reference to this letter, but not at this stage, the allegedly published letter.]

The commotion occasioned by the public utterances of the Rev. J.A. Dowie has recalled to the minds of many old Victorians the sensation that occurred many years ago in connection with the visit to Port Phillip of John Roe, the leader of the Israelite movement, the followers of which were commonly known as the "Bearded Prophets," whose headquarters were in England. Following upon the gold discoveries a band of these reformers came from the old country, and settled in Melbourne and Geelong. They were peculiar in their dress, inasmuch as the men allowed hair to grow to great length, which they then plaited and rolled round their heads as the Chinese do with their "pig-tails." Their head-wear usually consisted of "belltoppers" composed of white silk, but the hats were not so high as those worn by other folk. The rims of the hats had an all round width of 5 inches. The women belonging to the sect appeared in public with "poke bonnets" of a style that was fashionable in the days of Queen Elizabeth. When intimation was given of the intended visit of John Roe great preparations were made for conducting services in various parts of the colony, and it was stated that the prophet would perform a number of miracle and indicate that he was an inspired man such as St. Paul or any other of the apostles. Geelong was selected as the centre of a great public demonstration in connection with the visit of John Roe, who, it was promised, would imitate Christ by walking across the Barwon River. A Sunday afternoon was selected for the performance of this miraculous felt(sic). As the hour of 3 o'clock approached thousands of persons assembled on the banks of the river to await the arrival of Roe and his band of long-bearded followers. In due time they hove in sight, and when they marched to the northern bank of the Barwon near the bridge leading on to the
Colac road [this was the Barwon Bridge at the bottom of Moorabool Street] loud cheers were given, followed by cries of "Bravo, John Roe." Great excitement prevailed as the prophet divested himself of his outer garments and approached the water's edge preparatory to trying to walk across the stream to the north bank. At this point the river has a depth of about 60 feet, but nothing daunted the prophet Roe pulled off his Wellington boots, and then performed a number of movements similar to those of a person dancing a sailor's hornpipe. The assemblage viewed this performance for several minutes, and finally there were loud cries of "Walk across, John." One of the henchmen of the miracle worker responded by saying "He has not yet got the spirit to work;" and then Roe danced another fandango, to the great amusement of the assembled thousands. Finally he placed one foot in the water, and after a deal of splashing brought it back to dry land, and then placed the other foot in the stream also subsequently withdrawing it. Roars of laughter followed, and then the prophet turning to the throng exclaimed: - "Brethren, I cannot walk across the river to-day, because I have temporarily lost the faith, but next Sabbath, D.V., I will pass over the water to the opposite side." On hearing this announcement the people rushed the prophet and his party, and assailed them with sods and other soft missiles. The followers of Roe hurriedly picking up their paraphernalia, hastened towards the township, followed by by the crowd, which included gold-diggers from Ballarat, shepherds from the surrounding stations, sailors from the ships in the bay, and about 200 aboriginals from neighbouring mia-mias. Accompanying the blackfellows were about 50 dogs, which joined in the uproar by loud barking. During the stampede into Geelong a number of persons were knocked down and trampled under foot, and it was not until Chief Constable Carman and Constable Collins - a notoriety in the police force of those early days, and who afterwards distinguished himself in connection with the pursuit of the outlaw, Captain Melville -  assisted by a strong body of mounted men, arrived on the scene that order was restored, and John Roe and his followers were escorted to a place of safety. On the departure of the "prophet" for other fields, his adherents organised for the carrying on of the work originated by him, and at one time their community numbered about 200. The leaders of the movement preached for many years on the Geelong wharves, and they also held public gatherings on the Eastern Beach, in the Market Square, and Botanic Gardens. They built a sanctuary in the early fifties in Spring Street, Geelong West, and the structure still exists in that thoroughfare but it is not now utilised for "worship." The community as a sect is extinct, for as the enthusiasm died out its members joined with other denominations in the conduct of service on more modern lines. Mr. John Stoneham, one of the most respected citizens of Geelong, a gentleman who was noted for his philanthropy and general charity among all classes, was a leading spirit in this movement, to which he remained up to the time of his death. He conducted a temperance boarding-house on a hill-top near the Yarra Street pier, and proved himself a friend to needy immigrants arriving from the old country.

An 1850 engraving of the Barwon Bridge looking north west to the site where
Wroe attempted his miracle. Engraving by Ham Brothers Engravers.
Image held by the Victoian State Library
It seems that the expectation or perhaps just the hype around the event was quite high, as a crowd of thousands would have accounted for a significant proportion of Geelong's population (even allowing for those who came in from outlying areas) which in pre-Gold Rush 1851, stood at just 8,000 people.
Clearly the good citizens of Geelong and surrounds did not suffer fools gladly and were less than impressed when the promised miracle was not forthcoming. Despite this early setback, the Christian Israelites flourished in Geelong until 1873 and were known colloquially as "bearded-prophets" or simply as "Beardies". A second, probably less high-profile visit took place in 1853 which seems to have gone unnoticed in the media. However the sect was not without its critics and did from time to time rate a mention in the newspapers. Most notably in 1863 there was unrest when "Beardies" clashed with citizens - in particular one Allan Stewart - who found their teachings and writings blasphemous and obscene. Words were exchanged and a few hats squashed, but violence was avoided.
Wroe paid a return visit to Geelong, arriving on the Shalimar in 1862 as an elderly man of about 80. According to the Ballarat Star of 29th November, he was "attended by a short-hand writer, who takes down the precious doctrine that falls from his lips." Lips however, which were soon to be silenced as the prophet died at the Christian Israelite Sanctuary in Fitzroy on 5th February the following year.
From 1873 however, there were no new converts and their numbers declined until 1918 when the chapel was demolished and remaining worshipers either dispersed or attended the sanctuary in Fitzroy, a suburb of Melbourne which is still in use by the sect today.


  1. Unusual that newspapers of the time did not report this supposed event on the Barwon River, especially when it is stated that the newspapers would jump on anything to bring humiliation to John Wroe. Interesting too that no newspapers between 1850 - 1904 reported this event. There is no record of this event ever having happened except for a newspaper report many, many years after the supposed event. I would question whether this event ever happened - it is more likely to be a work of fiction concocted by a newspaper reporter to gain sensationalism. It is a shame that "historians" don't check their sources nor question them.

  2. If you had researched a bit further you would have found the following rebuttal about the very article you quote from.
    See the Geelong Advertiser dated 2nd December, 1918, page 6 for the following article:

    In an article taken from the Ballarat "Star," published on Saturday, it was stated that the late John Wroe essayed to walk upon the waters of the Barwon. A correspondent points out that this was shown to be incorrect in a letter which was published in 1904, when the same story was in circulation.
    The truth is better than fiction.

  3. Thanks for the additional information. At the time I wrote the post, I don't believe this particular issue of the Geelong Advertiser was available online which is my main point of access for information.
    I will adjust the post to indicate that this is purely what was reported on that particular date, however I would suggest that the fiction is significantly more entertaining than the reality in this instance.

  4. I don't think fiction with regard history as ever being funny. The biggest problem is that people treat it as fact, then write about it in university theses and published works. The truth is always a far better story. I don't see any adjustment to your post as you said you would do....

  5. As noted in my comment of April 24, 2014, I added the following text to my post:
    [NB: as can bee seen from the comments below, a letter debunking the following article is alleged to have been in circulation at the same time. I can find the 1918 reference to this letter, but not at this stage, the allegedly published letter.]
    People are free to draw their own conclusions.

  6. Here is the link to the 1904 letter which should put the issue to rest that it was a fictional news report with no basis on any fact whatsoever...no matter how 'funny' it is it still did not happened but is being repeated as fact in books such as 'The Best of Jillong' in 2015, page 70.