Main Menu

Home Articles Australian Church History Robert Allan of Buninyong and his Bequest
Robert Allan (1810-1878) of Buninyong and his Bequest PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dr Rowland S. Ward   
Monday, 23 June 2008 15:09



The Vision of a 19th Century Victorian Presbyterian lives on.


From The Presbyterian Banner, March 2006.

Updated 18/3/2012

Concerning Robert Allan, I was very surprised to read yesterday (15 February 2006), in my newly acquired copies of the “See for Yourself” teachers’ handbooks produced last year by the Christian Education & Nurture Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, the following words: “Unfortunately, not a great deal is known about the man himself, his life, connections, profession, and so on.” This article aims to put on record some details about a remarkable individual.

Robert Allan was the 3rd of the four children of Robert Allan and Janet Blair, and was born in the parish of Langton, Berwickshire on 7 April 1810. He had been a Sunday School teacher in Scotland and came to Victoria, arriving most probably in October 1841, and operated a successful flour mill in Kilmore. The first Presbyterian minister to visit Kilmore was the Rev Peter Gunn in 1843 and again in 1844 and 1845. In July 1846 it is recorded that Rev. James Forbes of Melbourne was collecting funds for Kilmore. On 18 November 1846 Forbes officiated at Allan's marriage in Melbourne to Elizabeth daughter of Henry Everist. Forbes made several visits conducting service in Allan’s mill. Before the Rev. John Hume of the Free Presbyterian Synod was settled in 1851 as the first Presbyterian minister, Allan conducted a Sunday School in a room in his mill on Sabbath afternoons and continued this until he left Kilmore. He was deeply interested in children, although he had none himself. He was also a member of the building committee for the first Free Presbyterian Church in Kilmore and prepared the plans in 1852 for the building opened the following year in the eastern part of the town.

Allan left Kilmore in 1853 and took up residence in Buninyong south of Ballarat. It appears that he built a house on the south-east corner of Eyre and Winter Streets which still stands: at any rate, he was the first recorded owner. [see:] He was for a short time manager of the Crown Mine, but was essentially a gentleman of independent means. In 1861 he gifted the Mechanics’ Institute and Library in Warrenheip Street to the people of Buninyong. The Mechanics’ Institute movement arose in Scotland in the early 1800s and spread throughout the British Empire, Europe and the USA to total about 10,000 largely privately funded centres of which 1,100 were in Victoria. They usually comprised a library, a newspaper reading room and a lecture hall. This building was restored in the 1990s. Between 1870-75 Allan was mayor of the Borough council on five consecutive occasions.

Allan was active in the Presbyterian Church in Buninyong, one of the oldest Presbyterian centres in Victoria, where Thomas Hastie of the Free Presbyterian Synod had begun his ministry in 1847. Hastie joined the union forming the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in 1859 and retired in 1891. The original log church (1847) was replaced by the present structure in 1860 (now Uniting Church). In 1873 Allan organised the Sunday School on new lines. It involved a ‘systematic course of instruction in Bible truth’ emphasising one doctrine per lesson and utilising the Shorter Catechism and Bible memory verses, as well as reading of Bible narratives practised at home. Quarterly examinations were a feature of the scheme. The ‘Pioneer Model Sabbath-school of Buninyong’ was intended as a model for others and within a short time the Williamstown Presbyterian Church had adopted its plan. A description of its practical operation as seen by an observer is in The Christian Review [PCV magazine] for September 1875, page 17.

In July 1875 Allan made his will in which he bequeathed the bulk of his estate to the Presbyterian Church of Victoria to administer a scheme embodying his plan with encouragement for Sabbath-schools to adopt it in the form of generous scholarships for the best pupils in the schools using the system. It is of note that although administered by the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, the Sabbath-school of any Christian denomination in Victoria could participate. Elizabeth died in 1877 age 72. Allan died on 15 March 1878 leaving a life interest to a brother and two sisters. Following their deaths the bequest of £10,400 became available in 1886. [See Commission of Assembly Reports, May 1886 v-xiv, and Assembly Reports, November 1986 xli-l] The terms of the bequest were somewhat exhaustive and difficult to fully implement, but many people benefited from the scholarships over the years.

In 1990 my Mother Ruth records her experiences of the Allan Bequest in the 1920s.

“My father [Rev H. E. Carey] had a great desire to increase knowledge and love of Scripture and the Shorter Catechism amongst young people, hence his many years of work with the Bible Puzzles including thousands of young ones. When we returned from South Australia to Victoria in 1921 and my father was stationed at Willaura, he became interested in the Allan Bequest Scholarships and the Medal and Book Prize Exams, which were a very big part of youth work. The Allan Bequest Exams were very difficult, and in that district most children did not go further than Primary School, so scholarships were not required, and the money had to be used for that purpose. I remember that my father coached some at Willaura for the Medal and Book Prize, but cannot remember what you had to do for that as I was not interested myself – I think it was Sunday School lessons. I sat for the Allan Bequest in 1924 but have no recollection of it at all. I did 7th and 8th grades at school that year (Merit Certificate). I won a Peace Thanksgiving Bursary which meant I was near the top for the girls in the State. Dad was a very good coach and his pupils did well.

For the Allan Bequest we had to learn a set number of answers to the Shorter Catechism each year, and use P.J.Murdoch’s “Sidelights” as we had to be able to comment thoroughly on them. We had at least 7 or more passages of the Bible to learn, and we had to have a thorough knowledge of the Sunday School Graded Lessons Teacher’s Book, Intermediate or higher, for perhaps 5 or 6 months of the current year, and a full knowledge of the aim and meaning of the lesson. These were not easy.

I also sat for the Allan Bequest in 1925 when we were in Essendon, and I was again the only one, but my father had some success with the Medal and Book Prize Exams. I remember I found it very trying at that time as school work was more than enough with various new subjects and homework. I was not allowed to do anything but homework and Allan Bequest after school. I again won a Peace Thanksgiving Bursary. There was a special Youth Night in the Assembly Hall, and all winners were ask to come to be presented to the Moderator, Rev John Sinclair. We went, and we expected to receive our cheque but only received a handshake each! The cheque came much later on."

Murdoch’s1 Sidelights on the Shorter Catechism (3rd edition 1918) showed some departures from the older theology, and Rev. William Goyen, who was Assembly Director for Sabbeth-schools 1914-34, tended to avoid the more Calvinistic items (he was a former Primitive Methodist). In that sense the Allan Bequest was an embarrassment to the liberal church into the 1970s.

Of recent years the Presbyterian Church of Victoria has made a careful review of the terms of the Bequest, which has now grown to something like $400,000. Seeking to follow the spirit of the bequest, a Sunday school syllabus for 12-17 year olds covering 4 years of 4 terms each is being produced, the first year being already available. The teacher’s handbooks are about $20 each but the pupils’ books are free apart from postage and handling. I understand that camp subsidies for Young people at teaching camps are also being considered. Robert Allan could not have foreseen the situation of the church in 21st century Australia, but I think he would be thankful that his object of “to encourage and advance the religious intelligence of the young of all denominations” is being realised.



1. P.J.Murdoch, the grandfather of Rupert, was minister at Camberwell.

Last Updated on Sunday, 18 March 2012 08:29