Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Sundial at Wilberforce

On the northernmost wall of Wilberforce’s St. John’s Anglican Church is a vertical sundial with the initials J.W. and the date 1859. Who was J.W. and what was the significance of the year?

The vertical sundial carved by John Wenban. Photo: M. Nichols

A sundial tells the time of day from the position of the sun, and the one at Wilberforce was carved by John Wenban, the local schoolmaster, to commemorate the consecration of St. John’s Church by the Bishop of Sydney, Mr Barker. 

Wheelwright John Wenban was from Hawkhurst, Kent, and accompanied by wife Mary and six children migrated to Australia in 1838. The couple had seven children but eight months prior to departure, their infant son Walter died. The family travelled on-board the immigrant ship the “Maitland” which recorded over thirty deaths throughout the voyage, mainly from typhus and scarlet fever. Heavily pregnant throughout the journey, Mary delivered her eighth child, Emily, five weeks after landing. Two more daughters were born in Wilberforce.

On arrival John was employed by Mr McDonald at Pitt Town and then later moved his family to Wilberforce.  In 1842, he was appointed as the Schoolmaster of the Parochial School at Wilberforce, replacing William Gow, the first schoolmaster and Parish Clerk. Classes were conducted at the Wilberforce Schoolhouse, built in 1819 at the request of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, and operated as a school during the week and a church on Sundays. As well as occupying the position of schoolmaster, John was appointed Parish Clerk. He also was a musician, providing music to accompany hymns for church services.  The organ was not purchased until the 1870s. 

In 1846 a committee was established to plan a new church in Wilberforce. The public were asked to make donations towards the cost of the building. John Wenban donated £3/3/- to the building fund. Money was raised and plans were drawn by architect Edmund Blacket, however it was 1856 before the foundation stone was laid. The exact date the church was completed is not known but it was consecrated in 1859. 

One evening in late November 1859, as the Wenban family was returning home in a spring-cart, an accident transpired. While turning a corner near the Wenban home, one of the wheels hit a pot-hole and John was thrown out. The horse bolted and the cart overturned with two of the children also severely injured. Twenty minutes after the accident, John succumbed to his severely fractured skull. The Sydney Morning Herald  5 Dec 1859 reported the accident,
On Sunday evening last, just after sundown, Mr. John Wenban and family, of Wilberforce, were returning home in a spring-cart. In turning a corner, near his own house, one of the wheels of the cart went into a hole; the vehicle gave a sudden jerk, and Mr. Wenban was thrown out with great violence on the ground. The horse immediately became unmanageable, when the eldest daughter of Mr. Wenban jumped out and caught him by the head, but was unable to hold him. The animal then bolted off, and capsized the vehicle with three of the children underneath. Soon afterwards the horse got away from his harness, but not until two of the children were severely hurt. Mr. Wenban's skull was so severely fractured that he expired in about twenty minutes after the fall. A magisterial inquiry into the cause of death took place before Dr. Day, J P. (in the absence of the coroner) on the following day, when the foregoing facts were elicited - Mr. Wenban had filled the office of Church of England teacher at Wilberforce for several years, and was much respected by the inhabitants, very many of whom sorrowfully followed his remains to their final resting place on Wednesday.

An enquiry was held the following day with Dr Day acting as coroner. Aged only 56, John Wenban was buried in the local cemetery, a sad loss for his large family and the community.

John Wenban’s headstone at Wilberforce Cemetery. Photo: M. Nichols

Mary died on 30 August 1883 in her 77th year at her daughter’s home in Richmond. She was supposedly buried at Wilberforce however there is some dispute about this.

Today the sundial can still be seen on the outside wall of St. John's Church, reminding us of John Wenban’s contribution. 


  1. John Wenban is my 4g-grandfather!

    1. That is why family history is so connected to local history!!!


    Thanks, Chris