Temple Histories – New England

by Paul Macgregor

Rocky River temples

The Rocky River goldfield was the first place in New England at which Chinese temples are known to have been built. Chinese were mining for gold there from as early as 1856. [1] Arnold Goode has written that the first temple at Rocky River was erected in 1856. [2] He does not provide a source for this date. The Armidale Express reported in 1863 that there was a “joss house” at the Chinese township in the “gully leading down from” Ryan’s Point, “conspicuous by its large flag”. [3]

In 1866 Sidney Smith William Saunders reported that the “old” temple in Rocky River was “polluted by a constable placing therein the body of a Chinaman who died suddenly one day within a few years of the place”. Consequently, “the priests therefore had it pulled down and sold and the new one built”. This new temple opened on 16 December 1866, with fireworks. [4]

This date of December 1866 is a close match for four objects in the temple collections, the Donation Plaque dated 1866, the Names plaque dated 1866, both now displayed at Inverell Pioneer Village, and the “Yeung Fook Tong” entrance adornment and the Altar Table Dated 1866, both now displayed at Wing Hing Long Museum. A 1901 photograph of the interior of the 1883 temple at Tingha shows the Altar Table Dated 1866 on display in front of the shrine cabinet. This strongly suggests that some of the contents of the 1866 Rocky River temple were taken to Tingha sometime before 1901.

A third temple was built at Rocky River in 1880. [5] A photograph dated circa 1908, of the interior of “the Rocky River temple”, is likely of the 1880 temple. Unfortunately this temple burnt down in 1912, and it is not believed that any of its contents survived. [6]

Main altar in what is believed to be one of the Rocky River temples, photographed around 1908. Photo from private collection.

From the early 1870s, the principal Chinese mining activity in New England shifted from the goldfields of Rocky River to the newly discovered tin fields further north at Emmaville (originally called Vegetable Creek) and at Tingha.

Emmaville (Vegetable Creek) temples

The Maitland Mercury reported on 21 March 1878 that the Chinese miners at Vegetable Creek “have set up a ‘Joss’ and a ‘Joss House’ “. [7] It is probably this temple which was the subject of an illustrated article in The New South Wales Agriculturalist and Grazier on 3 September 1881. [8]

Vegetable Creek temple interior, from NSW Agriculturalist and Grazier, 3 September 1881

On 29-30 April 1887, a new temple was opened with great ceremony at Emmaville, as reported in The Sydney Mail on 7 May 1887 [9] :

The celebration in connection with the opening of the Chinese ‘Joss House’, or church, took place at Emmaville on the 29th and 30th ultimo, and was witnessed by a moderate number of people, besides all the Chinamen in this and the neighbouring districts, the two days having been proclaimed a holiday amongst them. The unseasonable hour of 2 o’clock in the morning was the time appointed at which the opening ceremony was to take place, and despite the many discomforts one encounters on getting out of bed on a frosty morning at such an hour, still there were about 100 Europeans present to witness the curious spectacle The ‘Joss House’ was gaily decorated for the occasion.

On all sides Chinese lanterns were swinging. At the entrance was suspended a very costly chandelier, imported from China, consisting of one large light surrounded by a number of small ones; also at the furthest extremity of the building, and directly in front of the Joss, or god, was a number of small lights encased with white silk, on the outside of which was a number of working models representing Chinese figures, worked by the aid of air and heat. This was made by the local Chinese, and was of very intricate design and was much admired. The Joss, which was made in Canton, is composed entirely of wood, painted in the attire of a wealthy celestial, and placed on a raised throne, highly decorated with gold and silver Chinese ornaments. In front of the throne was a long, high, and narrow table, in the centre of which was a large silver urn containing sand, in which lighted tapers were stuck ; and on either side a number of wax tapers were stuck in small tins containing sand. In front of this table was another one of larger dimensions used for placing presents for the god upon it. On either side of these tables were two large forms, placed there for the accommodation of the Chinese band, they being the only seats in the church.

Punctually at 2 o’clock six Chinese priests, attired in blue robes, large bowl-shaped hats, and wearing their pigtails down, entered the door, and fell down on their knees and bowed before a miniature throne placed just inside the door, but containing no image whatever. After this they proceeded to the far end, and stood before the Joss. Immediately the band struck up an unearthly noise, for one could not detect any tune. The priests then knelt down, holding their hands up fervently. They then prostrated themselves without saying a word, but kept getting up and then prostrating themselves several times over. They next proceeded to the table where the tapers were burning, and each one produced some more, and after lighting them set them in the sand in the silver urn. They then lit some paper, and carried it before the Joss. Having bowed to him, they placed the lighted paper in another huge iron urn.

This concluded, they retired, and the tables were speedily covered with presents, consisting of all kinds of procurable fruit, cooked meats, fish, and fowl; also a lot of Chinese dishes. Some 20 pigs, roasted whole, were placed on the floor before the god; but it is needless to say that he did not require anything. The ceremony then concluded with a feast, and those who witnessed it dispersed, having come to the conclusion that it is not necessary for one to go to China to observe the manners, ways, and customs of the poor heathen Chinee.

The exterior and interior of this temple was photographed by Robert Newby Kirk in 1899, [10] and it shows a magnificently designed and decorated building. We are very fortunate to have these photographs, as the temple burnt down in 1932 and none of its contents are believed to have survived. [11]

Entrance to Emmaville’s 1887 temple, photographed 1899.
Deb Malor collection.
Interior of Emmaville’s 1887 temple, photographed 1899.
Deb Malor collection.

Tingha temples

On 22 November 1873, The Armidale Express reported that “a Joss house will shortly be erected”, in Tingha. [12] On 14 February 1874 the same newspaper announced that “the Chinese Joss House was consecrated here last week, and the event was celebrated by the firing off of about five pounds’ worth of crackers”. [13]

Tingha street scene, Ruby St, looking north, undated, probably showing the first temple, erected 1874. Image in Wing Hing Long Museum collection.

By 9 February 1883, The Armidale Express related that “The Banner contains a long account of the opening of a new Joss House, or Temple, at Tingha last week. It appears that no expense was spared, as the getting up of the building is estimated to have cost between £700 and £800. When completed, the total cost will be about £1500.” [14] This temple was likely the one located on Howell Road.

Main temple at Tingha
The main temple at Tingha, in Howell Rd, opened in 1883, photographed possibly in 1890. Photograph reproduced from Elizabeth Weidemann’s 1981 book World of Its Own: Inverell’s Early Years 1827-1920, p. 180.

This is the only temple reported to have opened in 1883 in New England. Five surviving temple objects bear the date of 1883: a Temple Bell dated 1883-84, on display at McCrossin’s Mill Museum, as wells as two processional staffs, and a pair of wooden candlesticks, at Wing Hing Long Museum. Some of the donor names which are on these objects are also repeated on the set of Processional Placards, and on the Temple Drum Stand, all of which are displayed at McCrossin’s Mill Museum. So it is likely that all of these objects come from the lavish 1883 Howell Road temple.

The pair of candlesticks also bears the name of Chen Quin Jack, and this corroborates the family story that Chen Quin Jack was the builder of the 1883 temple. [15]

On 2 March 1885, The Sydney Morning Herald stated that in Tingha, “There are three joss houses here, one of which we looked into, that is said to be as fine as any in the colony, and the cost of which we were told by the owner exceeds £2000.” [16]

It is likely that the 1874 temple and the 1883 temple were two of these three temples. For the third temple, there are no historical documents which refer to it, but Helen Brown, in Tin at Tingha, states “The Let Sun Den temple was a little joss house located on Diamond Street, directly behind Sam Kee’s general store, and was privately owned by a blind Chinese man named G. G. Hoy, and his daughter Ivy. It burnt down around 1938”. [17] No newspaper account has yet been found of a temple burning down, or any fire occurring, in Tingha in 1938.

Brown also states that the “Chinese Masonic Lodge was at first housed in a tiny bark shack in Amethyst Street close to the site of the bridge onto the Inverell Road. Fire destroyed the masonic shack which was replaced by a more substantial Chinese Masonic Temple built on the high side of Amethyst Street further round towards the Bundarra Road [also known as Howell Rd].” [18] This may have been the 1874 temple. An undated photograph of Ruby Street, looking toward the bridge, shows a high pole, typically present outside the front of a Chinese temple or club house. [19]

A property survey map from 1949 confirms the location of the new Masonic Lodge as being on the high end of Amethyst St. [20]

Location of the Chinese Masonic Society club house, in Tingha, opened in 1901. Also known as the Yee Hing Society club house, or the Amethyst St joss house. From title map, 1949, attached to Dept of Lands letter, dated 1952, in Wing Hing Long Museum collection.

A local petition from 1951 also states that this building was erected “over 50 years ago”, and had been occupied “for some time past” “by different elderly Chinese, the latest being Mr. George Warick [aka George War Yick], who is aged 87 years”. [21]

What became of the temples’ contents?

Helen Brown, and Chen Quin Jack’s son Les Jack, have both stated that the main temple on Howell Rd was closed in 1910. [22] At that date the contents of the 1883 temple were transferred to the “Chinese Masonic Temple” on Amethyst St. Brown adds that the Masonic Temple also became the repository of artefacts from various other local temples. [23] Les Jack’s account, reported in The Inverell Times, 15 April 1978, adds that “some of the artefacts from…the Chinese Freemasons club…in Amethyst Street were taken to Les’ home after the club folded.” [24]

The Inverell Times article also reported that Les Jack had organised to sell all these temple artefacts at an upcoming auction. It is likely that it was this auction which was the principal cause of so many of the temple artefacts being sold off to various people around New England. A photo of Les Jack in the 1978 article shows him standing next to a couplet board, which is the left half of a pair, with the complementary Right Hand Couplet Board now on display at Inverell Pioneer Village. This museum also has both the Yee Hing Society name board, which would have been displayed above the entrance to the Chinese Masonic temple, and also the Tingha Yee Hing Society stamp. The Yee Hing Society changed its name in Australia to the Chinese Masonic Society in 1912.

Most of the temple artefacts now in the McCrossin’s Mill Museum were purchased by the Museum from J. Walker, in Tingha, in 1982. [25] A few other temple items in both the McCrossin’s Mill Museum, and also in Wing Hing Long Museum, have come from individual donations over the years. No records of sales at the 1978 auction remain, so it is not known whether Walker, and the other donors, acquired their artefacts from the auction, although this seems likely.

It is clear that many local people in New England thought the heritage of the temples to be important, and didn’t want to see them lost or destroyed. It is this sense of the importance of the heritage which allowed so many of these temple artefacts to be preserved from the time the closure of the last temple in Tingha, in the 1950s, to the creation of local regional museums from the 1970s onwards. It is now recognised by the community that the best place to preserve these artefacts is in these museums.

It is also clear that the movement of temple contents, first from Rocky River’s 1866 temple to the 1883 Howell Rd temple in Tingha, then in 1910 from that temple to the Chinese Masonic Temple, led to a vagueness as to which artefact came from which temple. This mix-up also was accompanied by new artefacts being acquired in 1883 (for the Howell Rd temple) and in 1901 (for the Yee Hing / Chinese Masonic club house).

Literacy in Chinese languages was scarce amongst the New England communities in the latter part of the 20th century, when the artefacts got mixed up, sold off, and distributed. So the inscriptions which recorded dates and donors’ names, which remain on many artefacts, were unable to be read.  This is why Our Chinese Past Inc commenced this project. Using the historical linguistic skills of translator Ely Finch, combined with a careful comparison of all the remaining artefacts, and historical research by the Our Chinese Past team, has allowed this project to match up many of the artefacts with specific temples.

This is a continually evolving website, and new content will be added as further research is conducted.


[1] D. F. Mackay, “The Rocky River Goldfield, 1851-1867 “, Masters thesis, University of Melbourne, 1953, p. 304.

[2] Arnold Goode, “Tunnel, Dredge and Drought: The Rocky River 1860-1900”, Armidale and District Historical Journal, No. 27, March 1984, p. 5.

[3] The Armidale Express, 15 August 1863, p. 2, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/188134379

[4] Letter to parents, 17.12.1866, Saunders Letters, in UNE Archives.

[5] “Opening of a Chinese Joss House at Rocky River”, The Singleton Argus and Upper Hunter General Advocate, 4 February 1880, p. 2,  https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/82894786

[6] “Uralla News”, The Tamworth Daily Observer, 16 October 1912, p. 2, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/109620429/11163471

[7] The Maitland Mercury, 21 March 1878, p. 7, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18833098

[8] The New South Wales Agriculturalist and Grazier on 3 September 1881, p. 11 for article, p. 13 for illustration, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/5406488

[9] The Sydney Mail, 7 May 1887, p. 959, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/163286613

[10] 1899 album of photographs of Emmaville (mainly around the Great Britain Mine, which adjoined the temple land, known as Joss House Flat), photographed by Robert Newby Kirk as a gift to Alexander McGillivray, who was the mine manager. Held in private collection of Deb Malor.

[11] “Joss House Gone! Blaze at Emmaville. Landmark Disappears”, The Armidale Express, 9 September 1932, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article192995274

[12] The Armidale Express, 22 November 1873, p. 6, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article189988292

[13] “Tingha”, The Armidale Express, 14 February 1874, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article188979047

[14] The Armidale Express, 9 February 1883, p. 6 (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article192715821

[15] Helen Brown, Tin at Tingha, 1982, p. 109; Kira Brown, pers. comment; Les Jack cited in “Items from Tingha’s past uncovered”, The Inverell Times, 14 April 1978.

[16] “Notes on a Northern Tour”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 March 1885, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13576689

[17] Helen Brown, Tin at Tingha, 1982, p. 100-101.

[18] Helen Brown, Tin at Tingha, 1982, p. 34-35.

[19] Photograph in Wing Hing Long Museum collection, copy held in Golden Threads project archives, at UNE Archives.

[20] Original document held in Wing Hing Long Museum collection.

[21] “Tingha’s Plea For Retention Of The ‘Old Joss House’ “, The Armidale Express, 30 November 1951, p. 8, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article193950230; “Tingha [?] of [?] Chinese People” The Inverell Times, 16 November 1951, p. 6, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article185860439

[22] Helen Brown, Tin at Tingha, 1982, p. 101; “Items from Tingha’s past uncovered”, The Inverell Times, 15 April 1978.

[23] Helen Brown, Tin at Tingha, 1982, p. 101.

[24] “Items from Tingha’s past uncovered”, The Inverell Times, 15 April 1978.

[25] Lee Scott, Chinese Collection Significance Assessment, Uralla Historical Society, 2008, p. 4-6, citing Kent Mayo, McCrossin’s Mill…Many Hands…& Me, pp. 97-98.