Buninyong was surveyed in 1850, making it one of the earliest inland towns. It began as a sheep run, under brothers, Thomas and Somerville Learmonth, from Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). Like their Scottish neighbours, George Russell, who ran the Clyde Company at Shelford, and the Scott family at Scotsburn, these Scottish settlers were dedicated to their church and to education.
The Rev. Thomas Hastie who had graduated at St. Andrew's University in Scotland emigrated to Van Diemen's Land in 1842 with his wife. In 1847 he was encouraged by the Learmonth brothers to visit the Port Phillip District before returning to Scotland and on this visit Hastie realised that his services were greatly needed in the country and decided to stay. Whilst a church and manse were built, Hastie lived with George Russell, who, along with the Learmonth brothers, paid his stipend.
Hastie's vast ministry included Beaufort, Ballarat, the Lal Lal district, Ballan and down to the outskirts of Geelong. He must have spent a lot of time in the saddle and in 1877 he published a book of sermons called "A Voice from the Bush." The introduction gives an interesting account of the Port Phillip District before the gold rush.
The first Buninyong church which was completed in 1847 was paid for by public subscription. The school which was the next project is believed by Anne Beggs of the Buninyong and District Historical Society, to be one of the most remarkable schools in the Port Phillip District. It was called the Buninyong Bush Boarding School and was devised by the Learmonth brothers. Despite being bachelors, they believed education to be essential for all children, whether their parents be squatters or shepherds. A scholarship scheme, paid for by the settlers enabled children of workers to board at the school. Children came from as far away as the Wimmera.
Hastie found a good Scottish teacher for the school. However, when Thomas Hiscock discovered gold in Buninyong in 1851, followed by the discovery of gold in Ballarat, the school master decamped to Ballarat, leaving Hastie and his wife to run the school for a couple of years until another teacher was found.
Ballarat had been a sheep run before the gold rush but the influx of diggers prompted hastie to preach there. He noted that as a result of deaths on the gold fields there were numbers of orphans. He thus turned his school into an orphanage providing a home for about 15 children. Until the orphanage was built in Geelong the local Buninyong settlers covered the costs. Education Department records show Hastie tried to get financial assistance for these children.
He was a member of the Free Church, and regarded his church as cosmopolitan. Records show that there were Wesleyan and Catholic students at his school.
In 1865, Hastie was appointed Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Victoria which was a great honour. Despite a reasonably humble upbringing he managed to get a university education and could read the Polyglot Bible in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German and English.
His Buninyong School continued until 1872 when the Education Act came in and it joined with the Episcopalian school to become the Buninyong State School. It currently has 650 students making it one of the biggest primary schools in Victoria.
Thomas Hastie and his wife had 7 children. Three died young, one having fallen off a horse. Another, who was a medical doctor, died experimenting with chloroform, whilst under the influence of alcohol. Rev. Hastie himself abstained from alcohol. One of his daughters married Hastie's assistant and later they became missionaries in Korea. Hastie enjoyed gardening and always wore a felt hat outdoors. He must have been quite a figure when he went out, wearing a black top hat in winter and a grey top hat in summer.
Anne Beggs has been surprised at the number of little churches and schools in old mining areas which were started by Hastie. Places like Dolly's Creek which no longer exists, had, during the gold rush, many people needing religion and education.
The present Uniting Church in the Buninyong Township was built in 1860. It has a memorial window with a portrait of Hastie and the date of his ministry. Hastie served as its minister for 44 years and is still greatly revered in Buninyong.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)
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