Henry Varley was an English evangelist and in 1878 he came to Tasmania and began a tour, preaching to all and sundry.
His reputation preceded him, and he had a band of followers as well as detractors. TheTasmanian newspaper described him as a "sleek, comfortable, egotistical, oily-tongued, religious mountebank".
His main claims to fame were sermons about immoral practices and he was never shy confronting those he saw as encouraging them.
He also published a pamphlet on "the social evil" (prostitution) and this caused much scandal in society. The Cornwall Chronicle stated that the pamphlet was "objectionable, if not positively obscene in its language and prurient suggestiveness".
His lectures in Launceston took place in the Mechanics' Institute and, in one such sermon in March 1878, Varley attacked the well-respected Launceston resident John Fawns.
He denounced him for brewing beer and hoarding wealth, thus using the proceeds from public houses and brothels to amass his fortune.
He asked his audience how such a man could be a leader of the Presbyterian church? He stated that "here was a man, reportedly very wealthy, drawing a large portion of his revenue from public houses that were sources of immorality".
He later attacked Henry Reading saying, "if he had the power, he would sentence Reading to a long term of imprisonment so that he should no longer debase the morals of the town". Reading owned many dilapidated properties in Launceston that were used as brothels.
The indignation of the townsfolk about the naming and shaming of Fawns in such a manner was immense. The committee of the Mechanics' Institute immediately called a meeting and resolved to not allow Mr Varley any further use of the institute.
The next evening, Varley returned to the hall. The Mechanics' Committee had organised the door to be locked but Varley gained entry, unlocked the main doors, turned on the gas and took possession of the hall.
The librarian who was in charge immediately turned off the gas and took away the key. Varley refused to leave and asked for someone to get a blacksmith's wrench to turn the gas back on. While this was happening, he said prayers for his oppressors and sang some hymns.
When the gas was turned back on and the hall lit, a guard was placed near the meter. Henry Dowling, magistrate and much respected resident prevented the librarian from turning off the gas again.
Varley gave an explanation to his large audience and read a letter that he had sent to the mayor about the drunkenness and immorality that was to be seen daily in Wellington Street and then repeated his attack on Fawns and Reading.
The Mechanics' Committee had to "eat humble pie", rescind their resolution and grant Varley the use of the institute for the remainder of his tour as he had entered a legal contract.
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