The Tabernacle church and Yilki cemetery were established by the Rev. Ridgeway William Newland, the first Congregational Minister who settled at Yilki (Part of present day Victor Harbor) in 1839. Born in 1790 at Well near Odiham in Hampshire he was ordained on 19 March 1817. He migrated to South Australia from The Potteries, Staffordshire in 1839 on the ship Sir Charles Forbes, with his second wife, Martha, his eight children from two marriages, his mother-in-law, Sarah Keeling and his sisters-in-law Isabella and Catherine Keeling. They arrived on 7 June 1839.
Newland believed in freedom, social justice and religious equality. With a large family he saw South Australia as a land of promise for himself, his family and to further his religious work. He had been selected by the Colonial Missionary Society to take a group of 34 settlers to South Australia. He was their first spiritual leader and one of his first actions upon arrival was to build a church.
The Tabernacle church at Yilki, Aboriginal for 'a place by the sea', became the centre of activity for many years. It was situated about 400 metres from the encampment not far from the Hindmarsh and Inman Rivers. The Tabernacle Church was the first Congregational church in the Southern District. Later Newland established Congregational Churches at Sheok Hills, Inman Valley, Port Elliot, Middleton, Goolwa, Hindmarsh Island, Currency Creek, Point Sturt and Milang.
When the building was started everyone assisted with the preparation of the limestone blocks and the mortar. When it was completed in 1846 it measured 28 feet by 19 feet. It had a shingle roof, verandas on both sides and even some French windows. It was lit by whale oil and tallow candles. A tiny belfry was added and a bell hung in 1854. Occasionally, when Newland was away Edward Meyer, a German Lutheran Pastor, would conduct the services. Meyer had produced a vocabulary and grammar of the language spoken by the local Aborigines as early as June 1843.
Newland too had been, and still was, interested in anything concerning the Aborigines, in particular their welfare. He would write to the newspapers whenever he disagreed with anything written about them and state the progress they were making. As early as 1842 the Aborigines had cleared 30 acres of densely wooded land for Dr Wark and also looked after young lambs and herded cattle.
At times Newland bitterly complained about the neglect of Aborigines by the governor and also informed the Aborigines Protection Society in London about their plight. He was against the practice of taking all the weapons from the Aborigines as it prevented them from hunting, gathering, fishing and defence against other tribes. Weapons confiscated were often given to settlers and the governor as curiosity objects. He found this practice degrading and abhorrent.
The earliest known burial near the church was that of John Jagger, who was the son of Matthew and Mary and only ten years old when he died in 1840. It seems that his mother, Mary, became the third, recorded burial when she died in 1852. It is more than likely that many more were buried than the 29 which have been recorded so far. Regulations pertaining to the burial at the cemetery were recorded in the Tabernacle Minute Book in 1850. After 1860 no more new leases were granted for burial as the nearby public Victor Harbor Cemetery was opened. The last recorded interment was in 1941.
It were not just people who had come with Newland who attended the Tabernacle Church or were buried at Yilki. When Malen and Alice Rumbelow arrived on the Pestonjee Bomanjee on 5 August 1854 they too made their way to Victor Harbor and attended services at Tabernacle. Malen was born on 29 March 1812 and married Alice Pitches in 1831. When they had 9 children they decided to migrate to South Australia and settled at Victor Harbor on 5 January 1855.
Within a short time their eldest son died. another son, David, born on 8 March 1855 and a daughter, Hannah, born on 3 February 1858 both died before they were five years old. All three were buried at Yilki.Their daughter Caroline, born in 1843 married John Rymill Cakebread at the Tabernacle Church on 7 January 1861.
When Newland died, as a result of an accident on 8 March 1864, his death was deeply mourned. As a token of the deep love of the people his remains were interred under the pulpit of the Tabernacle church. Several of the Newland descendants, and those of the Rumbelow, Jagger and Cakebread pioneers are buried at the Victor Harbor Cemetery.
Reverend Newland had also developed a stringy bark timber industry, slate works, milling and pottery industries. He was first Chairman of the District Council in 1856. Known as 'Pastor of the South, a plaque, monument and cemetery now mark the site in his honour. The new Jefferis Memorial Church at Yilki was opened in December 1919.