Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Batty, Francis de Witt (1879–1961)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Francis de Witt Batty, n.d.

Francis de Witt Batty, n.d.

State Library of Queensland

Francis de Witt Batty (1879-1961), Anglican bishop, was born on 10 January 1879 at Waltham Green, London, youngest son of Rev. William Edmund Batty and his wife Frances Beatrice, née Jebb. Named after his mother's ancestor, the Dutch patriot Jan de Witt, he was usually known by his second name. Waltham was a poor parish and in 1892 his father accepted the living of Finchley in a residential district of London. The change of surroundings and his education at St Paul's School in 1890-97 helped to give him that ease of movement amid the governing classes which was to be one of his chief characteristics. He entered Balliol College, Oxford, graduating with a second-class in Litterae Humaniores in 1902 (M.A., 1905).

Balliol exercised a decisive influence on Batty who responded with a lifelong affection for the college. He was a wide and intelligent reader all through his life; he was not a professional scholar but Oxford gave him a sound understanding of philosophy, classical literature and some history. More important, he made friends with men who were to be future leaders in church and state, became aware of Britain's imperial obligations and opportunities, and acquired that sense of high moral responsibility combined with an aloofness of manner and a rueful acknowledgment of the weaknesses of lesser mortals which he always retained.

Family influence and the impression made by a junior undergraduate, William Temple, later archbishop of Canterbury, were important in Batty's decision to enter the Church. He declined an offer to read theology at Balliol and in 1902 entered Wells Theological College. Here he obtained an insight into the corporate spiritual life, was grounded in liberal religious learning and came to disdain those Church 'parties' whose contests were then particularly virulent. On 4 October 1903 he was made deacon and became an assistant curate at Hornsey, a London suburb. His vicar, St Clair Donaldson, gave Batty thorough tuition in his craft. When Donaldson was appointed bishop of Brisbane in 1904, Batty went as his domestic chaplain and secretary. Priested by the Bishop of London on 29 May he reached Brisbane on 19 December.

Batty lived at the official residence with the bachelor archbishop and was soon asked to assist in much of the administration of the diocese. He also helped at the cathedral, took religious instruction classes and in 1909-16 edited the Brisbane Church Chronicle and lectured at St Francis's (Theological) College. Significantly, he accompanied Donaldson, and sometimes represented him, at meetings with governors, politicians and ecclesiastics. He acquired a wide knowledge of the workings of church and state, an easy familiarity, which he treasured, with important people, and a somewhat Olympian attitude, enhanced by his quizzical sense of humour, to local problems and personalities. He probably learned little about 'grass-roots' conditions—his attitude to local radicalism and later to the conscription referenda made this evident.

Although he could never wholly identify himself with Queensland, Batty's sense of commitment became deeper. He was made sub-dean and canon residentiary of St John's Cathedral in 1916, and as such took over the whole responsibility for the running of the cathedral and was closely involved in the St Martin's War Memorial Hospital Appeal. He spoke frequently in the diocesan synod and represented his diocese in the wider councils of the Church. While lamenting what seemed to be a decline in standards, he worked vigorously for the Australian College of Theology, becoming a fellow in 1924. He published pamphlets on Church reunion and the ministry of healing. When Donaldson was translated to Salisbury in 1921, Batty, though severely tempted, chose not to follow him home. His relations with the new archbishop, Gerald Sharp, were generally good. With Rev. C. T. Dimont, he publicly stated his debt to his mentor in St. Clair Donaldson … (London, 1939). Meanwhile, his links with Queensland became stronger. On 7 January 1925 he married Elizabeth Meredith Davis (1893-1972), matron of St Martin's Hospital. That year he became dean of Brisbane and in 1930 succeeded his friendly rival H. F. Le Fanu as coadjutor bishop. He retained his deanship and acted as administrator of the diocese in Sharp's absence.

Batty was elected bishop of Newcastle, New South Wales, and enthroned on 3 March 1931. He thought it 'the most enviable diocese in Australia': compact in area but varied in composition, with a strong intellectual tradition, a good supply of clergy and a large endowment in a pastoral property. He had family ties with the district and had long venerated the founder-bishop William Tyrrell. He rejected the chance of becoming bishop of Adelaide in 1941.

In depression-ridden Newcastle, Batty encouraged the registrar and diocesan trustees to reduce reliance on the endowment and to provide for greater financial responsibility by the parishes. While this policy freed funds for special projects and promoted parochial self-reliance, it bore hardly on the weaker areas. He was less successful in coping directly with the problems of people in mining parishes—he lacked the common touch of his predecessor G. M. Long but was made acutely aware of the challenge to the Church posed by current social issues.

Batty found at St John's College, Morpeth, a group of scholars, including E. H. Burgmann, Roy Lee and A. P. Elkin, who, in a series of publications, were trying to relate Christianity to modern developments in sociology, politics and international affairs. His meeting with Temple during a visit to Britain in 1933 stimulated his own thinking on these lines. In 1955 the college came under the sole control of Newcastle and he hoped that a connexion would be set up with the new university college. Under him Newcastle became a focal point for earnest thinking about contemporary issues in a Christian context. During World War II the Christian Social Order Movement received strong support and Batty himself, stimulated by a Roman Catholic journalist and under the enthusiastic patronage of the governor, Lord Wakehurst, initiated 'Religion and Life Week'. Batty became a radio broadcaster of distinction, although he failed to secure a licence for a Church radio station at Newcastle. At the 1948 Lambeth Conference, he played a considerable part in social justice discussions and was not committed to a distinct secular position. His (Bishop) Moorhouse lectures in 1939 had made it clear that he held to traditional propositions; they were published as Human Nature (Sydney, 1941). He criticized the conservative stance in theology and politics but he was also a strong critic of some Labor government policies of the 1940s.

Batty was associated with Donaldson in early discussions for reform of the 'legal nexus' between Australian dioceses and the Church of England and emerged as a proponent of the draft constitution first tabled in 1926. Although consistently English in his loyalties, he actively opposed those who feared the jurisdictional independence of an Australian Anglican tribunal. He always disliked extremes of churchmanship and the ecclesiastical quarrels motivated by them. In the later 1940s he supported strongly, though with some compunction, Bishop Wylde of Bathurst in the 'Red Book' case, fearing a revival of divisions over ritual. By 1945 Batty had emerged as the 'minister in charge of the Bill' (as he termed himself). Despite patient negotiation he had to confess by 1950 that the prospect of agreement seemed remote, but enough consensus was reached in 1955 for legislative action to begin. He was widely regarded as one of the principal architects of the constitution which was received in 1961. He also favoured an ecumenical approach and was a persistent exponent of discussions about Christian reunion. From 1937 he belonged to a group of Anglican and Protestant churchmen who studied possible bases of agreement, although he remained reluctant to proceed too rapidly.

In the 1950s Batty remained active, travelling overseas, and promoting new lines of Christian thought. It is probable that his diocese, faced with post-war problems of expansion and finance, would have benefited more by his direct attention, but he became increasingly content to leave these affairs to his subordinates. He did not resign until 1958, when he was in his eightieth year, and then presided over the synod which elected his successor. Batty lived in quite active retirement at Double Bay, Sydney. Survived by his wife, he died on 3 April 1961 and was buried in Morpeth cemetery, next to W. Tyrrell, whom he had commemorated in a short play, and whose centenary of appointment he had celebrated with much ceremony in 1947.

Select Bibliography

  • A. P. Elkin, The Diocese of Newcastle (Syd, 1955)
  • Church of England (Brisbane), Reports of the Proceedings of Synod, 1904-30, and General Synod, Proceedings, 1905-60
  • ‘Synod reports’, Church of England, Diocese of Newcastle Year Book, 1930-58
  • F. de W. Batty, Memoirs (Diocesan Registry, Newcastle)
  • Batty papers (St James's Church, Sydney)
  • Elgin papers (privately held)
  • Verney papers (privately held)
  • Wakehurst papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Wylde-Batty correspondence (Diocesan Registry, Bathurst, New South Wales).

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Batty, Francis de Witt (1879–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batty-francis-de-witt-5155/text8649, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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