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Booth, Joseph John (1886–1965)

by K. A. R. Horn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Joseph John Booth (1886-1965), Anglican archbishop, was born on 26 May 1886 at Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, the posthumous and only child of Joseph Booth, pawnbroker, by his wife, Mary Elizabeth, née Barker. Leaving Bell School, Middlesbrough, at the age of 13 (when his mother died), he worked as a farm labourer and then as traveller for a grocery firm. At 15, when he was confirmed in the Anglican Church, Booth was also attending services in a Methodist chapel: there he found friendship and eventually a vocation to the ministry. Lacking formal schooling and family connexions, he emigrated to Australia where he anticipated that his 'gumption and grit', together with his independent spirit, would be better appreciated.

He arrived in Melbourne in 1910, settled in Footscray and encountered a different situation from the one he had left: whereas the Methodist Church was unwelcoming, in the vigorous Anglican parish of St John's he found cordiality and spiritual nourishment. Booth resolved to seek Anglican orders. To support himself until he could begin training, he initially worked in the grocery firm of Moran & Cato Pty Ltd and later as a millhand in the Colonial Ammunition Co. Ltd. In 1913 he entered Ridley College and next year became a licentiate in theology. Made deacon in 1914 and ordained priest on 21 December 1915, he served his curacy at St Stephen's, Richmond.

On 19 September 1916 Booth was appointed chaplain in the Australian Imperial Force; reaching France, he was posted in January 1917 to the 2nd Infantry Brigade and attached to the 8th Battalion on the Western Front. The letters which he sent to his fiancée from the troop-ship and the battlefields give a frank account of life in the trenches during some of the worst fighting of the war and show the writer going about his duties with complete commitment to the needs of the troops. For his courage during the fighting in France at Lagnicourt and Quéant in April, he was awarded the Military Cross. His nineteen months in the trenches showed Booth that he had special gifts for working with men and that he could earn the respect and affection of soldiers of all ranks; the experience removed any remaining regrets which he harboured about the circumstances of his upbringing.

When his appointment terminated in January 1919, Booth became vicar at St Paul's, Fairfield, Melbourne. On 30 April at St Columb's Anglican Church, Hawthorn, he married Beryl Gertrude Bradshaw. He studied at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1922) and, from 1924, while vicar at St Paul's, Geelong, worked towards an M.A., but was excluded from the examination as he had not attended the required number of lectures. His love of reading and history survived this rebuff, though his respect for academics did not.

The 'most prominent of the younger school of clergymen around Melbourne', Booth remained at Geelong until 1932. By then the Anglican Church in Victoria was suffering hardship: the parishes felt the effects of the Depression; St Paul's Cathedral faced the decreasing value of its endowments; and the Melbourne diocese was embarrassed with financial responsibility for several Church schools. After he had conducted a successful campaign to raise money to complete the cathedral spires, Booth was moved to Melbourne as organizing secretary of the Home Mission Fund. In 1934 he became Melbourne's first coadjutor bishop, with the title of bishop of Geelong; at the same time, he held the archdeaconries of Dandenong, Melbourne and Geelong.

Booth and Archbishop Head made an excellent team. Head's scholarly interests and administrative skills were complemented by Booth's local knowledge and practical insights; a bond of mutual affection reinforced their mutual respect. When Head died in December 1941, Booth was on a tour of duty (September 1941 to January 1942) as senior chaplain at A.I.F. Headquarters in the Middle East. He returned with all speed to administer the diocese and in April 1942 was enthroned as archbishop.

Remembered more for his character and personality than for any intellectual or visionary leadership, Booth had—according to his coadjutor bishop John McKie—the qualities of a Yorkshireman: toughness, directness, honesty, integrity and, above all, a sense of reality. With a fine voice, Booth was a persuasive speaker and popular preacher. A good mixer, confident and totally without 'side', he possessed natural authority. His management of synod, sometimes by direct and terse intervention, became legendary. All his gifts were dedicated to his diocese. He was barely concerned with anything outside it—certainly not with the constitutional debates that preoccupied the Anglican Church during his episcopate. At the vital general synods of 1950 and 1955 he did not speak, leaving McKie to carry the Melbourne case. Although Booth attended the Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches in the United States of America and the Anglican Church Congress at Minnesota in 1954, he showed little interest in the growing ecumenical movement or in the affairs of the worldwide Anglican Communion. His strong pastoral sense was evident in his care for his clergy, in the establishment (largely with state funds) of homes for the elderly and in the setting up of the Melbourne Diocesan Centre to promote the ministry in industrial suburbs.

From 1952, when his diabetes was diagnosed, Booth began to slow down, but his work did not suffer. Having identified the new generation of leaders (two of whom subsequently became archbishops) and given them scope to exercise their gifts, he retired in 1956, leaving the diocese in good heart and ready to respond to the initiatives of his successor Archbishop (Sir) Frank Woods. Booth had received a D.D. (Lambeth) in 1943 and been appointed C.M.G. in 1954. He died on 31 October 1965 at East Melbourne and was cremated; his wife and two of their three daughters survived him. A portrait by James Quinn hangs in the chapter-house of St Paul's Cathedral.

Select Bibliography

  • A. de Q. Robin, Making Many Rich (Melb, 1978)
  • J. McKie, Four Archbishops (Melb, 1983)
  • Booth letters, 1916-19 (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

K. A. R. Horn, 'Booth, Joseph John (1886–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/booth-joseph-john-9543/text16807, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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