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Bromilow, William Edward (1857–1929)

by Roderic Lacey

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

William Edward Bromilow (1857-1929), missionary, was born on 15 January 1857 at Geelong, Victoria, son of Thomas Bromilow, bricklayer, and his wife Jane, née Owen. Leaving Grenville College, Ballarat, after matriculating at 14, he taught at Queenscliff State School in 1876-77. At 21 he became a probationer in the Methodist Church and, while serving at Rupanyup in the Wimmera, he volunteered for the mission field. Having been ordained, on 9 April 1879 he married Harriet Lilly Thomson, and sailed from Sydney in the John Wesley to serve in Fiji for ten years.

Bromilow returned to Victoria and, after a year on the Box Hill circuit and a short term as foreign mission secretary, he volunteered to lead the Australian Methodist team launching a new venture in south-eastern British New Guinea. Accompanied by Rev. George Brown he arrived at Samarai in a chartered vessel, Lord of the Isles, on 3 June 1891. The party also included S. B. Fellows, J. T. Field, J. Watson, G. H. Bardsley, and twenty-two South Sea island teachers.

Because of its central position and the prestige of its inhabitants among their neighbours, Dobu Island in the [Bruny] D'Entrecasteaux group was chosen as the headquarters. From this centre Bromilow directed the work as chairman of the district. For seventeen years mission stations were established in strategic centres in the D'Entrecasteaux and Trobriand islands and the Louisiade Archipelago; boarding schools for girls and boys and a training institution for local teachers and pastors were also founded. In 1892 Mrs Bromilow established a group of Australian Methodist Sisters.

Bromilow and his wife retired from Papua for health reasons in 1908. Till 1920 he occupied various suburban circuits in Sydney but was also prominent on the mission board, particularly as clerical treasurer in 1913-20. During this time, on Sir William MacGregor's recommendation, he received a D.D. degree in 1910 from Aberdeen University for his New Guinea language translation work, and became chairman of the New South Wales Methodist Conference in 1911.

Because of post-war staff shortages Bromilow volunteered again. In July 1920 he arrived at the headquarters of the Papuan mission, where he served as chairman of the district until his final retirement in 1924. Besides preparing a translation of the Bible in the Dobuan language (1927), he supervised further developments in the mission. He served on the executive committee of the mission board, from which he resigned about a year before his death. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died in Sydney on 24 June 1929 and was buried in Gore Hill cemetery.

Bromilow was the founder of the Methodist mission in British New Guinea. He established harmonious relations in the field between his own and other missions as well as with successive heads of government. He developed a strong faith in what he termed the spiritual, intellectual and practical capacity of the Papuan. Because of his own religious and moral training he tended, like so many missionaries of his time, to make a stern assessment of many of the values and customs of Pacific peoples. His anthropological writings were said to contain 'a great deal of misinformation and a little fact', and also reveal him as rather paternalistic. He helped to destroy traditional custom wherever it conflicted with his own moral standards.

Bromilow's outstanding achievement was his translation work. The Dobuan language was selected by him as the lingua franca for the Methodist mission in British New Guinea. By 1908 he had published a New Testament, which he revised in 1925. His publications included papers to scientific societies on the life of the people and his autobiography, Twenty Years Among Primitive Papuans (London, 1929), which contains valuable information on his mission work and on contemporary administration and society.

Select Bibliography

  • British New Guinea Annual Report, 1889-90, 1905-06
  • Papua Annual Report, 1906-07, 1923-24
  • M. W. Young, ‘Doctor Bromilow and the Bwaidoka wars’, Journal of Pacific History, 12 (1977), no 3-4
  • Australian Methodist Church, overseas mission papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • United Church in Papua New Guinea Archives 1884 (New Guinea collection, University of Papua New Guinea Library).

Citation details

Roderic Lacey, 'Bromilow, William Edward (1857–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bromilow-william-edward-5369/text9083, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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

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