Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cole, George Henry (1859–1919)

by Janet McCalman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

George Henry Cole (1859-1919), Methodist minister, was born on 7 December 1859 at Mickleham, Victoria, son of William Cole, a selector who had come from Gloucester, England, in 1849, and his wife Elizabeth, née Comley. He rarely attended school as he was needed on the farm, and he became expert at agricultural work. At 13 he was a boundary rider on a station two hundred miles (322 km) from home, and at 15 a bullocky. Away from his family he slipped into dissolute ways and took to drink. Although as a child he had witnessed Primitive Methodist cottage prayer meetings, it was not until he returned to live at Mickleham at 17 that he attended church regularly. Under the preaching of the fervent Rev. W. H. Walton he experienced a dramatic conversion: 'my sins began to roll up under me. I fancied that someone had been telling him all about me. Yes, every word was for me'.

Cole felt the call to the ministry but he was almost illiterate. By dint of laborious night study he progressed from prayer leader to lay preacher. After four years he renounced his recent selection of two hundred acres (81 ha) and placed himself under a private tutor until he was accepted as a probationer into the Primitive Methodist Church in 1882. Ordained in 1886, he served at Sale, Murtoa, Eaglehawk, Armadale and Geelong. At Condah on 6 April 1886 he married Elizabeth Maria Cowan, daughter of a farmer. She died in 1893 and on 3 April 1895 at Eaglehawk he married 26-year-old Mary Euphemia Marshall.

Cole became a powerful evangelist and temperance campaigner, yet remained a common man's pastor, humorous and down-to-earth. To a fellow minister: 'he was one of the most deeply spiritual men I have ever known … He prayed about everything'. In 1897 he was secretary to the Primitive Methodist Annual Assembly for Victoria and Tasmania. That year the assembly decided to convert its flagging church in Lygon Street, Carlton, into a mission and appointed him as minister. Not long settled at Geelong, he accepted reluctantly. He and his wife were appalled at the plight of homeless and delinquent boys in Carlton and devoted themselves to rescue work with remarkable success. His own harsh boyhood gave him a rare sympathy with these children. The Methodist Union of 1902 enabled him to implement his brainchild—a boys' training farm where instruction in agriculture could complement spiritual reformation and general education.

An evangelical tour of New Zealand in 1903 by Cole helped to raise funds and the Church purchased thirty-eight acres (15 ha) at Tally Ho, Burwood, attaching it to the Central Methodist Mission. He was superintendent in 1904-19, teaching farm work to hardened delinquents while ministering to their spiritual needs. By 1919 the farm accommodated one hundred boys and flourished as a commercial venture. Under him, Tally Ho was a congregate institution and discipline was harsh. His successor, Edgar Derrick, abolished corporal punishment and introduced the self-governing family cottage system—then a radical innovation in child welfare practice.

Cole died of heart disease at Tally Ho on 11 July 1919 and was buried in Burwood cemetery. He was survived by his second wife, and by two daughters and a son of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men, 2nd edn (Melb, 1887)
  • C. I. Benson (ed), A Century of Victorian Methodism (Melb, 1935)
  • Gippsland Mercury, 7 Aug 1886
  • Spectator (Melbourne), 7 May, 16, 23 July 1919.

Citation details

Janet McCalman, 'Cole, George Henry (1859–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cole-george-henry-5722/text9679, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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