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Feetham, John Oliver (1873–1947)

by Alison Moore

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

John Oliver Feetham (1873-1947), bishop, was born on 27 January 1873 at Penrose, Monmouthshire, England, fourth son of William Feetham, vicar of Penrose, and his wife Mary, née Crawley. Of his five brothers, the eldest became a general, two became priests, one a poet and the other a judge. Through schooling at Marlborough in 1886-92, John Oliver came to admire the British Public School education: it served as his ideal in establishing schools in North Queensland. At Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1892-95 he continued his studies in mathematics, graduating senior optime. At Oxford House, Bethnal Green, in the slums of London, he carried out a lay ministry for eighteen months before entering Wells Theological College. Ordained deacon in 1899 and priest in 1900, he stayed in Bethnal Green as curate at St Simon Zelotes. The influence of his colleagues in the East End remained with him throughout his life.

Frederick Campion, a fellow curate, came to Australia in 1902 and founded the Brotherhood of the Good Shepherd, based in Dubbo, New South Wales, in 1904. Feetham was interested in the work and followed him in 1907 as the second principal. Love of the Australian bush and its people and belief in the importance of the Brotherhood became distinctive marks of his episcopate in North Queensland. While he was in the Brotherhood, the bishop of North Queensland, G. H. Frodsham, invited him to Townsville to conduct the clergy retreat. Feetham was unanimously elected to the see in October 1912, when Frodsham resigned. Consecrated on St Mark's Day (25 April) 1913 in St John's Cathedral, Brisbane, by Archbishop St Clair Donaldson, assisted by Bishop White of Carpentaria, he was enthroned on 4 May 1913 in St James Cathedral, Townsville.

Feetham was bishop of North Queensland from 1913 to 1947. His episcopate spanned crucial years in the development of North Queensland. In both world wars he was a vigorous exponent and supporter of the allied cause. In fighting for what he believed, in church and state, there could be no half measures, and like many other public figures, he was a pro-conscriptionist in 1916 and 1917. He was favourable to the Labor Party at first, but by the end of the 1920s was critical of it.

Feetham contributed much to the maintenance and vivifying of the Bush Brotherhood, and to the spread of religion in the outback. He inspired the Brothers to see country people as epitomizing the virtues of an Australian character partly formed by the bush itself. The success of his appeals for financial support from the pastoral companies indicates the influence of this outlook. He left a permanent imprint on the churchmanship of the diocese. As a priest, he had been at loggerheads with the evangelical Archbishop Wright of Sydney, and under Feetham's guidance the diocese of North Queensland became one of the most uniformly catholic in Australia. Far from being 'high and dry', the North Queensland Church was very much alive. He infected others with his own enthusiasm, and his personality, into which his Christianity was fully integrated, was colourful, attractive and eccentric.

His outstanding achievement was the foundation of schools. They were primarily 'the bishop's schools', and he devoted tremendous effort to them, leaving a powerful imprint on them: All Souls and St Gabriel's, Charters Towers, and St Anne's, Townsville, are flourishing still, while St Mary's, Herberton, closed in 1966. His aim was to bring up the children of North Queensland in the best Imperial and church traditions. The patriotism of past and present pupils during World War II reflected his success—'Church and Empire' were his watchwords. He believed in the Anglican Church and in the British race which produced it, and despite post-war changes the vitality of this ethos remains: the Church identified with him. It is probably this personal influence for which he is most remembered.

The immense number of letters and telegrams at the time of Feetham's death show the regard in which he was held. The clergy write in glowing terms of his effects upon them, and the enthusiasm still present in the diocese is unmistakable. The anecdotes of his exploits and eccentricities stress his remarkable impact: with a long neck and big clerical collar, he was 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall; his trousers usually showed an expanse of white socks and enormous feet in large shoes. He drove an early model Ford, 'Ermintrude', with panache, and usually refused to sleep in a bed.

On 20 July 1947 Feetham announced his resignation from 30 September. He had been ill for some time and in 1946 had gone to Brisbane for surgery. He returned to Townsville, where, unmarried, he died on 14 September 1947. He was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Norman, John Oliver. North Queensland (Melb, 1953)
  • R. Fraser, A Historical Sketch of the Diocese of North Queensland (Townsville, 1958)
  • R. Feetham, The Commemoration of John Oliver Feetham (np, 1964)
  • A. Hayhoe, John Oliver Feetham (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1968)
  • K. Rayner, The History of the Church of England in Queensland (Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, 1962).

Citation details

Alison Moore, 'Feetham, John Oliver (1873–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/feetham-john-oliver-6149/text10557, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 19 September 2014.

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

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