Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fitchett, William Henry (1841–1928)

by A. G. Thomson Zainu'ddin

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

William Henry Fitchett (1841-1928), by unknown photographer, 1901-05

William Henry Fitchett (1841-1928), by unknown photographer, 1901-05

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H37081/20

William Henry Fitchett (1841-1928), clergyman, writer and educator, was born on 9 August 1841 at Grantham, Lincolnshire, England, third son of William Fitchett and his wife Hannah, née Hubbard. His father, a perfumer, hairdresser, clog and pattenmaker and toy-dealer, was a Wesleyan local preacher who came to the Port Phillip District with a land order for 65 acres (26 ha) under John Dunmore Lang's migration scheme. He arrived at Geelong in the Larpent with his wife and five children on 20 June 1849 and died in December 1851. Of William's brothers, Alfred Robertson became dean of Dunedin and Frederick solicitor-general of New Zealand.

William's formal schooling at a Wesleyan denominational school was brief and—while legend claims that he learnt Latin declension and translated Molière when pushing trucks in a Geelong quarry—he actually furthered his self-education by voracious reading and by participation in mutual improvement groups at Lydiard Street Wesleyan Church, Ballarat.

When interviewed in 1892 he referred to being 'Placed in business' in Geelong, 'Placed upon a farm', perhaps at nearby Ceres, where he first considered becoming a local preacher, and later, probably in 1862, going to Queensland as a jackeroo. By 1863 he was 'engaged in business on his own account' at Ballarat and taught at Lydiard Street Sunday School with James Campbell, a lifelong friend. By January 1865 he was an accredited local preacher. The following year he entered the Wesleyan ministry and was stationed at Mortlake (1866-67), Echuca (1868-69), South Yarra (1870-72), Lonsdale Street, Melbourne (1873), Carlton (1874-75), Bendigo (1876-78), and Hawthorn (1879-81). On 24 March 1870 at Mortlake, he married Jemima (Cara), daughter of Thomas Shaw. In July 1872 he matriculated at the University of Melbourne, graduating B.A. in 1875.

After his appointment to Methodist Ladies' College, Kew, as founding president in 1882 he was withdrawn from the rigours of the itinerant ministry, although, as a forceful and fervent preacher who saw Methodism as 'intensely evangelical', he preached frequently. He saw his journalistic and educational work as part of his ministry and subservient to it. He applied his considerable business acumen to the financial and administrative affairs of his church and was on many committees. During the boom of the late 1880s he indulged in speculation on his own behalf.

In 1886 Fitchett was elected president of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference of Victoria and Tasmania, and in 1902 first president of the United Methodist Victorian and Tasmanian Conference. In 1904, in recognition of his contribution to the reunification of Methodism's five branches, he was elected first president of the General Conference of the Methodist Church of Australasia, holding the position until 1907. He also became a popular figure in world Methodism, addressing the Methodist Conference in London in 1899 and attending various British Conference meetings in 1905, when he gave the 35th Fernley Lecture on 'The Unrealised Logic of Religion'. He was a delegate at the Ecumenical Conference in Toronto in 1911.

His career as a journalist and writer began with a weekly column, 'Easy Chair Chat', in the Methodist Spectator and Wesleyan Chronicle (Melbourne) under the pen name 'XYZ' (1875-79). His comments were witty, outspoken and controversial. He left the Spectator board and his 'Easy Chair' on a matter of principle when it was decided, in the interests of economy, no longer to pay contributors.

In 1882 Fitchett became editor of the Southern Cross, a weekly religious paper; in April 1900 his son, Thomas Shaw Fitchett, printer and publisher, became manager. In 1883, when James Balfour bought the Daily Telegraph to establish a secular daily sympathetic to Christian interests, Fitchett became consulting editor until it was sold to the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd in 1892. In July that year the Australasian edition of W. T. Stead's Review of Reviews was launched under Fitchett's editorship; a 32-page supplement of local matter was added to the English edition. Fitchett was replaced in 1903, after having, as an Imperialist, fallen out with Stead regarding the South African War. In 1902 T. Shaw Fitchett published the New Idea, a women's magazine which, in 1911, became Everylady's Journal. Fitchett wrote occasional articles for this as well as becoming editor in 1904 of his son's companion publication, Life.

The books which made W. H. Fitchett a household name throughout the British Empire were 'in a sense a literary accident', arising from his journalism. Sir Cyprian Bridge, commander of the Australian Station in 1896, asked Fitchett to write commemorative sketches on anniversaries of notable events in British history. These became an Argus Saturday feature running for sixteen months under the pen name 'Vedette'. The articles were pirated in India, republished in a London weekly, published in shilling form in Australia and finally, as Deeds that Won the Empire (1897). The book was placed by the Admiralty in all warships' libraries, adopted as a holiday-task book in some great English public schools and printed in Braille. 100,000 copies of the six-penny edition were sold.

This was followed by Fights for the Flag (1898); The Tale of the Great Mutiny (1899); Wellington's Men (1900); Nelson and his Captains (1902); How England Saved Europe (1899-1900), a four-volume story of the war of 1793-1815 written for Cornhill Magazine; The Great Duke (2 vols, 1911); The New World of the South (2 vols, 1913); and articles on Australian identities collected and published in 1938 as From Convict to Bushranger. He said of his stories that 'the art which produced them was simply the barrister's art of getting up a case quickly and easily … There was no attempt at fine writing, no pretence of original research … with short words and short sentences, always seizing on the most picturesque incidents and translating the whole story, as far as possible, into personal terms'.

His novels, The Commander of the Hirondelle (1904); Ithuriel's Spear (1906); A Pawn in the Game (1907); and The Adventure of an Ensign (1917), reprinted from Blackwood's Magazine, were less successful. His religious publications include Wesley and his Century (1906); The Beliefs of Unbelief (1908) and Where the Higher Criticism Fails (1922).

In his Forty Years at the M.L.C. … (1921) Fitchett gave his account of the school's founding and growth from an enrolment of 111 at the end of 1882 to 721 (including 117 boarders) in 1928. Four headmasters served under him. Except when overseas in 1886, 1889, 1891, 1899, 1905 and 1911, he supervised the spiritual life of the college and boarding school, assisted by his wife. After her death on 15 September 1918 he wrote: 'She was the governing mind of the Methodist Ladies' College on its domestic side'. On 31 March 1920 at Queen's College chapel he married Edith Skelton, née Wimble, widow of Rev. William Williams. His niece, Ada Fitchett (1859-1945), was on the school staff from 1883 to 1921, serving as lady superintendent for twenty-four years. His elder daughter, Elsie, while at school was amanuensis for Deeds that Won the Empire, and taught there before marriage. His sons Frank, Thomas and William were school solicitor, publisher and medical officer respectively. His second son, Alfred, was also a solicitor. The school's first assembly hall, built in 1917, was named in his honour and has a stained-glass window to the memory of his younger daughter Nellie who died of meningitis in 1897. Fitchett Chapel, opened in 1959, and one of the school houses also commemorate him. There are portraits in the new assembly hall and in the chapel entrance. Strongly opposed to secular, state-controlled education, he contributed to the school his talent for public relations and advertisement. He attracted devoted service from those who worked with him on the staff and generous donations from fellow Methodists who were school council-members, including Henry Berry, Frederick John Cato and the Nicholas brothers.

In 1899 he was awarded an honorary LL.D. by Queen's University, Kingston, Canada, 'for his great literary achievement'. He was a trustee of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria for thirty-five years. He listed his recreations as 'golf and hard work' and had an interest in cricket. He was a passionate son of the British Empire whose greatness was the theme of much of his writing. 'In dinnertime talk he was brilliant, in private conversation witty, in debate devastating', 'an autocrat—with an autocrat's virtues and faults'. A gracious friend, he could be an implacable foe. Writing in 1904, Fitchett admitted to 'a memory, loose-fibred and inexact as to dates and details of facts and verbal forms' but 'curiously susceptible to every touch of picturesque description'. He was so much a man of his time that it is difficult to appreciate his greatness in an age when certainties are unfashionable.

He died at the school on 26 May 1928 after suffering a haemorrhage of a duodenal ulcer and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. His estate, valued for probate at £14,852, included a large library.

Select Bibliography

  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vol 5 (Lond, 1963)
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 12 Aug 1892
  • Spectator (Melbourne), 8, 29 Mar 1895
  • Life (Melbourne), Dec 1904–Mar 1905
  • Methodist Recorder (London), 3 Aug 1899, 27 July 1905
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1904
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7, 8, 10, 12 Dec 1904, 8-11 Apr 1905, 26, 28, 29 May 1928
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 May, 18 Aug 1928
  • Southern Cross (Melbourne), 8 June 1928
  • Fitchett travel notes, 1891, and MLC, Kew, Melbourne, Council minutes (held at school)
  • Sir Samuel Way letter book, Nov 1897–Aug 1898, PRG 30/5/4 (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

A. G. Thomson Zainu'ddin, 'Fitchett, William Henry (1841–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fitchett-william-henry-6179/text10621, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 29 July 2014.

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

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