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Hassall, Thomas (1794–1868)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Thomas Hassall (1794-1868), Anglican clergyman, was born on 29 May 1794, at Coventry, England, the eldest child of Rowland Hassall and his wife Elizabeth, née Hancox. He accompanied his parents to Tahiti in the Duff in 1796. He and his mother have a prominent place in the foreground of Smirke's oil painting of the cession of Matavai. He grew up in Parramatta, and received the best education which could be provided. As a young man he was employed as clerk in the offices of Robert Campbell and James Birnie.

In May 1813 he opened in his father's house the first Sunday school in Australia. So popular was the venture that Hassall senior, Rev. John Eyre and other leading Dissenters and Methodists formed the New South Wales Sunday School Institution in December 1815. Thomas Hassall acted as both superintendent and secretary. Rev. Samuel Marsden who had already associated Hassall's school with St John's Church, resented the Nonconformist connexion and attempted to wean the Hassalls and Eyre from the movement.

It was the wish of the missionaries that Thomas Hassall should marry Sarah Henry of Tahiti, they being the two eldest children of the mission. Thomas proposed in 1815, but Sarah married Dr William Bland. As Hassall's religious convictions strengthened, he decided to enter the ministry; he was the first Australian candidate for ordination. He sailed to England in the Kangaroo in 1817, and at Hobart Town gave John Williams and other missionaries news of success in the islands. Marsden placed his education in the hands of Rev. Charles Simeon of Cambridge, who arranged with the bishop of St David's for him to attend an Evangelical academy in the parsonage of Rev. John Williams, vicar of Lampeter. Hassall studied at Lampeter College for two years but lacked a 'title to orders'. Wilberforce, who took an interest in him, declared that he wished he was a bishop so that he could ordain Hassall. However, a friendly letter written by Mrs Elizabeth Macquarie referring to his future ministry in New South Wales was accepted as 'title'; he was ordained deacon on 15 April 1821 and priest in June.

He returned to Sydney in the Mary, and on 3 February 1822 preached his first Australian sermon in St John's, Parramatta, where he remained as Marsden's curate until 1824. On 12 August 1822 he married Anne Marsden (1794-1885), the chaplain's eldest daughter, who had been taken to England by Hassall's uncle, Rev. James Cover in 1800 and who had remained there until 1810. A woman of determined character she had considerable influence with her husband and father. They had three sons and five daughters.

In June 1824 Marsden pressed Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane to appoint Hassall chaplain to the penal settlement at Port Macquarie. Brisbane did so in August, and authorized him to build a church; the request that this be confirmed crossed with a royal warrant of 1 November appointing Hassall a colonial chaplain. In December the foundation stone of the church was laid, but Hassall's attempts to ameliorate convict conditions at the settlement met with opposition. Early in 1826 he was appointed to the Bathurst district, after having lost his library in the wreck of the Henriette. He lived on his property, Lampeter farm at O'Connell Plains, where he built Salem Chapel, and he preached regularly at a barn in Kelso which had been opened as a church in 1825. In March 1827 he left Bathurst on being appointed to the Cowpastures, another new parish which he himself described as 'Australia beyond Liverpool'. At the same time he purchased the large Denbigh estate at Cobbitty which became his headquarters. In 1828 he built Heber Chapel, which served until the construction of St Paul's, Cobbitty, in 1842.

At first Hassall's extensive parish included such distant areas as Goulburn and Illawarra. His first preaching stations in an exhaustive itinerating ministry were Cobbitty, Berrima, Bong Bong and Goulburn. John Hawdon, brother of Joseph, has left a record of a journey taken with Hassall to Bathurst and then across the Abercrombie Ranges and back to Liverpool through Goulburn. Gradually the large parish was reduced to Narellan. In 1833 Hassall was relieved of the Goulburn charge when Rev. John Vincent was appointed to All Saints', Sutton Forest. In 1838 through the efforts of Hassall's friend, George Cox, the church of St Thomas at Mulgoa became the centre of another parish under Rev. Thomas Makinson. In 1840 the regular preaching stations, apart from Heber Chapel, included Cabramatta, Vermont, Glenderuel and Mulgoa Forest in Cumberland County, and Camden, Stonequarry and the Oaks in Camden County.

Besides his ministerial duties Hassall, like his brothers, was a keen woolgrower, and he also acted as magistrate. He won the lasting affection of squatters, stockmen and shepherds. Though known widely as the 'squire of Denbigh' and the 'galloping parson', his parishioners knew him familiarly as 'Thomas'. He could well be described as the first of Australia's 'bush parsons'. It was said that 'the wilds of Nattai and Burragorang were as familiar [to him] as the more pleasant valleys of Mulgoa and Illawarra'. James Backhouse gave a glimpse of the 'exemplary and diligent' chaplain of Cobbitty providing 'temporal relief, and spiritual instruction' during an influenza epidemic in 1836. A strict Evangelical of the 'Methodist' type like William Cowper and Richard Hill he fully co-operated with Methodists and Dissenters, but it is clear that he stood in awe of his father-in-law, and never gainsaid him. Hassall was interested in practical religion rather than theology. He wrote tracts such as Jemmy Mullins, the Little Irish Sailor Boy, and had a remarkable record of conversions. In August 1843 he received the degree of M.A. from the archbishop of Canterbury through Bishop William Grant Broughton who held him in the highest regard.

Hassall died at Denbigh on 29 March 1868. His widow died in June 1885. The eldest son, Rev. James Samuel (1823-1904), was chaplain of Berrima gaol and a noted pioneer clergyman in New South Wales and Queensland. A daughter, Eliza Marsden (1834-1918), was founder and first principal of Marsden House (Marsden Training School for Women Missionaries) at Ashfield, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 9, 11, 13-15
  • T. Hassall, Requirements and Rules for Persons Engaging Themselves as Teachers in the Parramatta Sunday School (Parramatta, 1816)
  • W. W. Burton, The State of Religion and Education in New South Wales (Lond, 1840), 179-83
  • R. L. King, The Path of the Just. A Funeral Sermon (Syd, 1868)
  • J. S. Hassall, In Old Australia. Records and Reminiscences from 1794 (Brisb, 1902)
  • H. M. Suttor, Australian Milestones, vol 1 (Syd, 1925)
  • E. Ramsden, Marsden and the Missions: Prelude to Waitangi (Syd, 1936), 238-55
  • R. T. Wyatt, The History of the Diocese of Goulburn (Syd, 1937)
  • Hassall papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Samuel Marsden papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Hassall, Thomas (1794–1868)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hassall-thomas-2167/text2779, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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