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Hughes, Ernest Selwyn (1860–1942)

by Norman Harper

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Ernest Selwyn Hughes (1860-1942), Anglican clergyman, was born on 12 May 1860 at Cobram, Victoria, second son of Charles William Hughes, grazier, and his wife Ellen, née Man, both from England. His elder brother was Frederic Godfrey. Ernest was educated at All Saints Grammar School, St Kilda, and then at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. He worked at the Royal Mint for seven years. His mother had chosen him of her three sons to become a priest, and under Bishop Moorhouse's influence he decided to study for holy orders. He entered Trinity College at the University of Melbourne in 1883 and graduated B.A. in 1887. He was nominated as curate at St Mark's, Fitzroy, and began his ministry on 25 January 1888.

In May Hughes sailed for England. For part of his time there he worked with Father Wainwright at St Peter's, London Docks. After his return to Melbourne on 23 February 1889 he established the Mission of the Holy Redeemer at St Mark's, with enthusiastic support from Toorak ladies and the Fleur de Lys Club at Trinity College. A new building was opened by the governor of Victoria on 27 August 1891 and the mission was an outstanding success, attracting interest throughout Australia. When the vicar of St Mark's was translated to a new parish in August 1892, the parishioners petitioned unsuccessfully for the appointment of Hughes. The new vicar dismissed Hughes, partly because attendance at the church was much below attendance at mission services. Hughes was reinstated as a result of local pressures in May 1893 but then accepted a curacy at St Peter's, Eastern Hill, in 1894. The 'Big Curate', 6 ft 3 ins (191 cm) tall, began an association that lasted for thirty-two years. On the death of Canon Handfield in 1900, he was nominated as vicar of St Peter's and inducted by the dean of Melbourne on 27 September. Hughes resigned on 24 May 1926 because of ill health.

His nomination was not a unanimous one because of his firm Anglo-Catholic allegiance. Like Handfield he was an Oxford Movement clerk rather than an Evangelical like Perry and Goe. A rather tired Handfield had supported his dynamic curate in introducing the stations of the Cross. Hughes quickly became the leader of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England in Australia. Shortly after his appointment, he introduced the use of Eucharistic vestments and plain-song. Banners were carried in procession in the church and incense was used until the archbishop imposed a temporary ban. The Evangelical wing of the Church was hostile and 'no popery' agitations took place in 1906 and 1909. More liberal views led to the appointment of Hughes as canon of St Paul's Cathedral in 1911 and then as rural dean of Melbourne in 1912. Lesser attacks were made in 1916 and 1917, but most of the hostility had disappeared by the time the Cross of Sacrifice was unveiled by the governor-general in 1924. This European-style wayside Cross was a memorial to those who died in World War I.

Melbourne Punch in 1909 described Hughes as easily 'the most interesting figure in the Church of England in Victoria'. As vicar of St Peter's, building on his great experience of poverty in both the East End of London and Fitzroy, he maintained a deep interest in the work of missionary bodies in Melbourne. One of his great contributions to the Church was his ability to bring together the rich and the poor in a common worship. With his splendid speaking voice and great stature he was a dominant and appealing figure in the pulpit and on all church occasions, especially during his open-air street preaching at Fitzroy.

Hughes was an outstanding athlete. He stroked Trinity College crews and played football with St Kilda in 1890 in the days of its glory. He then transferred to Essendon, playing as an ordained priest in its four premiership sides in 1891-94. He was vice-president and president of the East Melbourne Cricket Club until 1920, the first president of the new Hawthorn-East Melbourne club until his death, and president of the Victorian Cricket Association in 1932. An active member of the Amateur Boxing Association, he became known as the 'Fighting Parson' after having with two blows ejected two youths from a church wedding celebration.

On 20 April 1904 at St Peter's he had married a widow, Isabell Janet Thomson, née Thomson. She died in 1933. Canon Hughes died at his Aspendale home on 16 June 1942. After a funeral service at St Paul's Cathedral he was cremated. He left no family.

Select Bibliography

  • St Peterite (Lillian Brocklebank), Invictus Pax (priv print, Melb, 1921)
  • F. Howard, Kent Hughes (Melb, 1972)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 15 Feb 1906, 14 Oct 1909, 28 May 1914
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 3 Feb 1893.

Citation details

Norman Harper, 'Hughes, Ernest Selwyn (1860–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 28 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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