Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kirkby, Sydney James (1879–1935)

by K. J. Cable

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

Sydney James Kirkby (1879-1935), Anglican bishop, was born on 24 January 1879 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, eleventh (and fifth surviving) child of Joseph Kirkby, clerk, and his wife Alice Maude, née Paine, both English born. Educated at Gravel Hill State School, Kirkby was strongly influenced by Rev. Herbert Begbie and became a lay reader at White Hills in 1902. He was sent by Bishop Langley to Moore Theological College, Sydney, where he blossomed as a student. Abbott scholar and senior student for 1905, he took a rare first in the Oxford and Cambridge preliminary examination.

Returning to Bendigo, Kirkby was made deacon on 24 December 1905 and placed at Pyramid Hill. At Bendigo on 17 October 1906 he married Victoria Ethel Godfrey. Priested by Archbishop Clarke on 21 December, he became rector of Malmsbury. A vigorous pastor, imbued with a deep spirituality, he remained a scholar. In 1911 he returned as a tutor to be acting principal of Moore College. Taking advantage of the recent affiliation to the University of Durham, England, to proceed to a theology diploma, he spent 1912 there and graduated B.A. In 1914 he became rector of St Anne's, Ryde.

A firm Evangelical, Kirkby had a keen interest in promoting his school of churchmanship through the activities of the Anglican Church League and similar agencies, but he also perceived that the Evangelicals had a part to play in specialized missions to the outback. The Bush Church Aid Society for Australia and Tasmania was formed in Sydney in 1920 with promised support from the Colonial and Continental Church Society in England, and Kirkby became executive officer. Archbishop Wright of Sydney was among the few bishops to countenance the scheme.

A man of plain habits and considerable physical strength, Kirkby 'carried his swag' and underwent much hardship on his outback tours. While thus conforming to the bush image, he knew that only good organization and the use of modern technology could make the mission effective. Missioners were trained in Sydney and Melbourne and nurses recruited; bush nursing sisters were organized in 1922 and bush deaconesses in 1925; hospitals and hostels were opened in the far west of New South Wales and in South Australia and mission vans pressed into service; and an 'aeroplane mission' began in 1928. From his base in Sydney, Kirkby conducted a steady publicity campaign, editing the society's journal, Real Australian, and writing in 1930 a vivid account of its work, These Ten Years.

In 1932 Kirkby was recalled to diocesan affairs. Already part-time archdeacon of Camden, he was now appointed bishop coadjutor of Sydney. Consecrated on 24 August, he found himself in charge of the diocese when Wright died next February. He applied himself vigorously to the financial and social problems of the Church, still suffering from the Depression, and to the apparently perennial difficulty of constitutional reform. As bishop coadjutor he was also rector of the city church of St Philip. Here he maintained a popular ministry, his weekday lunchtime services attracting large crowds. It fell to Kirkby to preside over the election of the new archbishop. Although nominated against his wishes, he avoided serious candidature and steered the synod through an exhausting session wherein a carefully orchestrated movement for the election of Bishop H. W. K. Mowll of West China succeeded. Despite Kirkby's popularity and robust good sense, he was unable to heal the resulting split in Evangelical ranks.

After Mowll's enthronement in March 1934, Kirkby continued as assistant to the archbishop and, with more enthusiasm, as minister at St Philip's. Suffering from chronic nephritis, he died in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital on 12 July 1935 and was buried in the grounds of St Philip's. His wife, two sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Churhc of England, Diocese of Sydney, Yearbook, 1932-36
  • Church Standard, 19 July 1935
  • Australian Church Record, 25 July 1935.

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Kirkby, Sydney James (1879–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kirkby-sydney-james-6970/text12107, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 1 October 2014.

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

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