Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lawry, Walter (1793–1859)

by S. G. Claughton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Walter Lawry (1793-1859), Methodist missionary, was born on 3 August 1793 in Rutheren, near Bodmin, Cornwall, England. He was accepted as a candidate for the ministry by the British Conference in 1817 and was chaplain in the convict ship Lady Castlereagh which sailed from England and arrived in Sydney on 1 May 1818. As the colleague of Rev. Samuel Leigh he was stationed at Parramatta where he conducted services in the homes of Rowland Hassall and William Shelley. In St John's Church on 22 November 1819 he married Mary Cover, daughter of Rowland and Elizabeth Hassall. On 29 October 1820 he conducted the first Methodist service west of the Blue Mountains in the Court House, Bathurst. The first Methodist church at Parramatta, dedicated on 20 April 1821, was built at his expense at a cost of £300. Next month a Sunday school was established, where he was able to gather regularly together some fifty young children, despite opposition from local clergy and church attendants. This highlighted the undercurrent of feeling between the British Conference, the Anglican clergy and the Wesleyan missionaries of New South Wales. For a time he was financially embarrassed, partly as a result of paying for the church, but in 1821 was considerably helped by receiving a grant of 600 acres (243 ha) which Lachlan Macquarie had previously promised him and which he forthwith sold.

On 7 April 1821 he received 'a large packet from England … wherein I see I am appointed to labour in the Friendly Islands'. When Leigh and his wife returned with Rev. William Walker to Sydney in 1821, Leigh informed Lawry that the British committee had appointed him to New Zealand. At a later local committee meeting presided over by Leigh it was decided that Lawry should proceed to Tonga. In order to do so he bought the St Michael for £1100. On 18 June 1822 he wrote 'We are now under sail … bound for New Zealand and Tonga. I leave New South Wales with a very heavy heart and much tempted to unbelief and discouragement relative to the new and venturous Mission. But I hope in God. The heavy debt which the purchase of this ship has involved me under is a great trial to me. I hope never to embark in another such affair'. After a brief visit to New Zealand, he went to Tonga and was assisted by William Singleton, a survivor from the Port-au-Prince, whose crew had been massacred by natives in 1804. Singleton acted as interpreter but, although sympathetic, was not prepared to accept Lawry's standards. The mission made little progress because of the persistent influence of the first white man in Tonga, Morgan, a runaway convict from Botany Bay. According to Lawry, 'to this day they remember Morgan's lies and believe them, consequently they detest our acts of religious worship more than anything we do or say, notwithstanding our efforts to convince them of their mistaken notions'.

Meanwhile Lawry received several letters of censure from the General Wesleyan Missionary Society's committee, and was ordered summarily to an appointment in Van Diemen's Land. Instead he returned to England, landing on New Year's day 1825. His interview with the missionary committee was satisfactory. A resolution was carried 'that the Committee cherish very warm sentiments of esteem for Mr Lawry with a high sense of his valuable services abroad'. He continued his ministry in England until 1843 when he was appointed general superintendent of the missions in New Zealand, which office he held for eleven years. In 1854 he retired because of ill health and went to Parramatta, where he lived until his death. He was buried on 30 March 1859 in the Wesleyan cemetery, Ross and Buller Streets. The Parramatta City Council commemorated his life and work by designating the area the Walter Lawry Methodist Memorial Park.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Lawry, Friendly and Feejee Islands: A Missionary Visit to Various Stations in the South Seas in the Year MDCCCXLVII, ed G. Hoole (Lond, 1850)
  • Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Church, Minutes (Hob, 1858)
  • J. Colwell, The Illustrated History of Methodism (Syd, 1904)
  • J. Colwell (ed), A Century in the Pacific (Syd, 1914)
  • Spectator (Melbourne), Jan 1932
  • W. Lawry diary (copy held Australian Methodist Historical Society, Sydney)
  • Lawry papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

S. G. Claughton, 'Lawry, Walter (1793–1859)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lawry-walter-2337/text3045, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 11 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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