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Sconce, Robert Knox (1818–1852)

by R. A. Daly

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

Robert Knox Sconce (1818-1852), Church of England clergyman converted to Catholicism and schoolteacher, was born on 12 June 1818 at Rochester, Kent, England, the son of Robert Clement Sconce (1788-1847), purser in the navy and later secretary to Admiral Sir John Duckworth, and his wife Sarah, only daughter of Rev. Dr Vicesimus Knox (1752-1821), writer, theologian, preacher and headmaster of Tonbridge School, 1778-1812. His great-grandfather, Vicesimus Knox (1729-1779), was headmaster of Tonbridge in 1771-78, and his uncle, Rev. Dr Thomas Knox (1784-1843), in 1812-43.

Sarah Sconce died five days after her son was born, leaving him and two young daughters. Her husband remarried and for some years was chief commissary of the navy at Malta. R. K. Sconce lived there until 1829 when he entered Tonbridge School, where he was head boy in the sixth form in 1835 and won exhibitions to Brasenose College, Oxford (B.A., 1840). After graduation he was eligible for a fellowship but instead on 11 August 1840 he married Elizabeth Catherine, third daughter of Rev. Edward Repton (1783-1860), a canon of Westminster and chaplain to the House of Commons.

Sconce and his wife, his sister Sarah Susanna and her husband Captain Richard Bunbury, R.N., and the Bunburys' one-year-old son embarked at Plymouth in the Argyle and landed at Port Phillip in March 1841. In August he and Bunbury were appointed magistrates of the territory by Governor Sir George Gipps. However, Sconce's sister-in-law, Miss Repton, prevailed on Rev. Edward Coleridge of Eton College to write to Bishop William Grant Broughton introducing Sconce and adding that he was 'going forth with the spirit of a missionary and the deepest reverence for the Church of England'. Georgiana McCrae, a fellow-passenger in the Argyle, later sketched Sconce's portrait for Miss Repton and summed him up as 'introspective, a careful and precise speaker'. His wife, however, was something of a foil, 'so playful and artless she seems'.

Broughton was short of clergy and, as the government had decided to pay no more fares for immigrant clergy, he had an added reason for inviting Sconce to Sydney for ordination, a request which Sconce did not seek but did not feel it right to refuse. He reached Sydney in November, passed a 'very satisfactory' examination before Broughton and Rev. Robert Allwood, and was ordained deacon in St James's Church on 19 December. Broughton then sent him to St Stephen's, Penrith, and St Mary Magdalene's, South Creek, which he considered one of the best preferments he could offer. Broughton was also attracted by Mrs Sconce's personality: 'I was pleased … with the spirit of so young a woman, making no objection of any sort to all the roughnesses which at first they will have to encounter … So I begged her to take care of the girls in the school and lent her two books of Psalmody … and sent her off as happy a parson's wife as is to be met with in the Universe'.

Sconce was priested by Broughton on 18 December 1842 in St James's Church at the largest ordination ceremony so far held in Australia: five priests and two deacons. Rev. Thomas Makinson was among the priests assisting the bishop in the laying on of hands.

Sconce continued at Penrith and South Creek in 1843, and in that year prepared a pamphlet Answers to the Question, Why Do I Submit to the Teaching of the Church? In 1844 Sconce was moved to St Andrew's parish, where he used a temporary church while work on the cathedral proceeded slowly. As minister at St Andrew's, Sconce occupied a prominent position in Sydney church affairs, and in January 1846 Broughton, lamenting the condition and small numbers of his clergy, noted that 'Myself and Sconce … are the only two thoroughly sound'. In 1845-47 Sconce was one of the clergy who lectured at St James's College which Broughton inaugurated for training local postulants. The college was moved in 1847 to Lyndhurst, James Bowman's property in Glebe, but enrolments fell away after 1848 partly, as alleged later, because Sconce taught the Tridentine doctrine of justification and advocated other Catholic doctrines to the students. By 1852 Lyndhurst was bought by the Catholic Church and St Mary's College was established there under Bishop Charles Davis.

Sconce's doubts about Anglican doctrines reached a critical stage in February 1848. Finally unable to accept Broughton's explanations of problems of ecclesiastical history, he spent 'ten days in prayer … and earnest thought; ten nights in hard struggles and tears' before his mind was clear. On 21 February Sconce and Makinson resigned their licences as Anglican priests; five days later Broughton held a court at which sentences of deprivation and deposition from the ministry were pronounced, and Sconce's sentence was read the following Sunday in the St Andrew's parish church.

Sconce gave some details of his conversion in a pamphlet published in April, Reasons for Submitting to the Catholic Church, in which, and in later published controversy between Broughton and himself, he described how he had taken his difficulties to Rev. W. H. Walsh, of Christ Church in St Lawrence's parish, and then to Broughton. Neither, however, was able to persuade him that the Catholic tenets of apostolic succession and papal supremacy were incorrect. Broughton was deeply touched by Sconce's conversion and in 1848 wrote that Sconce 'was among the most able and zealous of my helpers and though I had seen with regret during these last two years certain tendencies taking possession of him and an attachment amounting to a morbid enthusiasm impelling him to Mr Newman's person and opinions both, yet to the very last I would not give up my confidence in him. The blow therefore came more heavily upon me, and I will not affect to deny has made a greater breach in my happiness than any occurrence during many a year has done'. In order to dissuade any parishioners who might have been inclined to follow Sconce's lead, Broughton personally assumed charge of St Andrew's from March to November 1848.

Apparently it was during his 'ten days in prayer' that Sconce first approached Archbishop John Bede Polding, who agreed 'with great joy of heart' to see him, and within a few days, Sconce, his wife and children became Catholics. Polding employed Sconce and Makinson as teachers in charge of the lay school attached to St Mary's Seminary at a salary of £150 each. Sconce continued at the seminary until 1851, and then began to study for admission to the Bar. However, he contracted scarlet fever and died on 28 March 1852. He was buried from St Mary's Cathedral.

His wife died at Brighton in England in 1898. Of their two boys and three girls, born between June 1841 and December 1847, one boy and one girl died young. Madeline, Elizabeth and Edward survived their mother.

Sconce's and Makinson's were considered the two most important conversions in Australia related to the Newman-Manning wave of conversions in England. Sconce's conversion had a more resounding effect in the colony, for he had held prominent positions, whereas Makinson came from the relative obscurity of a country parish. One result of their defection from Anglicanism was the development of a critical attitude towards Broughton, who was considered to hold some Puseyite sympathies, and generally the conversions appear to have had a part in fostering the Low Church tradition of the Church of England in Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Whytehead, Poetical Remains and Letters (Lond, 1877)
  • H. N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, vol 2 (Lond, 1911)
  • H. McCrae (ed), Georgiana's Journal (Syd, 1934)
  • M. L. Loane, A Centenary History of Moore Theological College (Syd, 1955)
  • SPG Sydney Committee Reports, 1841-47
  • Atlas (Sydney), Feb-Dec 1848
  • Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 1848
  • Broughton papers (microfilm copy at National Library of Australia).

Citation details

R. A. Daly, 'Sconce, Robert Knox (1818–1852)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sconce-robert-knox-2637/text3659, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 2 September 2014.

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

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