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Thomas, Mesac (1816–1892)

by Barbara Thorn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Mesac Thomas (1816-1892), Anglican bishop, was born on 10 May 1816 at Typorth near Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire, Wales, son of John Thomas and his wife Elizabeth, née Williams. Educated at Oswestry Grammar School and Shrewsbury School, in 1836 he matriculated at St John's College and next year moved to Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1840; M.A., 1843; D.D., 1863). In 1839 he became founding secretary of the Cambridge Camden Society (Ecclesiological Society, 1841) and retained a lifelong interest in church buildings. Made deacon in 1840 he was ordained priest on 25 July 1841 by the bishop of Worcester; in 1840-43 he served as curate at Birmingham and was incumbent at Tuddenham St Martin, Suffolk, in 1843-46. He married Mary Campbell Hasluck at Aston near Birmingham on 7 November 1843. He was vicar of Attleborough, Warwickshire, until 1851 when he became clerical organizing secretary of the Colonial Church and School Society; he extended and consolidated the work of the society as he gained insight into missionary life. Living at Islington, London, he inaugurated weekly services for cab drivers at their local depot.

On 14 March 1863 Thomas was appointed first bishop of Goulburn, New South Wales. His nomination had been opposed by Charles Campbell and Rev. Ernest Hawkins, of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, because of his Evangelical churchmanship, but Bishop Barker recognized that he had qualities of leadership and supported him; he was consecrated in Canterbury Cathedral on 25 March. Neither Thomas nor Campbell allowed this clash to colour their future relations and Campbell became his trusted chancellor and friend.

Thomas and his wife arrived in Sydney in the Bombay on 13 March 1864 and at Goulburn on 8 April. With an energy that concealed his despondency, he set about the task of building up an insufficiently endowed diocese in a sparsely populated district. As he increased the number of his clergy he provided spiritual comfort for isolated settlers and many diggers on the Araluen and Lambing Flat goldfields; finding this a missionary task beyond the resources of his diocese, he turned to the S.P.G., the Colonial and Continental Church Society and the Colonial Bishoprics' Fund, stressing that the needs of their own countrymen were greater than those of the heathen. In 1874-75 he visited England seeking further financial support.

With the formation of the Goulburn Church Society in 1864, Thomas introduced the principle of the interdependence of parish and diocese; thus he ensured that all his clergy received adequate stipends and that local building efforts were assisted from diocesan funds. By far-flung visitations and through his extensive correspondence, he made personal contact with his clergy and laity and guided his vast diocese. In some ways Thomas was aloof, the 'Lord Bishop', conscious of his position and dignity; he was authoritarian, setting high standards for his clergy, but he was also humane and tender, though these qualities were often concealed under his brusque manner. He developed a passionate loyalty to his diocese and learnt to love his strange adopted land.

The establishment of the diocesan synod in February 1867 extended the co-operation of the clergy and laity in Church management. Thomas insisted that legislation was necessary to validate synods and that they were the effective organs of Church government; his stance led to clashes with more liberal churchmen, particularly in the discussions about the formation of the Provincial Synod of New South Wales and the General Synod. In later years he questioned the usefulness of synods which he then saw as an interruption rather than a contribution to Church administration.

Thomas's responsibility increased with the growth of population and closer settlement in the western part of his see. The strain was eased by the formation of the diocese of the Riverina in 1884. In 1880 he supported John Gribble in establishing an Aboriginal mission at Warangesda on the Murrumbidgee River. For ten years he had spent much time and energy on raising funds to build the new St Saviour's Cathedral at Goulburn; designed by Edmund Blacket it was dedicated on 29 April 1884. His later years were saddened by disputes between himself, F. R. L. Rossi and Archdeacon A. T. Puddicombe about the trusteeship of the cathedral and its place as a parish church. The clash of personalities divided the Church of England in Goulburn, with the authority of the bishop questioned and the influence of the Church lessened. For Thomas there could be no compromise and the dispute dragged on with court cases.

Wracked by bouts of serious illness, Thomas lost control and the diocese foundered. He died of heart disease on 15 March 1892 and was buried in the cathedral grounds, survived by his wife to whom he left an estate valued for probate at £8226.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Thorn (ed), Letters from Goulburn (Canb, 1964)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • M. Thomas letter-book, 1865-90 (St Mark's Library, Canberra)
  • Diocese of Goulburn, Church Society reports, 1864-92, and Synod reports, 1866-92 (St Mark's Library, Canberra).

Citation details

Barbara Thorn, 'Thomas, Mesac (1816–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomas-mesac-4708/text7805, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 20 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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