Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wells, Edgar Almond (1908–1995)

by Jeremy Long

This article was published online in 2019

Edgar Almond Wells (1908–1995), Methodist minister and missionary, was born on 4 September 1908 at Lincoln, England, second son of nine children of James Robinson Wells, insurance superintendent and Methodist lay preacher, and his wife, Elizabeth Agnes, née Sayers, both English born. After leaving school Edgar worked in agriculture and with an iron, steel, and metal merchant. Aged seventeen, while serving a twelve-month good behaviour bond for theft, he migrated to Australia under a rural apprenticeship scheme. He worked as a farm hand near Cleveland, Queensland, and became active in the local Methodist church. In 1930 he was appointed as a probationary minister at Yeppoon. Following three years theological training at King’s College, Brisbane, he served at Enoggera and was ordained in March 1936.

Posted to Camooweal, Wells undertook first aid training in preparation for his work in the outback. He ministered to the spiritual needs of the community as well as providing the services of an ‘ambulance waggon, dental outfit, picture show, and travelling Sunday school’ (Telegraph 1936, 23). While there, he met English-born Annie Elizabeth Bishop, a nursing sister at Mount Isa, and they married at the Chermside Methodist Church, Brisbane, on 14 February 1939. During the early years of World War II he served at Townsville. Told there were no vacancies for chaplains in the Royal Australian Air Force, he enlisted in July 1942 as a nursing orderly. In November he was discharged to take up an appointment as a Young Men’s Christian Association welfare officer, attached to the RAAF in Darwin. On his return to Queensland in 1944, he was posted to North Rockhampton and then Crows Nest, before offering to work as a missionary in North Australia. He and Annie trained in Sydney, including in anthropology under A. P. Elkin, before they commenced duty in January 1950, he as superintendent and she as nursing sister at Milingimbi, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

Taking advantage of increased Commonwealth government support for the work of Aboriginal missions, Wells energetically sought to improve community life at Milingimbi. A school and a hospital were constructed; farm and seafood production increased; and he encouraged the creation of bark paintings and craftwork for sale. He built on the policy of respect for the local culture initiated by his predecessors, including using the Gupapuyngu language in the school and in church services. Annie worked in the dispensary and store, and began writing children’s stories that drew on Aboriginal legends. She later published (1963) an account of their time at Milingimbi.

After ten years the couple left for Queensland and he became superintendent minister at Coolangatta. In 1961 he agreed to return to Arnhem Land as superintendent at Yirrkala, where his experience and competence were needed because it seemed certain that mining of the rich bauxite deposits close by would soon begin. He believed that encouraging more painting and carving work, as at Milingimbi, could strengthen self-confidence in the community. Sales and income for the artists increased after visits from Sydney and Melbourne art collectors and dealers in 1962. A new church opened in June the next year with two large panels painted by the local clans.

On 17 February 1963 Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies announced the approval of special mine leases and construction of a refinery on the Gove Peninsula. Soon after, Wells sent telegrams to Methodist Church leaders, newspaper editors, the leader of the Labor Opposition, and others protesting at the ‘bauxite land grab’ which ‘squeezed’ the Yirrkala people into ‘half a square mile’ (Wells 1982, 42). In April the Commonwealth government formally confirmed that an area of 140 square miles (about 360 km2) had been excised from the Arnhem Land Reserve for large-scale mining. In response Kim Beazley senior, a Labor party member, proposed consultation with the local Aboriginal community and the grant of an Aboriginal title to Northern Territory reserves.

Visiting Yirrkala in July, Beazley suggested, after discussions with Aboriginal leaders and Wells, that a petition on a bark painting would be an effective way of attracting attention to their concerns. While supportive, Wells carefully took no part in its organisation or execution. Petitions, typed by his wife in Gupapuyngu with English translations, were attached to sheets of bark with borders painted with images of local fish and animals. The Yirrkala bark petitions were presented to the House of Representatives in August and in September a select committee was appointed to inquire into the grievances of the Yirrkala people. Wells was examined, along with ten Aboriginal witnesses, when the committee took evidence at Yirrkala. His superiors, displeased by the actions he had taken without their knowledge or consent, directed him to transfer to Milingimbi from January 1964. He declined and was posted back to Queensland.

Letters in support of Wells failed to alter the decision of the church. Among them, the psychologist Dr G. L. Mangan argued that he epitomised ‘the modern churchman—outspoken, yet attentive to other points of view, forward looking, while attempting to preserve the best from the past’ (Wells 1982, 27). Wells served as a circuit minister near Brisbane before retiring to live at Hervey Bay in 1974. He completed further studies at the University of Queensland (BA, 1978) and in 1982 published his account of the events at Yirrkala. Annie died in 1979 and he later moved to Melbourne. Survived by his son, he died on 4 May 1995 at Balwyn and was cremated.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Attwood, Bain. Rights for Aborigines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003
  • Hunt, Lee Z., and Stuart Rintoul. ‘Missionary Fought for Land Rights.’ Australian, 5 June 1995, 16
  • National Archives of Australia. A9301, 77209
  • Nottingham Journal (UK). ‘Boy’s Escapade: Wanderer Who Rode Home on Stolen Cycle.’ 12 November 1925, 7
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID 1125717, Files—immigrant
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID 1263146, Files—immigrant
  • Telegraph (Brisbane). ‘Work in the Outback.’ 25 April 1936, 23
  • Wells, Ann E. Milingimbi: Ten Years in the Crocodile Islands of Arnhem Land. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1963
  • Wells, Edgar. Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land, 1962–1963. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1982
  • Wells, Edgar James. Personal communication

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Jeremy Long, 'Wells, Edgar Almond (1908–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wells-edgar-almond-27835/text35581, published online 2019, accessed online 26 August 2019.

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