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Wells, Henry Thomas (1912–1986)

by Ruth Teale

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Henry Thomas Wells (1912-1986), Congregational (Uniting Church) minister, was born on 28 September 1912 in South Melbourne, youngest of six children of Victorian-born parents Ernest Alfred Wells, auctioneer, and his wife Ethel, née Thornton. Henry was educated at Scotch College (1925-29) where he learned to play the organ, the University of Melbourne (BA, 1935) and the Congregational College of Victoria. Around 1930 he began a lay ministry as organist and choirmaster of East St Kilda Congregational Church and while an undergraduate joined the Student Christian Movement. Ordained on 10 February 1937 at Hawthorn, he was immediately appointed to Brunswick.

On 11 July 1938 at Auburn Methodist Church Wells married Lilian Charlotte (1911-2001), elder child of Frederick Howell Ault, engineer, and his wife Mabel Lydia, née Leslie, whom he had met through the SCM. Lilian had been born on 15 December 1911 at Moonee Ponds, Victoria. Due to her father’s changing employment she attended Melbourne (then co-educational) and Hobart High schools and the universities of Tasmania (BA, 1932; MA, 1934) and Melbourne (Dip.Ed., 1935). As a Methodist delegate for Tasmania, she attended SCM conferences in Melbourne (1932) and Ballarat (1933). She taught French and German at Methodist Ladies’ College, Melbourne, for three years.

Henry Wells was minister at Glenhuntly from 1942, before moving to New South Wales, to the charge of Epping (1946-51) and Epping-Cheltenham (1951-58). In a period of postwar expansion he developed a vibrant ministry, especially through music. He served on various committees of the Congregational Union of New South Wales and in 1953-54 was its chairman. His ‘perceptive and skilful’ contributions to the council of Camden College, Newtown, led to his appointment in 1955 as its president. From 1957 onwards he served on the Joint Commission on Church Union and on the Joint Constitution Commission. Over the next twenty years the middle ground adopted by the Congregational Union, and Wells’s conciliatory skills in particular, were critical to bringing a majority of Methodist, Congregational and Presbyterian congregations into the Uniting Church in Australia: he and his wife have been described as ‘the glue in the union’.

During the 1940s and 1950s Lilian played a supporting, but never a subsidiary, role in her husband’s ministries, as president of local women’s guilds, Sunday-school teacher, drama-group leader, chorister and tennis player. Petite, intelligent and capable, with a lively sense of humour, she was recognised for her organising skills, her generosity and her understanding pastoral care for women. Lilian assumed wider leadership roles once their three children became independent. She was elected president of the Congregational Women’s Fellowship of New South Wales in 1955.

In 1958 Henry was appointed minister and secretary of the Congregational Union of South Australia. In 1962-64 he was president of the Congregational Union of Australia. The Wells took leave in Britain in 1966-67 and, on their return, Henry became the first full-time secretary of the Congregational Union of Australia (1967-77). Lilian served as president of the Congregational Women’s Fellowship of South Australia, and of Australia (1964-68).

They returned to Sydney and attended Henry’s former church at Epping. From its inception in 1968 he served on the ecumenical committee that produced The Australian Hymn Book (1977); for this work he was appointed AM in 1978. From 1974 until 1985 he served on the council of the United Theological College at Enfield. In 1977 he returned to pastoral ministry, part time, at Turramurra, before retiring fully in 1979.

In 1967 Lilian joined the executive of the Australian Council of Churches and of the Pan-Pacific and South East Asia Women’s Association of Australia. In 1975-77 she was the last (and only woman) president of the Congregational Union of New South Wales. At the same time she was appointed to the joint planning committee for the Uniting Church. Early in 1977 she was made interim moderator of the New South Wales synod of the Uniting Church in Australia and in July, at its inaugural synod, was confirmed in that position for the next year. This was a monumental appointment for a newly formed church and for women in church administration generally. In December 1977 she was appointed OBE, and a Uniting Church aged-care facility at North Parramatta was dedicated in her honour in 1991.

Lilian continued to work for Amnesty International, for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and as a teacher of English as a second language, and she was later a church elder at Epping. She was a keen bushwalker and loved to bake her own bread. Henry died on 31 July 1986 and Lilian, fifteen years later, on 3 April 2001; both died at Eastwood and were cremated. Their son and two daughters survived them.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Garrett and L. W. Farr, Camden College (1964)
  • P. M. Munster, Biographical Index of Congregational Ministers in Victoria, 1838-1977 (2005)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Oct 1975, p 12, 7 Feb 1977, p 4, 10 Feb 1977, p 6, 16 Feb 1977, p 6, 20 June 2001, p 39
  • Report of the NSW Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia, 22 Oct 1977, p 1
  • Uniting: NSW Newspaper of the Uniting Church, 22 Aug 1986, p 4
  • Wells papers (Uniting Church Archives, North Parramatta, NSW)
  • private information

Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'Wells, Henry Thomas (1912–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wells-henry-thomas-15835/text27034, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 11 December 2019.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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