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White, Gilbert (1859–1933)

by Ruth Teale

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Gilbert White (1859-1933), by unknown photographer, c1900

Gilbert White (1859-1933), by unknown photographer, c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 17096

Gilbert White (1859-1933), poet, author and bishop, was born on 9 June 1859 at Rondebosch, Cape Colony, South Africa, son of Francis Gilbert White, clergyman, and his wife Lucy, née Gilderdale; Gilbert was named after his great-grand-uncle, the naturalist. The family returned to England in 1861 and Gilbert was educated at Fettes College, Edinburgh, and Oriel College, Oxford (B.A., 1881; M.A., 1885; honorary D.D., 1908). Made deacon in 1883, he was priested in 1884 by the bishop of Truro. A lung condition necessitated emigration and he arrived at Townsville, North Queensland, in September 1885. White became successively rector of Charters Towers (1886), Herberton (1888) and Ravenswood (1891), and archdeacon of Townsville (1892). On 24 August 1900, in Sydney, he was consecrated first bishop of Carpentaria and was enthroned in November on Thursday Island.

Though an indifferent sailor, in order to visit his 'amorphous lump' of a diocese White bought and often navigated a ketch crewed by South Sea islanders. His apostolic 'orgy of travelling' included a journey in 1901 from Port Darwin to Alice Springs, Oodnadatta and Adelaide; en route he held services at cattle- and telegraph-stations and made geological, botanical and anthropological observations. In June 1905 he personally founded an Aboriginal mission on the Mitchell River and in 1907 explored the Roper River for another mission site. Next year he negotiated the resettlement on Moa Island of Melanesians deported from Queensland.

From July 1915 to September 1925 White was first bishop of Willochra, another sparsely settled diocese, in South Australia. He spent ten years travelling, and founded and edited The Willochran.

An 'austere Tractarian' despising popularity and ecclesiastical politics, he attended every general synod from 1891 where his forthrightness enlightened debates on social issues. In 1916 he helped to revive the Australian Board of Missions. Seeing World War I as a crusade for 'the liberties of mankind', White supported conscription and the League of Nations, and opposed a rigid White Australia policy as impeding northern development. In 1920 he attended conferences at Lambeth, England, and Geneva, Switzerland, and in 1925 was Australian representative at the Stockholm ecumenical conference.

'Tall, gangly, with spindly legs and straggling beard', ill at ease in society, he wrote fluently and read Greek and Latin, French, German, Italian and Spanish. His Melchior and Other Verses (Gateshead, 1893), including poems composed on the lonely ride from Irvinebank to Herberton, Night and Other Verses (Townsville, 1897) and The World's Tragedy and Other Poems (Thursday Island, 1910) were privately printed; 'Australia: a poem' (1913) and 'Australia: 1917', both critical of society and politics, first appeared anonymously in the Sydney Morning Herald. Two collected volumes, Poems (London, 1919) and The Later Poems of Gilbert White (Morpeth, 1930), reveal a religious mysticism, a love of nature and a habit of preaching, within the confines of traditional poetic techniques. In 1922 and 1926 volumes of his sermons were published in London. His best-known works were travelogues, Across Australia (Brisbane, n.d.; London, 1909), Round About the Torres Straits (London, 1917; 1925) and Thirty Years in Tropical Australia (London, 1918; 1925).

In 1926 White retired to Epping, Sydney, and joined the boards of the Church Standard and the Australian Board of Missions whose Review he edited until November 1932. He died at his home on 1 April 1933 and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. He never married; from 1886 successive maiden sisters had kept his house.

Select Bibliography

  • J. W. C. Wand, White of Carpentaria (Lond, no date)
  • J. O. Feetham and W. V. Rymer (eds), North Queensland Jubilee Book 1878-1928 (Townsville, 1929)
  • Australian Board of Missions Review, 1 Nov 1932, 1 May 1933
  • Journal of Religious History, 2, no 3, 1963
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Apr 1933
  • Times (London), 3, 6 Apr 1933
  • Church Standard, 7 Apr 1933.

Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'White, Gilbert (1859–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-gilbert-9072/text15991, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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