This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967
Robert William Willson (1794-1866), Catholic bishop, was born in Lincoln, England, the third son of William James Willson, builder, and his wife Clarissa, née Tenney. Of this marriage were born one daughter and five other sons, of whom Edward won distinction as an architect (Gentleman's Magazine, March 1855). Robert William, after some years at school, was placed at his own wish on a farm in Nottinghamshire, where he acquired habits of industry and a good knowledge of men and their ways. His experiences were of benefit in later pastoral visits to isolated stations in Van Diemen's Land.
In 1816 he went to Oscott College to study for the priesthood. Ordained on 16 December 1824, he went to Nottingham where he was pastor for eighteen years. His stay was marked by the building of two new churches, one, St Barnabas, later becoming the city cathedral, and by his notable work among prisoners and the insane. Not content with leading a movement to provide an asylum for mental patients, he got a licence to take some of them into his own home. Public and private tribute was paid to his work, one typical message recording: 'That the best thanks of the visiting governors of Nottingham Asylum be communicated to the Rev. R. W. Willson for his long continued and zealous services in behalf of this institution and his benevolent attention to its afflicted inmates'.
In 1842 Hobart Town was created a diocese separate from New South Wales. Willson was chosen as its chief pastor and consecrated at Birmingham on 28 October. With four missionaries chosen in England he arrived on 11 May 1844 to find two priests already in the island, churches at Richmond, Hobart and Launceston, and himself the ruler of a kingdom within a kingdom: a penal department and a body of free settlers. For the first ten years he gave his personal services almost exclusively to the penal abodes.
At this time the convict population was growing rapidly in Van Diemen's Land because other Australian colonies were closed to transported offenders. The bishop found as many as thirty-five stations used as temporary prisons for men sentenced to labour on public works. Norfolk Island, then administered from Hobart, and Port Arthur were set aside for those held in closer custody. For this section of his flock the bishop had to provide chaplains until 1853 when transportation ceased. While mindful of his spiritual mission he worked to improve social conditions, always advocating reform as the aim of penal discipline. In May 1846 Bishop Willson saw Norfolk Island for the first time. What he discovered had to be exposed, so he travelled to London at his own expense. Before a committee of the House of Lords he told a tragic story to men who, for the first time, came to realize the enormity of atrocities perpetrated under the British flag. Many of the evils were promptly remedied as a result of the prelate's intervention. To verify the reforms he visited Norfolk Island again in 1849. A marvellous change had taken place, but this time his suggestions for further improvements were ignored by officials, and Norfolk Island soon reached the lowest depths of its unsavoury history. When this news reached the bishop in March 1852 he promptly revisited the island. On his return he wrote to Bishop Charles Davis: 'I am making a vigorous effort by letter of forty-eight pages to induce Her Majesty's Government to abandon Norfolk Island as soon as possible. They cannot resist the facts laid before them. I will not rest until it be done'. Convinced by the bishop's letter, Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison joined him in the appeals to the British government that helped to close the island prison in 1855.
In England the Nottingham priest had been a recognized leader in advocating humane treatment for the insane; in Tasmania he was a pioneer. Before his arrival a hospital for the insane had been set up at New Norfolk, its inmates mostly drawn from isolation cells at Port Arthur and Norfolk Island. When responsible government was granted in 1855 Willson joined the board of management. He pleaded, wrote and agitated without respite for a modern hospital in cheerful surroundings. He had chaplains appointed and secured useful reforms, although some of his suggestions had to wait until the training of social workers was recognized. The bishop's influence was soon felt far beyond his own diocese. Asked to inspect the proposed site of an asylum in Melbourne, he condemned it strongly. He urged the government to use extreme care in choosing a proper site, where with adequate comfort and humane treatment even the most desperate case might find relief. In New South Wales the Legislative Council ordered the printing of a long letter from Bishop Willson on conditions at Tarban Creek asylum. His services won attention from the Journal of Mental Science, 1863. He even urged Rome to introduce up-to-date methods in their houses of detention.
Bishop Willson's activity was not limited to social reform. As in other pioneer missions, his principal work was the building up of the church in a free community. Progress was impeded for some years by a sordid dispute with Father John Joseph Therry over debts incurred before his appointment. The bishop was blamed for not settling the matter more speedily but in the end his terms had to be accepted by Therry. One urgent need was a division of his diocese into parishes with pastors in charge. The church had land grants in many centres, but small congregations were depressed by heavy debt. When the time came to say farewell to Tasmania, however, the bishop could rejoice that he was leaving to his successors a splendid cathedral, nineteen priests with their churches, four young men preparing for the ministry, several schools, and about 20,000 Catholics. In ill health the bishop left for England, prepared to resign his office. On board ship an attack of paralysis gave notice that the end was not far off. His last days were spent among friends at Nottingham, where he died on 30 June 1866. His tomb is in the Cathedral of St Barnabas.
Throughout his ministry Bishop Willson was deeply revered. In one of many letters to the Nottingham priest, Daniel O'Connell wrote: 'neither I nor Mrs O'Connell can find words to express our esteem or affectionate admiration of your gentle and most assiduous kindness. God, whose anointed priest you are, formed you with that clearness of intellect unobscured and unsubdued by all the more kindly elements of individual and general charity and practical benevolence which, almost without your knowing it, constitute your moral and social character and compel all (even those who most differ from you on the matters of the most awful importance) to respect and cherish the man'. A verdict on his later life was given by Thomas Arnold, who, as inspector of Tasmanian schools, knew him well: 'Bishop Willson … was a man whom it was impossible to know and not to love'. With the clergy, the people and the government he always maintained the most cordial relations. He avoided sectional controversies which were a marked feature of his period. A display of temper was so rare as to cause surprise. Dr William Ullathorne summed up his character thus: 'He was just in his thoughts, just in his judgements, and just in his actions: to which must be added an unaffected humility united with an elevated sense of what is honourable'.
John H. Cullen, 'Willson, Robert William (1794–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/willson-robert-william-2800/text3995, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 March 2017.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967