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Wollaston, John Ramsden (1791–1856)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Ramsden Wollaston (1791-1856), Anglican archdeacon, was born on 28 March 1791 in London. He was educated at Charterhouse, where his father, Edward Wollaston, was a master and his maternal grandfather headmaster, and at Christ's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1812; M.A., 1815). He took holy orders and in May 1819 married Mary Amelia, youngest daughter of Colonel George Gledstones; they had five sons and two daughters. Finding the income from his cure of West Wickham, Cambridgeshire, insufficient for his growing family, he applied in 1840 for the position of chaplain to the Western Australian Land Co.'s proposed settlement at Australind on Port Leschenault. The company let it be known in its advance publicity that Wollaston's services would be available to the settlement, but gave him no appointment, and it was eventually the British government that assured him of an official stipend if he went to Western Australia.

Wollaston arrived at Fremantle in April 1841, at a time of considerable financial stringency. He bought land at Picton, between Australind and Bunbury, and began to build a chapel on his land. He expected the annual subsidy that Governor John Hutt had introduced in an ordinance to encourage the building of churches and the payment of stipends, but he was allowed no government aid until his church was opened for divine service. The small wooden church with a thatched roof (later replaced by shingles) was designed by Wollaston and finished by him and his sons. Consecrated on 18 December 1842, it was still standing in 1966, the oldest church but one in Western Australia.

Such enterprise was remarkable in a newly arrived clergyman, no longer young and not by temperament readily adaptable to the change from English village life to a pioneering society. It contrasted with the apathy and neglect which had tended to characterize the Anglican community under John Wittenoom's well-meaning but unenterprising guidance. Stimulated by the activity of Roman Catholics and Nonconformists, Wollaston soon took the initiative in revivifying the organization of the colony's Church of England. In February 1842 he convened a conference of the colony's five clergy at Perth, where the church's problems were assessed and a statement drawn up urging Bishop William Grant Broughton to visit Western Australia and set matters in order. The sequel was discouraging; Broughton could not come and Wittenoom failed to respond to Wollaston's suggestion that clergy conferences should become annual. Moreover, Wollaston's congregation was declining after the failure of the Australind scheme. But his continued labours as a parish priest earned him the name of a 'worthy, laborious, energetic, excellent missionary'.

Wollaston's opportunity came in 1848: a new and more sympathetic governor, Charles Fitzgerald, transferred him to the parish of St John's, Albany, and the colony was visited by Bishop Augustus Short and Archdeacon Mathew Hale of the new diocese of Adelaide. Impressed by Wollaston's qualities, Short appointed him archdeacon of Western Australia early in 1849, an office which he discharged ably and zealously until his death. During these years Wollaston covered many hundreds of miles on horseback in the course of duties which included five visitations throughout the settled areas of the colony. Growth in population and after 1850 the transportation of convicts increased the church's responsibilities, especially as the Anglican clergy had to serve many Nonconformists without ministers of their own. Through his own efficiency and the good relations he developed with the government, Wollaston successfully met this situation. During his time the number of Anglican clergy increased from five to ten, and the regularity of services in the colony's major centres improved greatly. Although an earlier Aboriginal mission in 1835 had failed, Wollaston established another Anglican mission to Western Australian Aboriginals at Albany in 1851. The temporal affairs of the church were regulated by the passing in 1853 of an Act drafted by Wollaston, providing for the management of each church by trustees elected by the parishioners, and assuring each incumbent a dwelling place, garden and glebe.

Wollaston was not personally ambitious and would willingly have resigned in favour of an archdeacon based on Perth, but his ultimate aim was the establishment of a bishopric in Western Australia. Soon after his arrival in the colony he encouraged a movement among settlers to set aside gifts of land for the endowment of a see. The scheme had little success until it came under his oversight as archdeacon; 1300 acres (526 ha) had been subscribed by 1856. Meanwhile in 1854 arrangements were begun for founding a diocese at Perth with Archdeacon Hale as first bishop. But before the necessary formalities were completed Wollaston died at Albany on 3 May 1856, soon after returning from his fifth pastoral visitation.

Diffident, pessimistic, and often censorious of his colleagues, Wollaston yet proved outstandingly effective in strengthening the framework of the infant church in Western Australia. His journals reveal not merely an observant commentator on colonial manners and character, but a man whose qualities of humility, common sense and devoted perseverance enabled him to give purpose and order to a very isolated branch of the Anglican communion. The Church of England in Western Australia in 1957 commemorated his name in a theological college.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Burton, Church Beginnings in the West (Perth, 1941)
  • A. Burton and P. U. Henn (eds), Wollaston's Picton Journal (Perth, 1948)
  • C. L. M. Hawtry, The Availing Struggle (Perth, 1949)
  • P. U. Henn (ed), Wollaston's Albany Journals (Perth, 1954).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Wollaston, John Ramsden (1791–1856)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wollaston-john-ramsden-2811/text4023, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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