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Wood, Alfred Harold (1896–1989)

by Ian Breward

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

Alfred Harold Wood (1896-1989), clergyman, headmaster and author, was born on 4 May 1896 at Geelong, Victoria, eldest of three children of English-born Alfred Wood and his Victorian-born wife Janet, née Wemyss, both Salvation Army officers. The Army’s ethos was a lifelong influence on Harold. Gifted with a retentive memory and musical ability, he read voraciously, and in 1910 was awarded a scholarship to Sydney Boys’ High School. He won a medal in English history in the junior public examination in 1912. When ill health forced his father to resign, Harold became the family breadwinner. After holding some business posts, he joined the Crown Solicitor’s Office in 1914. In the evening, he studied arts and law at the University of Sydney (BA, 1919).

In 1915 Wood joined the Methodist Church at Hurlstone Park. To test his call to ministry, he went to the Pymble circuit as an assistant to the minister in 1919. He was admitted to Leigh College in 1920. His evangelistic preaching, pastoral energy and community service were long remembered at Peak Hill, where he was sent to fill a vacancy in 1921. He continued his studies, at the Melbourne College of Divinity (BD, 1923; DD, 1948) and the University of Sydney (MA, 1923). Ordained on 6 March 1924, he was appointed head of Tupou College at Nafualu, near Nuku’alofa, Tonga. On 5 April 1924 at Pymble Methodist Church he married Olive Kelynack O’Reilly (d.1976), a medical practitioner. Her calm temperament and wise judgement balanced his impulsiveness and somewhat authoritarian style; her support was to be indispensable in his ministry and his educational career.

In addition to building a successful school at Nafualu, Wood travelled widely, preaching, inspecting church schools, judging choirs and sharing in church administration. He re-established a church newspaper, developed a theological college, and in 1928 and 1933 led two successful school choir tours to Australia. Olive’s poor health and the educational needs of their older children led to their return to Australia in 1937, to the Concord circuit in New South Wales.

Then came an unexpected invitation to become principal of Methodist Ladies’ College, Melbourne. Encouraged by his wife, Wood took up the position in 1939. He inherited dedicated staff, a major building program and an able executive. Olive became honorary deputy principal. They were a formidable team, widening the career horizons of pupils, raising academic standards, enhancing the curriculum and expanding the roll, which had reached 2240 pupils by the time they both retired in 1966. While developing new emphases, Wood never wavered in his conviction that the school should develop the girls’ spiritual and moral commitment. Rejoicing in the quality of music at his school, he loved conducting large choirs elsewhere.

In addition to fulfilling his educational duties, Wood preached in different parts of Victoria on Sundays, often returning home in the small hours and resuming school duties. He spoke monthly for Methodists on Yarra Bank from 1951 to 1964. Accepting only a ministerial stipend, he was at his retirement the lowest paid member of staff. The president of the Victoria and Tasmania Methodist Conference in 1952, he was president-general of the General Conference of the Methodist Church of Australasia in 1957-60. He sat on many conference and educational committees, devoting more than twenty years' service to church union and overseas missions committees. One of the most gifted Methodist advocates for the union of the Methodist, Congregational and Presbyterian denominations, he published his doctoral thesis, Church Unity without Uniformity, in 1963. His role in bringing about unification was recognised by an invitation to offer a prayer for the Uniting Church in Australia at its inauguration on 22 June 1977.

A regular contributor to the Methodist weekly, the Spectator, Wood pleaded for more recognition of the heritage of John and Charles Wesley. He was a passionate advocate for international peace and reconciliation, frequently earning headlines for his criticisms of atomic weapons testing and the follies of international and national leaders. Ministering in retirement at St Paul’s, Deepdene, from 1967 to 1977, he still preached widely. From 1968 he chaired the committee that in 1977 produced The Australian Hymn Book. On 23 April 1977 at Deepdene Methodist Church he married Dora Louie Walker, who had once been his secretary at MLC. Between 1975 and 1987, despite failing sight, he published a five–volume work, Overseas Missions of the Australian Methodist Church (vol. 5 with Margaret Reeson). Among his other publications were A History and Geography of Tonga (1932) and Famous Hymn-Writers and Their Hymns (1985).

Intensely disciplined, frugal and gifted with an iron constitution, Wood achieved national stature and profoundly influenced many pupils. He embodied much that was best in Methodism and upheld its high standards of personal and community morality, its passion for evangelism and its concern for social justice. His portrait, painted by (Sir) William Dargie in 1953, hangs at Methodist Ladies’ College. It captures a kindly face, alert eyes and a strong build. Survived by his wife and the four daughters and two sons of his first marriage, he died on 27 August 1989 at Canterbury, Victoria, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Breward, A Notable Methodist (2006)
  • A6119, item 490 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Methodist Overseas Missions papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Wood papers (Uniting Church in Australia Archives, Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ian Breward, 'Wood, Alfred Harold (1896–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wood-alfred-harold-15624/text26824, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 August 2019.

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

View the front pages for Volume 18

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