Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Bedford (c. 1781–1852)

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William Bedford (1781?-1852), Church of England clergyman, was reputed to have been a staymaker patronized by Mrs Fry, who interested him in prison work. He was made an ordinary at Newgate, and assisted in several parishes in the East End of London. In August 1821 he was ordained priest by the bishop of London and next June was appointed assistant military chaplain for Van Diemen's Land. He sailed in July with his wife Eleanor Martha, née Pickett (Pickard), two sons and one daughter, reaching Sydney in the Countess of Harcourt in December and Hobart Town in the Caledonia in January 1823. He replaced Rev. Robert Knopwood as minister at St David's Church. As senior chaplain his duties required much travel. He made at least one annual trip into the inland districts, was chiefly responsible for creating all the Anglican congregations in the colony and supported the subscriptions for building most of the churches in the south. For nearly thirty years he conducted weekly services and prayers at St David's, the gaol and the prisoners' barracks, without permanent help for most of the time. He maintained a lively interest in prisoners and gave much time to condemned men, earning Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur's praises for his sincerity and devotion.

Soon after arrival Bedford took on the additional duties of superintendent of schools; in 1830 he was appointed to the committee of the King's Orphan Schools, as colonial chaplain he had a seat on the Legislative Council, and in 1831 he became a justice of the peace. On the arrival of Rev. Philip Palmer as rural dean in June 1833, Bedford lost his position as colonial head of the church and his seat in the Legislative Council. A succession of disagreements between the two clergymen followed, chiefly through Bedford's hurt pride. He delayed sending his registers to Palmer and answering his letters. He also carried false rumours, affecting Palmer's clerical conduct, to the governor. On discovering this perfidy Arthur lost confidence in Bedford whose well-known pecuniary embarrassment suggested dishonesty, and robbed him of popularity and weakened his ministry. In 1836 when the returns of Bedford's visits to Hobart schools were shown to be falsified, he was ordered to answer for them to the Executive Council. His refusal to appear was upheld by Bishop William Broughton who saw the order as a threat to his ecclesiastical authority. The crisis was resolved by Palmer's denial of the charge against Bedford.

The arrival of Bishop Francis Nixon in 1842 stirred Bedford to fresh rebellion. Three times he refused to present his commission to the bishop for inspection and until the bishop issued an ultimatum he resisted Nixon's right to use St David's for Lent lectures, although it was the cathedral of the episcopal see. He joined the opposition to Nixon in the ritualist controversy in 1851 but ill health prevented his taking a very active part. In 1843 the honorary degree of doctor of divinity was conferred on him by the archbishop of Canterbury, after an honorary M.A. had been refused. In 1848 Bedford was granted six months sick leave. On his return he published a selection of psalms and hymns for general use in the churches. He continued his duties at St David's until eight weeks before his death on 2 December 1852.

Both Bedford's sons settled in Tasmania. The elder, William, was superintendent of schools in 1825, before he left to study at Cambridge; on his return in 1832 he was ordained and took a living at Campbell Town. Edward, the younger, also studied in England and returned in 1833; as an assistant colonial surgeon he was responsible for building St Mary's Hospital in Davey Street, Hobart. Eleanor, the only daughter, became the second wife of Sir Alfred Stephen.

Bedford's combative nature, self-confidence and uncertain principles had involved him in many controversies in his long colonial service. He was dubbed 'Holy Willie' by the prisoners, a liar, mischief-maker and back-biter by the diarist George Boyes, headstrong, indiscreet and vain by the bishop, but his devotion to the cause of religion in the colony was sincere.

Select Bibliography

  • K. R. von Stieglitz, Edward Markham's Voyage to Van Diemen's Land 1833 (Launceston, 1953)
  • correspondence file under Bedford (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • Bedford papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

'Bedford, William (c. 1781–1852)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Bedford, 1830

William Bedford, 1830

Archives Office of Tasmania, PH30-1-712

Life Summary [details]


c. 1781


2 December, 1852 (aged ~ 71)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cause of Death


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