Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William John Bussell (1854–1936)

by T. T. Reed

This article was published:

William John Bussell (1854-1936), Anglican clergyman, was born on 23 August 1854 at Reinscourt, Western Australia, eldest child of Joseph Vernon Bussell, pioneer, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Phillips. As a youth, Bussell's father, with his brothers John, Alfred and Charles, had taken up land at Augusta in 1830 and on his premature death in 1860 his wife returned to Adelaide. Here Bussell was educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter in 1866-73, remaining for a further three years as assistant to the headmaster Dr G. H. Farr while preparing for holy orders. He was ordained deacon in 1877 and priest in 1879 and, after a curacy at Mount Gambier, was successively mission curate in the south-east until 1880; incumbent of Strathalbyn, Meadows and Macclesfield in 1880-95 with responsibility for the mission district from 1888; and priest-in-charge of the River Murray mission in 1894-1912. He was organizing chaplain of the Bishop's Home Mission Society in 1903-23; canon of Adelaide in 1906 until his retirement in 1933; archdeacon of the Broughton from 1903 and chaplain of hospitals from 1925.

Essentially a missionary priest, Bussell did his most notable work in ministering to the River Murray settlers from 1891, when the Home Mission Society purchased the steam launch Etona. He travelled on it from Goolwa to the Victorian border, providing pastoral care for stations, farms, and camps of woodcutters and fishermen; from 1893 he also ministered to participants in a group-settlement scheme optimistically established by the government to alleviate unemployment—these settlers, untrained for rural life and almost penniless, suffered great hardship.

Except for the years 1892-93 spent at Strathalbyn, Bussell worked continually for the River Murray mission until it closed in 1913, bringing both spiritual ministration and material help and receiving in return wood for the launch's engines and occasionally vegetables and fish. By 1897 the launch, which two years later was replaced by a paddle-steamer with a chapel and deck-accommodation, was travelling 1000 miles (1609 km) every six weeks, calling at some forty places, including the Aboriginal settlement at Point McLeay. Bussell shared the work with his engineer, John McLellan: he steered and cooked, McLellan stoked and tended the engine; both loaded tons of wood. Outlying places, away from the river, were visited in borrowed buggies, on horseback, by bicycle or on foot, and services were held in widely assorted premises.

Although a staunch churchman, Bussell's sympathies extended to all movements designed to benefit the community. President of the Aborigines Friends' Association, he was an early member of the Advisory Council of Aborigines; he also belonged to the Adelaide City Mission and the Adelaide Benevolent and Strangers' Friend Society.

Of medium height and with a strong physique, Bussell had organizing ability, great resource, and remarkable patience; he was widely read and a fluent preacher. It was, however, his transparent goodness, warm-hearted generosity and quiet unassuming manner, combined with a willingness to share their hardships, that won him the enduring friendship of the settlers. On 13 July 1909 in Adelaide he married Susan, sister of J. R. Harmer, third bishop of Adelaide; they had no children. Bussell died on 6 June 1936 at North Adelaide and was buried in North Road cemetery, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 2 (1909)
  • G. H. Jose, The Church of England in South Australia, vol 3 (Adel, 1955)
  • Church of England, Diocese of Adelaide and Willochra Year Book, 1935-36
  • Adelaide Church Guardian, 1 July 1936
  • Inquirer and Commercial News, 19 Sept 1860
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 June 1936.

Citation details

T. T. Reed, 'Bussell, William John (1854–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 August, 1854
Reinscourt, Western Australia, Australia


6 June, 1936 (aged 81)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.