Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Henry Cann (1857–1942)

by Neville Hicks and Elisabeth Leopold

This article was published:

William Henry Cann (1857-1942), Methodist minister, was born on 4 May 1857 at Huckworthy, Sampford Spiney near Horrabridge, Devonshire, England, second of ten children of John Cann, farm labourer and miner, and his wife Sophia, née Down. When he was 7, the family moved to Cramlington, Northumberland, where William and his father belonged to the Bible Christian congregation. At 10 he began work in the coal mines at Shankhouse colliery, but following his conversion at 16 he became a local preacher and class leader with 'scores of conversions'; he attended the Bible Christians' Shebbear College, North Devon, in 1878. He began his ministry at Southampton in 1879 and was subsequently appointed to Lee in London, Portsmouth and Yarmouth. In 1878 his family had migrated to America, where Cann's mother was anxious for him to join them. He handed in his resignation as minister at Portsmouth but was persuaded to withdraw it. On 7 August 1884 at York Town, Surrey, he married Mary Plowright Booth de Peare, an organist, and, having been influenced by Rev. James Rowe, migrated to South Australia, arriving in November.

Cann's first ministry was at Port Adelaide. In 1887 his request for transfer to New Zealand, because of his wife's distress in the Adelaide summer, was refused; however he was given a choice of circuit and in 1888 moved to Mount Torrens. He also ministered at Franklin Street, Adelaide (1890-94), Mount Lofty (1894-98), Goodwood (1898-1901) and, after Methodist union, at Quorn, Hindmarsh and Mount Gambier. He was president of the State Bible Christian Conference in 1897 and of the State Methodist Conference in 1912. In 1903 Cann was full-time organizing secretary of his Church's Twentieth Century Fund. His ability as a fund-raiser had become apparent in each of the churches where he had been minister: he had paid off existing debts or raised money for new buildings. His compelling personality was hard to resist and by 1904 he had raised almost £4000 for the fund.

Cann's appointment to the Adelaide Central Methodist Mission was probably in the hope that he would raise money for its development. When he arrived it was hamstrung by inadequate facilities and lack of finance; he remedied both these deficiencies. He was also interested in the work of other missions. When a breakdown in health forced him to take leave in 1915 he visited relatives in the United States of America and observed city church programmes there. Cann recognized that Adelaide's population was changing and the mission's activities were broadened and expanded to attract suburban dwellers. He also raised funds for a young men's hostel and for the Methodist Children's Children's Home at Magill.

Cann was an evangelist and his ministry was characterized by its intensity of purpose. This no doubt accounted for the financial support which he attracted from the well-to-do, but that very support precluded him from attacking the economic conditions which produced human need and suffering in the inner city. Further, he was not free to follow the principles of charity organization which were emerging in relief work elsewhere. In 1929 he retired and lived for a while at the Magill children's home. He died on 9 December 1942 at Henley Beach and was buried in Dudley Park cemetery. Predeceased by his wife, he was survived by a son and a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Hunt (ed), Methodist Ministerial Index for Australasia (Melb, 1914)
  • Sister Dora (F. S. George), Rev. W. H. Cann (Adel, 1943)
  • Australian Christian Commonwealth, 1 Nov 1929
  • South Australian Methodist, 8 Jan 1943
  • N. Hicks, The Establishment of a Central Methodist Mission in Adelaide (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1966)
  • PRG 192 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Neville Hicks and Elisabeth Leopold, 'Cann, William Henry (1857–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 19 July 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]


4 May, 1857
Huckworthy, Devon, England


9 December, 1942 (aged 85)
Henley Beach, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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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.