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Robert Cartwright (1771–1856)

by K. J. Cable

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Robert Cartwright (1771-1856), Church of England clergyman, was born in December 1771, a son of Thomas Cartwright, gentleman, of Wellington, Shropshire, England. His mother was related to the Powis family of Powys Castle and other prominent border families. Cartwright travelled in eastern Europe before marrying Mary Boardman in 1796. Ordained deacon in 1806 he was curate at Bradford, a vigorous Evangelical centre. There, 'he and his family resided in a very comfortable manner and [were] much respected by the principal Inhabitants'. In 1802 Cartwright matriculated at Oxford and enrolled at St Edmund Hall but did not proceed to a degree. In 1808 when Samuel Marsden visited Bradford and represented the need for chaplains in New South Wales, Cartwright with some reluctance consented to go out. He was commissioned on 5 January 1809, became a priest in March, and sailed with his wife and six children in the convict transport Anne in August, arriving in Sydney with Marsden on 27 February 1810.

Cartwright, on a salary of £240, was appointed to the Hawkesbury; on 2 December Governor Lachlan Macquarie, laying out townships in the region, 'attended Divine Service … at the temporary church at the Green Hills, where the Revd. Mr Robert Cartwright, the Chaplain of this district, gave us a most excellent discourse and read prayers extremely well indeed'. The new town of Windsor then became the centre of Cartwright's extensive chaplaincy. He was an energetic and popular minister. He avoided public controversy, held aloof from official disputes and only with reluctance accepted a magistracy; but he had to give an opinion on Jeffery Hart Bent's imprisoning of William Broughton and on Sunday musters, and agreed with Macquarie on both occasions. Unfortunately he found his work hampered by inadequate church and parsonage facilities and began to get into financial difficulties. In 1818, owing to the shortage of clergy, Macquarie had refused him permission to go to England after his wife had had to return, but in 1819, before the new church of St Matthew at Windsor was completed, he was transferred to Liverpool 'at his own particular and earnest request.'

His interests were not solely parochial. He accompanied Macquarie to the 'New Country' in October 1820 and preached the first sermon near Lake Bathurst, 'strongly impressing the justice, good policy, and expediency of civilizing the aborigines … and settling them in townships'. Already, Cartwright had shown his concern for the Aboriginals' welfare when he had advocated their settlement in a special township, with allotments for the adults, and workshops and schools for the children. This elaborate plan, even in a poetic version, gained only a polite reception from the government, but he had enunciated some important principles of Aboriginal welfare policy. He hoped to become the settlement's chaplain and requested that his place at Liverpool be taken by his eldest son James, who was then at Cambridge but later became minister of the Jewish Episcopal Church, Bethnal Green. Meanwhile Cartwright's financial embarrassment continued and in January 1821 he sought relief from Earl Bathurst, who in September 1824 raised his salary to £300 and ordered that he be repaid for some past expenses. In 1825 Cartwright was induced to add to his duties the mastership of the Male Orphan School. In his four years of office he greatly improved the school and won the commendation of Archdeacon Thomas Scott.

Late in 1836 Cartwright left Liverpool to become incumbent of St James's, Sydney. His health and experience did not fit him well for a church which was the bishop's temporary cathedral and the place of worship for many important people, and his tenure was undistinguished. He had intended to return to England at the end of it, but in March 1838 secured instead a licence for the southern districts generally. Here he began a remarkable ministry in an extended and sparsely-populated area, carrying out a task for which his evangelistic talents admirably equipped him. At first his chief centre was Yass, but later he lived at Arkstone Forest near Burrowa, and then at Collector where he built a church on his own land. Here he made his headquarters; the area developed into the parishes of Queanbeyan, Yass, Canberra, Tumut and Albury in his lifetime and a number of others soon afterwards. In 1855, when Bishop Frederic Barker confirmed one of Cartwright's flock who had once been a noted bushranger, Mrs Barker found Cartwright 'a venerable, apostolic man aged eighty-six … He has stood up for Evangelical truth amid many adverse elements … The only sign of age he shows is being very deaf, but he is as shrewd and clear in mind as ever he was'.

His first wife, by whom he had eleven children, had died in 1835 and was buried at Liverpool. He died on 14 December 1856 at Goulburn, and was buried near his former church at Liverpool, survived by his second wife, Isabella Waddell of Collector.

Cartwright won the good opinion of his contemporaries throughout his long and active life. He retained a simple Evangelical faith, with a strong humanitarian and missionary sense. Since he avoided secular commitments and ecclesiastical controversies, he played little part in public affairs. To him there seemed more important work to be done.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 10-12
  • R. T. Wyatt, The History of the Diocese of Goulburn (Syd, 1937)
  • K. J. Cable, ‘St James' Church, King Street, Sydney’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 50, part 4, Oct 1964, pp 241-61, vol 50, part 5, Nov 1964, pp 346-74 and vol 50, part 6, Dec 1964, pp 433-52
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Dec 1856.

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Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Cartwright, Robert (1771–1856)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 26 May 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

Robert Cartwright, n.d.

Robert Cartwright, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, ML30

Life Summary [details]


December, 1771


14 December, 1856 (aged ~ 85)
Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

general debility

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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.

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