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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Chalmers, William (1833–1901)

by B. R. Marshall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

William Chalmers (1833-1901), by unknown engraver

William Chalmers (1833-1901), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/07/92/6

William Chalmers (1833-1901), Anglican bishop, was born in London, son of William and Mary Chalmers of Forfarshire, Scotland. He attended the University of St Andrews, intending to study for the ministry of the Church of Scotland, but abandoned this project and left without taking a degree. He was confirmed into the Church of England while teaching at a grammar school near Twickenham and in 1855 entered St Augustine's Missionary College at Canterbury. He was accepted by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel for service in Borneo, made deacon by the bishop of Labuan and Sarawak on Easter Day 1858 and priested the next year. He had an important part in translating portions of scripture into Dyak, but had to leave Borneo for health reasons in 1862. Bishop Charles Perry offered him work in Victoria, where he was vicar of Inglewood in 1862-68, Malmsbury and Taradale in 1868-70, Kyneton in 1870-78, St Paul's, Geelong in 1878-89 and Brighton in 1889-92. He became a canon of St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, in 1879. On 25 September 1866 he had married Henrietta Rich, only daughter of G. N. Francis, of Tarnagulla, Victoria; they had no children.

In a diocese which in Perry's time was predominantly Evangelical Chalmers won repute for 'sound' churchmanship because of his teaching of the Christian year, weekly celebrations of the Holy Communion, careful preparation of confirmation candidates and his preference for the daring 'Hymns Ancient and Modern'. His vintage years in the Melbourne diocese were the eleven he spent in Geelong, where he took much initiative in Christian education, and education generally; he lectured in humanities at the newly-founded Gordon Technical School. He was encouraged by Bishop James Moorhouse to negotiate with the authorities of Trinity College, Toronto, to award degrees in divinity by correspondence, and he himself was the first graduate under the short-lived scheme. The General Synod of 1886, on Chalmers' motion, passed a resolution appointing a committee to consider the whole question of the education of the clergy which led directly to the establishment of the Australian College of Theology in 1891.

Chalmers was always much in demand for committees, and in 1890 he was elected to the board of patronage of parishes and furthered its conservative aim to safeguard the principle of seniority. In 1891 he piloted the church extension bill through the Church Assembly; it produced some economy-style churches in the outer suburbs and enhanced his reputation as an administrator and financier. His taste for controversy led him into a dispute with Bishop Moorhouse and Thomas Turner à Beckett about the admission of Rev. Dr Charles Strong to the pulpit of St Paul's Church. In 1890 he was also on the committee of inquiry into the affairs of Trinity College, Melbourne, after thirty-nine young men had ceremoniously departed from it in thirty-nine hansom cabs.

Chalmers was elected bishop of Goulburn on 9 June 1892 and consecrated there on 1 November. He came to a turbulent and difficult diocese. Once he had solved the legal problem of his election to the bishopric instead of appointment like his predecessor, Mesac Thomas, by letters patent, he set about a policy of pacification and reform. The overriding task was to settle the legal and personal disputes over St Saviour's Cathedral, which had provoked litigation, near schism and, thanks to Captain Francis Robert Rossi's antics, open scandal. Chalmers' Cathedral Ordinance in 1894 resolved most of the difficulties about the trustees and the status of the cathedral, although Rossi was not mollified. The bishop strengthened the council of the diocese and the diocesan registry and, under his firm presidency, the synod increased its legislative activity. As a proponent of education Chalmers worked hard at Goulburn to advance lay and clerical learning. His financial policy was less successful. Church funds had been seriously weakened by the depression of 1893 and were further reduced by defalcations of the solicitor responsible for diocesan investment. Chalmers' prudent management averted a crisis and made possible the advancement of the next decade. His trip to England in 1897 to attend the Lambeth Conference and Queen Victoria's Jubilee was also hopefully, though somewhat unavailingly, intended to raise funds for the Goulburn diocese. In 1898 he had become embroiled in controversy with Cardinal Patrick Moran over the alleged Marian excesses of Cardinal Vaughan of Westminster. In his last years he organized the Century Thanksgiving Fund which almost removed the cathedral debt. He died, aged 68, in Sydney on 13 November 1901 and was buried within the precincts of St Saviour's Cathedral, Goulburn.

Chalmers' episcopate was too brief, and its circumstances too troubled to show striking success. But the qualities of common-sense administration, pastoral care and tolerant churchmanship that he had exhibited in Victoria enabled him to leave the Goulburn diocese in a better condition, and in a better temper, than he had found it.

Select Bibliography

  • W. C. Pritchard, A Memoir of Bishop Chalmers (Melb, 1904)
  • R. T. Wyatt, The History of the Diocese of Goulburn (Syd, 1937)
  • G. J. Apsey, St Paul's Church, Geelong: Historical Survey, 1854-1954 (Geelong, 1954)
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 15 June 1892
  • Church of England, Goulburn, Monthly Paper, memorial no, 2 Dec 1901.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. R. Marshall, 'Chalmers, William (1833–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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