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George Clarke (1823–1913)

by Sally O'Neill

This article was published:

George Clarke (1823-1913), by unknown photographer, 1900s

George Clarke (1823-1913), by unknown photographer, 1900s

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125882803

George Clarke (1823-1913), Congregational minister and educationist, was born on 29 June 1823 at Parramatta, son of George Clarke of Wymondham, Norfolk, England, and his wife Martha, née Blomfield. His father, a gunsmith turned missionary teacher, was assigned to New Zealand by the Church Missionary Society in 1822, arrived at Hobart Town with his wife in the Heroine in September, and went on to Sydney. While they were there waiting for a ship to New Zealand, George junior was born. In 1824 the family sailed to New Zealand and settled at Kerikeri. At 9 George was sent to Hobart, where he lived with Henry Hopkins, a Congregationalist merchant, and attended Robert Giblin's academy for boys at New Town. He returned to New Zealand in 1836 and was tutored by William Williams B.A. (Oxon), later bishop of Waiapu. In 1839 Williams left to form a new station at Poverty Bay and George went with him, reading Latin and Greek, and while travelling among the Maori tribes learned much of their language, customs and law.

In 1840 his father was appointed chief protector of the Maoris and next year George joined the same department as a clerk. He soon won repute for clarity and care and in 1842 was chosen to interpret at the first criminal sessions of the Supreme Court and then to assist Commissioner William Spain on the inquiry into the New Zealand Co.'s land claims, first as interpreter and later as Maori advocate and protector. In 1844 he acted for the Maoris in the purchase of what is now Dunedin, and took part in negotiations between the government and the friendly chiefs during the Hone Heke war; later in the war he was Governor Sir George Grey's interpreter.

Despite prospects of a rewarding career in the civil service, Clarke resigned in 1846 to realize a long-held ambition to join the ministry. Although qualified for his position as interpreter he was not happy in it. His activities on behalf of the Maoris earned him the intense dislike of the New Zealand Co. and in many ways he clashed with Grey; like his father he was suspected by non-missionary groups. After resigning, George went to Hobart, and thence to London early in 1848 where he entered Highbury College. In 1851 he was ordained at the Union Chapel, Islington, and returned to Hobart to become minister of the Congregational Church in Collins Street, later moved to Davey Street. His ministry there of fifty-two years was broken only by travel in England and Palestine in 1874-78. Not so adventurously employed in later years he nevertheless played an important role in Hobart society, particularly through his moral and intellectual influence on young people, many of them teachers in his well-attended Sunday schools and active in public affairs. 'His views', wrote James Backhouse Walker 'were liberal, though evangelical in form. They softened all the dogmatism of the evangelical creed and rationalised it to a very considerable degree. His teaching was just what was necessary to lead me without too great a shock to wider views of God and religion'. Others in the circle influenced by Clarke were William Giblin, Charles Walch, Sir Philip Fysh and Henry Dobson.

Though absent-minded in personal habits, he was able and practical in public affairs, most notably in education. He was one of the most persuasive spokesmen for secular public education in the early 1870s, writing mainly for the Tasmanian Independent but also publishing letters in the Mercury. In 1878 he joined the Tasmanian Council of Education and was its president and chief examiner in 1880-81. When the university was instituted in 1890 he became its first vice-chancellor, and was chancellor in 1898-1907. He was long a member of the Royal Society of Tasmania and a promoter of the Hobart Debating and Literary Association. Over a dozen of his sermons and addresses were published in Hobart between 1854 and 1899. His other works included a pamphlet, Objections to the Policy of Perpetuating State Aid to Religion (1867), a biographical preface to J. B. Walker's Early Tasmania (1902) and his personal reminiscences, Notes on Early Life in New Zealand (1903). He died on 10 March 1913 in Hobart, seven months before his wife Martha Clarke, daughter of Henry Hopkins; they had married on 16 January 1853. Of their eight children, two sons and four daughters survived them. A liberal churchman, outstanding in Tasmania, he was loved and respected for his common sense and patriarchal wisdom, as well as for his dedicated services to public education which he believed came under his pastoral care.

Select Bibliography

  • Congregational Union, Jubilee Volume of Victorian Congregationalism 1888 (Melb, 1889)
  • Congregational Year Book of Tasmania 1913
  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1860 (28)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 11 Mar 1913
  • B. R. Mee, The Reverend George Clarke (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Tasmania, 1965).

Citation details

Sally O'Neill, 'Clarke, George (1823–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Clarke (1823-1913), by unknown photographer, 1900s

George Clarke (1823-1913), by unknown photographer, 1900s

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125882803

Life Summary [details]


29 June, 1823
Parramatta, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


10 March, 1913 (aged 89)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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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.