Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William George Coughlan (1902–1979)

by Joan Mansfield

This article was published:

William George Coughlan (1902-1979), Anglican clergyman and social reformer, was born on 27 December 1902 at Armidale, New South Wales, son of native-born parents Benjamin Singleton Coughlan, draper, and his wife Minnie Maria, née Chapman. George was educated at Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1923) where he graduated with first-class honours in German. Although he intended to study law, he turned to the ministry while teaching at Trinity Grammar School, Summer Hill.

In 1926 Coughlan was made deacon and appointed curate at Dulwich Hill; next year he took first-class honours in the licentiate of theology and was ordained priest on 16 December. At St Matthew's Anglican Church, Bondi, on 11 February 1928 he married Norma Olive Bishop; they were to remain childless. In 1928-32 he ministered in turn at Bondi, Manly and Marrickville, and in 1934-43 at Holy Trinity, South Kensington (Kingsford from 1936); he also served as assistant-director of the board of education of the Sydney diocese. Beyond Sydney, he had ministered in the coal-mining district of Corrimal where, in 1932-34, he saw suffering caused by the Depression.

Widely read in British Christian social thought, Coughlan was influenced by (Archbishop) William Temple and the Malvern Conference of 1941, Gerald Studdert-Kennedy and the Industrial Christian Fellowship, and George Macleod and the Iona Community. As secretary of the Sydney diocesan social problem committee, as a memorialist in A Plea for Liberty (1938), as a member of the social questions committee of the general synod of Australia, as editor (1935-36) of the Church Times, as well as in the Christian Socialist Movement and the United Christian Peace Movement, Coughlan expressed his belief that the Church must be concerned with all aspects of life, social as well as personal.

During World War II he pressed for Church guidance of postwar reconstruction. When the social questions committee established the Christian Social Order Movement for this purpose, Coughlan was appointed its director in September 1943. He plunged into an ambitious programme to bring Christian influence to bear on all aspects of life—through local branches, public meetings and a wide range of contacts in the community, and also through pamphlets, press and radio, particularly the movement's radio programme and its journal, New Day. With his wife he travelled throughout Australia, helping to organize branches and encourage local initiatives, such as the Aboriginal Children's Aid Committee at Wellington, New South Wales, and the Christian Co-operative Credit Union in Brisbane. To maintain dialogue with communist sympathizers, he and Bishop George Cranswick joined the Australian-Russian Society, but resigned in 1948 in protest at perceived communist domination.

Within the C.S.O.M. the Coughlans pioneered marriage guidance counselling; in 1951-67 he was director of the Marriage Guidance Council of New South Wales. Coughlan developed it as an open, self-governing organization, subsidized by government, with non-judgemental, non-directive counselling. He campaigned for liberalizing divorce law and for the establishment of family courts. In 1969 he became president of the Abortion Law Reform Association.

Coughlan was appointed A.M. in 1976. A man of enormous energy and of keen mind, he was a voluble speaker and debater, and a capable and resourceful administrator; stimulating and provocative, persuasive and abrasive, he was to many a sympathetic counsellor of humanity and compassion. He died on 26 May 1979 at Castle Hill and was cremated; his wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Christian Social Order Movement (Sydney), New Day, Sept-Nov 1948, Dec 1950
  • People (Sydney), 16 July 1952
  • Marriage Guidance Council of New South Wales (Sydney), Annual Report, 1952, 1953, 1966-67, 1968-69
  • J. Mansfield, 'The Social Gospel and the Church of England in New South Wales in the 1930s', Journal of Religious History, 13, no 4, Dec 1985, p 411
  • J. Mansfield, 'The Christian Social Order Movement 1943-51', Journal of Religious History, 15, no 1, June 1988, p 109
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Apr 1928, 9 Feb 1937, 20 July 1938, 20, 24 Aug 1948, 29 Dec 1950, 17 Feb 1951, 6 Jan 1968, 26 Feb 1969, 28 May 1979
  • J. Mansfield, Social Attitudes in the Church of England in New South Wales, 1929-1951, with Special Reference to the Christian Social Order Movement (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1979).

Citation details

Joan Mansfield, 'Coughlan, William George (1902–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 December, 1902
Armidale, New South Wales, Australia


26 May, 1979 (aged 76)
Castle Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.