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William Cowper (1778–1858)

by N. S. Pollard

This article was published:

William Cowper (1778-1858), archdeacon, was born on 28 December 1778 at Whittington, Lancashire, England, the son of a yeoman farmer. He was educated locally and at 17 became a tutor to the family of a clergyman of Northallerton, Yorkshire. Later he became a clerk in the Royal Engineers' Department in Hull. In this centre of Evangelical revival he came under the influence of Rev. Thomas Dykes, incumbent of St John's, Hull. After his conversion, objection to Sunday employment impelled him in the direction of ordination. He was already married to Hannah Horner. After a course of reading under Dykes he was ordained in March 1808, and licensed as curate in the parish of Rawdon, near Leeds.

Early in 1808 Rev. Samuel Marsden, in search of two additional chaplains, came to Cowper's parish and invited him to accept appointment. He was willing, and received a commission as an assistant chaplain in New South Wales at a salary of £260. His departure from England was delayed by the death of his wife, then mother of three sons, including Charles, later a leading politician, and one daughter. Cowper married Ann Barrell, and sailed with his family to Port Jackson, arriving in August 1809. He took up duties as minister of St Philip's Church, then being completed. For the first ten years of his ministry, he was the only clergyman permanently in Sydney.

His extreme Evangelical attitude did not win favour with Governor Lachlan Macquarie who, in October 1814, observed that at St Philip's the established version of the Psalms was disregarded and some from Dr Goode's new version were sung. He instructed Cowper to cease using the new version. By 1827 Cowper held a glebe of 1200 acres (486 ha), but he claimed that it was only valueless land and rock. In February 1828 Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling allotted a reserve of 1280 acres (518 ha) to Cowper's eldest daughter, Mary Stephena, on the eve of her marriage to Dr George Brooks, 'to mark my approbation of the manner in which Mr Cowper, who is a very exemplary Man' had discharged his duties and to help his daughter by 'removing the impediment to matrimony which appears to have existed here'. In 1829 the Colonial Office approved payment to Cowper of £725 as compensation for rations for his dependents promised but not provided in 1812-18, and suggested that he be given an annual allowance of £100 in commutation of perquisites now discontinued.

The burden of Cowper's clerical and official duties took their toll. In 1812 he had suffered from some form of rheumatic fever, probably contracted in the gaols, and his slow recovery marked the beginning of a life of constant ill health. Reports of this ill health were made in 1818 and 1829 by William Grant Broughton, Marsden and Darling, but it was not until February 1842 that the formation of cataracts on both eyes compelled him to take leave and return to England for treatment. The loss in 1831 of his second wife, mother of William Macquarie Cowper, had also told on him. On 1 March 1836 he had married Harriette Swaine, to whom were born two further children. The address of farewell and appreciation presented to him on his departure from Sydney by his parishioners and the citizens of Sydney revealed the esteem in which he was held, and the gift that went with it paid all the expenses of his journey to England. The treatment of his eyes seems to have been entirely successful and he was able to return to his duties. While in England he received a Lambeth D.D. In 1848 Bishop Broughton collated him to the archdeaconry of Cumberland.

It is significant that Broughton chose the Evangelical Cowper as his first archdeacon at a time of acute party strife, when Broughton was struggling against Tractarianism and Sydney's seceders to the Roman Catholic Church, Robert Sconce and Thomas Makinson. At an earlier stage, however, Broughton had been embarrassed when Cowper chose to engage in denunciation of Tractarianism in 1846 when Broughton was trying to gain united support for the establishment of a training college.

Cowper's duties became even more onerous in his old age. In 1852, two years after the Bishops' Conference, Broughton decided to return to England and appointed Cowper as his commissary for the diocese. Broughton died in England in 1853 and it was not until May 1855 that Frederic Barker arrived as bishop. Cowper was then in his seventy-seventh year and hardly able to give Barker the guidance and advice that he needed in his new post. Cowper saw the coping-stone of his work set in the consecration of the new St Philip's Church on 27 March 1856. He continued to direct the life of St Philip's parish almost to his death, but gave up the active duties of the parish to his assistants. He died on 6 July 1858 and was buried in the Devonshire Street cemetery. He was given a state funeral.

His political opinions appear to have been close to those of the second generation of Evangelicals in the Church in England. He divorced his ministry as far as possible from the political side of colonial life. He had persisted in his refusal to hold a magistracy, despite Macquarie's frequent requests, and he refused to join any of the political associations. He did what he could to give acceptance to the convicts, but he had no illusions about the character of many of his parishioners, and in 1833 doubted whether the colony was ready for self-government. He remained at peace with all parties, and on the whole the early governors had a high opinion of him. As Cowper himself said in 1842, he had made every effort 'neither willingly nor knowingly to offend anyone'.

He did much to found and control the schools connected with his parish. He published a series of catechisms and tracts aimed at improving the religious and moral tone of the town. He was a moving force in founding branches of many of the well tried Evangelical societies, including the British and Foreign Bible Society (an auxiliary, 1817); the Religious Tract and Book Society (1823, modelled on the Religious Tract Society); the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (a district committee, 1828) and the Benevolent Society of New South Wales (1817, a society which was reformed with the help of Cowper in that year). He was also active in the Church Missionary Society, either as a member of the corresponding committee or as its secretary. Through this and other societies he gave what support he could to the betterment and conversion of the Aboriginals. In this work Cowper acted as a lieutenant to Marsden. After Marsden died in 1838 much of the responsibility for Aboriginal and general missionary interests devolved on Cowper.

Cowper's theological views were those of a clergyman of the Evangelical party and he co-operated with Wesleyans and Dissenters in Evangelical societies. Throughout his writings and letters there is an emphasis on the cardinal doctrines which the Evangelicals held: the supreme authority of the Scriptures, the doctrine of original sin, the doctrine of justification by faith alone. His two tracts on the millennium, published in 1856, reveal that he was fully abreast of the controversy among the second generation of Evangelicals in England. But although he held one of the most senior posts of the church in the colony, he was by no means a leader of any party within the church or the colony. He managed to remain, in accord with his own dictum, 'in perfect charity with all men'. The result was that he had a moderating influence on the major church struggles of his time.

Many of the institutions of the church such as The King's School and St Paul's College, owed much to his support and activity, but it was in the life of his parish and the daughter parishes that he founded that his main work was done. John Thomas Bigge reported that Cowper's 'very strict notions … of Christian duty' led him to adopt 'a style of severity and prolixity' that was 'repulsive' to most of his listeners; and that his long and diffuse discourses delivered ex tempore tended to deter 'the higher and the middle classes' from regular attendance at church. However, his devotion and integrity were unquestioned. The words on his memorial tablet in St Philip's Church are the tribute he would have desired: 'He laboured with constancy and zeal for the salvation of his fellow men'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. M. Cowper, The Autobiography and Reminiscences of William Macquarie Cowper, Dean of Sydney (Syd, 1902)
  • A. Houison, ‘The Venerable Archdeacon Cowper’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 3, part 8, 1916, pp 359-66
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July 1858.

Citation details

N. S. Pollard, 'Cowper, William (1778–1858)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 29 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

Life Summary [details]


28 December, 1778
Whittington, Lancashire, England


6 July, 1858 (aged 79)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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.

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