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William Macquarie Cowper (1810–1902)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

William Macquarie Cowper (1810-1902), by John Hubert Newman, 1880s

William Macquarie Cowper (1810-1902), by John Hubert Newman, 1880s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24084521

William Macquarie Cowper (1810-1902), dean, was born on 3 July 1810 at Sydney, son of William Cowper, assistant colonial chaplain, and his second wife Ann, née Barrell. He was baptized at his father's church, St Philip's; Governor and Mrs Macquarie were among his godparents. He was generally called Macquarie until about 1830 and the name had some currency until his father's death in 1858. Cowper was educated privately at Sydney and sailed for England by way of Cape Horn in the Portland in February 1827. He reached England in June, intending to study for entrance to Cambridge. After a change of plan he lived with Rev. John Glubb, incumbent of St Petrox, Dartmouth, and helped him as a layman until he matriculated at Oxford on 11 June 1828 and entered Magdalen Hall (B.A., 1832; M.A., 1835). Cowper thought the tutorial instruction dull and, as his father had warned, found the religious life of the university 'at a low ebb', though he gained some profit from the divinity lectures. He was made deacon by Bishop Murray of Rochester for Bishop Phillpotts of Exeter in 1833 on the title of curate of St Petrox. Had he returned to Australia at this time he probably would have been stationed at Goulburn. However, he remained at Dartmouth for two years, strengthening his connexion with the Evangelical tradition. When he decided to go back, no regular preferment was available and he was appointed chaplain to the Australian Agricultural Co. In 1835 he was ordained priest by the Bishop of Exeter and married Margaret Burroughs of Dartmouth.

Cowper reached Sydney in February 1836 with his wife and on 26 March began services in the company's Port Stephens district to which he was licensed by William Grant Broughton. His Evangelical convictions kept him aloof from Broughton's High Churchmanship and patronage for the new Tractarian movement, but he maintained generally good relations with his bishop. They had a common interest in Aboriginal welfare and church extension. Cowper also remained on reasonable terms with the company's commissioners. His position was made difficult, however, by the conflicting jurisdictional claims of the company and the bishop. St John's Church at Stroud remained unconsecrated for eighteen years because its site was not yet conveyed to the ecclesiastical authorities.

Cowper worked hard and travelled widely, holding services as far away as Tamworth and Taree. When Bishop William Tyrrell took over the new diocese of Newcastle in 1848 Cowper accompanied him on several tours and helped him to plan the strategy of northern expansion. He moved the first resolution at the meeting in 1850 which inaugurated Tyrrell's key project, the Church Society, and became one of its secretaries. But the remoteness of Cowper's district and his long incumbency made him wish for a change. The death of his wife on 21 October 1854 left him with four daughters and a son, William, who died in 1868. Moreover, there were differences in churchmanship between Cowper and his bishop. A fresh appointment in the Newcastle diocese could not be satisfactorily devised and Cowper moved to Sydney.

At Sydney the Evangelical bishop, Frederic Barker, faced with a shortage of experienced clergy of similar opinions, welcomed Cowper, and in March 1856 appointed him acting principal of the new Moore Theological College at Liverpool. The first three students had been reading with Cowper at Stroud, one of them for the ministry. He launched the college successfully and in September, when Rev. William Hodgson, the permanent principal, arrived, was sent to build up a parochial district at the Glebe. He retained his interest in Moore College, being a trustee in 1877-1902.

Soon after his father's death Cowper was moved to his father's church of St Philip, Church Hill, and made dean and archdeacon of Sydney. To contemporaries the appointment was surprising: Cowper was a newcomer to the clerical staff of the diocese and had lived obscurely for twenty years. But Barker had good reasons for making it. He would not promote clergy with Tractarian sympathies and he had failed to recruit a suitable dignitary from England. Cowper had a reputation for energy, sound sense and fair scholarship. As the archdeacon's son he was the natural Evangelical leader and was himself committed to that school. Cowper gave Barker his entire loyalty and was closely identified with his policies. In 1886, at the request of the second Mrs Barker, he began to write Episcopate of the Right Reverend Frederic Barker, D.D. (London, 1888). It provides a better assessment of its subject than many episcopal biographies but it is Cowper's own apologia as well as his bishop's.

Cowper's decanal office was nominal at first and he remained at St Philip's. The parochial charge of St Andrew's temporary cathedral was held by the existing incumbent, Rev. George King, who considered his rights to be invaded by the creation of a deanery, while the congregation was afraid of losing its autonomy. There were spectacular scenes in 1860, a hostile inquiry by parliament, public meetings and a law suit of high constitutional importance. Cowper was the occasion for, rather than the principal in, these events. King's successor, Rev. Thomas O'Reilly, kept the peace from 1863 until Cowper took full charge in 1869. Meanwhile the dean became responsible for services of a 'cathedral' character, including the consecration of the permanent St Andrew's in 1868. Until Bishop Alfred Barry's reforms in 1885 Cowper maintained a prudent balance of parish and cathedral-style worship and divided his attention between preaching to diocesan audiences and ministering to the parochial needs for which his direct scriptural exhortations were, perhaps, better suited. In the 1870s St Andrew's parish had some fine houses but many of Sydney's worst slums. Cowper worked hard to help their inhabitants and gave evidence on their behalf before parliamentary committees and official commissions. He exerted constant pressure on reluctant aldermen, some of them owners of slum properties, to effect improvements. He was never popular at the Town Hall; his methods with the poor were gentler and based on charitable relief and religious persuasion. He co-operated in interdenominational mission and philanthropic work in Sydney. Christian Socialism, on the other hand, meant little to him: his were the ideas of an earlier generation.

As the diocese's only archdeacon until 1887 Cowper undertook much administration and supervision. He visited settled parishes and missionary areas, extensive country tours for which his years at Port Stephens had fitted him. In 1859 he was given charge of diocesan relations with the Denominational School Board and continued this duty with the Council of Education after 1866. Cowper was an advocate of church schools and of a measure of state aid for them. He followed Barker in holding that they provided the best, although not the only valid, kind of education. He tried with little success to keep these schools in existence when state aid ceased in 1882. Like his bishop, Cowper favoured the maximum use of facilities provided for religious instruction in public schools both before and after the 1880 Public Instruction Act, and he was a keen promoter of Sunday schools. He accorded generally with Barker in their policy towards a church constitution. He believed that some kind of legislative sanction was preferable to a voluntary compact; in the complex debates on the subject between 1858 and 1866 Cowper held as firmly as circumstances would permit to this attitude. He welcomed the resolutions for government for the Australian Church in 1868 and served on the general synod after 1872.

When the see of Sydney was vacant or the bishop absent, Cowper was commissary or sometimes vicar-general. Between 1862 and 1897 he administered the diocese for a total of eleven years. He was generally competent in this role. He was careful not to initiate policy, though he often had to cope with important matters. In 1862 he won better terms from the abolition of state aid to public worship than might have been expected. He presided twice over the election of bishops: Barry in 1882-83 and Saumarez Smith in 1889-90. Procedural problems and, with the latter, interprovincial jealousies raised difficulties which Cowper, who was not a firm chairman when passions were high and legal matters were involved, was unable to solve without much trouble. Yet by his experience and general popularity he was able to make a substantial long-term contribution to the running of the diocese.

In his last years Cowper became a revered and respected figure in the Church of England. He was the first Australian-born Anglican clergyman and, apart from visits to England in 1876 and 1886, he served in his native land for more than sixty years. He represented the oldest theological tradition in the colonial church and in 1901 wrote his Autobiography and Reminiscences, published with editorial additions in Sydney, 1902, to demonstrate the continuity of the Evangelical school. His second wife Mary, widow of Major French of the Indian army and daughter of Commander G. B. Forster, R.N., whom he had married on 3 July 1866, died on 7 July 1894. Cowper died, after a long illness but still in office, on 14 June 1902. He was buried at St Jude's cemetery, Randwick, where his father's body had been reinterred.

Select Bibliography

  • S. M. Johnstone, The Book of St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney (Syd, 1937)
  • A. P. Elkin, The Diocese of Newcastle (Syd, 1955)
  • M. L. Loane, A Centenary History of Moore Theological College (Syd, 1955)
  • Select Committee on the Dean of St Andrew's, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1859-60, 1205
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 1902
  • Bishop and Commissary of Sydney diocese, Letter-books (Sydney Diocesan Registry)
  • Votes and Proceedings, Synod, 1866-1902 (Sydney Diocesan Registry)
  • Bishop and Mrs Barker, diaries (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Cowper, William Macquarie (1810–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 May 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

William Macquarie Cowper (1810-1902), by John Hubert Newman, 1880s

William Macquarie Cowper (1810-1902), by John Hubert Newman, 1880s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24084521

Life Summary [details]


3 July, 1810
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


14 June, 1902 (aged 91)
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.