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Francis William Cox (1817–1904)

by Walter Phillips

This article was published:

Francis William Cox (1817-1904), Congregational minister and author, was born on 23 January 1817 in London, son of William Cox, hat manufacturer, and his wife Sarah, née Dawson. The family attended Rowland Hill's Surrey Chapel, although his father was also a church warden at St Saviour's, Southwark, a parish officer and first chairman of the Board of Guardians under the New Poor Law in the Borough of Southwark. Francis William was educated at St Saviour's Grammar School, an Elizabethan foundation, but described himself 'a dead failure at school'. Like his brothers and sisters he stammered as a child but alone overcame the fault by shouting or reading aloud from the rooftop. He served an apprenticeship with a city company, then entered his father's business but soon turned to school teaching. He trained at the Normal College, Borough Road, London, and became interested in art. He nearly went to Cairo to teach, but instead taught at a British and Foreign School at Gloucester and then at Croydon. He began lay preaching at Gloucester and from Croydon went to the Congregational Home Mission College at Cotton End, Bedfordshire, to train for the ministry. He declined an invitation of the British and Foreign Bible Society to be their agent in Persia and in 1852 was ordained pastor of the Congregational Church, Market Weighton, Yorkshire. In 1857 he received invitations to an East End church in London, to South Africa and to South Australia. As some of his family were already in South Australia he accepted the invitation to the Ebenezer Congregational Chapel, off Rundle Street, Adelaide, formed by a group who had left Thomas Stow's Freeman Street Chapel in 1851. Cox arrived at Adelaide in the Victoria on 14 November 1857 with his widowed mother, who died eight years later. His pastorate prospered and in September 1862 the congregation moved to a new building of modified Byzantine in Hindmarsh Square.

Cox's long pastorate of forty years was not his main claim to distinction, for Stow's mantle fell upon him; in the 1860s in Adelaide he led Nonconformists in their battles for religious equality. In 1862 he actively opposed Bishop Augustus Short's bill for incorporation of the Church of England, though Nonconformist fears over this measure were largely imaginary, and many Anglicans were equally opposed to it. Cox helped to form the Religious Equality League which primarily sought changes in the 1842 Marriage Act. A draft prepared by Cox in 1867 substantially became the new Marriage Act which granted the right of ministers of all Christian denominations and of other religions to celebrate marriages and provided for the appointment of registrars to conduct marriages for societies without a professional ministry and for settlers in remote areas. It also declared valid all bona fide marriages celebrated in the colony without authorization. Cox strenuously contested the precedence of the Anglican bishop and clergy at civic gatherings. He opposed Bible reading in government schools as an infringement of religious liberty and managed, with the assistance of Charles Manthorpe in particular, to prevent Congregationalists from co-operating with other churches on the question; after his death his son-in-law, Walter Hutley, reopened the discussion and the denomination decided to support religious teaching in schools. In 1885 Cox was the only churchman interviewed by a select committee who gave unqualified support to the abolition of oaths, but the proposed bill lapsed.

Cox was prominent in the affairs of the Congregational Union for most of his ministry. He was chairman of the union twice and several times declined the honour. He was briefly editor of the South Australian Independent and the Congregational Year Book. He encouraged lay preachers, gathering a willing band around him before the union sponsored a Lay Preachers' Association. Active in the work of the London Missionary Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society in the colony he also served on the committee of Union College, established in 1872 and dissolved in 1886. In 1882 he received a subscription of £500 for his services to the denomination and the public, but continued as the veteran statesman of Congregationalism and the confidant of many ministers and laymen outside his congregation. A close associate of William Parkin, he was one of the first trustees of the Parkin Mission, an endowment established in 1882 to maintain religious provisions in sparsely settled districts. Cox was secretary to the mission until 1904. In 1887 he published Jubilee Record of Congregationalism in South Australia, an account both of the denomination's progress and of religious liberty and equality in the colony. A supporter of the Aborigines Friends Association almost from its inception in 1858, he was particularly interested in the Aboriginal mission at Point McLeay, and as chairman of the association in 1884-97 championed the rights of Aboriginals. He assisted various philanthropic agencies and the poor and destitute knew him as a friend.

Cox was an evangelical, strict in profession and practice but free from bigotry. His sober preaching reflected an austere piety. He despised show and sham and ministerial dress; badges and blue ribbons he could not abide, though he wore the white tie. He used the title 'reverend' most reluctantly and opposed clerical pretensions. In 1890 he declined the offer of friends to recommend him to the University of Aberdeen for a D.D.; although the governor and chief justice had promised to support the recommendation, Cox considered the proposal ridiculous. He had no academic distinction but read widely, including the works of liberal scholars; he was richly cultured and a remarkable conversationalist. An art critic, he was for a time a selector for the Art Gallery and a judge of school art competitions until his eyesight began to fail. He was also a connoisseur of wines, a conchologist, a numismatist and one of Sir Isaac Pitman's first pupils in shorthand, which he often used in his diaries. He had impressive features, was slightly built but of strong constitution. Walking was his favourite pastime. One spring in England he walked 3000 miles (4828 km) and he sometimes walked from Adelaide to McLaren Vale to conduct services. Fond of horses, he felt that his ministerial status precluded him from attending race meetings, but his walks often took him by Victoria Park Racecourse, equipped with binoculars when there was a meeting.

Sadness tinged his closing years at Hindmarsh Square. Earlier in his ministry he had declined invitations to Melbourne churches. He would rather have devoted himself to denominational affairs than pastoral duties, but after twenty-five years in the pastorate he had no opportunity to change. He realized he should make way for a younger man, but feared the financial consequences of resignation. He continued as pastor until he was 80; in November 1897, on the fortieth anniversary of his pastorate, he announced his resignation and concluded his ministry in April 1898. Though he expected an annuity from the church he received only a gift of £360. After retirement he occasionally conducted services and assisted at funerals. He continued his walking almost to the last but failing eyesight marred his closing years. He died in Adelaide on 29 March 1904.

On 1 December 1863 in the McLaren Vale Congregational Church Cox had married Mary Ainsley, daughter of Richard Baker Aldersey who had settled at Noarlunga in 1849; they had two sons, one of whom became a manager of D. & W. Murray, and three daughters. The eldest, Lois, was one of the first Australians to volunteer for missionary service; she died after brief service in India. Rachel, his second daughter, married Walter Hutley who was active in church and political affairs in South Australia. Cox left a modest estate of £3000 entirely to his wife; she died in 1922.

A portrait in 1901 was commissioned by the Congregational Union, and is at Parkin College, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Robjohns, Three Quarters of a Century (Adel, 1912)
  • E. S. Kiek, An Apostle in Australia (Lond, 1927)
  • E. S. Kiek, Our First Hundred Years (Adel, 1950)
  • Register (Adelaide), 22 Nov 1897, 30, 31 Mar 1904
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 Nov 1897, 30 Mar 1904
  • Observer (Adelaide), 2 Apr 1904
  • W. W. Phillips, The Social and Political Influence of Congregationalism in South Australia 1837-1915 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1957)
  • S. Burnard, Government Policy and Aboriginal Mission Stations, South Australia, 1900-1920 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1961)
  • F. W. Cox, diaries and papers (Congregational Union Archives, Parkin College, Adelaide).

Citation details

Walter Phillips, 'Cox, Francis William (1817–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 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

Life Summary [details]


23 January, 1817
London, Middlesex, England


29 March, 1904 (aged 87)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.