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St Clair George Alfred Donaldson (1863–1935)

by Betty Crouchley

This article was published:

St Clair George Alfred Donaldson (1863-1935), Anglican archbishop, was born on 11 February 1863 in London, third son of Sir Stuart Alexander Donaldson and his wife Amelia, née Cowper. He attended Eton and was foundation scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1885 with a first-class in classics; in 1887 he gained a first in theology. After training for the ministry at Wells Theological College, he was ordained deacon in 1888 and priest in 1889, was briefly curate at Bethnal Green, resident chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury, E. W. Benson, in 1888-91, and headed the Eton Mission at Hackney Wick in 1891-1900. President of the London Junior Missionary Association, he then travelled in South Africa, India and Ceylon, and was rural dean of Hornsey in 1902-04. Chosen by the archbishop of Canterbury, R. T. Davidson, to succeed W. T. T. Webber as bishop of Brisbane, and enthroned there in December 1904, he became the first archbishop of Brisbane next year when the dioceses in Queensland and New Guinea were formed into a province. He held this office until 1921, his stature and influence helping to make his province the most cohesive in Australia.

Donaldson's eminence was as a farsighted all-round churchman. Aiming at making Brisbane 'the Antioch of Australia', the jumping-off ground for missionary endeavours, he extended the Bush Brotherhood scheme, reorganized the church missionary societies, and showed particular solicitude for Aboriginals. Yarrabah Aboriginal Mission was one of many institutions to benefit from his private generosity (£3000 in 1918). He gave impetus to the building of St John's Cathedral in Brisbane, and to the crusade (successful in the 1910 referendum) for religious teaching in state schools. He was a member of the Senate of the University of Queensland in 1916-21 and was largely responsible for establishing St John's College. Nundah Theological College (later St Francis) began in 1907 and by 1921 over two-thirds of Brisbane's clergy were Australian-trained. He was a strong advocate of autonomy for the Australian Church.

The Church's impact he believed should be widespread: 'Go for the enemy's stronghold. The Queensland Club: the Trades Hall: the Race-course'. He directed attention to the underlying moral causes of industrial unrest and the 'inward spiritual significance of the Labour movement', and offered to mediate in the 1912 Brisbane strike. He improved inter-church relations, especially with the Greek Orthodox Church, but in February 1917, contrary to his usual detachment from sectarianism, he responded when challenged by Archbishop Duhig and gave examples of Roman Catholic actions he considered detrimental to national unity. Emphasizing that Christian patriotism demanded sacrifice, and that the financial burden of the war was falling on the wealthy while the workers were getting richer, he supported conscription. He sponsored the building of St Martin's Hospital as a war memorial and promoted the League of Nations, criticizing Hughes's scepticism towards it.

Donaldson's intensely religious personal life was marked by evangelical simplicity, but his essential catholicism told against him in elections for the Australian primacy (1909) and the archbishopric of Melbourne (1921). Although not a quick thinker he could be a powerful preacher. Perhaps the bulk of the laity 'were slow to catch fire from his own burning zeal', as the Archbishop of Canterbury, C. G. Lang, wrote of him later, but Donaldson exerted a lasting influence on many of his clergy, particularly those on whom he most relied such as de Witt Batty and H. F. Le Fanu. A bachelor of striking presence, considerable charm and humour, he inspired deep affection in those who knew him well, but his fundamental reserve occasionally made him seem aloof and he was most at ease in the upper strata of society. Lord Chelmsford, with whom he shared a love of music, was a close friend. He returned several times to England and received the honorary degrees of D.D. from Cambridge in 1904 and Oxford in 1920, and of D.C.L. from Durham in 1908.

From 1921 until his death there on 7 December 1935 Donaldson was bishop of Salisbury, England, where an original feature of his episcopate was the attention paid to educated people detached from the Church. He was appointed prelate of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1933. Again much of his effort was concentrated on missionary work; he was chairman of the Missionary Council in 1921-33. Donaldson retained Australian friendships and interests, and helped in the choice of J. W. C. Wand as archbishop of Brisbane. His estate of £48,544, left mainly to relatives, included bequests of £4000 to endowment funds in Brisbane. The notes he left of his daily thoughts and prayers were posthumously published as A meditation on the Acts of the Apostles (London, 1937).

Select Bibliography

  • C. T. Dimont and F. de Witt Batty, St. Clair Donaldson (Lond, 1939)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1912, p 263
  • British Australasian, 27 July 1916
  • Worker (Brisbane), 2 Mar 1912
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane), 27 Feb 1917
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Oct 1921, 29 Jan 1923, 13 Dec 1935
  • Queenslander, 25 June, 23 Aug 1934
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 9 Dec 1935
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 9 Dec 1935, pp 14 and 19, 11 Dec 1935, p 21, 12 Dec 1935, p 21
  • K. Rayner, The History of the Church of England in Queensland (Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, 1962).

Citation details

Betty Crouchley, 'Donaldson, St Clair George Alfred (1863–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 February, 1863
London, Middlesex, England


7 December, 1935 (aged 72)
Salisbury, Wiltshire, England

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.