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Robert Kirkwood Ewing (1823–1899)

by Stefan Petrow

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Robert Kirkwood Ewing (c.1823-1899), minister of religion and controversialist, was born at Glasgow, Scotland, son of John Ewing, merchant, and his wife Elizabeth, née Young. Robert arrived in Sydney in 1839 and worked as a teacher. On 2 January 1841 at St James's Church he married Letitia Blakemore, a widow. A Presbyterian, Ewing turned to Congregationalism after hearing the preaching of Dr Robert Ross and secured a position with the Colonial Missionary Society in Van Diemen's Land. After his ordination in February 1847 he was Congregational minister at Green Ponds. Failing in health and aggrieved by his inadequate pay, in July 1848 he was inducted into the Presbyterian Church at the old kirk in Charles Street, Launceston. His preaching attracted a growing congregation and he threw himself into fund-raising. Within eighteen months £4000 had been collected for the new St Andrew's Church.

His tenure at St Andrew's was marked by charges of immorality, frequent unrest and clashes of opinion, resulting in intervention from the Presbyterian Church. Nevertheless, his congregation made 'remarkable progress', with the Sunday School and Young Men's Association especially strong. Critics thought Ewing too worldly, spending too much time on 'pursuits unconnected with his sacred calling' and neglecting 'his own flock'. Ewing argued that a clergyman who took a narrow view of his calling lost in 'practical humanity and adaptation to the wants and characteristics of the age'. His interests included membership of St Andrew's Club, a benefit society promoting co-operation within the Scottish community. He was president of the Launceston Philharmonic Society and formed St Andrew's Teetotal Society. For five years he was president of Launceston Mechanics' Institute, where he taught elocution, gave lectures and helped to raise funds for a new building. Ewing was a Freemason and became provincial grand master in 1858. His achievements were tainted by his inclination to take and give offence. In a dispute with the Hobart lodge that year he was accused of abandoning his wife. He was elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church in 1863.

After losing his voice, Ewing retired in April 1868 with a presbyterial certificate and a pension worth £74 11s. 9d. He moved to Melbourne and, regaining his voice, assumed control of Scott's Private College. Eleven days after his wife's death in Tasmania, he married 28-year-old Frances Sanden on 13 January 1873 at South Yarra. By 1874 Ewing was at Beechworth where in 1877 he again became embroiled in controversy, when accused of acting as a mining company manager and speculating in mining shares. Although his congregation supported him, the charges were found to be true and his admission to the Presbyterian Church of Victoria was prevented. Ewing thereupon joined the Church of England and served at Inverell, New South Wales. In 1896 he became a canon and rural dean.

A man of 'marked ability and unbounded energy', Ewing was a brilliant conversationalist and an effective orator. Among his publications were A Lecture Replying to Objections Against Phrenology (Launceston, 1852), Moses and Colenso (Hobart, 1864), Sunday Evening Lectures on Larrikinism (Inverell, 1888) and a book of poems, Filings of Time (Launceston, 1869?). Photographs showed him to be prophet-like, with a shaggy white beard and wispy hair, but his eyes belied his mild appearance and hinted at a volcanic temper. Ewing died on 10 April 1899 in the vicarage at Lismore and was buried in the local cemetery. His wife, son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 2 (Hob, 1900)
  • J. Heyer, The Presbyterian Pioneers of Van Diemen’s Land (Launc, Tas, 1935)
  • S. Petrow, Going to the Mechanics (Launc, 1998)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1887, 5, p 974, 1892-3, 5, p 1433
  • Examiner (Launceston), 8 July 1848, p 440, 2 Aug 1848, p 496, 3 July 1858, p 2, 20 July 1858, p 3, 21 Nov 1867, p 5, 12 Apr 1899, pp 5, 10
  • Cornwall Chronicle, 16 Feb 1859, p 4
  • Australasian, 28 Nov 1874, p 694, 19 May 1877, supplement, p 1, Colonial Missionary Society correspondence, 1847-48, non state 586/13 and Presbyterian Church records, non state 435/4/5 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Stefan Petrow, 'Ewing, Robert Kirkwood (1823–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


10 April, 1899 (aged ~ 76)
Lismore, New South Wales, Australia

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