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John Frewer (1883–1974)

by Peter Boyce

This article was published:

John Frewer (1883-1974), Anglican bishop, was born on 1 November 1883 at Fulletby, Lincolnshire, England, third son of Rev. George Ernest Frewer, a clergyman of the Church of England, and his wife Louisa Charlotte, née Charsley. Raised in the parish of Brede, Sussex, where the Frewers undertook promotional work for the colonial churches, John was educated at the King's School, Canterbury, and Selwyn College, Cambridge, but did not complete his degree. He subsequently studied at Lincoln Theological Hostel. Made deacon on 14 June 1908, he was ordained priest on 6 June 1909 by Edward King, bishop of Lincoln. Frewer served his curacy at St Nicholas's, Skirbeck.

In 1911 he arrived in Western Australia to serve as domestic chaplain to Frederick Goldsmith, bishop of Bunbury, his uncle by marriage and his godfather. Goldsmith thought that his nephew's experience of the Lincolnshire port area equipped him for chaplaincy work with labourers in the new rural diocese. Following a stint (1913-16) as rector of South Bunbury, in 1916 Frewer was professed as a member of the Brotherhood of St Boniface, at Williams, and became its warden in 1919. He was appointed a canon of St Paul's Pro-Cathedral, Bunbury, in 1922. The Bush Brotherhood was never a large band, but it attracted several committed celibate priests to itinerant work in a largely agricultural diocese.

In January 1929 Frewer was named as second bishop of North-West Australia, succeeding Bishop Trower; he was consecrated on 9 April in St George's Cathedral, Perth, and enthroned in the Pro-Cathedral at Broome on 28 April. With the exception of the Diocese of the Arctic in Canada, Frewer's diocese (666,000 sq. miles, 1,724,933 km²) was the largest within the Anglican communion, yet its population in 1929 did not exceed 30,000 and included only 5000 Whites. The bishop was required to discharge the services of a parish priest in many of the remote towns he visited regularly. In Geraldton he helped to establish two hostels for high school students and pioneered the work of the Missions to Seamen; he also took an active interest in the Forrest River Mission, near Wyndham, and dedicated two dozen church buildings throughout the diocese. Despite his physical isolation, he maintained active links with the wider Church and was vice-president (1930) of the Australian Church Union.

From his base in the pearling port of Broome, where he occupied a sparsely furnished three-room house, Frewer made extensive use of air transport in the 1950s. After his one thousandth flight with MacRobertson Miller Airlines Ltd, he was awarded a gold pass in 1959. He possessed a phenomenal memory, and recalled the names and anniversaries of many parishioners in his scattered flock. Not until 1961, however, when his establishment of clergy reached the statutory minimum of eight, was he able to convene a synod of his own diocese. Next year he presided over the laying of the foundation stone of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross at Geraldton, the new diocesan seat. In 1957 he had been appointed C.B.E.

Frewer did not marry, and was able to supplement his small salary from a private income, although he lived frugally. An amateur actor and keen sportsman in his youth, he continued to play tennis and to swim, between episcopal duties. In 1965 he retired to Perth. He died on 7 December 1974 at Mount Lawley and was cremated; his ashes were placed in Geraldton cathedral.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander (ed), Four Bishops and Their See (Perth, 1957)
  • E. W. Doncaster, Spinifex Saints (Perth, 1985)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Aug 1963, 10 Dec 1974
  • West Australian, 19 Dec 1974
  • C. P. Holden, Ritualist on a Tricycle: Frederick Goldsmith, Church, Nationalism and Society in Western Australia, 1880-1920 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1993)
  • Frewer's personal papers (held by Archdeacon E. W. Doncaster, Aldinga Beach, South Australia)
  • Frewer diaries (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Peter Boyce, 'Frewer, John (1883–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 November, 1883
Fulletby, Lincolnshire, England


7 December, 1974 (aged 91)
Mount Lawley, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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