Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Gainford (1823–1884)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published:

Thomas Gainford (1823-1884), Congregational minister and social reformer, was born on 28 February 1823 on Wythmour Head estate near Workington, Cumberland, England, son of William Gainford, farmer, and his wife Jane, née Walker. Educated at the village school, Gainford at 19 was champion wrestler of Cumberland. Discontented with farm work, he became a shipwright at Workington and studied navigation. In 1842 as a ship's carpenter in the Philomela on the South American run he had a religious conversion. On his return he evangelized as a 'praying sailor' and worked in Sheerness dockyard. Known as the 'Black Preacher', he became a Wesleyan local preacher, chief ruler in the Rechabites, president of the temperance society and an advocate of the peace movement. At Sheerness in 1850 he married Dinah Briggs.

With little chance of promotion, Gainford decided to migrate and in September 1853 arrived in Sydney with his family in the Walmer Castle. He worked for John Cuthbert, shipbuilder, and on his own account built wharves for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.; later he became its superintendent of steamers. Guided by Nathaniel Pidgeon he assisted in the work of the City Mission, especially at the Female Refuge. In 1855 he became coproprietor of a sawmill on the Parramatta River but soon started another on the Richmond River where he also preached to the cedar-getters. In 1857 he went to the Victorian goldfields and preached and did temperance work at Tarrangower (Maldon). He became a magistrate and company manager at Mount Korong (Wedderburn). He was one of the two delegates sent to Melbourne to plead at the bar of the House in protest against the proposed land bill; he was then asked to represent Tarrangower in parliament but refused. In 1859 he left the Wedderburn diggings to become foreman of the patent slip at Stockton, Newcastle, where he preached for the Wesleyans and also served as pastor for the Congregational Church in Brown Street. Next year he was ordained to the Congregational ministry and in 1867 was called to the Ocean Street Church, Woollahra. In 1870 at a much lower salary he became minister of the Mariners' Church. To make it attractive to seamen he renovated the building and grounds and organized a normal congregation. He also ran several benevolent activities particularly in advising the sick poor on hygiene and medical care. The reforms of 'Father Gainford' did much to give the Sydney Bethel Union world-wide repute.

Gainford died at Bethel House, Sydney, on 5 March 1884, survived by his wife and by four of their five sons. An Evangelical, much of his appeal as a preacher lay in his 'transparent goodness'. His repute as a revivalist was enhanced by his influence over such desperate characters as the prize-fighter, Tom Sullivan, a notorious New Zealand goldfield murderer, who confessed at his trial that at the Wedderburn diggings he had been nearly persuaded to reform when Gainford told him he was 'a gem in the rough'. Gainford's conversion of the murderers R. F. Nichols and A. Lester at Darlinghurst gaol in 1872 received much publicity. Besides advocating total abstinence Gainford condemned smoking and had a naive faith in hydropathy and phrenology.

Select Bibliography

  • J. and W. R. Gainford (eds), Memoir of Incidents in the Life and Labours of Thomas Gainford (Orpington, 1886).

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Gainford, Thomas (1823–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 4 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 February, 1823
Workington, Cumberland, England


5 March, 1884 (aged 61)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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