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John Philip Gell (1816–1898)

by Frances J. Woodward

This article was published:

John Philip Gell (1816-1898), Anglican clergyman, was born on 10 March 1816 at Matlock, Derbyshire, England, the eldest son of Rev. Philip Gell. His upbringing in the strictest Evangelical traditions of the Church of England was counteracted by his education under Thomas Arnold at Rugby, where he was a contemporary of Arthur Hugh Clough and A. P. Stanley, who described him as 'the noblest and most beloved' of Arnold's pupils. After graduating at Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1839; M.A., 1840) he sailed for Van Diemen's Land, recommended by Arnold to be head of the first institution of higher education under Sir John Franklin's government. Gell's original mind, natural spirits and equable temperament made him at once a friend of the Franklins, with whom he stayed on his arrival in March 1840. He shared their interest in art and science, in 1842, becoming secretary to the Franklin-inspired Tasmanian Society.

His aim for the college was that it should draw the existing schools up to the standard of English public schools while itself growing into the 'full stature of an English college'. He wished it to be both 'a stronghold of learning and a school of Christian gentlemen', but he was alive to the bitter denominational conflict over allocation of government funds for education and thought his hopes for the college more likely to succeed if he, as head, remained unordained. To save his proposed college from complete subordination to the Legislative Council he asked the Colonial Office for a charter under which it could accept endowments. He proposed scriptural instruction for all pupils and the teaching of Church of England doctrines only to those whose parents requested it. While the Colonial Office sought Arnold's advice on the charter, Gell opened the Queen's School in Macquarie Street, Hobart, acting as master of mathematics, with another Rugby pupil, J. R. Buckland, also on the staff.

Gell was to learn much more of the island's sectarian bitterness. In November 1840 the foundation stone of Christ's College was laid and overturned the same night. Gell wrote to his father that he was 'gardening Greenland in the mistiest ignorance and the iciest selfishness'. Six weeks after Franklin's departure his successor, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, was authorized by Stanley to reside at the New Norfolk government farm which had been given to the college. Gell's request to buy it back with Franklin's parting gift to the college of £500 was refused. Gell now believed that the college could not be a state institution and therefore had better be avowedly Anglican, the denomination of the majority of settlers. In 1845 the Queen's School was dropped from the government estimates and soon closed. Gell was ordained priest and became the incumbent of St John the Baptist's, Goulburn Street, Hobart. With subscriptions raised in England, Christ's College was finally refounded in 1846, wholly Anglican, built with church money and on church land at Bishopsbourne. Gell was appointed warden, and by February 1847 had 3 fellows, also in orders, 3 students of divinity, 6 scholars and 54 students.

Satisfied in having established the college, endowed its library and seen the foundation of two feeder public schools on Arnold's principles, the Launceston Church Grammar School and the Hutchins School in Hobart, Gell left the colony in 1848. His perseverance and enthusiasm in the cause of colonial education during his eight years service in Van Diemen's Land were acknowledged in a farewell address, by generous endowment to a Gell scholarship at Christ's College from settlers of all denominations, and by the college staff, who presented a service of communion plate.

In England in 1849 he married Eleanor Isabella, Sir John Franklin's only child by his first marriage to Eleanor Anne Porden; Gell had met her in Tasmania. He obtained a curacy at St John's, Notting Hill. In 1852 he joined the Canterbury Association and was appointed bishop-designate of its settlement in New Zealand, but the appointment lapsed when the proposed see was not created. At this time the friendship he had previously enjoyed with Lady Jane Franklin deteriorated as his wife's claims to her rightful inheritance from her mother's Porden estate were waived when Lady Franklin undertook the expensive quest for Sir John Franklin's lost Arctic expedition. On his wife's death, however, harmony was restored, Lady Franklin sharing his interest in J. W. Colenso's teachings.

Like others of his Rugby contemporaries, Gell tended to latitudinarianism in the 1860s. Near the end of his life he held a living at Buxted, Sussex, and earned minor repute as a Hebrew scholar. He died on 12 March 1898 in London, having had three sons and four daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • K. E. Fitzpatrick, Sir John Franklin in Tasmania 1837-1843 (Melb, 1949)
  • F. J. Woodward, The Doctor's Disciples (Lond, 1954)
  • Hobart Town Courier, 11, 18 Mar 1848
  • Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 8 Nov 1854
  • GO 33/47/471-74 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Frances J. Woodward, 'Gell, John Philip (1816–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 March, 1816
Matlock, Derbyshire, England


12 March, 1898 (aged 82)
London, Middlesex, England

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