Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

William George Lawes (1839–1907)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published:

William George Lawes (1839-1907), by unknown engraver

William George Lawes (1839-1907), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S14/01/85/4

William George Lawes (1839-1907), missionary, was born on 1 July 1839 at Aldermaston, Berkshire, England, son of Richard Lawes, tailor, and his wife Mary, née Pickover. Educated in a village school at Mortimer West End, he was apprenticed for six years and in 1858 volunteered for service with the London Missionary Society. He was trained at Bedford and two weeks before ordination on 8 November 1860 he married Fanny Wickham; on 23 November they sailed for the Pacific.

Lawes was posted first to Savage Island (Niue), where in 1868 he was joined by his brother Frank. On 15 January 1872 he began a furlough during which he travelled thirteen thousand miles (20,921 km) in Britain lecturing on the missions. In April 1874 he sailed for New Guinea and in November settled at Port Moresby with his wife and children as the first permanent European residents of Papua. Despite attacks of fever which decimated his Polynesian teaching staff and killed his youngest son, Lawes became an expert in the Motuan language and a respected friend of all the south coast tribes. His first European colleague, appointed in 1876, left when his wife became ill but in 1877 James Chalmers arrived, and early in 1878 Lawes left for England on furlough. In four years he had started eleven new mission stations and produced the first book in a Papuan language.

Lawes was then a public figure. Australian miners in Port Moresby in 1878 sought his return to smooth the relations with natives. From that time his unrivalled knowledge of Papua was in constant demand. Soon after his return in 1881 he helped the exploring parties of 1883, and in 1884 served as interpreter for the Protectorate proclamation by James Elphinstone Erskine. Lawes and his wife went to Sydney as Erskine's guests in H.M.S. Nelson and then toured Victoria and New South Wales. Since 1872 he had fought abuses of the Pacific labour trade and provided much of the ammunition for the work of Erskine's uncle on the subject in the House of Commons.

In 1885 Lawes travelled round the Papuan coast as unofficial adviser to Sir Peter Scratchley. Lawes's Grammar and Vocabulary of Language spoken by Motu Tribe, New Guinea was also published in 1885 and in May 1886 he went on furlough, returning in October 1887. Despite differences with the government secretary he was in demand as an adviser to the colonial government of Sir William MacGregor. Lawes had many helpers at his mission but its monopoly was soon eroded by the arrival of other sects and the delineation of spheres of influence.

In 1891 Lawes visited England and toured the Australian colonies as a lecturer in 1892. Soon after his return he decided to hand the administration of the mission to a younger colleague and to concentrate on a new training college at Vatorata where he served for ten years. In 1894 he was awarded a doctorate of divinity by the University of Glasgow on MacGregor's recommendation. The murder of Chalmers in 1901 was a serious blow and in 1906 Lawes retired. He left Port Moresby in March and settled at Sydney where he died on 6 August 1907. He was survived by his wife and three of their six children. His son Frank served as a government officer in the protectorate and colony; when he died in 1894 MacGregor described him as one who knew and sympathized with the natives.

Although Lawes travelled widely and understood his people he was more scholar and administrator than pioneer. His partnership with the adventurous Chalmers was almost an ideal combination.

Select Bibliography

  • J. King, W. G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea (Lond, 1909)
  • British New Guinea, Annual Report, 1888-1905
  • LMS papers (National Library of Australia)
  • W. G. Lawes diary 1876-77, 1881-84 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Protectorate and colony papers (National Archives of Papua New Guinea).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Lawes, William George (1839–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William George Lawes (1839-1907), by unknown engraver

William George Lawes (1839-1907), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S14/01/85/4

Life Summary [details]


1 July, 1839
Aldermaston, Berkshire, England


6 August, 1907 (aged 68)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.