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Ralph Mansfield (1799–1880)

by Vivienne Parsons

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Ralph Mansfield (1799-1880), Methodist missionary and newspaper editor, was born on 12 March 1799 at Toxteth Park, Liverpool, England, the son of Ralph Mansfield, manufacturer of earthenware, and his wife Ann, née Worthington. In 1820 he was ordained a Methodist minister, married Lydia Fellows, and sailed for New South Wales in the Surry to become a missionary. He arrived in September and soon became a leader in all Methodist activities, including the Auxiliary Wesleyan Missionary Society, of which he was secretary, and the Australian Magazine, which he edited and Robert Howe printed. Because of the small numbers of Methodists in the colony, the magazine was not exclusively religious but aimed at a blend of religion and literary interest. Despite its success, however, the Wesleyan Committee in London prohibited its publication.

Mansfield was moved to Hobart Town in July 1823, where he aimed to establish a seminary for young men in conjunction with a mission to Aboriginals. His plan found favour with Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur, who allowed him the use of a house, helped to build a Methodist chapel, and invited him to nominate a Methodist chaplain for the penal station at Macquarie Harbour. He was transferred to Sydney in June 1825 and in 1826, when the first formal Methodist district meetings began, he became the corresponding secretary. Throughout these early years tension between the colonial missionaries and the British Committee was growing, and Mansfield himself was reprimanded for preaching during church hours and administering the Sacrament. He defended himself on the grounds that in his native Liverpool these privileges had been taken for granted by the Methodist Society. In 1828 his discontent came to a head when the committee restricted the family allowances to a level which the Sydney missionaries considered was inadequate for maintaining the same standard of living as their fellow preachers in England. Feeling that the impositions placed on him by the British Committee were too great Mansfield resigned as a missionary in October 1828, but proposed to continue as a local preacher. He later asked without success to be restored to an English circuit, but his religious zeal was not abated and he continued an enthusiastic member of his church and advocate of temperance to the end of his life.

Now that he had to find secular employment Mansfield became joint editor with Robert Howe of the Sydney Gazette on 1 January 1829. In the editorial of that day he declared that his policy would be neither directed against the established church nor exclusively religious, as he believed newspapers were not the place for theological debate, and that his political principles would be like those of Howe: attachment to the cause of government. A month later Robert Howe was drowned and Mansfield became sole editor.

Almost immediately he was thrust into the press conflict of Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling's administration. He was found guilty of libel and fined £10 for publishing Darling's reply to the address of landowners and merchants when William Charles Wentworth threatened to impeach Darling. Judge John Stephen found that although the libel, which was a personal attack on Wentworth, originated from high authority, this did not authorize Mansfield to publish it. Darling persuaded the Executive Council to pay his fine and costs, as he had merely acted under government orders. Mansfield's support of Darling brought criticism from Goderich who, imagining that Mansfield was a Church of England clergyman, thought that his character of a political partisan was unbecoming and that he should resign his editorship.

Mansfield remained editor of the Sydney Gazette until June 1832, and in 1831-39 contributed articles to the Colonist. In 1831 he printed the first issue of the Government Gazette, begun by Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke to replace the government notices in the Sydney Gazette. In 1836 he became secretary of the Protestant committee which opposed Bourke's attempt to introduce the Irish system of National education, for which he was severely denounced by the governor for being 'deeply, if not wholly engaged in secular pursuits of no very distinguished character'. By 1836 these secular pursuits included the duties of paid agent in the Land Commissioners' Court, director and secretary of the Australian Gaslight Co., director and treasurer of the Australian Steam Conveyance Co., joint-secretary of the Australian School Society with George Allen and bookseller. He was later secretary of the Sydney Floating Bridge Co. and the Royal Exchange Co. He opposed dismemberment of the colony in 1841, supported Indian immigration in 1842, and was the first secretary of the Baptist Church.

The broad scope of his interests and attitudes was recognized in 1841 when Charles Kemp and John Fairfax bought the Sydney Morning Herald and appointed Mansfield an editor. He was considered the dominant influence behind the paper, with its attachment to laissez faire principles, anxious lest the government become overactive, yet also critical of left-wing politics which might lead to social disruption. The paper opposed Governor Sir George Gipps's land regulations, the resumption of transportation and Wentworth's idea of responsible government, but supported the Church of England at crucial moments.

In 1847 Mansfield published an Analytical View of the Census of New South Wales for the Year 1846 and had earlier written a pamphlet on the 1841 census which was sent to the Colonial Office. These studies arranged the statistics of the colony to predict the progress of colonial society, his deductions being described by Gipps as 'curious and interesting'; in reality they were early attempts at demographical study.

Mansfield was not wealthy but had acquired Durham House, a property at Parramatta, and a cottage at Balmain. After his first wife died on 12 March 1831, he married Lucy, daughter of William Shelley, on 5 April 1832. Of his first marriage only two daughters of seven children survived infancy, and of the second he had ten children of whom three sons and three daughters survived him. He died at Parramatta on 1 September 1880, aged 81, and was buried at Rookwood; a special train brought many friends from Sydney to attend his funeral. His widow died at Burwood on 5 October 1888.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 10, 15, 16, 18
  • J. Colwell, The Illustrated History of Methodism (Syd, 1904)
  • M. Roe, Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia (Melb, 1965)
  • K. Palmer, ‘Ralph Mansfield, Australia's First Baptist Secretary’, Churinga, Aug 1957
  • Sydney Gazette, 16 Sept 1820, 1 Jan, 3 Feb 1829
  • CSO 1/98/2310, 1/306/7355 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • manuscript catalogue under Ralph Mansfield (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Vivienne Parsons, 'Mansfield, Ralph (1799–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 March, 1799
Liverpool, Merseyside, England


1 September, 1880 (aged 81)
Parramatta, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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