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Francis Russell Nixon (1803–1879)

by W. R. Barrett

This article was published:

Francis Russell Nixon (1803-1879), by unknown photographer

Francis Russell Nixon (1803-1879), by unknown photographer

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001126073857

Francis Russell Nixon (1803-1879), Church of England bishop, was born on 1 August 1803, the second son of Rev. Robert Nixon, D.D., F.R.S., of North Cray, Kent, England. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, London, and at Oxford (B.A., 1827; M.A., 1841; D.D., 1842). Graduating third class in classics he was made a probationary fellow of St John's College. After ordination he served as chaplain to the embassy at Naples and was then appointed one of the 'Six Preachers' at Canterbury Cathedral and chaplain to the archbishop. He next held the parish of Sandgate and the perpetual curacy of Ash next Sandwich. In January 1843, to provide funds for a chapel of ease at Ash, he published Lectures, Historical, Doctrinal and Practical, on the Catechism of the Church of England; it went through at least six editions. On 21 August 1842 Nixon was appointed first bishop of Tasmania and three days later was consecrated in Westminster Abbey with four other bishops. With his wife and children, their governess and Archdeacon Fitzherbert Marriott, he sailed in the Duke of Roxburgh. At Cape Town, where no Anglican bishop was appointed until 1847, he confirmed some four hundred persons, consecrated a church and ordained a priest. Arriving at Hobart Town in July 1843, he was received by civic and ecclesiastical leaders, took the oaths and was made a member of the Executive Council. His letters patent were read, creating Van Diemen's Land a separate diocese, St David's Church a cathedral and Hobart a city. A week later he was enthroned. His first official residence was in Upper Davey Street; after three years he moved to Boa Vista in Argyle Street (later part of the Friends' School), and in 1850 he bought Runnymede at New Town, renaming it Bishopstowe.

Nixon soon sized up the needs of his diocese and within eighteen months sent Marriott to England for help; in particular he wanted men for more adequate spiritual ministrations; and money to build churches and schools. Most remarkable of all was his request for money to establish a college on English university lines for the higher education of colonial youth and for training them for holy orders. The archdeacon's mission was highly successful in obtaining both men and money: in 1846 the Launceston Church Grammar School was opened in May, the Hutchins School in Hobart in August, and Christ's College at Bishopsbourne in October.

Nixon was soon in collision with Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot on the discipline of clergymen within the diocese. Wilmot acknowledged the bishop's control over colonial chaplains even though they were paid by the government, yet he continued to employ and pay two of them whose licences had been withdrawn by Nixon for unbecoming behaviour. His reason for thus thwarting the bishop was that these chaplains had not been 'tried and convicted', although he knew the bishop had no court. The problem of chaplains attached to the convict establishments was, however, more difficult. On 29 May 1844 Nixon put his case clearly in a letter to Lord Stanley; he refused to ordain, licence or have any official responsibility for chaplains to the convicts because they could be appointed, dismissed and restored without his privity and were therefore exclusively under civil jurisdiction. To avoid a clash, Wilmot called these chaplains 'religious instructors' and claimed that their ordination was not an essential qualification. After lengthy correspondence between Nixon, the lieutenant-governor, the secretary of state and the archbishop of Canterbury, a reasonable compromise was reached: the governor was to submit appointments and removals for the bishop's consent, and any disagreements were to be settled by consultation between Downing Street and Canterbury. Stanley hoped to ease tension by appointing Marriott 'superintendent of convict chaplains', but although the plan was supported by the archbishop of Canterbury, it angered Nixon as another instance of lay interference with episcopal authority. Through respect for Stanley and confidence in his archdeacon, he agreed to allow Marriott to act as superintendent, but only by his episcopal authority. Dissatisfied with this solution, Nixon went to England in 1846-48, but he got little support from the archbishop and none from the government. He was able, however, to denounce the convict system which was turning the colony, he said, into 'the lazar house of the British dominions'. In 1847 he gave evidence before a House of Lords committee on the pitiable state of the convicts and the evils of transportation. His plain speaking contributed to the abolitionists' victory in 1853 and also helped to solve the problem of chaplains to the convicts.

Nixon had other difficulties with some of the clergy who had been in the colony before his arrival. Having tasted independence, they did not submit gracefully to his authority and looked on him as an interloper. The senior chaplain, Rev. William Bedford of St David's Church, was quite open in opposition. Three times he refused to produce his commission for inspection and, when Nixon insisted on using his cathedral for Lenten lectures, Bedford and his church wardens asserted their parochial rights over St David's, threatening to close the doors against him and to appeal to the civil authorities against his 'aggression'. The bishop's letters patent enjoined him to 'visit all Rectors, curates and chaplains' in the diocese 'with all manner of jurisdiction, power and coercion ecclesiastical', but they did not authorize the establishment of a consistorial court with power to compel the attendance of witnesses or to examine them on oath. Nixon sought this authority from the lieutenant-governor without success, for other denominations were suspicious. An appeal to London resulted in May 1849 in supplementary letters patent that omitted power to set up a court, and with no strengthening of his disciplinary power his difficulties were increased. The problem was not solved until, in consultation with his clergy and laity, the constitution of a synod was hammered out and given legal effect by the Tasmanian parliament on 5 November 1858. Next May the first synod met for thirteen days. One feature of it was that the laity shared equally with the bishop and clergy in management of the church's affairs. Its principal business was to pass acts for the trial of ecclesiastical offences, for the patronage of parishes and for a general church fund on a voluntary basis in preparation for the withdrawal of state aid.

In October 1850 Nixon went to Sydney for the historic meeting of the six Australasian bishops. Publication in Tasmania of the 'Minutes' of this meeting caused great controversy. The Oxford Movement and ritual question were already disturbing the churches and in some quarters Nixon and a number of his new clergy were accused of Puseyite tendencies. This was far from true; in November 1844 in a dramatic scene at the cathedral Nixon had read a protest against the appointment of a Roman Catholic bishop in Tasmania and solemnly placed the document on the altar. In his visitation charge to the clergy in 1851, he clearly enunciated his 'full belief that soundness in the faith with regard to the sacraments of Christ is a probation against Romanism on the one hand and Puritanism on the other'. Nevertheless publication of the 'Minutes' brought addresses and counter-addresses to the bishop. The chief cause of unrest was the statement on baptismal regeneration, an aftermath of the Privy Council judgment on the Gorham case. Those who feared that the true faith was being undermined in the diocese formed an 'association of members of the Church of England for maintaining in Van Diemen's Land the principles of the Protestant Reformation'. Led by Rev. Henry Fry they published a protest in the form of a 'solemn declaration', maintaining among other things the right of private judgment. With a high sense of his office and prerogatives, and of the need for discipline, Nixon maintained that private judgment in matters on which the church had declared her faith in the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-nine Articles was not consistent for any member of that church. He therefore refused preferment to anyone who had been a party to the protest. After long trouble and tension, his attitude mellowed, and on 1 June 1855 the Tasmanian Church Chronicle, reporting his third visitation, paid this tribute: 'we must be allowed to record our admiration of the perfect confidence and cordiality with which the Bishop placed himself in the hands of his clergy. His Lordship is better understood now than he seems to have been four years ago'. In recommending rather than enjoining the introduction of a weekly offertory to help the church to be self-supporting, he set a fine example by giving a tenth of his government income and other generous sums.

In the controversy between churches and government over subsidized education the bishop joined with vigour. Earlier, religious instruction of an Anglican type had a prominent place in the public day schools. In May 1839, however, a newly appointed Board of Education changed to a quasi-secular system, which provided for daily Bible readings but forbade denominational teaching, although allowing clergy the right to teach children of their church at convenient hours. Anglicans protested without avail against the spending of public funds on a system of religious education which denied the majority church the right to instruct her children in their own faith. The bishop urged clergy and people to repudiate state aid on these conditions, and to establish church schools financed by their own efforts, and where that was not possible, to organize Sunday schools.

Nixon never spared himself in the pastoral oversight of his large diocese, which included King Island, the Furneaux group and even Norfolk Island. In 1849 his yacht was stolen and never recovered, but he still contrived to visit the Bass Strait islands and northern Tasmanian settlements. His Cruise of the Beacon, published in 1854 with his own illustrations, records one such visit. At his home, between travelling, he had interviews, voluminous correspondence, administrative duties, reading and the preparation of sermons and lectures. Even so, he found time for his family and for music, sketching and painting.

In 1847 he was described as 'a remarkable man both in appearance and character, good-looking, coal-black hair … piercing black eyes, and full, rather thick lips; tenacious of his rights, extremely anxious to be correct with regard to costume and all other points of etiquette, devoted to the fine arts and a beautiful draughtsman'. But twenty years of pioneering took their toll. After illness in 1862 he went to England hoping to improve his health and to return next year. But he was no better and resigned from 19 August 1863, telling the archbishop of Canterbury that he could not conscientiously retain his office with satisfaction to himself or with efficiency to the church. He was given the important living of Bolton Percy, Yorkshire, but his health did not improve. In 1865 he retired to Vignolo on Lake Maggiore, Italy, which he loved. The milder climate brought benefit, although he was seldom free from his 'tooth-ache in the back'. He died on 7 April 1879, and was buried in the British cemetery at Stresa.

Nixon married three times. In 1829 he married Frances Maria Streatfield (d.1834) by whom he had three children, Frances Maria, Robert and Harriet. In 1836 he married Anna Maria, daughter of Charles Woodcock; they had eight children. Anna Maria was a devoted wife who acted as his secretary. She also sketched and played the organ at St David's. Two years after Anna's death at Vignolo on 26 November 1868, Nixon married Flora Elizabeth Muller, who bore him two sons.

In the new cathedral in Hobart Nixon is remembered by a stained glass window and by the side chapel. A portrait in oils by Rev. J. Dixon is in the possession of Holy Trinity Church, Launceston. A number of his water-colours are in the Diocesan Registry, Hobart, and others in private hands.

Select Bibliography

  • F. R. Nixon, Charge Delivered to the Clergy of the Diocese of Tasmania (Hob, 1846, 1851, 1855)
  • N. Nixon, Pioneer Bishop in Van Diemen's Land 1843-1863 (Hob, 1954)
  • Tasmanian Church Chronicle, Jan 1852–Dec 1856
  • N. Batt and M. Roe, ‘Conflict within the Church of England in Tasmania, 1850-1858’, Journal of Religious History, vol 4, no 1, June 1966, pp 39-62).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

W. R. Barrett, 'Nixon, Francis Russell (1803–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 May 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

Francis Russell Nixon (1803-1879), by unknown photographer

Francis Russell Nixon (1803-1879), by unknown photographer

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001126073857

Life Summary [details]


1 August, 1803


7 April, 1879 (aged 75)

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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.