Australian Dictionary of Biography

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George Spencer Oakes (1855–1932)

by Ruth Teale

This article was published:

George Spencer Oakes (1855-1932), Anglican clergyman, was born on 10 December 1855 at Crookwell, New South Wales, son of John Leigh Oakes, grazier, and his wife Elizabeth Mary, née Shelley, both Parramatta born. His father was a son of Francis Oakes and his mother a granddaughter of William Shelley. In 1864 his family moved to Mittagong but George often stayed with his cousin the Rev. James Hassall, gaol chaplain and minister at Berrima. Oakes attended Berrima Public School and in August 1870 became a pupil-teacher. From 1872 he taught and studied at St James' Denominational School in Sydney and in 1874 attended Fort Street Training School. He served at various Sydney schools and in August 1875 was appointed assistant teacher at Bathurst Public School. He resigned in August 1877.

His uncle the Rev. Thomas Hassall encouraged George to enter the ministry. Bishop Barker deprecated his inadequate education, but Canon Thomas Smith had Oakes appointed a lay reader at Milltown (South Bathurst). He studied also with Edwin Bean and Bishop Marsden. Made deacon on 21 December 1878 and priested on 21 December 1879 by Marsden, Oakes was 'turned loose' upon 'the wild and woolly west' and promptly forgot his book learning, which he later claimed was 'no great disadvantage'. He served at Coonamble (1879), Brewarrina (1883), Wilcannia (1883), Bourke (1887) and Warren (1888). He had married Helen Nina Colquhoun at Prahran, Melbourne, on 15 July 1885.

Oakes was a superb bushman. He drove like Jehu, furiously, anything in tandem and after 1918 a motor car. He could break a horse, camp out overnight or swim a flooded river; he claimed to have married, buried or baptized a member of every family west of Dubbo, and was generally acknowledged to be the parson in A. B. Paterson's poem, 'The Bush Christening'. He was popular on outback stations for his recitations of A. L. Gordon's poetry.

In 1894 Oakes became rector of Holy Trinity, Kelso, and in 1902 sub-dean of the pro-cathedral there. That year he went to South Africa as a chaplain with the 1st Australian Commonwealth Horse and was awarded the Queen's Medal. On his return, he became rural dean of Bathurst, archdeacon in 1903 and in 1905 chaplain to the Commonwealth Military Forces and Bathurst gaol. When administrator of the diocese in 1911-23, his strong personality, family connexions and knowledge of the west were invaluable. He frequently represented Bathurst on provincial and general synods.

His excellent memory for the names of stations and their owners and affiliations made him a good journalist. He founded and edited the diocesan Church News, and later wrote for the Bush Brother, the Castlereagh (Gilgandra), the Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph. His articles were lively and often challenging. He also published Jubilee of the Diocese of Bathurst, 1870-1920 (1920) and Kelso Church and the Pioneers of the West (1923). Oakes retired from Kelso in 1924, became honorary historical secretary of the Australasian Pioneer's Club, Sydney, and published 'Bush memories' in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (1921).

Survived by his wife and two daughters, Oakes died at Bathurst on 17 August 1932. His only son, Trooper Arthur Wellesley Oakes had died on Gallipoli in 1915. Many memorials to the family adorn Holy Trinity, Kelso.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Mail, 19 Mar 1930
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Mar 1921, 10, 31 July 1926, 18 Aug 1932
  • Church Standard, 26 Aug 1937
  • R. M. Teale, By Hook or by Crook: The Anglican Diocese of Bathurst, 1870-1911 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1968)
  • Hassall papers, box 1 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • newsclippings, vols 165, 166 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'Oakes, George Spencer (1855–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 December, 1855
Crookwell, New South Wales, Australia


17 August, 1932 (aged 76)
Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia

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.