Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Rennard Orton (1795–1842)

by J. Russell Orton

This article was published:

Joseph Rennard Orton (1795-1842), Wesleyan Methodist missionary, was born on 10 October 1795 at Hull, England, a son of John and Eleanor Orton. While working for a ship chandler in London, he was befriended by a family named Wilkinson through whom he became active in Limehouse Wesleyan Chapel. He found a devoted wife in Sarah Jane Bragg whom he married in 1815. Of their twelve children, four died in infancy.

Entering the Wesleyan ministry in 1826, he was posted to Jamaica, where his concern for the slaves brought him into conflict with the local authorities and landed him in gaol. Eventually he was released, the case quashed and the local magistrates dismissed. But the damage was done. The foul conditions in the gaol seriously undermined his health and ultimately caused his death. To help him to recuperate, the church appointed him in 1830 to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. Next year he was sent to Australia where the critical state of Methodism called for strong leadership. Time proved him a wise choice. Arriving late in 1831, he began to infuse order and new life into the struggling church. His men were stationed as far apart as Parramatta and Hobart Town. Supervision involved weeks away from his home in Sydney and travelling was hazardous and exhausting. In 1832, he made the first of four journeys across the Blue Mountains to minister to the settlements springing up in the interior, preaching to all and sundry along the route, including the chain-gangs.

In 1833, on orders from England, he spent ten weeks in New Zealand, visiting mission stations. Fired by his spirit, Australian Methodism gained a new lease of life. Such was the growth that in 1835 Van Diemen's Land was made a separate district, with Orton at Hobart as first chairman. His pastoral visit to Launceston in 1836 was extended to the infant settlement across Bass Strait, where on 24 April he was the first clergyman to preach in Melbourne. Next year he was corresponding helpfully with the Methodists in the new colony of South Australia. Stirred by the fate of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, Orton published Aborigines of Australia (London, 1836), and pleaded with the new settlers to protect the native population. In their interests he made a special visit to Sydney to secure from Governor Sir George Gipps a grant of land for a mission. His next visit to Port Phillip in 1839 was to help Revs. Hurst and Francis Tuckfield to establish the Buntingdale mission on the Barwon River, and to encourage the young Wesleyan Church in the fast-growing township of Melbourne. Although he was recalled to England in 1839 his departure was indefinitely deferred. He was sent to Tonga on a special mission but got no farther than New Zealand where he was stranded for months. At the end of 1840 he was back in Melbourne, tending the shepherdless flock until a permanent minister arrived. To the last he championed the case of the Aboriginals, conferring with the protectors, protesting against the travesties of justice he witnessed in court, and preparing reports to send to England. A very sick man, Orton sailed in 1842, but died on 30 April while still at sea. Later his family returned to Australia.

Orton is little known outside his own denomination; within it, he is almost a legend. His saintly spirit has left its mark upon his church. That he saved it, is widely agreed. Its early history in four Australian States is inextricably bound up with his name. More should be known of his gallant efforts on behalf of the coloured people, whose cause he espoused in Jamaica, Australia and New Zealand.

Select Bibliography

  • J. W. Miller, ‘Joseph Orton’, Journal and Proceedings of the Australasian Methodist Historical Society, vol 7, parts 3 & 4, July 1939, pp 335-54
  • Joseph Orton papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. Russell Orton, 'Orton, Joseph Rennard (1795–1842)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 18 April 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]


10 October, 1795
Hull, Yorkshire, England


30 April, 1842 (aged 46)
at sea

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