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William Henry Pownall (1834–1903)

by Barbara Thorn

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William Henry Pownall (1834-1903), Anglican clergyman, was born at Manchester, England, son of John Pownall. In 1857 he was ordained deacon by the bishop of Victoria (Hong Kong) at Islington, London, and appointed chaplain to the Sailors' Mission at Shanghai, supported by the Colonial and Continental Church Society. With his wife Sarah, née Backett, he reached Shanghai on 3 June 1858 and, despite climatic effects on his health, worked faithfully with the European crews of the ships. He was ordained priest on 18 March 1860. After his wife died of cholera he returned to England with his three daughters on 24 November 1862.

Pownall renewed his friendship with Mesac Thomas, secretary of the Colonial and Continental Church Society, and on Thomas's appointment as bishop of Goulburn in 1863, agreed to join him in New South Wales. In 1864 in London Pownall married Sarah Sophia Swayne. He reached Goulburn in June and at Lambing Flat held his first service on 14 August in a 'little iron room with mud floor, borrowed forms and dingy kerosene lamp'. The physical demands of his large parishes were exacting and sheer exhaustion often overcame him, but he created a vigorous church community. He laid the foundation stone of St John the Evangelist's Church, Young, on 21 March 1865 and next year added a schoolhouse. In the turbulent mining community he preached and expected high standards of spiritual life from his people and worked to improve their education by weekly lectures in English history. In 1867-69 by arrangement with the Sydney diocese he also held services on the new goldfield at Grenfell.

In January 1870 Pownall moved to the Tumut and Adelong district and with 'customary energy' built up church activities, completing the parsonage and encouraging the Adelong people to build a church. In 1872-93 he had charge of the parish of Wagga Wagga, where he was a member of the Hospital Board and interested in the Working Men's Association. His high standards led to differences of opinion with many citizens and his hard-hitting Evangelical principles were criticized and satirized by the press. As a parish priest he was loved and respected but an aggressive element in his personality did not help him to work harmoniously with church committees.

In January 1874 Pownall was appointed archdeacon of the western part of Goulburn diocese and one of three commissaries to administer the diocese when Bishop Thomas was absent in 1874-75. Despite the illness of his wife, Pownall ably handled the complex problems of the diocese. In 1874 he was granted the Lambeth B.A. degree and in 1884 made a canon of St Saviour's Cathedral, Goulburn. Although he found synods an 'abomination', he took a leading part in their affairs. In 1889 he was appointed vicar-general and took charge during Bishop Thomas's last illness until the consecration of William Chalmers in November 1892. In 1891 he had become dean of St Saviour's Cathedral and as registrar of the diocese in 1892-95 assisted Chalmers in the settlement of the cathedral dispute. He returned to Young in 1895 and when Chalmers died in November 1901 acted again as vicar-general. As acting registrar with temporary charge of the parish of West Goulburn, he gave invaluable help to the incoming bishop, C. G. Barlow.

In September 1903 Pownall resigned from the Young parish but died of diabetes in Goulburn on 29 November and was buried at St Saviour's Cathedral. He was survived by two daughters of his first wife, and by his second wife and their two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £3316.

Select Bibliography

  • Colonial and Continental Church Society, Annual Report (Lond, 1859-63)
  • M. Thomas, Letter-book 1865-90 (St Mark's Institute of Theology, Canberra)
  • W. H. Pownall, Letter-book 1874-78 (Church of England Diocesan Registry, Canberra).

Citation details

Barbara Thorn, 'Pownall, William Henry (1834–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 20 May 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

Life Summary [details]


Manchester, Greater Manchester, England


29 November, 1903 (aged ~ 69)
Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia

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