Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Purves (1811–1870)

by Alan Dougan

This article was published:

William Purves (1811-1870), Presbyterian minister, was born on 26 July 1811 at Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland, son of William Purves, artificer. Educated at the parish school, he attended arts classes at the University of Edinburgh in 1827-28 and 1830-31 while studying for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. He was licensed by the Presbytery of Dunbar on 6 April 1836 and arrived at Sydney in 1839. Ordained by the Presbytery of Sydney on 14 December 1840, he was inducted minister at Port Macquarie, where he had the first church and manse built and ministered to settlers in the Hastings, Macleay and Manning Rivers districts. In 1844 the presbytery investigated rumours about him, possibly involving alcohol, but they proved unfounded and malicious. In 1846 after Rev. William McIntyre's defection Purves was appointed to gather the remnant which remained loyal to the church established at East Maitland. With success he built up the congregation which he linked with Largs.

Handsome and cultivated, Purves became an influential figure in wider church and public affairs. In 1850-70 he was a fellow of the first Senate of the University of Sydney. He also chaired the committee which led to the foundation of St Andrew's College. After a visit to Scotland in 1852 as delegate to the Church of Scotland Assembly he returned in 1854, having helped to recruit ministers for the colony. In 1861 he toured the Clarence and Richmond Rivers districts, where he established churches. An ardent advocate of unifying the Presbyterian Churches in Australia, he had published A Statement of the Merits of the Controversy between the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland, with Remarks on Union (1854). In 1866 he became second moderator of the reunited New South Wales General Assembly.

Despite their friendly relations, Rev. J. D. Lang claimed that Purves used to 'scamper about the colony in his own private and secular business' buying land in the Illawarra and New Zealand, a partnership in a store near Yass and looking after his sheep and cattle in Queensland. He also owned real estate in Sydney and Port Macquarie. On 31 December 1840 he had married Alison Inglis Adams, of Portobello, Scotland; she died on 27 September 1857. On 29 July 1859 he married Lucy (d.1867), daughter of Robert Havens and widow of Thomas Hyndes, of Cheshunt House, Cumberland Place, Sydney.

Purves resigned his charge on 15 March 1870 and on 14 April sailed in the Patriarch with his daughter, planning a stay in Britain. He died at sea on 26 April, survived by two sons and a daughter by his first wife, to whom he left goods sworn for probate at £17,000. His second son John Mitchell (1847-1915) was a founder of the real estate business, Batt, Rodd & Purves, represented the Clarence in the Legislative Assembly in 1880-87, was mayor of North Sydney, esquire bedell of the University of Sydney and a founder of the Sydney Lancers.

A memorial is in St Stephen's Church, East Maitland, and a portrait in St Andrew's College.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Cameron, Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales (Syd, 1905)
  • A. J. Eipper, The History of the Port Macquarie Charge of the Presbyterian Church (Port Macquarie, c1947)
  • A. D. Gilchrist (ed), John Dunmore Lang (Melb, 1951)
  • C. A. White, The Challenge of the Years (Syd, 1951)
  • Maitland Mercury, 27 July 1857, 28 July, 6 Aug 1859
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Sept 1870
  • Presbyterian Church, Sydney Presbyterian minutes from 1840, Hunter Presbyterian registers for Maitland, and Purves references (Historical Records Library, Assembly Hall, Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

Alan Dougan, 'Purves, William (1811–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 19 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]


26 July, 1811
Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland


26 April, 1870 (aged 58)
at sea

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