Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Charles Owen Leaver Riley (1854–1929)

by Peter Boyce

This article was published:

Charles Owen Leaver Riley (1854-1929), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Charles Owen Leaver Riley (1854-1929), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

State Library of Western Australia, 004520D

Charles Owen Leaver Riley (1854-1929), archbishop, was born on 26 May 1854 at Birmingham, England, eldest child of Rev. Lawrence William Riley, a Cheshire vicar, and his wife Emma, née Shaw. Riley was educated at Heversham Grammar School and Owens College, Manchester; he then attended Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he completed the mathematics tripos (B.A., 1878; M.A., 1881; D.D., 1894). He was made deacon in 1878 and ordained priest next year. After serving curacies in York and Manchester, in 1885 he became rector of St Paul's, Preston, and from next year served concurrently as surrogate to the bishop of Manchester. On 7 January 1886 he married Elizabeth Merriman; they had three daughters and three sons. No sooner had he accepted the more prosperous living of Morecombe, Lancashire, in 1894, than he was offered the bishopric of Perth as successor to Bishop H. H. Parry. Riley was consecrated by the archbishop of Canterbury on 18 October and arrived in Western Australia on 3 February 1895.

His episcopate spanned thirty-four years; he arrived two years after the discovery of gold at Kalgoorlie, and died on the eve of the Depression. In between, the State's population had quadrupled to 400,000. At first Riley felt very isolated, but after the gold rush three new Anglican dioceses were created: Bunbury in 1904, the North-West in 1909 and Kalgoorlie in 1914. With the third see, Western Australia became a Church of England province with Riley as its metropolitan and archbishop. He travelled extensively through his vast diocese, although he rarely visited the North-West, and overseas, attending Lambeth conferences in 1897 and 1908. He found it difficult to recruit suitable clergy for the primitive and distant mining communities; but supervised the completion of St George's Cathedral, Perth, and authorized many new parishes, forty-five within his diocese. His position was Broad rather than High Church.

Although nearly 40 per cent of Western Australians were nominally Anglican during Riley's episcopate, the number enrolled in parishes never exceeded 12,000. However, the gregarious archbishop's influence was quite disproportionate to the size of his flock of regular communicants. He projected himself into civic affairs and cultivated friendships with leaders in politics, commerce and the professions—possibly, at times, at the expense of attention to routine administrative and pastoral concerns within his own ecclesiastical polity. However, one historian has noted his meticulous and businesslike methods. He was Perth's official representative at the 1911 coronation and in 1919 the government accorded him a special place in the table of precedence immediately below the chief justice, as a tribute 'personal to the present Archbishop'. In 1920 he was appointed O.B.E.

He interested himself in military affairs, tertiary education, Freemasonry and social welfare. Public issues, especially strikes in the transport industry, regularly engaged Riley's attention and occasionally his direct involvement. In the Perth tramway strike of 1918 he organized a citizens' strike committee; in the wharf stoppage of May 1919 he enlisted the Roman Catholic archbishop's co-operation to influence the government; and in December 1920–January 1921 he was chief arbitrator in the famous railway strike. His mediation was not always welcomed by the labour press; the communist Katharine Susannah Prichard, for one, scorned churchmen who 'pose as generous and noble patrons of the poor'.

In 1916 Archbishop Riley was appointed Anglican chaplain general of the Australian Imperial Force, having been senior chaplain to the Western Australian Defence Force from 1895. He sought to expand the Anglican chaplaincy corps, but his plan for one chaplain to every troopship failed. Late in 1916 he visited the Western Front, and on the return voyage his troopship Ivernia was torpedoed amidships in the Mediterranean, resulting in 130 deaths. Riley lost everything but the clothes he wore ferrying a lifeboat of fifty survivors to a trawler. The tour resulted in the appointment of fifteen more chaplains. It also strengthened his view of conscription, which he supported publicly on the eve of the plebiscites in 1916 and 1917. After the war, though offered the presidency, he became patron of the State branch of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia.

Riley helped his friend Sir Winthrop Hackett to establish the University of Western Australia. In the choice of faculties Riley argued that priority be given to agriculture and mechanical engineering, in 1914 supporting a chair of commerce, and he endorsed Hackett's plea for free tertiary education. He was first warden of convocation in 1912-16. Chancellor in 1916-22, his chairmanship was more aggressive, and possibly less influential, than Hackett's, but he took his duties seriously.

In 1899 Riley had established a small theological college, St John's; it never received an adequate or permanent home, teaching resources were deficient and in 1926 it closed. From the Hackett bequest to tertiary education, however, £104,000 was made available that year towards the establishment of an Anglican residential college affiliated to the university. Riley laid the foundation stone of the chapel to be erected with St George's College in 1928, and it was no accident that the building's modern Gothic style resembled his old Cambridge college.

In the field of secondary education the archbishop blazed few trails, though he eventually (1917) allowed the establishment of a Council of Church of England Schools, linking most diocesan church schools; and in 1920 he allowed the parish of St Mary's, West Perth, to acquire a private girls' school, with his son Rev. C. L. Riley as headmaster. Archbishop Riley clashed frequently with that forceful spokesman for the Anglican school system, Rev. P. U. Henn, Guildford Grammar School's headmaster. But Riley was a regular speaker at teachers' union conferences and had supported a 1903-04 campaign for a secular secondary school rather than the early establishment of a university.

In 1904 Riley began his record term as grand master of the Western Australian Grand Lodge. He reluctantly vacated the office in 1917 to make way for the new governor, Sir William Ellison Macartney; but he resumed it in 1920 and held it until his death, when the lodge boasted 150 branches and 10,000 members. From his Preston days the Archbishop had campaigned vigorously for temperance and against gambling, but seems not to have been labelled a wowser. He identified himself with many voluntary causes, especially in the cultural and welfare fields and was patron, president or committee-member of many associations, being president of the trustees of the Museum, Art Gallery and Public Library in 1920-29. He was 'a man's man', and his hearty good humour and boyish appearance—thick waving hair and chiselled mouth—gave an impression of 'robust muscular Christianity' and a commanding presence. His hobby was carpentry. At his seventieth birthday party in the town hall the premier's representative praised his knack of smiling 'when things were going dead wrong', and his amiable relations with other religious groups.

Despite his English orientation and Imperial sentiments—he depended heavily on English recruits to swell the ranks of his clergy—Riley argued, unsuccessfully, for the Anglican dioceses in Australia to adopt a constitution to liberate them from the English Church. His relationships with senior clergy, notably deans and archdeacons, were sometimes stormy; and in later years he managed without a dean, perhaps partly because the previous one was a forger. After 1914 his visitations to country parishes became rare. His final years were dogged by ill health, but he was reluctant to retire. In January 1929 he gave notice of his resignation; he died of emphysema early on 23 June. A state funeral attracted some 30,000 people, including 1000 returned soldiers, said to be the largest and most representative crowd ever assembled in Perth. He was buried in Karrakatta cemetery.

Riley was survived by his wife and five children. One son Charles Lawrence, bishop of Bendigo, was a chaplain general of the Australian Military Forces in World War II; Basil, the second, a correspondent of The Times, had been assassinated in China in 1927. A posthumous portrait of Archbishop Riley hangs in the University of Western Australia's senate room.

Select Bibliography

  • C. L. M. Hawtrey, The Availing Struggle (Perth, 1949)
  • P. J. Boyce, ‘The first archbishop’, F. Alexander (ed), Four Bishops and Their See (Nedlands, 1957)
  • British Australasian, 17 Jan 1895, 1 Feb 1917
  • West Australian, 19 Oct 1901, 27 May 1924.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Boyce, 'Riley, Charles Owen Leaver (1854–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 April 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

Charles Owen Leaver Riley (1854-1929), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Charles Owen Leaver Riley (1854-1929), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

State Library of Western Australia, 004520D

Life Summary [details]


26 May, 1854
Birmingham, Warwickshire, England


23 June, 1929 (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.