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William Scott (1825–1917)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

William Scott (1825-1917), Church of England clergyman and astronomer, was born on 8 October 1825 at Hartland, Devon, England, fourth son of Thomas Scott. He was brought up at Braunton near Barnstaple, and educated at Blundell's School, Tiverton. In 1844 he went up as a scholar to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (B.A., 1848, third wrangler; M.A., 1851). After a college fellowship he was given the Taylor's mathematical lectureship in 1850. Made deacon in 1849, he was ordained priest in 1850 by Bishop Turton of Ely and served a curacy in the Cambridge slum district of Barnwell, but his interest remained in mathematics. On 8 November 1851 he married a widow Elizabeth Anne Yonge, née Roberts, who had three sons by her first husband. Prompted by his family responsibilities he became a mathematics coach, soon built up a good connexion at the university and in 1853 published a small textbook on plane co-ordinate geometry. He tired of coaching and in April 1856 he accepted the position of colonial astronomer in New South Wales.

Scott and his family arrived at Sydney on 31 October. He found that astronomical work had long been neglected but he superintended the erection of the observatory at Dawes Point, secured the appointment of an observatory board and instituted meteorological records throughout the colony. By 1859 he was making systematic observations; in 1861 the acquisition of an equatorial telescope enabled him to enlarge his work; he planned a magnetic survey of the colony and reported that despite the shortage of staff and equipment 'the establishment is now complete in every respect'.

On 31 October 1862 Scott officially resigned as astronomer because of ill health, but he may have become discouraged by the departure of his patron Governor Denison and public criticism of his refusal to produce 'showy results'. Impulsive and sensitive, he found it difficult to adapt to colonial life, but he became headmaster of the Cook's River collegiate school whose proprietor was Rev. W. H. Savigny. In 1865 Scott succeeded Savigny as warden of St Paul's College in the University of Sydney. His wardenship marked a quiet time at the college, with his plans hampered by the slow rate of university expansion, the competition of the new Presbyterian College of St Andrew and the Church's refusal to recognize education at St Paul's as sufficient training for the ministry. He continued as mathematical examiner for the university and twice deputized for the professor of mathematics. In 1867-74 he was honorary secretary of the Royal Society of New South Wales and treasurer in 1874-78. In 1874 he read a paper to the society on 'The transit of Venus as Observed at Eden' which was published in its Proceedings. In the 1870s he preached frequently on the relation of religion to new scientific ideas but his public activities were not matched by any considerable energy at St Paul's. In 1878 criticism by the college council caused him to resign.

Earlier Scott had professed some scepticism about revealed religion and he had criticized the Sydney clergy. He then took eagerly to a country ministry at Gunning, Bungendore and Queanbeyan; he became a canon of St Saviour's Cathedral, Goulburn, and examining chaplain for Bishop Thomas. He revisited England in 1888 and, apart from some teaching engagements, lived in retirement on his return. Scott died at Chatswood, Sydney, on 29 March 1917 and was buried in the Gore Hill cemetery, survived by a son and two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at almost £7500.

Select Bibliography

  • G. B. Airy, Autobiography, W. Airy ed (Cambridge, 1896)
  • A. Fisher, The Register of Blundell's School, vol 1 (Exeter, 1904)
  • R. T. Wyatt, The History of the Diocese of Goulburn (Syd, 1937)
  • Colonial astronomer papers, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1856-57, 21, 1858-59, 1, 841, 843, 1859-60, 4, 1047, 1861, 2, 395, 1861-62, 2, 1371, 1865, 1, 915
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 51 (1917), 6
  • K. J. Cable, ‘The founding of St Paul's College’, Pauline, 1967, no 65
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Mar 1917
  • Scott letters (copies, State Library of New South Wales)
  • Council minutes 1865-78 (St Paul's College, University of Sydney).

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Scott, William (1825–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 October, 1825
Hartland, Devon, England


29 March, 1917 (aged 91)
Chatswood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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