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William Saumarez Smith (1836–1909)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

William Saumarez Smith (1836-1909), by Charlemont & Co., 1889-1909

William Saumarez Smith (1836-1909), by Charlemont & Co., 1889-1909

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24101693

William Saumarez Smith (1836-1909), Anglican archbishop, was born on 14 January 1836 at St Helier, Jersey, eldest and twin son of Lieutenant Richard Snowden Smith of the Rifle Brigade, later an Anglican clergyman, and his wife Anne, née Robin. Proud of his Channel Islands ancestry, he used the characteristic name Saumarez. He was educated at Marlborough College and won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1858; M.A., 1862; B.D., 1872; D.D., 1889), taking most available Greek and Hebrew prizes. Made deacon on 19 June 1859, he was ordained priest on 3 June 1860.

As chaplain (1861-65) to the bishop of Madras, India, Smith acquired enduring missionary interests, publishing Obstacles to Missionary Success Among the Heathen (1868). He returned to Cambridge as curate of the famous Evangelical Church of Holy Trinity and took the college living of Trumpington in 1867. Establishing himself as an orthodox Evangelical scholar, a linguist rather than textual critic, and as a teacher, Smith became principal of St Aidan's Theological College, Birkenhead, in 1869. At Bramfield, Hertfordshire, on 19 April 1870 he married Florence, daughter of Rev. Lewis Deedes. A good administrator and mentor, Smith trained many ordinands (including twenty-seven who were to serve in Australia), but played little part in Church affairs.

In 1889 he accepted the bishopric of Sydney, only to be requested to withdraw. In a comedy of error and ill will, his election as bishop of Sydney (and ex officio primate) had been disputed by some bishops. The archbishop of Canterbury and the secretary of state for the colonies became involved before a second election settled the matter in Smith's favour. It was a bewildered man, shocked by the death of his wife on 14 June, who was consecrated in St Paul's Cathedral, London, on 24 June 1890. He reached Sydney, with his family, on 30 September, knowing that some of his episcopal colleagues resented his coming and had disparaged his qualifications and that his election had been open to public ridicule. He found the great maritime strike in full swing.

Smith's first sermon in his cathedral, where he was enthroned on 9 October, was on 'Christian co-operation': this became his watchword. Dismayed by what he saw as disunity in his Church and disarray in local religion, concerned at the degree of class bitterness in colonial society, he set himself to be a conciliator and a cautious reformer.

The new bishop had much in his favour. With impressive features and demeanour, he looked the part. He was a strong chairman and a good public speaker. A cultivated man, interested in astronomy and botany, he could more than hold his own with colonial intellectuals. While he confessed to a lack of financial acumen (and he hated asking for money), he was a shrewd, though somewhat dilatory, desk man. Smith was a firm Evangelical ready to work with other denominations to effect community reform, and had been recently imbued with the deep sense of interior piety and spiritual perfectionism of the 'Keswick' movement.

He encouraged the general synod (which had little real authority) to legislate for the uniform examining of theological students at a time when small seminaries were proliferating. Better rules were made for the creation of new dioceses and provinces: Victoria and Queensland eventually became ecclesiastical provinces, their metropolitan bishops adopting the title of archbishop, which Smith, after attending the Lambeth Conference, had assumed on 22 September 1897. Despite a widening gap between Low Church Sydney and High Church rural dioceses, he steered the province of New South Wales towards preparing a modernized constitution, sanctioned by the State parliament in 1902. At the diocesan synod, where real power lay, he introduced an effective committee system and gave synod a larger say in clerical appointments and clergy discipline. Despite the economic and social crises of the 1890s, the Church of England emerged as a better working church.

The liveliness of Smith's synod was occasioned by its growing fear of Anglo-Catholic practices. Attempts by Low Churchmen, led by Canon Mervyn Archdall, to have the synod legislate against these practices, especially the wearing of the eucharistic vestments, were either resisted or turned aside by Smith. The archbishop was no friend to 'ritualism'; nor did he uphold the episcopal claim to determine usage, but he would not sanction coercion while the law seemed unclear. He continued to preach restraint: Archdall and his allies called it 'weakness' and thought it worse. At the rejuvenated Moore College, the Evangelical movement became the dominant school under Canon Nathaniel Jones, a Smith appointment. However Smith's caution over ritualism prevented him becoming the leader of a religious revival with which he had great sympathy.

To many Sydney Anglicans, the Anglo-Catholic movement was dangerous because it threatened to undermine the Protestant cause at a time of rising sectarian bitterness. Smith strongly disliked Roman Catholicism and in 1895 chaired a large meeting protesting against Cardinal Moran's attacks on Protestant missions, but in 1899 refused to attend a rally on a like matter. Sectarian controversies worsened but Smith became more and more withdrawn.

A moderate liberal in politics, he favoured a degree of state intervention and improved social conditions, reinforced by his long acquaintance with the social and industrial problems of Merseyside. He approved of the founding of the Church labour home and farm, supported old age pensions and in 1898 became president of the Christian Social Union. By 1901 he was alarmed at the rise of socialism.

In his last years, Smith withdrew from most public affairs. He found routine episcopal duties onerous without an assistant bishop, but spent as much time as possible in his study at Bishopscourt, Randwick. Botany and poetry absorbed his leisure; a collection, Capernaum and Other Poems, was published posthumously in 1911. Survived by seven daughters and a son, he died of cerebral haemorrhage at Darlinghurst on 18 April 1909 and was buried in Waverley cemetery, the first Anglican bishop of Sydney to be laid to rest in Australia, a land with which he had never really come to terms. He was unlucky to preside over the Church of England at a time when a cultured Christian gentleman, of retiring disposition, with a distaste for popular controversy and a horror of aggressive confrontation, was unlikely to find his virtues greatly appreciated.

His portrait is in the Chapter House, Sydney, and a memorial tablet is in St Andrew's Cathedral.

Select Bibliography

  • J. D. Bollen, Protestantism and Social Reform in New South Wales 1890-1910 (Melb, 1972)
  • R. L. Broome, Treasure in Earthen Vessels (Brisb, 1980)
  • S. Judd and K. Cable, Sydney Anglicans (Syd, 1987)
  • Church of England, Sydney Diocese Synod Proceedings, 1889-1910 and General Synod of Australia and Tasmania, Proceedings, 1891-1910 and Provincial Synod of New South Wales, Proceedings, 1892-1908
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 22 Aug 1889, 27 May 1893
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Apr 1909
  • Guardian (Sydney), 21 Apr 1909
  • Record (London), 30 Sept 1909
  • W. S. Smith diary (Sydney Diocesan Archives)
  • Benson and Davidson papers (Lambeth Palace Library).

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Smith, William Saumarez (1836–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 June 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

William Saumarez Smith (1836-1909), by Charlemont & Co., 1889-1909

William Saumarez Smith (1836-1909), by Charlemont & Co., 1889-1909

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24101693

Life Summary [details]


14 January, 1836
St Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands


18 April, 1909 (aged 73)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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