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Edward Holdsworth Sugden (1854–1935)

by Owen Parnaby

This article was published:

Edward Holdsworth Sugden (1854-1935), by unknown photographer, 1898

Edward Holdsworth Sugden (1854-1935), by unknown photographer, 1898

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1387

Edward Holdsworth Sugden (1854-1935), clergyman and educationist, was born on 19 June 1854 at Ecclesfield, Yorkshire, England, eldest son of Rev. James Sugden, Wesleyan minister, and his wife Sarah, née Holdsworth. Edward was educated at Woodhouse Grove, a boarding school between Bradford and Leeds for the sons of Wesleyan Methodist ministers. Life was spartan and discipline severe, but the teaching sound and thorough, and in his final year in 1870 he won the Gilchrist scholarship to Owens College, Manchester, where he read for University of London degrees (B.A., 1872; B.Sc., 1876). In 1874 he was accepted for training as a Wesleyan Methodist minister at Headingley Theological College, Leeds, where he was also tutor in classics, an appointment rare for one so young. After seven years at Headingley he served as a minister in two circuits in the Bradford area. In 1887 Sugden was appointed master of the new Queen's College at the University of Melbourne.

Some Methodists feared that, by combining their theological institution with a university college, the religious zeal of their theological students might be dissipated by secular learning. That these fears proved groundless and that this first Methodist theological institution was to become the most influential in Australia, were due in a large measure to Sugden in whose personality the evangelical zeal of Wesley and the humanism of the university tradition were in accord. He came to hold the two highest offices of Australian Methodism: president of the Victorian and Tasmanian conference in 1906 and president general of the Methodist Church of Australasia in 1923-26. On the other hand he was equally at home and accepted in the university and among his friends in the Melbourne Beefsteak Club. A fellow member wrote, 'No one has ever been found to suggest that he was a bad parson or a bad Methodist. At the same time, he is a man of the world, a man of science, a musical enthusiast and a universal favourite'. Ecumenical in outlook, he initiated joint theological teaching with the Baptists from 1895 and with the Congregationalists from 1902. He encouraged the theological students of different denominations to form a combined theological students' association and to participate in the Student Christian Union. He was a liberal in the British political sense and brought to Melbourne the spirit which had made the Nonconformist conscience so influential in British politics. Soon after his arrival, Sugden began a Sunday evening People's Service at Wesley Church, Lonsdale Street, which became a centre for evangelism, fellowship and social welfare on the model of similar centres in British cities. It led to the founding of the Wesley Central Mission in 1893.

Sugden stamped his personality on the college of which he was master for forty years. From his closest friend and mentor, Benjamin Hellier, governor of Headingley College, he adopted the precept of trying to find something in every person that he could respect, and to build on that. Sugden expected the best from those in his charge, yet he was tolerant and understanding of their failures. For him the college was a family wherein the older members provided a supportive environment in which the younger could develop their talents and sense of social responsibility. To successive generations of Queen's students, tutors and masters, this characteristic was accepted and upheld as the Sugden tradition. Sugden gathered around him distinguished scholars and involved them in the life of the college. The first honorary fellows included three anthropologists of world stature, Lorimer Fison, William Howitt, and (Sir) Baldwin Spencer. Among professors newly appointed to the university from overseas whom he welcomed as resident members were William Ralph Boyce Gibson, Harold Woodruff, (Sir) Robert Wallace and (Sir) Samuel Wadham.

An influential figure in university affairs, in 1891 Sugden was appointed a founding member of the University Extension Board. In 1900 he refused to join his fellow heads of church schools and university colleges when, under the leadership of Dr Alexander Leeper of Trinity, they petitioned the university council not to renew George Marshall-Hall's appointment on the grounds that he was unacceptable as a teacher of the young—especially young women—because he had published a book of love lyrics which paraphrased Hymns Ancient and Modern. On the day the petition was to be presented, Sugden published a letter in the Argus stating that, as a member of Marshall-Hall's conservatorium orchestra and father of a daughter who took his classes, he had never heard anything objectionable or immoral in the professor's conduct. Two months later Sugden's stand was vindicated when he defeated Judge Sir Robert Molesworth in an election to the university council which reflected the division on the Marshall-Hall question. He remained a member of the council until 1925.

A Liberal Imperialist, at the age of sixty Sugden offered his services on the outbreak of World War I. He was appointed chaplain with the rank of captain and throughout the war spent half of each working day ministering to the troops in training at Royal Park. He was not a jingoist, but his students had no doubt that he thought they should enlist. Sugden was chairman of the committee of the University Conservatorium of Music and a member of the university council when, in the fever that followed the first casualty lists from Gallipoli, Leeper moved for the immediate dismissal of two German nationals from the university staff, one of them, Edward Scharf, a teacher at the conservatorium. While (Sir) John MacFarland, (Sir) David Masson and others opposed this motion, Sugden supported Lawrence Adamson's motion that the appointments be not renewed when they expired in December 1915. When that time came, as chairman of the conservatorium committee Sugden moved the termination of Scharf's appointment, though he would have preferred it to be deferred.

Apart from his vocation as a preacher and pastor, Sugden had three passions: literature, the theatre and music. His tutorials in literature at Queen's were legendary, attracting students from the other colleges and non-residents from the university. Twice Sugden took charge of teaching in the English department. From his youth he had been an avid book-collector and his library of first editions of John Wesley's works, which he donated to the college, was among the best in the world. He was a trustee of the Public Library, museums and National Gallery of Victoria from 1902 and its president in 1933-35, and he was the first chairman of Melbourne University Press in 1922-25. His own publications included translations from the classics, a metrical edition of the Psalms, an edition of Wesley's sermons, and, with (Sir) Frederic Eggleston, a biography of George Swinburne (1931). His major book, for which he was awarded a Litt.D. (1918) from the University of Melbourne, was A Topographical Dictionary of the Works of Shakespeare and his Fellow Dramatists (1925), a standard reference, but one that did not offer scope for those qualities for which he was most admired—wisdom, humour and literary expression. In 1911 he was president of the educational and mental science section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Sydney. He was president of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society in 1914-15.

On the college foundation day each year he directed the students in the production of a play, usually Shakespearean, which gained the college a reputation for the quality of its productions. It was in music, however, that he excelled. As a student at Owens College he had been a pupil of (Sir) John Frederick Bridge, organist of Manchester Cathedral and later of Westminster Abbey. Sugden had sung in the Leeds Festival Choir and conducted combined choirs in Bradford and Melbourne. He played the viola in Marshall-Hall's orchestra and in informal string quartets. In 1904-12 he was music critic for the Argus and Australasian, and from 1915 enjoyed a close association with Dr Alfred Floyd, organist and choir master of St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne.

Sugden retired from Queen's in 1928 and visited England to deliver the Fernley Lecture to the British Methodist Conference, published as Israel's Debt to Egypt (1928). He died at his Hawthorn home on 22 July 1935 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. Sugden married twice. His first wife, Mary Florence, née Brooke, whom he had married at Stockport, Cheshire, England, on 22 August 1878, died in childbirth in 1883. On 27 October 1886 he had married Ruth Hannah Thompson at Bradford, Yorkshire, England. She predeceased him in 1932. Three daughters of each marriage survived him.

Sugden was a big man, fair, fresh complexioned, with a charming smile. In later life he suffered arthritis of the hips and was confined to a wheel-chair. A member of the Metropolitan Golf Club, he was a keen follower of other sports, especially cricket. There are two portraits of him by Charles Wheeler, one at Queen's College painted in 1910, the other in the National Gallery of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • M. F. Sugden, Edward H. Sugden (Melb, 1941)
  • Methodist Magazine (London), 145, Oct 1922, p 727
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 July 1935
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 July 1935
  • Sugden papers (Queen's College Archives, Melbourne).

Citation details

Owen Parnaby, 'Sugden, Edward Holdsworth (1854–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Edward Holdsworth Sugden (1854-1935), by unknown photographer, 1898

Edward Holdsworth Sugden (1854-1935), by unknown photographer, 1898

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1387

Life Summary [details]


19 June, 1854
Ecclesfield, Yorkshire, England


22 July, 1935 (aged 81)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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