Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Symes (1841–1906)

by F. B. Smith

This article was published:

Joseph Symes (1841-1906), secularist and publicist, was born on 29 January 1841 at Portland, Dorset, England. His parents were devout Wesleyans. At 17 Symes underwent conversion and started as a lay preacher. In 1864, encouraged by his mother, he entered the Wesleyan college at Richmond to train for the ministry. Here the shy, weakly youth was pained by the levity he remarked in his fellow seminarians. He joined his probationary circuit in Kilmarnock, Scotland, in September 1867. In 1871 at Kilmarnock he married Matilda Wilson, née Weir, a widow.

Reports of the declaration of papal infallibility and the Franco-Prussian war first shook Symes's belief in providence. He suffered a physical and mental crisis and was ordered rest from his clerical duties. In July 1872 he refused ordination and resigned his charge. His health recovered next year when he became lecturer to the Northern Union of Mechanics' Institutes and a speaker for the National Agricultural Labourers' Union. Setbacks to the Labourers' Union in 1875 confirmed his suspicions of divine beneficence and in May 1876 he joined the National Secular Society and began contributing to Bradlaugh's National Reformer and the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle. Next year he was appointed lecturer to the N.S.S. in Newcastle upon Tyne. Symes's compelling honesty and fervent eloquence enlarged the congregation. He was now a keen astronomer and zoologist and his scientific expositions were acclaimed. In 1881 he became a vice-president of the N.S.S. and lecturer in Birmingham, where he established a secularist boarding-school. His rise was checked when he sided with the flamboyant G. W. Foote in challenging the blasphemy laws; Foote was prosecuted for blasphemy in 1882. Symes was contemptuous of 'dilettante freethinkers' who flinched from publicizing the cruelties and lies of Christianity.

During this dispute the Victorian secularists asked Bradlaugh to send them an organizer. He nominated Symes, who arrived in Melbourne with his wife on 24 February 1884. Within the year he had bought a printing press, begun the weekly Liberator and provided his flock with secular meetings, sermons and Sunday schools. In October he presided at the second Australasian Freethought Conference. Aroused by the smugly parochial, wowserish society of his exile, he led agitations for free speech, an uncensored press, excursion trains and the opening of art galleries and public libraries on Sundays. The Lord's Day Observance Society and the Victorian government retaliated with three major and some minor prosecutions in 1885-87. Unable to engage reliable counsel, Symes defended himself in the courts and routed his persecutors. These harassments worsened his health and temper. He became dictatorial with his followers and his denunciations of cant became increasingly strident and exhibitionist. The Australasian Secular Association broke up in 1888. Backed by a faithful few, Symes struggled on with the Liberator and the Sunday meetings.

At the Legislative Assembly elections of 1889 Symes ran for Collingwood. His programme included land nationalization, graduated income tax, abolition of colonial titles and governorships, a free Sunday, legalized contraception, the ending of discrimination against Chinese, and Home Rule for Ireland, Scotland and Wales; he came last. In 1892 he retired before the poll for want of money. His radicalism, probably the most extreme to be announced in nineteenth-century Australia, was too thorough for the Democratic Club, which thrice black-balled him; he was also excluded from the Field Naturalists' Club.

The secularist movement became quiescent in the early 1890s. Symes's wife died on 21 March 1892. Ill and impoverished he retired to Cheltenham with his second wife Agnes Taylor, née Wilson, whom he had married at Collingwood on 4 May 1893; he continued to issue the Liberator until 1904. He died of chronic heart disease in London on 28 December 1906 while visiting England, survived by his wife and his daughter Stella. His death passed apparently without comment in the colonies; yet he contributed much to the distinctive sharpness of argument and combative righteousness of radicalism in Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Coleman, Obscenity, Blasphemy, Sedition (Brisb, 1962)
  • F. B. Smith, ‘Joseph Symes and the Australasian Secular Association’, Labour History, no 5, Nov 1963
  • F. B. Smith, Religion and Freethought in Melbourne, 1870 to 1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

F. B. Smith, 'Symes, Joseph (1841–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 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]


29 January, 1841
Portland, Dorset, England


28 December, 1906 (aged 65)
London, Middlesex, England

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