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George Taplin (1831–1879)

by G. K. Jenkin

This article was published:

George Taplin (1831-1879), missionary and teacher, was born on 24 August 1831 at Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, England. At 12 he went to live with his maternal grandfather in Andover, Hampshire, and was educated there in a private school. His father died when he was 14 and in 1842 he became a solicitor's clerk at Andover. A committed Congregationalist, from the age of 15 he had desired to become an overseas missionary. He arrived in Adelaide in the Anna Maria on 12 October 1849 and worked as a labourer and as a lawyer's clerk.

In June 1851 Taplin was recruited for the ministry by Rev. T. Q. Stow. He lived with Stow, studying and working in the garden for his board and lodging. On 28 February 1853 at Payneham he married Martha Burnell, a servant of Stow's who also aspired to missionary work. In October they went to Currency Creek and later to Port Elliot where in February 1854 Taplin opened a school. The Central Board of Education took it over but he remained as teacher until 1859. That year the Aborigines Friends Association appointed him as their first missionary-teacher at a salary of £200 to work in the lower Murray districts. The site he chose for a settlement on the shores of Lake Alexandrina was a traditional camping ground called Raukkan (The Ancient Way), known to Europeans as Point McLeay.

On 4 April Taplin began his mission to the Narrinyeri (Ngarrindjeri), the confederacy of eighteen tribes that had previously owned the country around the lower Murray lakes. He met immediate opposition from John Baker who leased the cattle station in the area from which the mission land was cut. In 1860 Taplin and the Aborigines Friends Association faced a Legislative Council select committee which had been organized by Baker ostensibly into Aboriginal affairs, but which was heavily slanted towards the Point McLeay mission. Taplin weathered the inquiry and worked on vigorously, teaching, building, proselytising, establishing farming, dispensing government rations and acting as a mechanic and district physician. Later he acquired a teaching assistant.

Taplin was ordained by the Congregational Church in 1868 so that he could administer sacraments and solemnize marriages; next year the chapel, still in regular use, was completed and opened. Keenly interested in Ngarrindjeri culture and society, he learned their language, used it in preaching, and translated and published Bible tracts. He published invaluable anthropological studies which were much superior to contemporary work on South Australian Aboriginals. His papers on philology and ethnology were acclaimed in Australia and abroad. His most important books were: The Narrinyeri (Adelaide, 1874), with a second, enlarged edition in 1878 and included next year in Native Tribes of South Australia, edited by J. D. Woods; and The Folklore, Manners, Customs, and Languages of the South Australian Aborigines (1879), which he edited.

Despite his sympathy with the people and their traditions, Taplin adhered to the contemporary view that Christianity and Europeanization should be adopted and Ngarrindjeri civilization abandoned; as a result he assisted in undermining their government and social structure, further weakened traditional discipline and morale within the confederacy and provoked strong opposition from conservative tribal members. But they had been dispossessed and persecuted before his arrival, and by helping them become literate and numerate and to acquire trades he enabled them to survive and flourish briefly in European society. Today hundreds of their descendants remain in various districts of Australia; their durability can largely be attributed to Taplin.

He was a compassionate Christian and a courageous fighter. Exhausted, he died of heart disease at Raukkan on 24 June 1879, survived by his wife and six children. He was buried in the village cemetery. Taplin's son Frederick William succeeded him as superintendent of the mission. His estate was sworn for probate at £100.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Rowe, A Century of Service to the Aborigines at Point McLeay, South Australia (Adel, 1960)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1860 (165)
  • Register (Adelaide), 17 Oct 1849, 30 June, 12 July 1879
  • W. R. Bury, The Foundation of the Point McLeay Aboriginal Mission (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1964)
  • Minute books and documents (Aborigines Friends Assn)
  • G. Taplin, journal and material (State Records of South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. K. Jenkin, 'Taplin, George (1831–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 13 June 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]


24 August, 1831
Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, England


24 June, 1879 (aged 47)
Raukkan, South Australia, Australia

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