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William Tyrrell (1807–1879)

by Ruth Teale

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William Tyrrell (1807-1879), Anglican bishop, was born on 31 January 1807 at the Guildhall, London, tenth and youngest child of Timothy Tyrrell, remembrancer of the City of London, and his wife Elizabeth, née Dollond, granddaughter of the optician John Dollond. Educated at St Paul's School, London, Reading Grammar School and Charterhouse, in 1827 he entered St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1831; M.A., 1834; D.D., 1847) and rowed in the same boat as George Augustus Selwyn, later bishop of New Zealand and of Lichfield, England. Made deacon in 1832 and ordained priest on 22 September 1833, he became successively curate of Aylestone near Leicester and Burnham near Maidenhead. In 1839 he was presented by the Duke of Buccleuch to the Beaulieu donative living in Hampshire. In 1841 he declined to accompany Bishop Selwyn to New Zealand as archdeacon, but in March 1847 reluctantly accepted nomination to the new diocese of Newcastle, New South Wales. On 29 June, in Westminster Abbey, he was consecrated by Archbishop Howley with A. Short, C. Perry and Robert Gray (for Cape Town).

On 16 January 1848 Tyrrell reached Sydney in the Medway accompanied by two ordained clergymen, seven candidates for orders whom he had rigorously instructed on the voyage, a schoolmaster and mistress, his gardener and groom from Beaulieu and his housekeeper. On 31 January he was installed at the Newcastle Pro-Cathedral. During his entire episcopate he resided at Closebourne, renamed Bishopscourt, Morpeth, which he bought privately from E. C. Close in 1849. His diocese stretched from the Hawkesbury River north to Wide Bay, and from the Pacific coast west to the South Australian border. It then contained seventeen parishes; some had parsonages and schoolhouses, and nine had consecrated churches. The modest endowment was contributed by the Colonial Bishoprics' Fund.

In his early years, with his well-bred horses, groom and saddle-bags, Tyrrell enjoyed travelling throughout his diocese, confirming, encouraging his clergy, lifting parochial debts and opening bush churches and schools. He helped form dioceses at Brisbane (1859) and Grafton and Armidale (1867); yet in 1879 the diocese of Newcastle still contained twenty-four parishes, all staffed and with parsonages, many with substantial churches. Failing health alone caused him to appoint an archdeacon in December 1878. Despite offers of handsome livings in England from Selwyn, Tyrrell refused to leave Newcastle and was notable among colonial bishops for never visiting England. He was not, he claimed, 'an exciting preacher … encouraging itching ears … instead of being the Bishop of this vast Diocese'.

In asserting that education without religion was anathema, Tyrrell took little stock of colonial opinion. In his own diocese he fought for 'full complete religious Teaching' in Denominational schools and often required candidates for ordination to supply his chronic shortage of schoolmasters. He encouraged parochial Sunday schools, in 1852-53 established a book depository at Morpeth and supported moves to establish a Church of England grammar school at Newcastle and other secondary schools. In 1852 as the only Anglican bishop after Bishop Broughton's departure, he entered the controversy surrounding the establishment of a university, whose 'evil principle … is that its course of instruction is totally devoid of religious teaching'. In a newspaper war with Vice-Provost Sir Charles Nicholson, Tyrrell fought for an autonomous Anglican college with religious as well as secular teaching. He refused to send students to Moore Theological College near Liverpool; instead, candidates for orders were inadequately trained as catechists within the diocese.

In November 1850 Tyrrell attended the Australasian episcopal conference in Sydney which determined to revive synodical church government; he was the only bishop not to have trouble with his laity after it. In April 1851 he convened the first meeting of the Newcastle Church Society, and assembled his first synod in August 1865 without the parliamentary sanction he had earlier supported. He contended that the authority of a synod rested in the voluntary compact made by its members to respect its decisions. Bishop Barker disagreed and the unilateral determination of Sydney churchmen again to approach the legislature began diocesan divergence. Tyrrell argued against those clauses in the Church of England Property Management Act of 1866 that gave autonomy to diocesan synods. However he fostered the Australasian Board of Missions, visited Selwyn in New Zealand in May to September 1851 and was a founder of the mission to the Melanesian Islands. He later sponsored sporadic missions among Aboriginals.

After the loss of £13,000 of his private funds in the collapse of a gas company in England and foreseeing the withdrawal of state aid, Tyrrell drew up an elaborate scheme to provide an episcopal endowment and clergy stipend and superannuation funds. He invested his own and diocesan moneys in runs in the New England and Clarence districts, where in 1866 he held 106,000 acres (42,897 ha), and on the Culgoa in Queensland. A man of fine physique, Tyrrell lived simply, his habits methodical and painstaking. Retiring by temperament, his manner was stiff, even austere. A High Churchman of the old school, he taught the Apostolic succession and exalted the duties and dignity of the episcopal office. In 1861-66 his autocratic interference in parochial wrangles at the Newcastle Cathedral alienated its laity. In August 1877 a stroke left him partially paralysed and he consulted Selwyn about appointing a coadjutor.

On 24 March 1879 Tyrrell died at Morpeth after an operation without chloroform for a strangulated hernia and was buried in St James's churchyard, Morpeth. By his wish his funeral service was that read for Selwyn. Unmarried, his diocese had become his family and he was so closely identified with it that on his death Newcastle was spoken of as 'the widowed Diocese'. In 1879 after poor seasons, Brenda station near Angledool was almost insolvent and his estate, valued for probate at £41,200, seemed unlikely to realize bequests of £250,000. His successor Bishop Pearson in 1882 claimed that Tyrrell's powers as a financier were 'very much over-rated' and it took thirty years to implement the bequests, reduced and amended by a private Act of parliament in December 1910.

Select Bibliography

  • The Church of England and the Sydney University: Documents and Correspondence (Syd, 1852)
  • R. G. Boodle, The Life and Labours of the Right Rev. William Tyrrell, D.D. (Lond, 1881)
  • A. P. Elkin, The Diocese of Newcastle (Syd, 1955)
  • D. O'Donnell, The Christ Church Cathedral Controversy, 1861-1866 (Newcastle, 1967)
  • Australian Churchman (Sydney), 27 Mar 1879
  • Australasian Missionary News, Aug-Oct 1889
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25, 26 Mar 1879
  • B. R. Davis, The Church of England in New South Wales: The Beginnings and Development of Training Men for its Ministry … 1825-1925 (M.A. thesis, University of Newcastle, 1966)
  • Selwyn papers and SPG papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • W. Tyrrell diary (Diocesan Registry, Newcastle).

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Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'Tyrrell, William (1807–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 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]


31 January, 1807
London, Middlesex, England


24 March, 1879 (aged 72)
Morpeth, New South Wales, Australia

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