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William Bernard Ullathorne (1806–1889)

by T. L. Suttor

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William Bernard Ullathorne (1806-1889), Catholic prelate, was born on 7 May 1806 at Pocklington, Yorkshire, England, the eldest of ten children of William Ullathorn and his wife Hannah, née Longstaff. His family had forfeited its estates in the sequel to the rebellion of 1745. At 12 his schooling was cut short and he entered the family business at Scarborough. Soon afterwards he was apprenticed before the mast and he was at sea for four years. Ashore in Memel however, he experienced a sudden and decisive religious conversion and in February 1823 he entered the English Benedictine school at Downside, where John Bede Polding was then headmaster. Next year, when Ullathorne sought to become a Benedictine, Polding was his novice-master and continued to dominate his spiritual and intellectual formation. Much under the influence of St Bernard of Clairvaux, Ullathorne wished to become a Trappist, but Polding held him to the English Benedictine Congregation, and after his ordination in 1831 turned his thoughts to the Australian mission in which Polding had long been interested, the English Benedictines having had responsibility for it on paper since June 1818. Opportunity for action came with the appointment of the liberal (Sir) Richard Bourke as governor of New South Wales in 1831 and the consecration in 1832 of W. P. Morris as vicar-apostolic of Mauritius, a mission embracing Australia. On 16 September 1832 Ullathorne sailed for Sydney, empowered to act there as Morris's vicar-general. At 26 he had received under Polding and Browne the best education that the Catholic world could then give, a unique blend of patristic, scholastic and modern learning, which he never ceased to improve on. When equipping himself for Sydney his first concern had been to amass a library of five hundred volumes.  

He looked even younger than he was. When he landed in Hobart Town the vicar-general, Philip Conolly, learnt of his appointment and petitioned the bishop for its revocation. Likewise in Sydney, where he arrived in February 1833, John Joseph Therry was at first patronizing. Ullathorne, however, took control without any hesitation, leaning much on the advice of John McEncroe, for Therry commanded a party at odds both with other priests in the colony and with the government. Governor Bourke, McEncroe and the leading Catholic laymen were all relieved to have Ullathorne's clear business head in charge. By July the Legislative Council made grants for the appointment of four new chaplains, the completion of three unfinished churches, and £800 a year for schools and schoolteachers. By Christmas St Mary's was in use and Ullathorne had visited the Hunter River and Bathurst; next year he visited Norfolk Island and the Illawarra district. Meanwhile Bourke had drafted proposals for the complete equality in the colony of the Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic churches, and had also recommended that Ullathorne's stipend be doubled, enabling the vicar-general to rent a large house near the city.

Encouraged by such progress, Ullathorne followed Commissioner Roger Therry and McEncroe in strongly urging the appointment of a bishop resident in Sydney, and in May 1834 Propaganda issued the brief of Polding's appointment as vicar-apostolic for New South Wales. Polding arrived in Sydney in September 1835 with one priest, three ecclesiastical students and a catechist, all paid by the government. Ullathorne, who had suspended the Windsor priest and was serving both Windsor and Parramatta himself from Sydney, now became parish priest of Parramatta, but rode to Sydney twice a week to conduct the bishop's business with the government. Thus he freed Polding for an extraordinarily intense mission among the incoming convicts, which provided a powerful case for further government support of Catholic chaplains to work in the interior and on Norfolk Island. During the controversy over the 1836 Church Act and Bourke's education proposals, Ullathorne found himself with McEncroe in opposition to the governor, Polding and John Hubert Plunkett, who all favoured the introduction of Stanley's Irish school system to the colony. However, Polding expressed his unqualified confidence in Ullathorne and decided to send him to Europe for more priests and schoolteachers and more money. Ullathorne accompanied Polding to Hobart and sailed thence to England, after another visit to Norfolk Island.

He was away for over two years entirely in the service of the Australian mission. In England he could recruit only one priest, C. Lovat, whose arrival in 1837 encouraged Polding to open a seminary. Ullathorne was summoned by Cardinal Weld to Rome, where he arrived in March, just before the cardinal's death. In Rome, without patronage and conspicuously young, he spent his best energies on preparing a report for the Sacred Congregation De Propaganda Fide, which won him the warm approval of Gregory XVI and a doctorate of divinity. He recruited James Goold, O.S.A., later bishop of Melbourne, and in June obtained a rescript authorizing the establishment of an independent Benedictine monastery in New South Wales.

Returning to England, he persuaded the Colonial Office to allow passage money of £40 each for ten schoolteachers, whom he recruited from all parts of the British Isles. He published a substantial pamphlet, The Catholic Mission in Australasia (London, 1837), and by preaching throughout Lancashire raised £1500 for the mission. The pamphlet quickly ran into six editions, and 80,000 copies were distributed in French, German, Dutch and Italian. In Liverpool he recruited an Irish priest, Francis Murphy, later bishop of Adelaide, and with his help proceeded to recruit seven priests, two ecclesiastical students and five Sisters of Charity in Ireland; all except the nuns reached Sydney before Ullathorne. A benefactor in Vienna gave £1250 and the Lyons Society 16,000 francs toward their passages and the government gave £150 each for the priests, though the nuns refused all government assistance. On 8 and 12 February 1838 Ullathorne gave evidence to the Molesworth committee on transportation to the effect that the system had failed altogether as a means of reformation of convicts. The Molesworth evidence was a special ordeal for him, because of his fear of accidentally revealing confessional secrets; he brushed with the chairman in private and spoke to the committee with nervous rapidity; only his concern for the mission carried him through. To convey his convictions about transportation at a popular level he had, while in Ireland for a fortnight during 1837, undertaken to write a pamphlet on The Horrors of Transportation Briefly Unfolded to the People; it was published next year in Dublin and Birmingham. He embarked on 17 August with three priests, four students and five nuns, and the party arrived in Sydney on 31 December 1838. He had now added fifteen clergy to the mission.

Ullathorne resumed his duties in Parramatta, but now he had the nuns to assist him in the Orphan School and the Female Factory, which were the most arduous parts of his work. As before, he became responsible for the bishop's business with government but he had returned from Europe very weary and now had to face abuse from all who favoured the continuance of transportation and those who were alarmed at the sudden emergence of Catholicism as a power in the colony. Even Plunkett, the only Catholic on the Legislative Council, disowned Ullathorne's vehemence on the convict question; his fellow clergy did not defend him for fear of drawing the fire on themselves and some of them, notably F. Murphy, joined Ullathorne's critics. For six months he was subjected almost daily to abuse in the press but was content thus to draw fire from the bishop. The campaign led immediately to the launching of a Catholic newspaper, the Australasian Chronicle, in August 1839, under one of Ullathorne's schoolmaster recruits, William Duncan.

By this time Ullathorne had determined to leave Australia. His failure to enlist English priests in 1837-38, his success in Ireland, and the warm friendships he then formed wlth several Irish prelates convinced him that ecclesiastically Australia must become a colony of Ireland, and could never be, as he said, 'Benedictinized'. When he first proposed to leave Polding countered by giving him charge of the infant seminary at Sydney and of the entire administration of the diocese. Nevertheless on 3 December 1839 Ullathorne sent in his formal resignation to Polding and Governor Sir George Gipps. Then all parties temporized; 1840 was to be Ullathorne's most active year in Australia, teaching at the seminary, lecturing publicly on the Catholic religion, and administering the diocese while the bishop travelled its length and breadth founding a dozen new churches and schools. In May Ullathorne went to Adelaide, interviewed the governor and assembled the Catholics. On 25 August at the laying of the foundation stone of St Patrick's Church, Sydney, Ullathorne organized a procession, the largest public demonstration the city had witnessed, in order to show the governor the numbers and unity of the Catholic body, and to protest against Gipps's education proposals. But in the long address he had to discourage his flock, which was mainly Irish, from giving the demonstration a nationalistic character. Later that year he published his most substantial and strongly worded colonial publication, A Reply to Judge Burton, of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, on 'The State of Religion' in the Colony (Sydney, 1840). In it he denounced the judge's attack on Catholic motives and practices, and gave a fine tribute to C. Lovat, a priest with whom he had had serious personal differences.

Since Polding was sailing for Europe in the mission's interest Ullathorne accompanied him on 15 November 1840 chiefly, he declared, to ensure that further sees were set up in Australia and that he himself should not occupy any of them. The government declined to pay his salary during a second long absence, so in 1841 Polding terminated his appointment to Sydney without giving him any personal explanation. Ullathorne took over the parish of Coventry, and published his colonial sermons. He refused the mitre no less than four times during his connexion with Australia, and a fifth time when the see of Perth was established in 1845; his offers to return and serve in subordinate posts were refused in turn. Nevertheless his combination of energy, close knowledge of canon law and boldness in the face of public opinion made him the key figure behind the establishment of a Catholic hierarchy in Australia by Brief of 5 April 1842.

In Coventry Ullathorne helped to found the English Congregation of St Catherine of Siena. On 27 April 1846 he received notice of his appointment as vicar-apostolic of the west of England. The last and greatest of the English vicars-apostolic, he used his Australian experience in 1848 to pilot the reintroduction of a hierarchy in England in communion with Rome. His later career as bishop and archbishop of Birmingham, where he was outstanding as pastor and theologian, and chief go-between for the Irish, the Anglican converts and the old English Catholics, was likewise built squarely upon his Australian experience. In 1888 Ullathorne retired from his diocese to Oscott College, where he died on 21 March 1889.

Australia had forced him to cultivate an independent judgment in matters of dogmatic, moral and apologetic theology alike, and had given him opportunities to form friendships among the English, Irish and Roman prelates scarcely ever granted so young a priest. At the same time his Australian writings complement his later works; though they display little use of his mysticism and grasp of Catholic philosophy, they show his interest in general social questions and his decisive management of business. He never lost his warm interest in Australia, though after 1845 he never attempted to intervene decisively in Australian church affairs. He wrote his autobiography in 1867, mainly as a memoir of his Australian work. It was published in 1891 in an expurgated form and in 1941 from the original draft. A memorial which Ullathorne signed with three others in 1874 to celebrate the golden jubilee of their monastic profession reveals that his grateful admiration for Polding as a spiritual guide had never diminished.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 16-22
  • H. N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1911).

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Citation details

T. L. Suttor, 'Ullathorne, William Bernard (1806–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 May, 1806
Pocklington, Yorkshire, England


21 March, 1889 (aged 82)

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