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George Washington Walker (1800–1859)

by Mary Bartram Trott

This article was published:

George Washington Walker (1800-1859), Quaker, shopkeeper and humanitarian, was born on 19 March 1800 in London, the twenty-first child of John Walker (1726-1821) by his second wife, Elizabeth, née Ridley. Because of the death of his mother and the absence of his aged father engaged in the saddle trade in Paris, he was brought up by his grandmother in Newcastle. He was educated by a Wesleyan schoolmaster near Barnard Castle, and apprenticed in 1814 to a linen draper. Impressed by the probity and wisdom of his Quaker employers and James Backhouse of York, a leading Quaker minister, he left the Unitarian persuasion of his family in 1827 and became a member of the Society of Friends. The next year he formed the first Temperance Society in Newcastle.

In 1831 he accompanied James Backhouse on a nine-year mission to the Australian and South African colonies. The partnership combined the initiative, imagination and adventurous spirit of James Backhouse and Walker's methodical organizing and secretarial skill. They investigated convict and Aboriginal conditions, returned statistical accounts to Quakers in England, and presented a picture of the emigrant's life and prospects. As they visited from house to house or presented to large gatherings their version of a simple practical Christianity, they encouraged schools for the poor, temperance, cleanliness and care in hospitals, humane treatment of the insane, and generally tried to arouse a social conscience among the inhabitants of every colony.

Walker returned from South Africa to Hobart Town in 1840 to marry Sarah Benson Mather, member of a Wesleyan family turned Quaker. Aware of his reputation for trustworthiness, friendliness and leadership, Walker strove to practise what he advocated and to support the organizations he and Backhouse had promoted. With the help of English Friends he set up a linen draper's shop in 1841 and made half of it available for the distribution of Bibles, religious tracts and temperance literature, with the 'pledge' always ready for signature. In 1845, to encourage thrift among the poor, particularly reformed drunkards, he organized the Hobart Savings Bank and managed it for some months without pay; it grew quickly, and soon required his full-time service. Because he thought that some of his merchandise catered only to luxury and fashion, he sold his linen drapery in 1848 at a loss and restricted his trade to the plainer woollen goods. In 1847 he was publicly thanked by a group of shop assistants for inducing other shopkeepers to adopt 7 o'clock closing, but in 1855 he was publicly threatened with tar and feathering for organizing his Temperance Committee into vigilante bands to enforce the law of Sunday closing of public houses.

In spite of derision his concern for transported prisoners remained active; he supported Alexander Maconochie's penal reforms, and continued to help many individual convicts. His wife was a member of Lady Jane Franklin's committee to visit the female prisoners. In 1843 he was appointed to a board of inquiry into conditions at the Female Factory, built by Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur in 1827 in accord with Elizabeth Fry's recommendations. Worried over the growing number of prostitutes, he formed a committee to 'suppress vice' by finding employment for destitute women. In 1848 Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison asked him to share in the task of providing an asylum for these women, and noted in his journal: 'the very personification of a mild, benevolent, and excellent Quaker. Even here, where sectarian and religious party feeling run higher than anywhere I have ever known, men of all denominations unite in speaking well of George Washington Walker'.

He kept in close touch with the Aboriginal mission stations and gave valuable service as a member of the council which built the non-denominational high school on the Domain, of the colonial board of education, and of the council of the Royal Society of Tasmania. His friendship with learned men in every colony enriched his letters and made them invaluable to his scholarly eldest son, James Backhouse Walker.

A respected founder with Backhouse of the Society of Friends in Hobart, Walker was always ready to plead for any convict under punishment by solitary confinement or treadmill for refusing in Quaker custom to remove his hat in respect to authority, to explain to judges the Quaker aversion to oaths, or to reason against state aid to religion. Although unable to repeat his missionary journeys, he managed to visit Friends around the island and encouraged others to travel 'in the ministry' to help new Meetings on the mainland. He also corresponded with Friends in other colonies, supported one lone Quaker in Western Australia in her observance of Quaker testimonies, helped the Australian Meetings to win eventual recognition by the London Yearly Meeting, and assisted the organization of small schools for Friends' children, forerunners of the later Friends' School, North Hobart.

Overconscientious and, never robust, he maintained a calm cheerful manner that concealed his anxieties and the overtaxing of his means in support of his ten children and various charities. He died on 2 February 1859 and was buried in the Friends' burial ground in Providence Valley, West Hobart, mourned by citizens in every colony. Narryna, his home for two years, has become the Van Diemen's Land Folk Museum, and contains mementoes of his famous trip with James Backhouse. Of his benevolent organizations, the Hobart Savings Bank and the Temperance Society remain. His Quaker grey and 'thees and thous' were outward labels of a nineteenth-century puritan, but he contributed to the community the enlightened leaven of a Dissenter, the care for humanity of an Evangelical, and the gentle methodical persuasion of a Quaker resolved to effect a change in a vicious brutal world.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Backhouse, A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies (Lond, 1843)
  • J. Backhouse and C. Tylor, The Life and Labours of George Washington Walker (Lond, 1862)
  • W. T. Denison, Varieties of Vice-Regal Life (Lond, 1870)
  • George Washington Walker papers (Friends House, London)
  • Monthly Meeting minutes (Society of Friends, Hobart)
  • Walker papers (University of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mary Bartram Trott, 'Walker, George Washington (1800–1859)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 18 April 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

George Washington Walker (1800-1859), by J. W. Beattie

George Washington Walker (1800-1859), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125883702

Life Summary [details]


19 March, 1800
London, Middlesex, England


2 February, 1859 (aged 58)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.