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John Watsford (1820–1907)

by Renate Howe

This article was published:

John Watsford (1820-1907), by unknown photographer

John Watsford (1820-1907), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 490

John Watsford (1820-1907), Wesleyan minister, was born on 5 December 1820 at Parramatta, New South Wales, son of James Watsford and his wife Jane, née Johns. James had arrived in the colony in the Guildford in 1812, transported for life for horse-stealing; converted to Wesleyanism by Rev. S. Leigh, he was pardoned in 1826 and became coachman to H. H. Macarthur, but set up on his own as one of the first royal mail coachmen in New South Wales. John was educated at The King's School, Parramatta, and later taught there. He was converted in 1838 at a prayer meeting conducted by Rev. D. Draper, and in 1841 was accepted by the British Wesleyan Conference as a probationer for the ministry. Because of lack of facilities he received no formal theological education, but at his ordination he was the first Australian-born minister of the conference. On 8 February 1844 he married Elizabeth Jones at Windsor; they had seven sons and seven daughters, of whom James and Frederick became Wesleyan ministers and Emma married Rev. Benjamin Danks, pioneer missionary in New Britain.

Appointed to the Wesleyan Mission in Fiji, Watsford left Sydney with his wife in the Triton on 2 March 1844. Taking two years to learn the language, he was stationed at Viwa, Lakemba and Nadi, where he established and taught in schools, held revival meetings, and dispensed medical aid. Because of illness among his family he returned to Australia to circuit work in the Moreton Bay District in 1850, but at the request of the Missionary Committee went back to Fiji in 1851 and with Rev. J. Calvert spent three years translating the New Testament into Fijian.

Returning to Sydney in December 1853, Watsford was appointed to circuits at Surry Hills (1854-57), Goulburn (1857-60) and Maitland (1860-62), before going to South Adelaide where he was chairman of the South Australian district and was active in moves to set up a Wesleyan college (later Prince Alfred College). In April 1868 he moved to Ballarat, Victoria, to the Lydiard Street circuit and in 1869 was elected district chairman. In 1871 he was elected president of the Conference of the Australasian Wesleyan Church and was appointed superintendent of the circuit at Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. His emotional, articulate preaching and missionary lectures drew large crowds. An able administrator, in 1875 he was appointed general secretary of the newly formed Wesleyan Home Mission, of which he had been a chief founder, and he traversed Victoria raising funds to set up churches in the remote south-east and north-west. His election as president of the General Conference of the Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1878 reflected the wide respect he commanded. He was influential at this conference in opposing moves to liberalize membership regulations. In 1883 he retired from his strenuous Home Mission work to return to the Brunswick Street circuit, and that year was a founder of the Voluntary Instruction Association which favoured religious instruction in state schools by voluntary teachers.

In 1881 Watsford visited Europe and Great Britain and was an official Australasian representative at the first Ecumenical Council of Methodism in London. In 1884 he became a member of a deputation which visited Tonga to investigate dissension between S. W. Baker and the Wesleyan Church and he revisited Fiji. He was secretary of the Jubilee Thanksgiving Fund in 1886 and after superintending circuits at Brighton and Richmond, retired in 1891. That year he organized an interdenominational convention at Geelong. In retirement he devoted himself to evangelical and mission work. He died at Kew on 24 July 1907, predeceased by his wife and survived by six sons and four daughters; he was buried in the Boroondara cemetery. Watsford's conservative evangelical beliefs are well displayed in his autobiography, Glorious Gospel Triumphs (London, 1900).

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 12
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • Spectator (Melbourne), 2 Aug 1907
  • Town and Country Journal, 19 June 1912
  • R. Howe, The Wesleyan Church in Victoria, 1855-1901: Its Ministry and Membership (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1965)
  • manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales)
  • HO 27/6.

Citation details

Renate Howe, 'Watsford, John (1820–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 May 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

John Watsford (1820-1907), by unknown photographer

John Watsford (1820-1907), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 490

Life Summary [details]


5 December, 1820
Parramatta, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


24 July, 1907 (aged 86)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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.