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John West (1809–1873)

by John Reynolds

This article was published:

John West (1809-1873), by unknown engraver

John West (1809-1873), by unknown engraver

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 16857

John West (1809-1873), Congregational minister, author and newspaper editor, was born on 17 January 1809 in England, the son of Rev. William West and his wife Ann, née Ball. He had the advantages of a good home and a literary education. In 1829 he was admitted to the Independent ministry at Thetford, Norfolk, became a home missionary at Great Wakering, Essex, and then had charge of chapels at Southam and Coleshill, Warwickshire. In 1838 he was accepted by the Colonial Missionary Society for service in Van Diemen's Land, sailed from London with his wife Narcissa Sarah, née Lee, and young family in the Emu, and arrived at Hobart Town in December. He soon moved to Launceston, where he served as a missionary among the surrounding settlers. In 1842 he accepted the pastorate of the new St John's Square Chapel at Launceston and made his home at Windmill Hill.

At Launceston West's eloquence and sincerity soon gained him an important place, and his affability, honesty and genuine interest in people won him many friends and wide popularity. With James Aikenhead and J. S. Waddell he established the Examiner in 1842; he also helped to found the City Mission, public hospital and general cemetery, Mechanics' Institute and the Cornwall Insurance Co. In 1847 he was a founder of the Hobart High School, an undenominational institution to educate boys for careers in the professions, commerce and farming. His greatest contribution, however, was his effective leadership of the movement for abolishing the transportation of convicts to Van Diemen's Land. Convinced that transportation was socially and morally wrong, he attacked it with apostolic zeal from pulpit, platform and press, seeking to awaken the public conscience to its degrading effects. The fervour of his public addresses drew attendances that equalled those of the abolitionist orator, Richard Dry. Three years of campaigning convinced West that local organizations had little influence with the British government; on 9 August 1850 at a large protest meeting in Launceston he won acceptance of his proposal to seek the co-operation of all abolitionists throughout Australia. West drafted the letter which was widely circulated among organizations and influential men known to be opposed to continued transportation to Tasmania. The appeal was successful and led in February 1851 to an abolitionist conference in Melbourne, where steps were taken to form a widely representative organization for protest. West toured and lectured for the cause, and later that year the Australasian League for the Prevention of Transportation was formed. At its conferences West was often the principal speaker; although he was preaching to the converted he stressed that 'Australians are one' and should act together in spite of artificial boundaries. He became such an eminent figure that the league even proposed to send him to plead the cause before the public in England.

Throughout the campaign West was often criticized by a section of the press, but most newspapers were sympathetic and spread his message widely. After the fight was won the Hobart Advertiser, always hostile to the cause, made such serious personal attacks on West that he was forced to seek redress. The matter was settled out of court, West receiving apologies and £50, which he gave to the Hobart High School to buy books for its library. His church members showed their confidence by presenting him with a purse of fifty sovereigns and the citizens of Launceston gave him a testimonial. According to the Examiner, 25 April 1854, 'His was the inspiring spirit that gave vitality and impetus to every well-concerted and successful movement. He was the guiding hand that chiefly directed the machinery … his tongue was ever eloquent, his pen was incessantly occupied. He did all that is permitted to the most gifted to accomplish'.

In 1851-52 he had spent little time with his flock in Launceston. Soon after his return to pastoral duties he found another cause to fight when a bill for providing state aid to churches came before the Legislative Council. West was determined to defeat it, for he was a voluntaryist like most Congregationalists and in 1849 had written a pamphlet, The Voluntary Support of the Christian Ministry Alone Scriptural and Defensible. In spite of his efforts the bill became law in 1853.

In the early stages of the abolition movement in 1847-48 a wealthy Hobart supporter, Henry Hopkins, had asked West to write a history of the colony. No doubt the main object was to provide the public with an account of the development of the transportation system but, although the colony was only forty-four years old and many living people remembered its early years, there was wide ignorance of the colony's past. West was particularly well equipped for the task, though he was hampered by the lack of contemporary private papers and having to visit Hobart to read official records; involvement in the abolition campaign also seriously limited his time for research and writing. In spite of these difficulties West's The History of Tasmania, 2 vols (Launceston, 1852) was a notable achievement. His even temperament enabled him to write of men and events with fairness and detachment. His own knowledge of the times lent freshness to his work. At its best the style of his first volume is in the highest tradition of early Victorian historiography. The second volume is mainly polemical and concerns the evils of the penal system and the treatment of Tasmanian Aboriginals. Later research has revealed remarkably few inaccuracies, and West is sometimes credited with being one of the founding fathers of Australian historical writing.

Like other prominent abolitionists West was greatly interested in the development of representative and responsible government in the Australian colonies. In common with many educated British-born colonists he regretted the growth of separation movements and strongly advocated some form of constitutional union. Between 30 January and 1 September 1854, as 'John Adams', he contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald sixteen articles on the federation of the colonies. These articles were reprinted in 1867 and with support from editorials in the Sydney Morning Herald had a wide influence. C. D. Allin has commented that although the articles were 'introductory and educational rather than practical' they were 'the first scientific treatment of the question of federation from the pen of an Australian'.

In 1854 West accepted an invitation to become editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. Its owner, John Fairfax, was his friend and a prominent Congregationalist, and as a leading abolitionist had been impressed by his advocacy of the cause. With many regrets West left Launceston and took up his duties in Sydney on 14 November. Although he had no experience as an editor he had been a constant contributor to many journals. His leading articles covered a wide range of current topics and were marked by lucidity and reason. He foresaw the problems facing all the colonies in the post-gold-rush period and was almost alone in his warnings of the growth of foreign interests in the Pacific Islands and New Guinea. His forthright statements won him friends but also attracted criticism, which in Sydney of that period often degenerated into personal vilification and led to much litigation. In his editorials West once denounced the financial aspects of new educational schemes promoted by the fiery Rev. John Dunmore Lang. Lang retorted in the Empire with words so damaging that West took action for libel; he was awarded damages of £100 and characteristically gave the money to charity. Later he lost other suits for libellously condemning what he believed was wickedness in the actions of public men; he also tended towards a more conservative attitude in politics. In spite of the heavy demands in editing a daily newspaper with one of the largest circulations in the British empire West often found time to preach; he also helped to found and govern Camden College, an institution for training young evangelists. He died at his home in Woollahra on 11 December 1873. His widow died on 17 February 1874 aged 72. They were survived by three sons and five daughters.

In his dedication to causes which he believed to be morally right West had little interest in material rewards, yet he was no cold zealot isolated from everyday life. Contemporaries recorded his urbanity and friendliness, charity towards the unfortunate, and unusual patience with the misinformed and misguided. His bitterest enemies could not impugn the honesty of his purpose.

Select Bibliography

  • C. D. Allin, The Early Federation Movement in Australia (Kingston, Ontario, 1907)
  • A Century of Journalism. The Sydney Morning Herald, 1831-1931 (Syd, 1931)
  • B. Richmond, ‘John West and the anti-transportation movement’, Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), 2 (1951-52)
  • E. M. Miller, Biography of J. West (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Reynolds, 'West, John (1809–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 May 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

John West (1809-1873), by unknown engraver

John West (1809-1873), by unknown engraver

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 16857

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Adams, John

17 January, 1809


11 December, 1873 (aged 64)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.