Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Thomas Parking (Tom) Willason (1882–1939)

by Brian Dickey

This article was published:

Thomas Parking (Tom) Willason (1882?-1939), Methodist minister, was born possibly on 19 April 1882 in London, son of Thomas Willason, an Irish Catholic. Migrating to New Zealand, probably as a stowaway in 1895, young Thomas was apprenticed to a butcher. He made several voyages around the world, qualifying as a first mate in sail. Converted to membership of the Methodist Church at a Wellington evangelistic mission, he began a lifelong friendship with Samuel Forsyth and from 1905 trained at W. Lockhart Morton's Bible college, Belair, South Australia.

Employed by the Methodist Church from 1908, Willason was ordained in 1914 and, after serving at Saddleworth, Port Broughton and Wallaroo, was appointed superintendent of the Port Adelaide Central Methodist Mission in 1924. On 9 April 1914 at the Methodist Church, Henley Beach, he had married Ethel May Goldring, a nurse. She contributed her managerial and nursing skills to the mission's work. They had three children.

With a Jew's harp and fine tenor voice, Willason brought evangelistic urgency to the struggling mission. His unconventional background eased his acceptance. Alongside standard Methodist church activities—youth clubs, happy hours, Sunday night services—he convened open-air meetings and talks at the wharfies' morning smokos, and hired local cinemas for meetings. A Freemason, he exploited his Masonic connexions.

Willason's fortnightly columns in the Australian Christian Commonwealth sought funds for the mission's growing relief work. He also wrote with passionate conviction against the 'bolshevik menace' that threatened the workers of Adelaide. Willason believed that 'we are fighting the battles of the Lord against a dangerous and unscrupulous enemy' and wrote of 'the devilishness of the organisation represented by such devilish looking men'. For him, Christ was 'the only man who can set the times right'.

At one public meeting, convened with the authority of the Waterside Workers' Union, Willason defended himself, the mission and Christianity. He subsequently described 'how the communistic leader got up and roared like a bull of Bashan', but the crowd 'yelled him down'. There were many in Adelaide who sided with Willason and religion, who acknowledged the hard work that the mission was doing and who would not have either it or the missioner blackguarded just for wanting to offer help in a time of trouble. Few of these people ever became regular churchgoers, but their support reflected a significant working-class religiosity.

Aided by Ethel Marsden (a social worker known as a 'Sister of the People'), volunteer supporters and his own wife, Willason oversaw a rapid growth in food and clothing assistance to starving families. A soup kitchen served thousands of meals in 1931-32. A free kindergarten helped families to survive. Willason explored the idea of a residential colony for unemployed men similar to Forsyth's Kuitpo Industrial Colony, but nothing came of it. The most notable practical scheme was a fishing fleet. By 1931, nine small boats crewed by men who had been jobless and equipped by local business houses and gifts from the public were plying the waters of the Gulf of St Vincent. With support from the philanthropists Tom Barr Smith and Sir Langdon Bonython, Willason purchased a steam-powered trawler, with refrigeration chambers for six tons of fish, which worked the Great Australian Bight, giving employment to another dozen men. The project brought publicity to the mission and enabled the Methodist Church to show it was responding to the desperate poverty of the Depression.

The intense physical and emotional struggle for survival at Port Adelaide sapping his strength, Willason took several long breaks seeking relief from heart problems, including a trip to Dunedin, New Zealand. In 1935, despite widespread local protests, he was posted to Archer Street, North Adelaide. Later he moved to Parkside Methodist Church. Willason died of myocardial infarction on 26 July 1939 in hospital at North Adelaide and was buried in Cheltenham cemetery. His wife, a son and a daughter survived him. The Port Adelaide Mission has continued as a major welfare services provider.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Dickey and E. Martin, Building Community (Adel, 1999)
  • Australian Christian Commonwealth, 12 Oct 1928, 7 Nov 1930, 21 Nov 1930, 4 Aug 1939
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 27 July 1939, p 20.

Citation details

Brian Dickey, 'Willason, Thomas Parking (Tom) (1882–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




26 July, 1939 (aged ~ 57)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, 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.