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Thomas Williams (1815–1891)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published:

Thomas Williams (1815-1891), by Lionel Lindsay

Thomas Williams (1815-1891), by Lionel Lindsay

National Gallery of Australia, 93032

Thomas Williams (1815-1891), Wesleyan missionary, was born on 20 January 1815 at Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England, son of John Williams, architect and builder, and his wife Jane, née Hollinshed. Bereft of his mother in 1817, reared by a strict father and educated at a private academy in Lincoln, Williams became clerk in his father's office, joined the Wesleyan society at 19, taught Sunday school and became a local preacher. He was third preacher in the Horncastle circuit when he volunteered as a missionary to Fiji in 1839; on 20 August he married Mary, daughter of a farmer John Cottingham of West Barking, and they sailed for the South Seas in September. From July 1840 to July 1853 Williams served successively at Lakemba, Somosomo and Bua. He was ordained on 10 October 1847.

Disillusioned by wars, cannibalism, widow-strangling and general opposition Williams broke down and left the mission, reaching Sydney with Rev. Walter Lawry in December 1853 after several months in New Zealand. While in Fiji Williams developed an interest in ethnography, illustrating his material with detailed sketches. His manuscript 'The Islands and their Inhabitants' was taken to London in 1856 by his colleague James Calvert and edited by G. S. Rowe as Fiji and the Fijians, 1 (London, 1858), which is accepted as a classic account of Fijian society before the conversion of Cakobau, chief of Bau, in 1854. He also published Memoir of the Late Rev. John Hunt, Feejee (np, nd).

On 23 March 1854 Williams arrived in Adelaide as superintendent of the circuit. In 1857 he was transferred to Victoria as minister of the Brunswick Street church in Melbourne. After a year's leave in England in 1860, he returned to Victoria, serving successively at Brighton, Creswick, Colac, Ballarat, Castlemaine and South Melbourne before becoming a supernumerary in 1878. He was chairman of the Geelong and Ballarat district in 1871, of the Castlemaine and Sandhurst district in 1872, and was president of the last Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Conference in 1873. In his retirement at Ballarat he devoted his time to writing pious biographies: Triumph in Suffering: Memorials of Elizabeth Ann Bennett (Melbourne, 1879), Memoir of Mr. James Wood (Geelong, 1883) and Assiduity: Being a Memoir of the Late Mr. Richard H. Hart, of Stawell (Ballarat, 1886).

In 1881 Williams visited England again and in 1885 attended the jubilee celebrations of the mission in Fiji. His unpublished journal is a perceptive record of the changes in the mission. On 4 July 1891 he died at his residence and was buried in the Creswick cemetery. Three sons and three daughters of his thirteen children survived him; his eldest daughter Jane Elizabeth (1848-1932) married Robert Charles Alexander Lindsay, medical practitioner at Creswick—several of their children, Percy, Lionel, Norman, Daryl and Ruby related their artistic expression to their grandfather's ability and encouragement.

Regarded as a good preacher Williams was somewhat of a perfectionist. His more generous side was balanced by his quick temper, sarcasm and contempt for pretension. He was a devoted patron of cultural institutions and an avid collector of books and drawings. His reputation as an ethnographer was further enhanced by the publication in Sydney of his Journal of Thomas Williams, Missionary in Fiji, 1840-1853, edited by G. C. Henderson in 1931. The Journal has as its frontispiece a portrait etching by Lionel Lindsay. His Fijian sketchbook and diaries are in the Mitchell Library.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Watsford, Glorious Gospel Triumphs: As Seen in My Life and Work in Fiji and Australasia (Lond, 1900)
  • B. Thomson, The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom (Lond, 1908)
  • M. Dyson (ed), Australasian Methodist Ministerial General Index (Melb, 1896)
  • G. C. Henderson, Fiji and the Fijians, 1835-1856 (Syd, 1931)
  • D. Lindsay, The Leafy Tree (Melb, 1965)
  • Spectator and Methodist Chronicle, 10, 17, 24 July 1891
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 July 1891
  • Town and Country Journal, 15 Feb 1873
  • Australasian Sketcher, 14 June 1873
  • Australian Methodist Church, overseas mission records (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript and printed catalogues (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Williams, Thomas (1815–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 15 July 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

Thomas Williams (1815-1891), by Lionel Lindsay

Thomas Williams (1815-1891), by Lionel Lindsay

National Gallery of Australia, 93032

Life Summary [details]


20 January, 1815
Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England


4 July, 1891 (aged 76)
Victoria, Australia

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