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Witt, Howell Arthur (1920–1998)

by Rowan Strong

This article was published online in 2022

Howell Arthur John Witt (1920–1998), Anglican bishop, was born on 12 July 1920 at Newport, Wales, son of Thomas Leyshon Witt, dock labourer, and his wife Harriet Jane, née Ball. Howell’s family were devout Methodists, but from an early age he wanted to be an Anglican priest. He attended St Woolos primary and Newport secondary schools. Not particularly scholarly, he exhibited a clownish sense of humour and flair for amateur dramatics. Having studied at the University of Leeds (BA, 1942) and the Anglo-Catholic College of the Resurrection at Mirfield, Yorkshire, he was made deacon in 1944. He served his first curacy at Usk, Monmouthshire, and a second at Camberwell, London, during which he played rugby union for the London Welsh Rugby Football Club. In 1945 he was ordained priest.

During this later curacy the bishop of Willochra, Richard Thomas, was in Britain to recruit clergy for his rural South Australian diocese. Witt accepted the position at the Woomera rocket range, though to do so he had to become an Australian Army chaplain, which he did under protest, enlisting as a chaplain fourth class on 26 August 1949. Before leaving Britain in 1949, he had married Gertrude Doreen Edwards (known by her middle name) at the parish church of St Mary, Monmouth, on 18 June. He was to become one of a number of migrants who provided Australian churches with leaders in the postwar period. Although initially unprepared for conditions in the bush, he spent five years at Woomera. He proved adaptable, and his self-deprecating humour fitted well with the local population. For some years he appeared in costume at local fetes as ‘Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Dingo Creek.’ There was little ecclesiastical infrastructure and he often had to improvise.

On 28 June 1954 Witt’s appointment as a chaplain ceased. He became rector of St Mary Magdalene’s, Adelaide, the leading Anglo-Catholic parish of the city, and missioner of St Peter’s College Mission. He felt underused, and in 1957 he volunteered to be priest of the Anglican parish in the new town of Elizabeth. Part of the South Australian government’s plans for industrialisation, the town was then a treeless site, the principal inhabitants of which were disconnected and frequently discontented British immigrant families. It was a population ideally suited to the energetic, improvising Anglican ministry he provided. In South Australia he played for the Old Collegians rugby union club (president 1956–57).

Elected bishop of the diocese of North-West Australia in 1965, Witt was then a short, balding, nuggety man well suited to episcopal leadership of a vast rural diocese that encompassed a quarter of the Australian continent. The third bishop of the diocese, which had been founded in 1909, he attributed his election to being the only nomination, and to the clergy’s wish for a married man who could empathise with them. However, his media work for South Australian newspapers and on radio and television had made him more widely known. His trademark humour, later to be expressed in a weekly article in Perth’s Sunday Times Magazine titled ‘Witt’s End,’ was central to his public profile.

Witt was a reluctant but successful bishop who related well to the people of his huge diocese. He was, however, a poor administrator. That problem was solved by accepting Bush Church Aid Society funding for a lay administrator. This meant receiving support from an organisation antithetical to the prevailing Anglo-Catholicism of his clergy, it having been founded in 1919 in Sydney specifically to counter the growth of Anglo-Catholicism in rural Australia. But the poverty of his diocese gave him little choice. It was a gruelling life in which the ‘bush bishop’—as he would title his memoirs, published in 1979—spent months each year away from his family in remote areas. He often found himself helping out on pastoral stations, through tasks such as dipping sheep and cleaning water troughs, as well as ministering to his remote parishioners. Recognising the injustices faced by Indigenous Australians, he puzzled over how to ‘bridge the gulf’ (Witt 1979, 175) between them and the non-Indigenous population.

‘A preacher of extraordinary colour and power,’ who communicated his message with humour and sang hymns ‘with an embarrassing zest’ (Murray 1998, 14), Witt was ‘a compassionate, caring man who gave of himself, and … met people where they stood’ (Ayling 1981, 20). He accepted election as bishop of Bathurst, New South Wales, in 1981. After a severe car crash in 1985, he suffered lasting debility until he retired in 1989; in his last years he lived in a retirement village in Perth. Predeceased by his wife in 1983, he died on 14 July 1998 at Fremantle, survived by their three sons and two daughters. In 2007 he was inducted into the South Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Ayling, Glenis. ‘Howell Witt—A Sad Loss to the North.’ West Australian, 11 April 1981, 20
  • Breward, Ian. A History of the Australian Churches. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1993
  • Davies, Christine. ‘The Right Rev Howell Witt.’ Independent, 12 August 1998, Wednesday Review 6
  • Frappell, Ruth. ‘Imperial Fervour and Anglican Loyalty 1901–1929.’ In Anglicanism in Australia: A History, edited by Bruce Kaye, Tom Frame, Colin Holden, and Geoff Treloar, 76–99. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2002
  • Murray, James. ‘Rollicking Shepherd of an Outback Flock.’ Australian, 17 July 1998, 14
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX700101
  • Witt, Howell. Bush Bishop. Adelaide: Rigby, 1979

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Rowan Strong, 'Witt, Howell Arthur (1920–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/witt-howell-arthur-31565/text39032, published online 2022, accessed online 8 October 2022.

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