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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wittenoom, John Burdett (1788–1855)

by R. E. Cranfield

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Burdett Wittenoom (1788-1855), colonial chaplain, was born on 24 October 1788 at Newark, Nottinghamshire, England, the son of Thomas Wittenoom of London. His patronymic came from Dutch grandparents. After education at Winchester and Brasenose College, Oxford (B.A., 1810; M.A., 1813), he became headmaster of Newark Grammar School, where he remained for fifteen years. His first wife was Margaret Mary Teasdale, by whom he had five sons. Soon after her death Wittenoom decided to emigrate. In July 1829 he was appointed chaplain to the civil establishment at Swan River, with a stipend of £250 and the promise of a house, glebe and provisions. He arrived at Fremantle in the Wanstead in January 1830 with his mother, sister and four sons, John Burdett, Henry, Frederick Dirck, and Charles.

Wittenoom took up land at Gwambygine, near York, but had to let it until his sons could manage it. Although not the first Anglican clergyman at Swan River, he was the only one for five years after Thomas Hobbes Scott left. Single-handed until 1836 he conducted service each Sunday at Perth and alternately at Fremantle and Guildford, and on occasion toured the settlements as far afield as Albany. The church sank into apathy, and it was soon obvious that he could not cope alone with the colony's growing needs, but the initiative in asking for new clergymen was left to the Agricultural Society. When relief did come Wittenoom limited his work to the Perth area, where he was also able to further his interest in education; as well as tutoring children of the few well-to-do families in Perth he opened a small grammar school mostly for senior pupils. In 1847 he was appointed to the first education committee and was its chairman for eight years after it became the Board of Education. He also served on charitable committees but showed no interest in politics and made no claim for a seat on the Executive Council. On 3 January 1839 he married Mary Watson Helms, of Perth, by whom he had two daughters and a son who died in infancy. An amateur cellist and a fluent speaker, he encouraged musical evenings and reading parties in his home; but religious enthusiasm was contrary to his High Church views and his colleagues thought him too easygoing and unenterprising as an organizer. With the opening of a convict gaol at Fremantle his duties increased. His health was undermined by domestic worry and too little exercise, and he became a victim of gout. He died in Perth on 23 January 1855. A tablet in his memory was placed in St George's Cathedral, Perth.

After Wittenoom's death his wife and daughter took charge of the government girls' school. Of his sons, Edward died young; John Burdett was in the Swan River mounted police but resigned to prospect for gold in Victoria, where his relatives lost touch with him; Henry was a lifelong invalid but lived to old age at Gwambygine; Frederick Dirck joined the public service of the colony in 1840 and was later appointed guardian of juvenile immigrants, sheriff, and a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils. He was described officially as 'charitable, amiable and of unobtrusive disposition' and he died in 1863.

The fifth son, Charles (1824-1866), whose first wife, Sarah Elizabeth Harding, died in 1861, was responsible for carrying on the Wittenoom line. His children were Edward Horne (1854-1936), Francis Frederick Burdett (1855-1939), Rose Agnes (1857-1902), who became wife of Sir Henry Bruce Lefroy, and James Cornelius, who died in infancy. Charles's second wife was Annie Fletcher Moore, by whom he had one child, Florence Mary Teasdale.

Select Bibliography

  • R. E. Cranfield, Wittenoom Family in Western Australia (Perth, 1962)
  • research notes 11, 341 (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • P. U. Henn, genealogical notes (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

R. E. Cranfield, 'Wittenoom, John Burdett (1788–1855)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

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