Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ernest Henry Woollacott (1888–1977)

by Judith Raftery

This article was published:

Ernest Henry Woollacott (1888-1977), Methodist minister, was born on 20 November 1888 at Aberdeen, Burra, South Australia, sixth of thirteen children of Thomas Henry Woollacott, a native-born contractor, and his wife Catherine Frances Carnatic, née Young, who had been born at sea. Raised in a staunchly Methodist home, Ernest was educated at Burra Public School. He preached locally from 1909 and was received as a candidate for the ministry by the South Australian Methodist Conference in 1913. In 1913-14 he attended Prince Alfred College, Adelaide; he then continued his theological studies at the Methodist Training Home, Brighton, while serving as a probationer at Morgan, Lameroo, North Adelaide and Waikerie. On 6 March 1918 he was ordained at Kent Town, and on 3 April that year at the Glenelg Methodist Church he married Selma Beatrice White (d.1936).

Ministerial appointments followed at Saddleworth (1918), Orroroo (1921), Broken Hill, New South Wales (1924), Parkside, Adelaide (1928), Port Wakefield (1931) and Woodville (1935). On 26 July 1938 at the Marion Methodist Church, Woollacott married Edith Mary Parsons (d.1967), a 35-year-old nurse. In 1937 he had been 'set apart' for one year by the Methodist conference, as organizer of the church's social service department; he continued next year as secretary while serving at Maitland. He was appointed full-time superintendent of the department in 1939.

Woollacott brought to this role a strong commitment to social righteousness, a sharp mind and tactical skill. He was impatient with the view that religion and politics should be kept separate, and worked to secure pre-selection for parliamentary candidates who would stand firm on moral issues. A strong supporter of the temperance movement and an opponent of all forms of gambling, he tried to persuade politicians to adopt his views. He was founding director (1939) of the United Churches Social Reform Board, an alliance of Nonconformist churches which made well-informed contributions to public debate, and to parliamentary inquiries into liquor licensing, hotel opening hours, lotteries and off-course betting. With Woollacott as its chief strategist, the board successfully campaigned for the closing of betting shops during World War II and prevented their reopening afterwards.

The work of the social service department extended beyond the maintenance of 'unswerving hostility' to alcohol and gambling. Woollacott presided over an increasingly complex agenda that included postwar reconstruction, housing, promotion of community centres, monitoring of standards of radio and films, marriage guidance, international understanding, immigration, Aboriginal welfare, and industrial chaplaincy. In 1955, largely due to his efforts, the State government agreed to subsidize church homes for the aged. He was president (1949-50) of the State committee of the World Council of Churches.

In the 1950s Woollacott helped to establish Westminster School at Marion. Retiring in 1959 after twenty-two years as director of the social service department, he held office as secretary of the school council (1959-70) and chaplain (1961-63). In 1971 he published a history of the school's first decade. Always interested in sport, he played competitive bowls in his later years, and was a passionate supporter of the Sturt Football Club, Unley. Although he never moderated his position on alcohol or gambling, and regretted the weakening of the church's stance on these issues, he mixed easily with those who held different views. Survived by the son of his second marriage, he died on 18 April 1977 at Marion and was cremated. A boarding house at Westminster was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. D. Hunt, This Side of Heaven (Adel, 1985)
  • Methodist Church of Australasia (South Australia), Conference Minutes, 1937-60
  • T. R. Hayward, The Methodist Church and Social Problems in South Australia, 1900-1952 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1952)
  • J. Raftery, Till Every Foe is Vanquished: Churches and Social Issues in South Australia, 1919-1939 (Ph.D. thesis, Flinders University, 1988).

Citation details

Judith Raftery, 'Woollacott, Ernest Henry (1888–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 November, 1888
Burra, South Australia, Australia


18 April, 1977 (aged 88)
Marion, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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.