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William Woolls (1814–1893)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

William Woolls (1814-1893), by unknown photographer

William Woolls (1814-1893), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 11364

William Woolls (1814-1893), Church of England clergyman, schoolmaster and botanist, was born on 30 March 1814 at Winchester, Hampshire, England, nineteenth child of Edward Woolls (d.1830), wholesaler, and his wife Sarah. He was educated by Rev. Thomas Scard at Bishop's Waltham Grammar School and encouraged as a classicist and versifier by his godfather, Canon Westcombe of Winchester College. At 16 he migrated to Australia with a commendation from Lord Goderich, reaching Sydney on 16 April 1832 in the Grecian. Archdeacon William Broughton, impressed by his shipboard verse, found him a position at The King's School, Parramatta, where he taught until moving to William Timothy Cape's Sydney College. On 28 June 1838 at St John's Church, Parramatta, he married Dinah Catherine Hall; she bore him a son and daughter and died in childbirth on 12 July 1844. On 16 July 1845 he married a widow Ann Boag.

At intervals Woolls contributed to the Colonist, the Atlas and other periodicals. In 1841 he set up his own school at Parramatta, first in Harrisford and then at Broughton House. Able and sympathetic, for twenty-five years he educated the sons of many prominent colonists, endeavouring to instil a strong sense of colonial pride. He was president of the Cumberland Mutual Improvement Society, tried to found a society to promote geographical discovery, wrote a laudatory account of the pioneer clergyman Samuel Marsden and celebrated in verse such notable events as the founding of the University of Sydney.

A staunch Anglican and a trustee of All Saints' Church, North Parramatta, Woolls twice refused ordination but on 8 June 1873 he was made deacon by Bishop Frederic Barker; ordained priest on 21 December he was appointed incumbent of Richmond, becoming rural dean in 1877. Familiar with his flock and region, he exercised a vigorous ministry and retired with a general licence in 1883.

Woolls's interest in his colonial surroundings had manifested itself in his study of the local botany and 'vegetable resources'. Under the tutelage of Rev. James Walker of The King's School and Marsfield, he contributed articles to the Horticultural Magazine, the Victorian Naturalist, and the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London—papers that were published in Sydney in 1867 as A Contribution to the Flora of Australia and earned him a fellowship of the society in 1865: he was awarded a Ph.D. of the University of Göttingen in 1871 for a dissertation on the botany of the Parramatta region. Woolls's other works included Lectures on the Vegetable Kingdom, with Special Reference to the Flora of Australia (1879), The Plants of New South Wales … (1885) and Plants Indigenous in the Neighbourhood of Sydney … (1880).

One of the most distinguished of a group of clergyman-botanists in the colony, Woolls was best known for his promotion of Australian botany and his assistance to other scholars rather than for large-scale systematic work. He gave many popular lectures, wrote countless letters on native flora to local newspapers and advised on the horticultural and agricultural sections of colonial exhibitions. He corresponded with fellow botanists, including Caroline Atkinson, and wrote over a thousand letters to Sir Ferdinand Mueller; his assistance was acknowledged by the British botanists Robert Brown and George Bentham. Joseph Maiden, later government botanist, noted that 'only his friends and pupils … had any idea either of the depth of his knowledge or the readiness with which he communicated it to enquirers'. He is commemorated in the genus Woollsia (Epacridaceae) and in the names of six species.

Woolls died of paraplegia at Burwood on 14 March 1893 and was buried in St John's cemetery, Parramatta; a memorial window is in the church. He was survived by his third wife Sarah Elizabeth (d.1909), daughter of Robert Lowe of Bringelly, whom he had married at St Paul's Church, Narellan, on 25 June 1862. His estate was valued for probate at £2446.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 17
  • S. M. Johnstone, The History of The King's School, Parramatta (Syd, 1932)
  • Victorian Naturalist, 9 (1893)
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘Records of Australian botanists’, Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 42 (1908)
  • J. Jervis, ‘William Woolls’, Parramatta Historical Society, Journal, 3 (1926)
  • Cumberland Times, 30 Sept 1871
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Mar 1893
  • Sydney Mail, 18 Mar 1893
  • Calvert papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Ordination papers (Sydney Diocesan Registry).

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Woolls, William (1814–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 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

William Woolls (1814-1893), by unknown photographer

William Woolls (1814-1893), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 11364

Life Summary [details]


30 March, 1814
Winchester, Hampshire, England


14 March, 1893 (aged 78)
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.