Project Canterbury

Handbooks of English Church Expansion


By the Rev. A. E. David, M.A.

London and Oxford: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1908.

Chapter II. The Founding of the Church

ALTHOUGH traditions as to the existence of a great South land were current long before the early part of the seventeenth century, and may be traced back to Bede and even Aristotle, it was not until 1705 that Dutch discoveries made the existence of the island-continent known to the world. As these were the results of trading expeditions, and were confined to the barren coast-lines of the north and west, there is little wonder that Dutch merchants should have returned a unanimous verdict against the "miserable South land," and left the southern and eastern coasts unexplored. Cook did all that the Dutchmen left undone, and practically completed the circuit of Australia. Sent out in 1768 in royal ships, and with a royal commission to advance "the honour of this nation as a maritime power . . . and the trade and navigation thereof," he sailed first to Tahiti--a by-object [15/16] of the expedition being the observation of the transit of Venus--and later, proceeding westwards, after exploring the islands of New Zealand, he anchored, on April 27, 1770, in a roadstead on the south-east of Australia. There, Sir Joseph Banks and Dr. Solander gathered plants, and hence the name "Botany Bay," which in after years had such a terrible significance.

Cook's report as to the possibilities of the island-continent came at an opportune moment; for the declaration of American Independence had just closed the doors in that part of the world to the transportation of convicts and further British settlement, and a new outlet was earnestly desired. Australia seemed to fulfil every requirement in this respect, for it lay far away from England, was isolated in the southern seas, and possessed apparently a fertile soil and healthy climate. Accordingly, the British Government eagerly seized the opportunity thus offered, and determined to transport without loss of time those who had offended against the laws and liberties of their native land.

In May, 1787, an expedition was fitted out and despatched, consisting of the "Sirius," frigate, the [16/17] "Supply," armed tender, with six transports, conveying 565 male, and 192 female convicts, with a guard of 200 troops, and, after a voyage of over eight months, the whole fleet anchored safely at their destination on January 20, 1788. The Government, however, whilst eager to bestow the undesirable portion of the population at a safe distance from England, were not equally solicitous as to their reformation, and no provision was at first contemplated for the spiritual needs of those transported. Private sympathy, however, was able to obtain what official indifference had failed to supply. Owing to the efforts of Sir Joseph Banks and Bishop Porteus, the Government, at the last moment, was induced to appoint the Rev. Richard Johnson as chaplain to the expedition. This initial act of callousness was not only indicative of the religious condition of England at the time, but was ominous of the attitude hereafter to be adopted by the civil authorities towards the ministrations of the Church.

On arrival, Botany Bay was quickly found to be deficient for the settlement of convicts in several essentials, notably in the supply of water, and leaving his fleet at anchor, Captain Arthur [17/18] Phillip, the Governor of the proposed settlement, explored the coast to the north in a ship's boat. He was agreeably surprised to discover, at a short distance, a magnificent harbour, capable of receiving the navies of the world, which had been marked in Captain Cook's chart as a boat harbour, and called after the name of the sailor who discovered it, Port Jackson. To a favourable site, about seven miles from the entrance of the harbour, the whole party was safely conveyed three days later, and, amid much rejoicing, the Union Jack was unfurled, the health of King George III toasted, and success to the new colony "drunk with all the honours." Thus the infant community, numbering 1,030 souls, was launched upon its career in these southern seas. Unhappily, no religious ceremony seems to have consecrated proceedings so memorable in the history of Australia. It cannot be said that the Governor was unfriendly to the performance of religious duties by the chaplain. But the work of the latter seems to have been regarded as outside the official routine, and, whilst barracks were being built and official residences constructed, no steps were taken for providing for the decent performance of divine worship. Mr. Johnson [18/19] was left to do what he could without official recognition by holding services in the open air, and it was not until six years later that, at his own expense, the chaplain was able to erect a small building of wattle and daub in which to carry on his ministrations. It is reported that a Roman Catholic priest who disembarked from a Spanish ship which visited the harbour exclaimed, on seeing the state of affairs, "If my country had settled this place, before any house for man we should have built a house for the living GOD."

With the single exception of ignoring the chaplain's duties, the Governor, who was entrusted with almost absolute power, seems to have been sufficiently impressed with the responsibilities of his position, and ruled the little colony with great wisdom. Later on, his conscience would seem to have been touched by the general neglect of religion, and he issued official orders, fining convicts for non-attendance at public worship, which he himself attended, and thereby influenced the higher officials to follow his example; and, although no building was erected, sites were set apart for churches, and endowments provided out of land for these, and for schools, within two [19/20] years of the foundation of the settlement. Possibly, at the outset, the state of affairs was so utterly bad that the policy of the iron hand was regarded as the only feasible method of maintaining order, and to the officials, religion, as a means of reforming character, especially when represented by a mild, though devoted, chaplain, counted for little or nothing. Afterwards, when the colony had reached a more settled condition, official attention, stirred by the repeated appeals of Mr. Johnson, was directed towards securing permanent provision for religious ministrations.

Partly owing to the difficulty of obtaining supplies, for which the colony became dependent upon the resources of Batavia and the Cape of Good Hope, partly also in consequence of the frequent escape of convicts into the interior of Australia, the authorities determined to find a more fertile region where facilities for escape could not exist, and Norfolk Island was selected for the next consignment from England, Mr. Johnson taking the first opportunity of following them with his ministrations. But, although Lieut. King, commandant of this new settlement, was most solicitous for the spiritual needs of those over whom he had been placed, several years [20/21] elapsed before a resident chaplain was appointed. In the interval, the Rev. H. Fulton, a clergyman who had been transported from Ireland for seditious practices, was allowed to minister in cases of urgency, and in 1792 the Rev. J. Bain, chaplain of the New South Wales Corps, spent a short time on the island; but as it became the practice to consign the worst offenders to this place, Norfolk Island gradually won a notorious reputation, and its history forms a dark page in the annals of British colonization.

By 1791 the number of convicts in Sydney had risen to 3,500, out of a total white population of 5,000, and the outlook was extremely gloomy in every direction. On the one side the settlement was continuously threatened with extinction through famine. Much of the soil in the immediate neighbourhood of Sydney was poor and sandy, whilst competent agriculturists were few. On the other, the accommodation was defective, and the moral condition of the community scandalous, for the colony was subjected to a deluge of fiery spirits, and rum became recognized as a medium of exchange. Where hunger prevailed, thefts and robberies were incessant, and the punishments for these offences became [21/22] increasingly severe. A strong and effective Church might have succeeded, where repressive measures were impotent to stem the tide of corruption, but still Mr. Johnson remained the sole chaplain, and he was still without a church. It is pathetic to read his appeal to the Governor, "whether, before the approaching winter, some place of worship should not be thought of and built both in Sydney and at the new settlement at Parramatta." But for the time being the official ear continued deaf to his earnest protests and solicitations.

At his own expense, in 1793, Mr. Johnson built a church, the cost of which (£67), partly paid in spirits, flour, pork, and tobacco, after many vexatious delays, was refunded by the Government. This building was also used on week-days as a school, for Mr. Johnson felt that the only hope of moral and religious reformation lay with the children, who should be segregated from their parents, since, as long as their offspring remained with those whom he describes as "miserable wretches lost to all sense of virtue and religion," he fears that "every means used for their instruction would be ineffectual." Aided by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, he united several small schools into one at Sydney [22/23] in which some 150 of the children of soldiers and settlers, as well as of convicts, received instruction.

In 1794 the loneliness of Mr. Johnson's position was relieved by the appointment of the Rev. Samuel Marsden as his colleague--a Yorkshire man of very different temperament to his senior. Undoubtedly a good deal of the official neglect was due to personal prejudice against the latter. He was even reported to the home Government as a troublesome character, and the lesser officials and soldiers were not slow to perceive the estimation in which the chaplain was held by those in authority, with the result that his difficulties were greatly increased. A stronger man, possibly, might have done more. Though there can be no question as to Mr. Johnson's devotion and attention to duty, Mr. Wilberforce, who knew him personally, has described him as "one of the worthiest men breathing, the most active, the most humble, but at the same time very little acquainted with the world." The universal testimony of the convicts themselves, in after years, was to the same effect, namely, that they did not believe that there was a better man than Mr. Johnson in the wide world. Wearied out, however, by [23/24] unrequited labours, Mr. Johnson returned to England in 1800, having seen his original church, which was burnt by some evil-disposed persons, replaced by a larger stone church in Sydney, and a church of smaller size erected at Parramatta. On his departure Mr. Marsden was, for seven long years, left as the only clergyman in charge of a population now numbered by thousands, though he was not the sole representative of religion, for a Roman Catholic priest, who had been transported, was given permission to exercise clerical functions for members of his communion once in three weeks at Sydney, Parramatta, and on the Hawkesbury River, where a number of farmers had settled. From the moment of his arrival, Mr. Marsden made his personality felt, and quickly came into conflict with the civil authorities, especially in connection with the formation of Sunday schools outside his control. But his efforts were not solely directed towards enforcing recognition of his position. He threw himself with great vigour into the work of bettering the condition of the women convicts in the factory at Parramatta, and insisted upon their receiving better accommodation. When this had been obtained he was instrumental in establishing [24/25] a school for orphans, which was urgently needed, and also in building a school-church on the Hawkesbury, where a teacher was maintained through a voluntary assessment paid by the settlers. These efforts for the education and betterment of the community were, however, seriously discounted by the dual position which, as chaplain and magistrate, Mr. Marsden was called upon to occupy. The expiry of their sentences created a class of ex-convicts known as "emancipists," who presented a problem of great difficulty to the Government. For the most part they were men of abandoned character, over whom it became necessary to exercise severe discipline. Magistrates were appointed for this purpose, and, amongst others, the chaplain was selected for this office. The combination of the two offices was a blunder, the effect of which became immediately apparent. The chaplain had to order men to be flogged, to whom later on he would be called upon to act as spiritual adviser, and in this dual capacity Mr. Marsden incurred the implacable hostility both of the convicts and emancipists, which, in 1802, culminated in a conspiracy against his life. Another cause also contributed to his unpopularity. The young [25/26] colony had been more than once on the verge of famine, in consequence of the neglect of cultivation, and, in 1795, Governor Hunter, with a view to stimulating the progress of agriculture, made a grant to every officer, civil and military, of one hundred acres of land, and assigned to each a body of thirteen convicts as farm servants. Already, at Camden, a Mr. John Macarthur had laid the foundation of the wool-growing industry, and had shown the way to develop one of the resources of the country by careful improvement of his flocks and herds. His example was followed by Mr. Marsden, who was quick to see the possibilities of the industry, and, moreover, desired to demonstrate to the colonists in a practical way the vast opportunities which lay before them. As "the best practical farmer in the colony" he grew rich in spite of himself, and was able to increase his original holding by several hundred acres. The charges brought against him for cruelty in discharge of his magisterial duties, and for enriching himself to the neglect of his duties as chaplain, led to a deep antagonism between him and the civil authority, which, as it affected the public welfare of the colony, became the occasion of a formal inquiry by Mr. Commissioner Bigge. [26/27] After a close investigation, Mr. Marsden was acquitted of the graver charges, though it was made clear that some of his arrangements were hardly consonant with his ecclesiastical position. The whole controversy, and the report issued in connection therewith, showed the necessity for better ecclesiastical supervision, and was not without good result, in that it led to the appointment of an Archdeacon for New South Wales. In the circumstances it was impossible to appoint Mr. Marsden to this office, and, through the influence of the Commissioner, the post was given to the Rev. Thomas Hobbes Scott, who had been the latter's private secretary. He held office for five years, but, although interested in educational matters, his period of service does not seem to have been marked by great vigour or ecclesiastical foresight. Mr. Marsden died at Sydney in 1838, his ministry having extended from the earliest days of the colony to the foundation of the Diocese of Australia. His name will always be revered, not only on account of his labours as senior chaplain, but more particularly as "the Apostle of New Zealand," for he was the first clergyman to interest himself in the welfare of the Maori race. On the appointment of [27/28] Archdeacon Broughton as first Bishop of Australia, although representing an entirely opposite school of thought, Mr. Marsden became one of his strongest supporters, and, on the latter's death, Bishop Broughton spoke of him as one "who had so often stood by his side, whose genuine piety and natural force of understanding he held in highest esteem while he lived, and would ever retain in sincerely affectionate remembrance."

Before leaving this period of the early days of colonial settlement, in order that the difficulties of the situation may be fully realized, some extracts as to the general moral and religious condition of the convicts and settlers are appended. In addressing a grand jury in 1835, Mr. Justice Burton, of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, to whose efforts, in conjunction with those of Archdeacon Broughton, the mitigation of the enormous moral evils which threatened the ruin of the colony was chiefly due, said, "It would seem as if the business of all the community were the commission of crime and the punishment of it as if the whole colony were continually in motion towards the several courts of justice. And the most painful reflection of all is that so many capital sentences, and the execution of them, have [28/29] not had the effect of preventing crime by way of example." One grand cause of such a state of things "was the overwhelming defect of the religious principle in the community." The state of Norfolk Island was still worse. The pictures presented to his mind on visiting the place in 1834 was that of "a cage of unclean birds, full of crimes against GOD and man, of murders, blasphemies, and all uncleanness." One of the prisoners represented the place to be "a hell upon earth," adding, "Let a man's heart be what it will, when he comes here, his man's heart is taken from him and there is given to him a heart of a beast." Another said, "I do not want to be spared, on condition of remaining here. Life is not worth having upon such terms." Indeed it was no uncommon occurrence for one convict to murder another in order to suffer the extreme penalty of the law and so escape from such a terrible situation. For details as to general conditions of convict life the reader is referred to Mr. Marcus Clarke's lurid description contained in For the Term of his Natural Life. With so awful a mass of moral corruption at its centre, little wonder can be felt that the whole situation in New South Wales was deplorable. The [29/30] convicts exceeded the free population in numbers, and the ranks of the latter were being continually recruited from the former, and this daily passing from one class to another without moral improvement tended to universal degradation. An insight into the conditions prevailing in Sydney is afforded by a report of the House of Commons on Transportation in 1838, which showed that "Sydney contained 20,000 inhabitants, of whom 3,500 were convicts, mostly assigned servants, and about 7,000 had been prisoners of the Crown. These, together with their associates among the free population, were persons of violent and uncontrollable passions, incorrigibly bad characters, preferring a life of idleness and debauchery, by means of plunder, to one of honest industry. More immorality prevailed in Sydney than in any other town of the same size in the British dominions." The testimony of Archdeacon Broughton in reference to the spiritual destitution of the greater part of the population is to the same effect. In an appeal to the home Church he says that "thousands of convicts . . . are annually transported and cast forth upon the shores of these colonies, without any precaution being taken, or effort made, to prevent their becoming instantly pagans and heathens. [30/31] Such, in reality, without some immediate interposition to establish a better system, the greater number of them will and must become; ... the. question . . . which the people of this country (the United Kingdom) have to consider is, whether they are prepared to lay the foundation of a vast community of infidels, and whether, collectively or individually, they can answer to Almighty GOD for conniving at such an execution of the transportation laws as will infallibly lead on to this result."

In circumstances and conditions such as these the Australian nation was founded, and in view of the "birth stain" thus acquired, it can be a matter of little surprise that, during its early years at least, the progress of the Australian Church should have been slow. Happily, there is another side to the picture, which shows that in not a few instances men transported under sentence of penal servitude not only recovered themselves in their adverse surroundings, but also played an active part in promoting the best interests of the community and in no small degree those of the Anglican Church.

Project Canterbury