Thomas Wilkinson - a Methodist pioneer in Australia

Among those who lived in this parish in their early days and combined missionary zeal with entrepreneurial ability was a redoubtable Methodist, Thomas Wilkinson, who became one of the early settlers and developers of Australia.

Our grateful thanks to Sharon Summers, from Hillside, Victoria, who has provided most of this information, and continues to explore her family's history, including the original London connections.

East London
Thomas was born in Sunderland in 1799, and baptized at Holy Trinity Sunderland in 1801. Moving to the East End as a boy with his parents, he and his mother Elizabeth sought out a suitable place to worship, and told how they were led by a West Indian woman through a dark passage to an obscure courtyard to a Methodist congregation. They later attended Wesley's Chapel in the City Road and Spitalfields Chapel. In good Methodist fashion, they extended practical care to those in need: when Thomas' warehouse workmate Joseph Orton (1795-1842) fell ill, they tended him at his squalid lodgings; he attended chapel with them, and became a Methodist missionary to the West Indies (in 1828 he was imprisoned for championing the coffee plantation slaves' cause - see this testimony - returning to London after his release) and later in Australia, where he was re-united with Thomas (see reference to his Australian papers here). Thomas opened a Sunday School in a deserted Shadwell chapel – though this does not appear to figure in local Wesleyan records.

In 1820 he married Louisa Price (born in Gosport in 1800) at St George-in-the-East, a Church of England marriage being the only option for nonconformists at that time. In due course they were to have eleven children (three of whom died in infancy, in London and Australia). Living at White Horse Place off the Commercial Road (in the parish of Stepney), in 1823 Thomas was admitted to the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers 'by redemption' (paying a fee of £2 6s 8d in lieu of apprenticeship), becoming a member of the livery and a freeman of City of London, in order to pursue the trade of a sailmaker. (There had once been a sailmakers livery company, but despite the trade continuing it had ceased to exist, so sailmakers looked elsewhere to establish their trade credentials. Although patten-making [wooden overshoes to wear in the mucky streets of London] was in decline, its guild, 70th in the table of precedence, and with a city church base at St Margaret Pattens, continued - right.)  In 1824 the Wilkinsons moved to Vinegar Lane, Ratcliff and in 1826 to Upper John [later Blakesley] Street where he became a coal meter or measurer (determining the excise due on ships importing coal to the docks). This employment came to an end in 1832, when he was offered an annual pension of £90 (based on his wages as a class 3 deputy coal meter of £170 12s 3s) or a lump sum of £2,000. He wisely chose the former, which was paid quarterly to him in Australia (via his son-in-law George Reed) until at least 1840, and probably beyond.

In 1833, when his mother died, Thomas and Louisa, then with four children (David had died in infancy), emigrated to Australia, making the five-month journey on the Ellen to Hobart, in Van Dieman's Land [now Tasmania] – which was at that time mainly a penal colony. He and Mr Barnett both 'gave sermons' on the voyage, and were listed by the Sydney Herald in the arrivals as Wesleyan preachers. He found work in Hobart as a sailmaker.

Flinders Island
After meeting Archdeacon Broughton, Thomas was recommended to Governor Sir George Arthur (an ex-soldier) for the post of religious instructor/catechist to Aborigines on Flinders Island (in the Bass Strait, 30 miles off the NE coast of Tasmania). Native men, women and children were placed there in a misguided attempt to 'civilise' them, depriving them of their traditions, culture and religion in the process. The settlement comprised houses for the commandant, surgeon, some solders, Thomas and his family, a hospital, two huts occupied by convicts (ten in one, four in the other), three stores, and nine 'cottages' for the Aborigines. A contemporary press report, reflecting the prejudices of the time, said:
We have much pleasure in announcing that the Rev Thomas Wilkinson [he was not in fact ordained], the missionary appointed by the government for the aborigines, has arrived at the colony on Flinder's Island, and commenced his arduous but interesting labours …. The Blacks at Flinders, we are happy to learn, are not only extremely happy and contented in themselves, but are every day occupied in some useful and industrious occupation. They already begin to receive a relish for the improved habits of civilised life. They take a sort of pride in arranging the furniture and utensils in their little huts, sweeping them out daily, decorating and keeping them clean. In place also of allowing their dogs to sleep with them as formerly, they have built little kennels or houses for them out of doors, and in order that these faithful animals, for whom they have so much affection, may not suffer inconvenience from cold in the change, they nightly light fires beside them before they themselves go to rest.

His duties were to give religious instruction, set up school, have divine service twice on Sunday, encourage morning and evening prayer and strict observance of the Sabbath, and Louisa's role was  to teach European ways of looking after home and family. He embarked on this programme with enthusiasm and compassion, attempting to translate the Bible into Aboriginal language (but not getting beyond the first three chapters of Genesis): here is an example:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
  troteh Godneh pomleh heavenneh co-entanneh, lywerreh crackny.
God said, Let there be light, and there was light; And God saw the light  that is was good. God divided the light from the darkness.
  Godneh kany, tryittyeh - tryttityeh crackny; Godne lapre trytittyeh - narreh coopeh. Godneh dyvidneh trytittyeh lywerreh.
God said, Le the earth bring forth grass, and it was so.
  Godneh kany, coentanneh ninginneh rothinneh, tibreh.
God made two great lights - the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also.
  Godneh pomleh cathehbyweh trytittyeh laackrennneh wakehlenneh tywerreh [moon]; narreh pomleh pullenneh.
God set them in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth.
  Godneh propre narreh wyehticketteh tringinneh trytittyeh.
And God made great whales, and every living creature that moveth which the waters brought forth abundantly.
  Godneh pomleh lackrennah [great], pynungyneh [fish], gadyeh [plenty] pyungyneh.
And God made the beasts of the earth and he saw that it was very good.
  Godneh pomleh packilleh [bullock] illa [kangaroo] Godneh lapreh narreh coopeh.
And God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our own likeness.So God created man in his own image.
  Godneh kany, myneh pomleh wibeh, likeh myne. Godneh pomleh wibeh likeh narreh.
God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good!
  Godneh lapre gadyeh narreh pomleh, narreh kany narreh coopeh coopeh!

There were may difficulties and conflicts. Supplies (especially meat) were short and ships were late; they managed to cultivate a few vegetables, but requests for a plough were ignored; there was no schoolroom for the Aboriginal children by day and the convicts by night; and there were snakes. Thomas clashed with the commandant William Darling, and surgeon (ex-convict) Archibald McLachlan – all three writing regularly to Governor Arthur. Thomas protested to Darling who allowed a convict to roam at will (on one occasion coming in through the window to grab one of his children); and was affronted by McLachlan's intimacy with 'Wild Mary', as this exchange shows:
[Wilkinson to McLachlan]
Dear Sir,
I am sorry to trouble you with this note, but I understand Mianogoonia or Wild Mary sleeps in your house. This I conceive, to say the least, is highly imprudent and I hope you will send her away to her own hut.
Yours respectfully, Thomas Wilkinson
[McLachlan to Wilkinson]
Sir, I have to acknowledge receipt of your note of this date and beg to inform you I have forwarded the same to the Commandant [Darling] to whom I refer you for any further explanation.
I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant, Arch. McLachlan
[Wilkinson to Darling]
Aboriginal Establishment, Oct 4th 1833
Dear Sir,
Having lately missed Prnagoontsi (better known by the name of Wild Mary) out of the native huts, I made enquiries about her, for I found that she lived and slept at the Doctor's house. This I thought without some urgent circumstances (of the existence of which I was not aware) that called for it, highly imprudent, and consequently wrote to him this morning on the subject. Without, however, giving me any explanation, he strangely refers to for further explanation to you. This I should be thankful to have, for my own comfort and character and, as well, the credit of the Establishment. For I do not think it a prudent thing, that the Surgeon, who is a single man, should have living with him, and sleeping in his house, a young single woman.
Yours respectfully, Thomas Wilkinson
[Wilkinson to Darling again]
Surely you could not make it a necessity for her [Wild Mary] to sleep there [Doctor's Hut] if the sick man required any one to wait upon him. His woman was there to do it, and if anyone else was wanted, another woman with her Uiba [man] could easily have been obtained, or if that would not do, one of the elderly women without a Uiba [man] should have been brought in, but the last resort should have been a single and young woman, from which it does not appear from your letter there was the least shadow of necessity.
If however you are satisfied with the preferring necessity of a single and young woman sleeping under the Doctor's roof, I certainly am not and unless she is sent to her own hut I must complain to his Excellency the Governor.

In the event, McLachlan banned Thomas from visiting the sick in hospital. Thomas was also concerned about relationships between Aboriginal women, convicts and soldiers. He knew that the Aborigines were pining for their old way of life – many of them died – and he felt he had failed them. He was suspended in 1834 (it took him some time to get the salary due to him paid), returning on the Shamrock to Hobart, significantly with an 'assigned servant', Ann Leigh.

Back in Hobart
A fifth child, Charlotte, was born in Hobart. Despite the problems on Flinders Island, in 1835 Governor Arthur appointed Thomas as a missionary/catechist to prisoners of Launceston, on the Tasmanian mainland: to visit in gaol, hospital and on road gangs, with a £100 salary. There were many convict burials, recorded in the registers of St John Launceston; he also worked as clerk to the Commandant of Launceston. Again, he had the welfare of his charges, whose lives were wretched, on his heart, but eventually resigned, to try his hand in the developing Port Phillip settlement (which was to become Melbourne).

Melbourne: the 'father of Brunswick'
By 1839, there were three more children, and in 1840 they all arrived at Hobson's Bay aboard the Joshua Carol – he was 41. He was reunited with John Joseph Peers, another Methodist layman he had known in Hobart and who was setting up as a builder and contractor, and also with his old friend Joseph Orton, who had been the first ordained minister to preach in the Port Phillip settlement under the oaks of Batman's Hill in 1836 (reading, it is reported here, from the Book of Common Prayer). Thomas wrote glowingly of the 1840 Easter Day service at Swanston Street chapel. See W.L. Blamires & John B. Smith The Early Story of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Victoria (1886), and this account of Orton [right] by his great great grand-daughter

Thomas bought some land in Portland, which was the oldest European settlement in the region, 225 miles west of Melbourne. Portland Bay was named after the Duke of Portland in 1800 by Lt James Grant's survey of the coast; Captain William Pelham Dutton established a whaling station there in 1833 and the following year the Henty family created a settlement – Edward (regarded as the founder of Portland), and his brothers Stephen, Frank and John (who later abandoned his wife and children, and drowned in 1868): more on its early days here.

Also, at one of three Crown auctions, together with another Methodist, Edward Stone Parker, who had come to Melbourne in 1839 as assistant 'Protector of Aborigines' (probably the most sensitive of those who held this office), he also bought three square miles (180 acres) of land between the Merri and Moonee Ponds creeks, three miles north of the settlement – land in 'town' had become too expensive. This may have appeared unpromising – it was tough scrubland covered in eucalyptus trees, whose Aboriginal name Boort Moornmount Bullarto meant (accurately) 'very windy country'; however, the settlers' original name was Bricklands, since it was rich in clay, for brickmaking; and in due course, the 'New Sydney Road' linking Melbourne to Sydney (mainly built by chain gangs) ran through their land. So it was to prove a wise purchase, though the way it was parcelled out, with large and long strips off a narrow road [survey map right], was to cause long-term problems. Right  is Syndey Road today.
Parker withdrew.Thomas was no mere speculator, but aspired to fashion a township. He named the area Brunswick, probably after Princess Caroline, the late wife of George IV (and more popular than him in public estimation - see here for an English take on this, and here for an Australian one.) The two main streets were named for Victoria and
Albert. Half-acre blocks were created, and Methodism established with the early proceeds: a wattle and daub chapel, soon replaced by a brick building (a new church followed in 1872). For his own family he built a small austere slab house [left with Thomas outside], surrounded with a log fence. When they moved to Portland in 1842 it was rented out, together with several acres, and used as the post office until a new one was built further along Sydney Road in 1852. More details about early Brunswick here.

Thomas, together with son John, partner James Swords (who had been the compositor of the Port Phillip Gazette) and wife, and a groom named Stone, then travelled in a dray pulled by the stallion Duke to Portland; Louisa and the children followed by schooner. Until a chapel was built, he held services in Jemmy Chapman's brickmaker's hut, and also at Henty's wool store (he was later to fall out with the family). Anglicans and Presbyterians also built churches, and provided clergy.

On arrival, Duke was sold:
That excellent cart Stallion is now offered for sale by private contract. He is a superior collar horse, drawing quietly in harness, and otherwise perfectly docile. For bone and sinew his is not surpassed, and would pay the purchase money during the approaching season. Age, rising eight years. He is at present standing in the stables of Mr Dale, Commercial Inn, Portland, where at any time he may be seen. Further particulars known on enquiry being made to the undersigned, who is authorised to treat with parties for his purchase. WM. M'DOWALL   [William M'Dowall had set up the first grocery shop in town]

Here he established his first newspaper. Equipment from London (costing £292) was shipped from Melbourne, and the first issue of the Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser appeared on 20 August 1842 – four pages, put together by Swords, with son John as printer. A rival paper, The Mercury, started the same year, but was short-lived. Swords pulled out in 1843, and there were financial problems: the press was auctioned by McDowell for £65. However, they recovered, and the paper remained a base for Thomas' campaigning activities. He was outspoken in his defence of Portland, in 1842 attacking the government over mail deliveries, and the following year for lack of initiative in developing the area: the Port Phillip District of Victoria (which at that time included both Melbourne and Portland) was still governed from Sydney.
Whatever the nature of any improvements, the town and district are chiefly indebted to the spirit and enterprise of the early settlers. To the government they owe nothing. No thanks to Sir George Gipps or his defunct government for anything that the district is or hopes to be.
In 1845 he was fined the huge sum of £160 for attacking the injustice he believed was inflicted on one Turnock in a court case, and he was imprisoned for an alleged libel of Police Magistrate James Blair
(a significant local figure, who also held other offices) but was released following press protests. (By this time the Hentys were local Justices of the Peace: see here for an intriguing issue involving Edward.)

Thomas built the White House - left - (later known as Blythewood) on hills to the south west for his family. In 1849 he was a member of a committee set up to build a flour mill, to enable landowners to become more self-sufficient. That same year he and John set up a newspaper in Warrnambool 66 miles east of Portland, which became a gold rush port; John caught 'gold fever' and left in 1851 (but he was unlucky). Their partner Osborne took on the paper but he also deserted and it folded; the press and types were packed away. When Osborne returned, he bought out the Wilkinsons' interest and continued to publish until 1867.

Thomas and family returned to Melbourne in 1852, after he was elected to the first Legislative Assembly of Victoria to represent the electoral district of Portland (1851-56). He stood against Mr Moore, a Melbourne solicitor, who was supported by the influential Henty family – who for a time refused to supply Wilkinson's supporters from their butchers' shop (the ballot was not secret). His victory came as a surprise, and prompted this letter:
To the Editor of the Argus, 10 September 1851
Sir – I hasten to communicate our glorious electioneering success in the town of Portland. The poll was held this day, and beyond our most sanguine expectation, we have succeeded in defeating the election of your ancient and loving friend, Mr Moore, and returning one on whom we can depend for warmly and sincerely advocating the three great local questions about which we are at present chiefly concerned, viz. Portland immigration, Portland land sales, and Portland circuit courts. We consider this a great triumph for the cause of liberty and better government; and we think the Government out now to be convinced that there is too much reason for the frequent complaints that have appeared in our local journals of the neglect and gross injustice Portland had long endured at their hands, since the editor of these very journals the people of Portland have elected as their representative in the first Legislative Council of Victoria.

At the close of the poll the numbers were declared by the Returning Officer thus:- for Mr Wilkinson 47, for Mr Moore 41.

We deferred to the electors and influence in our town to bring forward a candidate worthy of the representation of this fine but much injured town. And when it was known only at the eleventh hour that the man they proposed was the enemy and persecutor of the liberty of the press; the farmer and mover in the Sydney council of the bills to crush the religious liberty that now exists in the Colonies you may rest assured there was no little indignation felt. It was bad enough to have a non resident proposed over the heads of all the residents in the town; but such a one as Mr Moore has proved himself was indeed felt to be too bad. It was not until the Saturday before the nomination day, that the requisition and his answer appeared in Portland. The day of nomination was the Tuesday following, and what could be done in that short time? Our only hope appeared to have some resident ready to propose, to prevent ourselves from being parties to the return of Mr Moore, and by at least an honourable minority enter a sort of public protest against the sacrifice of the important interests of our town. So without time even to draw up a requisition nor to make any active exertions in the way of canvassing, Mr Wilkinson, the Editor of the Portland Guardian, was nominated on Tuesday and has been elected this day (Wednesday).

Every kind of influence was brought to bear against us, when it was known that another candidate was brought into the field. I could record instances of petty tyranny, intimidation, etc. by which many whose hearts were with us were compelled to vote against us. But in spite of all we have triumphed.

Many of those who signed the requisition saw clearly that Mr Moore's reply to the requisition – which proposed conditions on which he will consent to stand for the election that are not mentioned in the requisition – honourably released those who signed the requisition from their pledge; and so these will be the beginning of better days of prosperity for Bonnie Portland that she has hitherto had.

I find there is no time to write more or even to read over what I have written before the post leaves.
Therefore in haste, a Portland Elector

What was the gist of the three great local issues mentioned – was it simply that they felt neglected? There was certainly resentment that only minor court cases were held in Portland, under Blair: others involved a journey to Melbourne. And what was the religious liberty issue – all denominations seem to have established themselves in Portland? In any event, it was a little ironic that, having stood against Moore partly on the basis that he was a non-resident, Thomas himself moved back to Melbourne to devote himself fully to his parliamentary duties, though as a local he continued to have Portland's interests at heart. (In 1853 he sold the Portland Guardian, together with his house, to the Revd T.E. Richardson, who resigned from the Presbyterian church to take this on.) On his return to Brunswick, he found only two rooms of his house remaining, and the log fence sold for fuel. (The site is now a furniture store – in 1986 a commemorative plaque - left - was installed.)

His third newspaper was the Brunswick Record, set up with son James in 1852, John joining them in 1858 when it became the Brunswick and Pentridge Press and East Bourke Advertiser. Brunswick was on the route to the goldfields and developed rapidly, becoming a municipality in 1857, with a council of seven, of which Thomas was elected chairman, and a town in 1866, of which he was the first mayor [right with Louisa in 1857]. He and other members put up their property as security to get the banks to lend money. (Meetings were held at the Cornish Arms hotel, and subsequently at the Wesleyan Chapel.)  He was appointed a Justice of the Peace.

Thomas retired from public life in 1867, with a comfortable income from his properties, and continuing his Methodist links (the chapel was next door to his home!) and died in 1881 aged 82. Left is a drinking fountain in the centre of Brunswick that bears his name.

His family continued to flourish. Sarah (born in Launceston in 1839) was the first woman to qualify as a chemist in Victoria; she was an active member of the Women's National League of Victoria, and involved in various charitable activities in Brunswick. James (born in Launceston in 1836) and Louisa (their first child, born in London in 1822) were among the founders of the Melbourne Philharmonic Society – James the leading tenor and flautist, and Louisa the leading sporano. James' sons Frederick and James became involved in the first legal minimum wage case, in Agricultural Workers' Union v Harvester (1907) – James was the secretary, and President of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council.  A final snub to the Methodist teetotal principles of Brunwsick's founder: 'Mr Wilkinson', in Lygon Street - right - is a wine bar!

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