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BISHOP WILLSON, FIRST CATHOLIC BISHOP of TASMANIA

Two covers addressed to the Bishop of Hobartown have appeared in auction catalogues over the past 4 years. The first one I saw initially left some doubt whether I was dealing with the Catholic or Anglican Bishop, whereas the second cover left no doubt that the person addressed was the first Catholic Bishop of Tasmania. Further research on the first cover showed that it also was addressed to Robert William Willson, the Catholic Bishop, and not the first Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, Frederick Russell Nixon.

The first cover was described in the auction catalogue as follows: 1850 Sydney View 3d yellow-green, four margined example affixed to (16th Feb) cover by wafer and tied by obliterator in black and part red crowned handstamp, addressed to 'The Bishop of Hobartown', reverse with framed 'SHIP LETTER/28FB28/1850' in black. The cover estimate was AUD 500.

This is an incomplete and incorrect description for the partial red unframed oval postmark was 'PAID (SHIP LETTER)/crown/FE *16 /*1850*/SYDNEY - Type SL3 (variant 2) [White, 1988 p. 254], and the black obliterator on the stamp was one of the undated "Sydney Bars" Type B1e (earliest recorded date) [White p. 84-86]. The address on the cover was more elaborate than in the above description: The Rt. Revd. &/ The Bishop of Hobartown/ Hobartown (Figure 1).

 

 

The second cover was described in the auction catalogue as follows: 1857 stampless OPSO (on public service only) cover from the convict settlement at Port Arthur to the Bishop at Hobart with the signature of the Catholic priest Father "M.M. Ryan", very fine strike of the postmaster's private h/s 'PORT ARTHUR/("29 10 57")/POST OFFICE (date inserted by hand), and equally fine [crown]/FREE arrival cds in red. Magnificent item being one of the gems from Malcolm Groom's outstanding collection.

This was not a complete description for the red crown/FREE arrival was given as 30 OC30/ 1857, and the date of sending was confirmed in manuscript as 29 Oct 1857. The addressee on the cover was fully identified: The Right Rev./ R.W. Willson/ The Catholic Bishop/ Hobart Town. The estimate for the cover was AUD 7500 (Figure 2).

 

 

Robert William Willson was born at Lincoln, England on 11 December 1794 , his father a builder belonged to the Church of England, and he became a Catholic late in life, whereas his mother was a devout Catholic. It was intended that William become a farmer, and at 19 he decided to enter a religious life as a lay brother, but Bishop Milner advised him to study for the priesthood. He was ordained as a priest in December 1824 and he was first stationed at Nottingham where he was responsible for initiating the building of the Cathedral of St. Barnabas.

Early in 1842 he was appointed Bishop to the new See of Hobartown, which he first refused, but subsequently accepted. He was consecrated in St. Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham by Archbishop Polding of Sydney on 28 October 1842. He did not reach Hobart until 11 May 1844, for he spent time studying conditions in European prisons. Much of his problems in Hobart were finance-related, and he had stormy relations with the Rev. John Joseph Therry who was the cause of these problems through his imprudence in running up debts of great amount.

The work for which Bishop Willson will be remembered lay mainly with his work with the 30,000 convicts then in Port Arthur and Norfolk Island. He brought about many reforms and he visited England in 1847 to plead for better treatment of convicts and of the insane in the colony. He was amongst the earliest to recognize how much might be done by using proper treatment in the curing of mental illness. He did not allow these humanitarian endeavours to interfere with his church duties, for schools were opened, a library was established and churches were built.

His work was warmly acknowledged by Tasmanian Governors, the British Government and by the community at large in Tasmania. He succeeded in having the convict prison at Norfolk Island abolished altogether. In 1859, feeling the stress of failing health, he petitioned Rome for a co-adjudicator, but received no relief. On 27 February 1865 he left Hobart for Rome, but was stricken with paralysis on the voyage and he retired to his home in Nottingham, England, where he died on 30 June 1866.

He was succeeded by Archbishop Daniel Murphy who carried on his work in Tasmania from 1866-1907. Willson was a man of great humanity and benevolence who had one fault, for he could not compromise. His rigidity in his dealing with the Rev. Therry (whom he removed from office) was an example of this trait. In all other matters he was a shining example to everyone in the colony, including non-members of his faith. A picture of the Bishop in his clerical garb is shown in Figure 3.

 

 

 
An additional picture of Robert William Willson (an oil on canvas) is seen in Figure 4.
 

 

 
 

 

 

Addendum (November 2009): Some 7 years after the initial entry, a further cover was addressed to The Right Revd Dr. Willson, Bishop of Hobart Town with a ms. added by Willson, namely 'Arch McEnroe'/ June 1858.  The grey 'SIX PENCE' Diadem stamp of New South Wales is cancelled 'N.S.W.' and there is an incomplete boxed 'SHP LETTER' (Figure 5).

The reverse has a SYDNEY/ B/ JU 22/ 1858/ NEW SOUTH WALES postmark and a red 'diamond' 'SHIP LETTER/ INWARDS FREE/ 1 JY 1/ 1858 (Figure 6).

'Arch McEnroe' was Archdeacon Father John McEnroe, and both he and Bishop Willson were well acquainted.

Most of the information on Bishop Willson was derived from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

 

 
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