Book Review: The Good Bishop

The Good Bishop: The Story of Mathew Hale
By Michael Gourlay
Mathew Hale Public Library, 2015

On September 2, 1847 Mathew Bladgen Hale sailed from England for Adelaide on the barque Derwent. He came to Adelaide with Bishop Augustus Short as archdeacon in the freshly minted diocese. Hale went on to become the first Bishop of Perth, and the second Bishop of Brisbane, and over the near forty year period of his public ministry in Australia this vigorous evangelical threw himself into serving Aboriginal people, establishing churches, advocating better treatment of convicts, pioneering education, recruiting and encouraging clergy and stirring up Christians to give to support new ministry in regional areas. Dr Michael Gourlay, a retired engineering academic from Brisbane, has expanded an address he gave at the Mathew Hale Public Library to mark the 200th anniversary of Hale’s birth into a brief, engaging biography of a very significant colonial ministry. Gourlay has interspersed many relevant illustrations throughout the text, and has frequently woven the words of Hale and his contemporaries into his account of events. I have many times walked past the statue of Hale with outstretched hand on St George’s Terrace in Perth, so it was wonderful to fill in my understanding of the man and his times.

Hale might have been thought a spent force in 1845, when, just short of his 34th  birthday, he resigned from the busy parish of Stroud, Gloucestershire, having suffered an emotional breakdown following the death of his first wife, Sophia. He retreated to the quiet of his family’s rural parish of Alderley. But Hale was far from spent, and, having sailed to Adelaide to minister in the newly established diocese that stretched west to include Western Australia, he became first rector of St Matthew’s Kensington, and as archdeacon travelled to Albany, the Vasse (Busselton), Bunbury and Perth. In 1848 at Fairlawn in the Vasse, Hale met and, it seems, fell promptly in love with Sabina Molloy, eldest daughter of John and Georgiana Molloy. (The late Georgiana had been, by one contemporary assessment, ‘the best informed, the most accomplished, the most elegant, the most lady-like woman who ever came to the colony’ – p20). Sabina quickly became Hale’s second wife, and their marriage lasted all his life. Sabina died in 1905 in Tasmania, having lived with Hale in England during his retirement until his death, then having returned to Australia to her son Harold. I really enjoyed all this human detail in Gourlay’s telling, it gave individuality to people who have given their names to Western Australian Anglican schools.

Hale was so concerned with the vulnerable position of Aboriginal people in the harsh new realities of colonisation, and so moved to seek to bring them the gospel, along with Western education and training, that he gave himself to this work for six full years from 1850. Inspired by a Christian village for Aboriginals being established by Wesleyans at Wanneroo, north of Perth, Hale enlisted South Australian government support and also gave his own resources to establish The Poonindie Institute, which became a kind of English village populated by Aboriginal people. Hale hit his targets of evangelising and Europeanising the Aboriginals at Poonindie in many ways. One of the motives that shaped his work seemed to be to demonstrate to his fellow colonists that Aboriginal people were in no way sub-human, nor incapable of receiving and mastering whatever the colonists might have received or mastered. Hale’s concern for Aborigines was lifelong – in 1870 he proposed to resign as Bishop of Perth to become the chaplain of an orphanage for Aboriginals which was threatened with closure after its supervisor fell ill. A deputation of over sixty gathered to persuade him to continue as bishop. Later he became the chairman of the Queensland Commission for the Protection of Aborigines.

There is, of course, much more to the book than I have indicated here, and even more to Hale himself. Gourlay focusses proportionally more upon Hale’s later Brisbane years (he was 64 when he left Perth), than upon the bulk of his Australian ministry which took place in South Australia and Western Australia, but this hardly mars the work. Gourlay says of this biography that he has ‘attempted to bring the life and work of a truly good and faithful servant of Jesus Christ and loyal member of the 19th century Anglican church in Australia to the knowledge of 21st century Christian disciples.’ (p ix), and this is an excellent aim well carried out. The book is pretty well designed and well produced, and has plenty of supplementary end matter. I read it to my profit.

Ben Underwood, Shenton Park, WA