WILLSON, Robert William (1794-1866)

WILLSON, Robert William (1794-1866)
Roman Catholic bishop of Hobart
was born at Lincoln, England, on 11 December 1794. His father, a builder, belonged to the Church of England, but became a Roman Catholic late in life, his mother was a devout Catholic. Willson received a fair school education and it was intended that he should become a farmer. In his twentieth year he decided to enter a religious life as a lay brother, but was advised by Bishop Milner to study for the priesthood. He entered the College of Old Oscott in 1816, was ordained priest in December 1824, and was sent to Nottingham. When he arrived there was a small chapel that would hold 150 people with difficulty, and as the congregation was increasing, Willson found a good site and built a spacious church, which was completed in 1828. He began to take special interest in the prisons and the lunatic asylum, was placed on the boards of the county hospital and the lunatic asylum, and personally visited the inmates and obtained much influence over them. During the cholera epidemic in 1832 he worked with the greatest courage among the patients, and about this period the corporation presented him with the freedom of Nottingham. His congregation continued to increase, and he decided that a large church must be built on a worthy site. Gradually the group of buildings which eventually became the cathedral of St Barnabas with adjacent schools and convent came into being. He found time to edit and contribute an introductory address to W. L. Stone's A Complete Refutation of Maria Monk's Atrocious Plot concerning the Hotel Dieu Convent in Montreal, but he was always too busy a man to do much writing. Early in 1842 he was appointed bishop to the new see of Hobart, Tasmania. Efforts were made to have his services retained in England, but in January 1844 he sailed for Australia and he arrived at Hobart on 11 May.
Willson was faced with a difficulty directly he landed. He had made a condition on accepting the see that the Rev. J. J. Therry (q.v.) should be transferred from Hobart where he was in charge to another see. This had not been done and Willson removed Therry from office. He also understood that the church was unencumbered by debt but found that there was a considerable debt. In August he went to Sydney to confer with Archbishop Polding (q.v.) on these matters, but 14 years were to elapse before a satisfactory arrangement was agreed to. On his return from Sydney Willson began his important work of the amelioration of the conditions of the 30,000 convicts then in Tasmania. At the end of 1846 he sailed for England and his evidence before the committee then sitting on the convict system made a deep impression. He returned to Hobart in December 1847 and hearing that conditions at Norfolk Island were rather worse than better, determined to see for himself. After his visit he wrote a strong recommendation to Governor Denison (q.v.) that the penal settlement on the island should be abandoned as soon as possible. He made practical and valuable recommendations for reforms to be made in the meanwhile. It was some years before the settlement was given up, but his untiring determination brought about many reforms in the treatment of the prisoners. Another interest was the treatment of patients with mental troubles, and he succeeded in bringing about much improvement in asylums or as he preferred to call them, hospitals. He was among the earliest to recognize how much might be done by using proper treatment in the curing of mental diseases.
These activities were not allowed to interfere with the conduct of his church work. Schools were opened, a library was established, churches were built. All this was done without rousing the sectarian feeling which was rife on the mainland of Australia. Indeed, in 1853, when Willson after an illness was advised to take a voyage to Europe, among the many addresses presented to him none touched him more than one signed by a large number of well-known residents who did not belong to his church. He returned to Hobart early in 1855, but he began to feel his years and in 1859 applied for a coadjutor. In February 1865 Willson left for Europe. On the voyage he was struck down by paralysis from which he never fully recovered. He went to live among his friends at Nottingham and died there on 30 June 1866.
Willson was a man of great humanity and benevolence who had one fault—he could not compromise. He was sorely tried by the weakness of Archbishop Polding in not transferring Therry from Tasmania as had been arranged, and there is a temptation to think that he should have been able to deal more kindly with Therry. But if Willson seemed too rigid on this question, in all other matters he was a shining example to everyone in the colony, and the value of his self-sacrificing work for the convicts and the insane can hardly be over-stated.
W. B. Ullathorne, Memoir of Bishop Willson; T. Kelsh, Personal Recollections of the Right Reverend Robert William Willson, D.D.; Eris O'Brien, Life and Letters of Archpriest John Joseph Therry; H. N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia; P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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