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Reverend John West - A Minister With A Mission

Posted on 7 November, 2017 at 18:40

One of the colonial clergy to make his mark on Launceston, Tasmania and Australia, was a Congregational minister  called John West.  He was born in 1809 in England and followed the family business becoming a minister and working in various parts of England until 1838 when he was accepted for service in Van Dieman’s Land.

With wife in tow his family arrived in Hobart in late 1838 and moved very soon after to Launceston.  Then in 1842 he was offered the new St John’s Chapel, opposite St John’s Square and he really started to gain a reputation as an honest, socially aware individual with a sincere desire to move his flock forward.  Taking half of Rev Charles Price’s flock from the Tamar St Church when he opened the doors at St. Johns may or may not have been well received however.

West became a popular member of the Launceston community and in 1842, with James Aikenhead and JS Waddell established The Examiner newspaper which is still Launceston’s premier daily newsrag, and one of Australia’s oldest continuously published papers.

Reverend West had his fingers in numerous community pies as he helped to build the city that is Launceston today.  These included the City Mission helping the needy members of town, and which is still running with several outlets in and around Launceston.  He helped to establish the first large scale public Hospital, and he was part of the party which created the general cemetery, which was behind where the newer general hospital stands today. 

The good minister also helped to found the Mechanics Institute, which sadly whose building was demolished to make way for the decorative garden at Civic Square.  And he also helped to create the Cornwall Insurance Company.  Then in 1847 he was a cofounder of the Hobart High School, which was non-denominational and aimed to provide education for boys going into commercial, professional and agricultural pursuits.

Despite all of the above, he was still to do his best work.


The Anti Transportation League

He was totally anti transportation of convicts to the colony, and worked tirelessly to abolish the transportation of those convicts, not only to VDL, but also to all the other Australian colonies.  Rev John West was effectively the leader of the anti transportation movement, talking to the public on the subject, using his pulpit to address the issue with his congregation, and in the colonial newspapers, not just The Examiner.

He sought to awaken public consciousness to the negative effects that the practise had on their lives, and their children’s lives. He tried to turn van Dieman’s Land from a prison island, to a bona fide settlement for free settlers. After three years of local meetings and addressing groups and rallies, he realised he had to bring in all the colonies to act as one, that individually they would not get the ear of the British government.  In a protest meeting in Launceston in 1850 he proposed to seek the cooperation of all the abolishers across the country.

West wrote a letter which successfully aroused the populace and a conference was held in Melbourne in 1851, which led to the forming of the Australasian League for the Prevention of Transportation.  West’s passion was evident and his addresses were always well attended, and his eminence brought nominations for him to take the argument to England!

John West was not without critics.  While most newspapers were sympathetic to the cause and carried his words to the masses, a few were not so charitable.  According to the ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’, ‘the Hobart Advertiser, always hostile to the cause, made such serious personal attacks on West that he was forced to seek redress. The matter was settled out of court, West receiving apologies and 50 pounds, which he gave to the Hobart High School to buy books for its library.’

Most papers were as mentioned particularly supportive of Rev John West’s passion to cease the transportation of convicts, especially his home town paper, The Examiner.  From its pages on April 25, 1852 - 'His was the inspiring spirit that gave vitality and impetus to every well-concerted and successful movement. He was the guiding hand that chiefly directed the machinery … his tongue was ever eloquent, his pen was incessantly occupied. He did all that is permitted to the most gifted to accomplish'


Trying To Separate Church From State

Reverend John West was obviously a bit of a juggler!  While all this was happening, he came back to Launceston, to his congregation in St John’s Chapel, to resume his duties at the church.  In 1851, still being a man for worthy causes, he became aware of a bill before the Legislative Council which was about the state providing aid for churches in VDL.  West however was a voluntaryist, like most Congregationalists, and believed a church should stand on its merits and be funded by the people who worshipped under its roof.  His was a voice to keep the church separate from the state.  He couldn’t turn the heads that mattered on this score, and in 1853 the bill went through.

Another major event in 1853, van Dieman’s Land, became known as Tasmania.


A Recorder of Colonial History

Still the juggler, West was also commissioned to write a history of the empires most southern colony.  While this tied in with the recording of the history of transportation to the antipodes, there was a growing antipathy of the colony’s past, even though it was only 40-odd years old.  Wealthy Hobart abolishment supporter Henry Hopkins saw West as the man for the job, to record the history of Tasmania, thus far. 

He wrote two volumes, and they are available online at several free ebook sites.  Being able to canvas people that had been there since the very beginning, and his style of journalistic detachment made for a colourful, accurate journal.  John West on this task alone is considered the father of Australian history writing.


A Fearless Journalist

West was also a prolific contributor to the colonial media in Tasmania, and the Sydney Morning Herald.  He wrote many articles of an educational nature on not just transportation, but also the benefits of Federation.  He was a good friend of the publisher of the SMH, John Fairfax who was also a Congregationalist, and though he had no experience, he was offered the job as editor of that icon of Australian press.  Sadly, this meant he had to leave Launceston.

He continued to stir the pot on many issues, and was libelled, and sued for libel many times.  Whenever he won suit, he donated the proceedings to charity.

Reverend John West was a colourful character who followed his convictions with passion.  He was a moral man with little time for material gains, but with lots of time for social justice and application of just and considerate principles. 

He died in Woollahra in 1873, a well liked gentleman who had unusual patience with the misguided and uninformed.  He was an honest man.

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