Robert William Willson

Sketch of St Joseph's Catholic Church in Hobart in 1844, the year Willson arrived (AOT, PH30/1/450)

Robert William Willson (1794–1866), pioneer Catholic bishop and social worker, was ordained in England in 1824 and arrived in Tasmania in 1844. Greatly interested in penal reform, tolerant but doggedly refusing to compromise with expediency, he opposed transportation as 'a mode of punishment unlawful for a Christian nation knowingly to inflict', and worked assiduously among convicts, who formed the bulk of the Catholic population. He became convinced of the need to promote 'an efficient system of moral culture' in rehabilitating criminals, and objected to corporal punishment as degrading and counterproductive, succeeding in gaining abolition of the inhumane lash and the tube-gag, employed to punish for blasphemy and obscene language. His report to the British Parliament in 1847 of appalling conditions on Norfolk Island helped bring about the settlement's closure, and he was also involved in penal reform in New South Wales, England and Italy.

Willson encouraged women to be decent wives and mothers, frequently championed convict women who had been treated unjustly, and invited three Irish Sisters of Charity to assist Hobart women and conduct a school for the poor. Once transportation was abolished, he worked to improve treatment for the insane and encourage Catholic education, with Sunday catechetical classes and schools. He fought against discrimination to gain an equitable distribution of State Aid for his clergy. Traits of character included a rich sense of humour, and constant recourse to Bible reading and prayer. Willson remained Tasmania's bishop until his death.

Further reading: W Southerwood, The convicts' friend, George Town, 1989; T Kelsh, “ Personal recollections” of the Right Reverend Robert William Willson, Hobart, 1882; ADB 2.

Terry Southerwood