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David Walker (1839 -1915)

David Walker (1839 -1915) Secretary of Sydney YMCA and vocational philanthropist

The YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) became in NSW in the last quarter of the nineteenth century a very significant youth organisation. Prior to this it was not always so successful and had for a long time struggled to exist. Its resurgence was due, humanly speaking, to David Walker.

David Walker, son of Samuel and Ellen Walker, was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on November 8, 1839, and died in Sydney on January 20, 1915, aged 75. He had begun a clerical commercial life in Ireland but, attracted by the gold rush, he came to Australia in 1856 when he was seventeen. His brothers John (1826-1906), an engineer on the City of Sydney[1] and William (1836-1916), an employee of the Commercial Bank,[2] were already in Australia having arrived shortly before him.[3]  After the death of their father in 1866, their sister Rebecca (1847-1928) joined them in Sydney in 1867.[4] David, although attracted to the colony of NSW by the gold rush, was to say

DAVID WALKER General Secretary Sydney YMCA 1878-1902

General Secretary
Sydney YMCA

that ‘he found something better than gold’, a wife and a greater sphere of usefulness than he had ever contemplated.[5] In 1865, David married Emily Jane Smalley and they had eight children: Edith Annie (1867-1950), Mary (1869-1930), David Edgar (1871-1948), Emily Gertrude (1873-1952), Robert Percy (1874-1951), Jessie Helen (1876-1950), Grace Millicent (1884-1965) and Eric John Kent (1887-1952).[6] From at least 1870, they made their family home in the Petersham Marrickville area,[7] only moving to Killara in 1905.

It was said that David entered the firm of Barnett and Hinton, wine and spirit merchants,[8] as a junior clerk and became chief book keeper and confidential clerk[9] after 21 years of service, then continued to work as an accountant for the firm until 1878.[10] This narrative implies a stable and steady progression of continuous service with one company, but this is a colourless and misleading account of his commercial life. In fact he worked for a succession of firms, all of which were in the business of wholesale grocery and wine and spirit distribution, and it is clear that being a wholesale grocer in nineteenth century NSW was a difficult and challenging business, as demonstrated by the numerous insolvencies and dissolutions of partnerships that occurred. David was fortunate, however, for through each crisis he was given employment by the succeeding partnership. He seems to have commenced his commercial life with JV Barnard and Co, wholesale grocers and wine and spirit merchants which had been formed in 1854. In 1860, the business became insolvent and was dissolved,[11] and Barnard then formed a partnership with Alfred Haydon to form Haydon and Co which was renamed Alfred Haydon and Co.[12] This particular partnership was dissolved in 1865,[13] but the company continued under its name until there was an amalgamation with Watkins and Leigh, and Barnard and Burrows was formed in 1866.[14] In 1872, this partnership was dissolved and Barnard and Hinton was formed.[15] By 1877, due to difficult financial conditions in country NSW, Barnard and Hinton found themselves with many clients who could not meet their financial obligations and trade was slack. This forced the company into liquidation and administration, paying only ten shillings in the pound to its debtors.[16] In January 1878, Hinton purchased the residual of the business[17] and resumed trading under the name of Hinton and Co, Wine and Spirit Merchants and Importers.[18] Over this time and throughout all these commercial upheavals, David maintained his employment with each succeeding partnership which demonstrates that he must have been a vital and well-regarded employee.

It was in 1877 that Walker was presented with a requisition, signed by 420 people, to consider the full-time role of General Secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).[19] This was not the first time he had been offered the position and, as often as it had been offered, he had refused it.[20] This time, however, he was once again facing a restructured work life and may have considered that the delegation was a godsend. Acceptance of the YMCA position would have involved a degree of ‘self- denial’ for the salary offered was £350 a year, a much smaller salary than his then current remuneration of £500 a year,[21] and less than other offers he had received.[22] David agreed to take the position of General Secretary[23] and commenced work at the beginning of 1878.[24]

Prior to becoming General Secretary of the YMCA, and almost from his first arrival in the colony, Walker had been involved in the work of the association.[25] As early as 1857 and aged 18 he was a member of the governing committee,[26] and by 1858 he was teaching a writing and bookkeeping class to between 15 and 25 students.[27] Young men who were new arrivals in the Colony found in Walker ‘a friend and helper’ who assisted them to overcome the dislocation that often occurred when coming from ‘Home’ to Australia.[28] Under Walker’s superintendence the YMCA, which from its formation in 1853 struggled and for a period between 1861 and 1870 had almost ceased to function, increased in size. Starting with 50 members when he took over and growing to 500 in his first year, by 1889 membership had reached 1300[29] and its influence and financial support also grew so that the YMCA was able to open new premises.[30] A site at the corner of Pitt and Bathurst streets was purchased for the sum of £13,000, and on this was erected a building, which is one of the architectural beauties of the city, at a cost of £26,000.[31]

David Walker in his YMCA Office

David Walker in his YMCA Office

In 1888, the board granted Walker a six month leave of absence to recover his health and during this time he took a trip to England on the Oroya to recuperate.[32] By this stage he had been employed by the YMCA for ten years and had been, according to the board, ‘indefatigable in the discharge of his duties and the latter had been of such a numerous and arduous character that his energies had been over-taxed, and it was now necessary that he take a rest’.[33]  During his leave of absence he travelled 40,000 miles visiting England, his home country Ireland, and he took the opportunity to travel to Stockholm to attend a YMCA conference attended by some 600 YMCA delegates from across the world. Returning to London via Copenhagen, Hamburg and Brussels, he then visited the work in Sheffield, Birmingham and in Glasgow and gave many addresses. In London David met and had an interview with C H Spurgeon[34] and was farewelled from Exeter Hall at a meeting presided over by George Williams, the founder of the YMCA. Proceeding to America, he visited YMCAs in Brooklyn, New York, Chicago and San Francisco where he found the work was being prosecuted with great vigour, and he was clearly impressed by what he saw there. On the last leg of his journey he was welcomed at Honolulu and Auckland, returning to Sydney on the Alameda in December 1888.[35] On his return he said he would ‘continue his labours in this city, and to help in that work which was now becoming recognised as the religious movement of the nineteenth century.’[36]

Walker’s approach to the work was articulated by him when he explained that

the methods adopted in working the Sydney association, and the manifold, agencies … had been adopted to gain and hold the sympathy of the young men of Sydney. The attractions of the city were strong, and opportunities for evil widespread. It was considered a wise course to provide counter attractions, and as a result the Y.M.C.A. had its recreation clubs amid gymnasium, as well as classes, which tended to the intellectual improvement of the members.[37]

Yet Walker was not just about providing wholesome counter activities for young men, as this was just the means to his principle end which was the reformation and preservation of the lives of young men. He was concerned to introduce young men to a relationship with Jesus. His conviction was that the ‘only guarantee of morality was religion, and the only religion was that of Jesus Christ.’[38] Thus he gave his life to the moral and spiritual well-being of the youth of the country through the work of the YMCA.

In 1882, he commenced evangelical services in the Opera House, York Street[39] and they were held there until 1884 when they were discontinued due to the new lessee increasing the rental.[40] Prior to this, ‘infidels tried to wrest the building’ from Walker by offering a higher rent but Bishop Barry made an appeal to business men and money was provided to secure the premises.[41] These services were well patronised and recommenced in 1885[42] in the new YMCA building, opened at the corner of Bathurst and Pitt Streets.[43] John Fraser, MLC, was a personal friend of the general secretary and he took a great interest in the operations of the YMCA, subscribing £2,000 towards the new building. This was followed some large donations by others[44] with the total amounting to nearly £20,000 and the YMCA building was eventually erected at a final cost of £40,000.[45]

The evangelistic meetings organised by Walker usually had a large choir of men and women singing Moody and Sankey’s hymns as the audience, often numbering between 500 to 600 people, came in.[46] At the commencement of the service Walker would come to the platform with the speaker who was to deliver the address and would open the meeting with the announcement of the hymn to be sung, such as ‘Are you coming home, ye wanderers, whom Jesus died to win?’ or ‘Where is my Wandering Boy to-night?’. These frequently used hymns outlined the primary aim of the YMCA under Walker which was to collect together those who had, in coming to colonial NSW, become detached from the Christian faith. Through these services, which were specifically designed for those who had no regular colonial church attachment, David sought to once again introduce them to Jesus. He said, ‘he was safe in saying that not 1 per cent that went to … meetings belonged to the Church-going population. They did not want the latter class to attend, and he often told them to stop away.’[47] This was probably genuinely the purpose of the meetings, but such statements were also aimed at appeasing nervous church leaders who may have thought the YMCA was trespassing on their territory.

The opening hymn was followed with a prayer by Walker that majored on a prodigal son theme, ‘Lord bless this crowd of men. Thou knowest their several needs and trials: comfort them, Lord. Bless wandering boys and girls in every land, and bring them home to Thy fold’.[48] The following address was bright, cheerful and instructive and speakers who did not address the audience in this manner, and to whom the listeners were not drawn, were not invited a second time.[49] David’s conviction was that ‘there were thousands longing for the Gospel, but they would never take hold of it unless it was preached simply to them’.[50] He would then address the crowd

in a bright manner giving business particulars and happenings of the former week, advice, and encouragement, and would give an invitation to any of the men that wanted to see him on any business, who were in trouble or out of work, or were strangers in the City. Many would accept the invitation.[51]

David often shared stories of those who came to him, without divulging personal details, which gave a powerful and emotional narrative and held the audience. In conducting the meetings he was ‘quick in discharging the program. There was no interval between items. He gave no chance for shuffling of feet nor a chance of the audience tiring. Everything went merry and bright’.[52] Singing was a feature of the meetings so items must also have been regularly interspersed with hymns.

Walker’s involvement in evangelistic efforts conducted under YMCA auspices comprised some of the largest missions ever held in Sydney. These included the missions of Mrs Hampson, R B Smith, and Joseph Cook (the great anti-Infidel lecturer) and curiously, for a former employee of various wine and spirit merchants, Richard T Booth, the temperance evangelist.[53]

While Walker had broad religious sympathies he was closely associated with the Presbyterian Church and was an active member of the Young Men’s Presbyterian Institute, speaking on one occasion on the life Dr John Kitto,[54] and he became a committee member in 1866.[55]  David joined the Presbyterian Church in Macquarie Street under Rev Alexander Salmon and afterwards under the ministry of Robert Steel.[56] He later joined St David’s Haberfield (then Ashfield) where he was, for a time, superintendent of the Sunday school.[57] Ordained and inducted as an elder at St David’s, he was the only elder who went from St David’s to form the Ashfield Presbyterian Church under the reverend John Auld. He became Session Clerk in 1876 and served in that role until 1880,[58] and was an elder at Ashfield until he resigned from Ashfield and went to live on the north shore of Sydney.

David Walker was a strong believer in the importance of the Bible in the life of a Christian and as such was a member of the committee of the NSW Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society from 1885 until 1915. He was also heavily involved in the work of the NSW Bush Mission Society, originally called the Juvenile Bush Mission Society and founded by a group of young men that probably included Walker.[59] In any case, he was involved with the work from very early in its life and became one of the first honorary secretaries of the Society.[60] Initially the work consisted of visitation by the members and it is easy to see why Walker became involved in this work for, in a number of ways, it was the precursor to what he would do at the YMCA. Visitation involved, said the Rev S C Kent, ‘young men going forth with English, American, and Australian tracts, and seeking to induce such as spent the Sabbath in idleness to enter places of worship and to listen to Christian ministers.’[61] Soon, when the society was more formalised, a colporteur was employed who visited leaving religious literature and distributing bibles. Later in the society’s life Walker took an active part in several of its missions including those of Willoughby and Chatswood from which were formed the Methodist church at Chatswood and the Congregational church at Willoughby.[62]

In early 1901, Walker took a month’s leave to holiday in the Blue Mountains at the conclusion of which he returned to work with much improved in health,[63] but it would seem that his health was in decline and he took the decision to retire from the work at the end of 1902. This proposed retirement, it was noted at the time, came as a surprise to the general community for Walker had shown himself a man of great energy and activity.[64] It was also recognised, however, that ‘the many years of continuous activity and mental strain’ had overtaxed Walker’s health and that this had compelled him to take the step of relinquishing his duties with the YMCA.[65] In 1906, he was again unwell[66] and by 1912 he had suffered a serious heart attack.[67] David was cared for at home, especially by his daughters Jessie and Grace, to whom he left a special bequest which he described as, ‘a small token of my sincere appreciation of the affectionate attention whilst I have been laid up’.[68] He died at his Killara home on January 20, 1915.

Walker left small bequests of £50 each to the YMCA, Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in NSW, and £25 each to the Sydney Hospital and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.[69] His most significant philanthropy, however, was his vocation as the General Secretary of the YMCA for some 24 years. His genial nature made him a universal favourite with all who knew him, and in cases where young men appealed to the YMCA for aid, he always did his best to help them,[70] winning his way deep into the hearts of a very large circle of people by his benevolent and generous nature.[71] David’s involvement in the YMCA established it on a firm foundation as he assisted many young men to find stability and direction in life in the colony of NSW and as he encouraged them to put their trust in Jesus.

Dr Paul F Cooper, Research Fellow, Christ College, Sydney

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. David Walker (1839 -1915) Secretary of Sydney YMCA and vocational philanthropist. Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, August 10, 2015. Available at

[1] He arrived in 1854. SMH, November 24, 1906.

[2] William was an employee from 1862-1908. Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser (Qld), August 11, 1908.

[3] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, June 9, 1888.

[4] Rebecca landed at Melbourne from Liverpool on Great Britain arrived July 21, 1867. Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser (Vic), July 22, 1867.

[5] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, January 2, 1903.

[6] Eric was named after David Walker’s colleague at the YMCA, John Kent.

[7] Walker held 1 acre of land at intersection of Morgan Street and Livingstone Road (formerly called the New Cook’s River Road, Petersham which was also known, at the time, as Norwood. SMH, April 30, 1860. Prior to this they probably lived in Riley Street, Sydney. See the death notice for Walker’s father. SMH, December 21, 1866.

[8] SMH, January 22, 1915. The name of the company was actually Barnard and Hinton.

[9] SMH, September 4, 1902.

[10] SMH, January 22, 1915.

[11] SMH, April 24, 1860.

[12] SMH, July 26, 1860.

[13] SMH, January 3, 1866.

[14] SMH, April 24, 1866.

[15] SMH, January 1, 1872.

[16] SMH, November 24, 1877.

[17] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, March 5, 1878.

[18] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, March 7, 1878.

[19] SMH, January 3, 1878.

[20] SMH, September 4, 1902.

[21] SMH, January 21, 1903; January 4, 1921.

[22] SMH, January, 22 1915.

[23] Examiner (Launceston, Tas), May 4, 1917.

[24] SMH, December 29, 1877.

[25] SMH, August 17, 1914. The account recalls him coming to the YMCA when he was only 16, which must have been, if accurate very soon after his arrival in Sydney.

[26] Empire, September 1, 1857.

[27] SMH, September 1, 1858.

[28] Sydney Mail, June 29, 1888.

[29] Launceston Examiner (Tas), February 23, 1889.

[30] Sydney Mail, June 29, 1888.

[31] Launceston Examiner (Tas), February 23, 1889.

[32] It departed Sydney on May 22, 1888. SMH, May 22, 1888; May 23, 1888.

[33] SMH, May 22, 1888

[34] New Zealand Herald and Daily Southern Cross, December 10, 1888.

[35] It arrived in Sydney on December 14, 1888. SMH, December 15, 1888.

[36] SMH, December 21, 1888.

[37] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, May 23, 1901.

[38] SMH, January 22, 1915.

[39] The date was March 5, 1882. SMH, March 4, 1882.

[40] The last service was on May 25, 1884. SMH, May 23, 1884.

[41] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, January 2, 1903.

[42] SMH, January 22, 1915.

[43] SMH, September 4, 1902.

[44] John Goodlet gave £500 in 1881.

[45] SMH, September 4, 1902.

[46] SMH, July 28, 1885.

[47] Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld), March 5, 1889.

[48] The Mail (Adelaide, SA), February 20, 1915.

[49] Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld), March 5, 1889.

[50] Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld), March 5, 1889.

[51] The Mail (Adelaide, SA), February 20, 1915.

[52] The Mail (Adelaide, SA), February 20, 1915.

[53] SMH, January 22, 1915.

[54] Empire, February 25, 1861. Dr J Kitto, an Irish medical doctor, was deaf and wrote a number of works on biblical literature; the ‘Pictorial Bible’, ‘History of Palestine’ and ‘An Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature’. Launceston Examiner, (TAS) April 26, 1851.

[55] Sydney Mail, Nov 17, 1866.

[56] SMH, September 4, 1902.

[57] SMH, July 29, 1870.

[58] Ashfield Presbyterian Church 1876-1976, 2, 5.

[59] It seems to have been formed in 1856. SMH, August 28, 1861.

[60] He became secretary in January 1861 but is not secretary in 1864. SMH, August 28, 1861; Sydney Mail, August 13, 1864.

[61] SMH, August 15, 1860.

[62] SMH, September 4, 1902.

[63] SMH, February 23, 1901.

[64] SMH, September 4, 1902.

[65] SMH, September 4, 1902.

[66] SMH, July 13, 1906.

[67] SMH, June 11, 1912.

[68] Last Will and Testament of David Walker, died January 20, 1915.

[69] Last Will and Testament of David Walker, died January 20, 1915.

[70] SMH, January 21, 1915.

[71] SMH, January 21, 1915.


  1. […] with increased classes, lectures and membership. By 1877, a full-time employee was needed and David Walker was approached. In January of 1878, he became the full-time General Secretary, a position he […]


  2. […] leaders and the best of men’.[67] John certainly was, along with men like Sharp Lewis and David Walker and many others, a significant contributor to the development of the life of the YMCA in Sydney. […]


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