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John Nicholson Mailer (1825-1892) Depository for the Religious Tract and Book Society

John Nicholson Mailer (1825-1892)[1] was born in Edinburgh to Andrew Mailer, a stone mason, and Marion Nicholson. His older brothers, Andrew and Robert, were shoemakers and John, at aged 16, was also apprenticed to that trade. John became a bookbinder, however, and married Mary Cochrane in July, 1852 in Edinburgh at St Cuthbert’s.[2] Andrew and Robert emigrated to America; Andrew in 1849 and his brother Robert and his mother Mary sometime before 1851.[3] John and Mary decided to come to Australia and arrived in the colony of New South Wales in November 1854.[4] Their eldest son Andrew (1854-1902)[5] was born in Scotland and the Mailers had four other children in Australia: John Henry (1857-1887),[6] Robert Adam Thomson (1861-1925),[7]  Mary (1862-1937) [8] and Ida Marion (1868-1868).[9]

In Sydney, John found work in his trade as a book binder[10] and became an assistant to James W Waugh in Waugh and Cox’s stationery and bookselling business in 1855.[11] In November 1862, John purchased the business operating at 286 George Street, Sydney, and advertised himself as a stationer and account book manufacturer,[12] telling potential customers that ‘his practical knowledge of the Account Book Manufacture enables him to assure those who may favour him with their patronage that nothing will be supplied but such as are of the best material, workmanship, and latest improvements.’[13] The business did not appear to prosper and by August 1864 all his assets were assigned to Trustees on behalf of his creditors[14] and by November 1865,[15] he had decided to cease trading and by December 1865, all his stock had been sold to pay off the creditors.[16]

In 1866, it had been necessary for the jointly operated bookshop of the British and Foreign Bible Society and Religious Tract and Book Society (RTS) to dismiss their depository and to seek a new appointment.[17] The Society had not been served well by its recent appointments as in 1862 the then depository, Joseph Holloway Morrison, was found guilty of embezzlement of society funds to the amount of about £600.[18] The newly advertised position attracted a salary of £250 with residence at the Bible Hall, Pitt Street, and the successful applicant was also required to post a security of £500. [19]  John Mailer applied and was appointed.[20]

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The Australian Religious Tract Society

The Australian Religious Tract Society (RTS) was inaugurated in Sydney, NSW, on August 13, 1823 at the suggestion of the then Governor of the colony, Sir Thomas Brisbane.[1] It appears that this was not purely a colonial initiative, however, for a few months prior to Brisbane’s suggestion the Religious Tract Society in London (RTSL) had had their attention drawn to the colony of New South Wales and to its spiritual needs. Within 30 days of the formation of the RTS, the Rev Richard Hill received an unsolicited consignment of books from the RTSL in the hope he might extend the operations of the RTSL in the colony. So, within a month of its formation and not the ten months, it would have required to obtain stock from England, the RTS could begin its work.[2] The purpose of the society was the procuring and distribution of religious tracts ‘such as to inculcate evangelic sentiments.’ More expansively, its primary object was

to afford the means of cheap, useful, and pious Reading; that the poorer Classes of the Community, and the young People more especially, who may be able to read, may obtain some of the most instructive and important Lessons of Life at a very small Expense.[3]

Its governing committee consisted of the Reverends Richard Hill (Assistant Chaplain, Anglican), John Dunmore Lang (Presbyterian), Benjamin Carvosso (Wesleyan),[4] William Cowper (Secretary, Anglican) and three laymen James Chandler, Alexander Kenneth Mackenzie (Treasurer)[5] with George Williams[6] as Collector and Depositary.[7] William Cowper was a driving force of the society being its secretary for the first 16 years of its existence only relinquishing the role of secretary in 1839 when his eyesight began to fail.[8]

By 1826, the Society had obtained the support of the Governor as Patron, its funds had increased and some 62,882 tracts had been circulated during the year. The society was the beneficiary of support from ‘home’ through grants from the Tract Societies of London, Bristol and Dublin upon which the RTS had been modelled.[9] Initially, support for the society was strong and numerous ladies attended its annual meeting and this was a sufficiently novel occurrence that their attendance, which ‘enlivened the meeting with their presence’, was especially remarked upon.[10]

Committee reports mentioned numerous responses to the receipt of various tracts by members of the public which indicate what the RTS saw as desirable outcomes from its work:

… in the course of conversation he informed me that he had been a professed Atheist until within a few months, but that the perusal of a tract – the Dairyman’s Daughter, I believe, had been instrumental in awakening him from his own vain dreams. He wished to partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and afterwards he did so.[11]

Many instances of good, resulting from the circulation of your tracts, have occurred within the last year or two. Some are now united with Christian churches, who, but for these silent messengers, might have remained dead in sin. One old woman, between eighty and ninety years of age, discovered by a tract distributor, ignorant and indifferent, is now giving evidence of a saving change wrought in her heart by the Spirit of God.[12]

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