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Professor John Smith (1821-1885): Theosophical Dabbler or Devotee?

John Smith (1821-1885), foundation professor of chemistry and experimental physics at the University of Sydney, was born on 12 December, 1821, at Peterculter, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the son of Roderick Smith, blacksmith, and his wife Margaret, née Shier. From 1839 he studied at the Marischal College, Aberdeen (M.A., 1843; M.D., 1844). Smith arrived in Sydney on 8 September, 1852, on the Australian.[1]

Professor John Smith

There is a good deal of information available on Smith, but little work has been done on his philanthropic and religious views. An article from Sydney University, which understandably concentrates on his scientific work, briefly mentions his philanthropic interests but omits to make any mention at all of his religious commitments which were also an important feature of his life.[2]

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says of his religious views that ‘In the 1860s Smith served on the committees of several religious organizations’, by which is meant Christian organisations, and that

In January 1882 he had called at Bombay and joined the Indian section of the Theosophical Society, having been influenced by his wife’s spiritualism and the lectures of the theosophist Emma Hardinge Britten in Australia in 1878-79. In Europe in 1882-83 he experimented with the occult.[3]

This article’s religious emphasis falls on the last five years of Smith’s 63-year life and has little to say about his religious commitments during the previous 58 years. This is reflective of Jill Roe’s work which is mainly concerned with Smith’s interest in Theosophy[4] and, while not said overtly, she seems to want to paint Smith as a theological progressive moving from the strictures of a doctrinal Presbyterianism to Theosophy.  For Roe, Smith’s encounter with Theosophy was about ‘religious progress’ and the ‘maintenance of true religion’.

The usual paradigm for recruits to spiritualism was one of a theological ‘progress’ which moved from a nineteenth-century disillusionment with the revelation-based approach of Christianity to the intuitive approach to religious knowledge of theosophy. The disillusionment with revelation was rooted in an uncertainty about the Bible, fed by the rise of biblical criticism, the theory of evolution and an increased moral sensitivity repulsed by various biblical events. The problem with this hinted assessment of Smith is that while there is clear evidence of his interest in theosophy there is no evidence to support a disillusionment in his Christian thought, a point which Roe concedes.[5] Roe equates Smith’s interest in theosophy with a desire for ‘religious progress’, but it could equally be a case of intellectual curiosity. For a Professor of Physics, the role and reputed powers of the masters in theosophy would raise serious questions about the nature of matter and spirit. Perhaps it is from a desire for ‘scientific progress’ rather than ‘religious progress’ that Smith’s chief motivation to understand spiritualism arose. That is not to say that Smith had no interest in what Theosophy might have to say about spiritual matters. Rather, it might be better to see Smith as, to use Malcolm Prentis’ expression, a ‘dabbler’[6] in Theosophy rather than a devotee. This article seeks to examine such a possibility. (more…)

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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Charles Nightingale (1795-1860), Edward Ramsay (1818-1894) and James Druce (1829-1891)

Charles Nightingale (1795-1860), Edward Ramsay (1818-1894) and James Druce (1829-1891) Charity Collectors

Obtaining funding for the work of the various nineteenth century philanthropic organisations was always a challenge. There was little government financial assistance available, and the various organisations were dependent upon the generosity of the public for financial support. In order to gain that support the many charities who wished to collect money from the public engaged in a number of activities and strategies. Prominent among their activities was the public annual meeting, often chaired by a socially important person, where the activities of the organisation were reported and supportive resolutions passed. At the meeting someone, usually the secretary of the committee, would read a report detailing what had been achieved in the year past, often giving encouraging examples of success as well as underlining the difficulty of the task which the charity had undertaken. Such reporting made the committee that ran the charity accountable to the public and to its subscribers. It also showed what had been achieved through public financial support, educated the community on the continuing need for the charity, and gave hope for success in the future so that there might be continued interest and increased financial support given by individuals.

 Nineteenth century newspaper editors, at least up until the 1890s, gave very sympathetic treatment to such organisations and often printed extensive reports of the meetings which gave further publicity. Printing the annual reports of these organisations and circulating them to their subscribers was also a vital part of the strategy. Such documents contained the secretary’s report, a financial statement, the lists of subscribers and the amount of their subscription, and newspapers often printed subscriber and donation lists as well. It has been suggested that the existence of these subscriber lists is evidence that nineteenth century philanthropy was a morally approved way of self-aggrandisement.[1] Motives are difficult to determine and it may well be that, for some, giving was motived by being seen to have done the ‘right societal thing’ or by a desire to gain praise for the size of a donation. For others, however, such support was undoubtedly a response to need and a desire to help without any ulterior motive. From the organisations’ point of view, it was an effective means of giving a receipt and perhaps a means of encouraging (more…)

William Crane (1826-1914)

William Crane, (1826-1914) Magistrate and Governance Philanthropist

William Crane was born on October 5, 1826, at Castlereagh Street, Sydney. He was the son of William Christopher Crane (1799-1876)[1] a publican who was the landlord of the Leather Bottle Inn in Castlereagh Street[2] and Sarah McAvoy (1802-1857). He was educated at the Sydney College under the headmastership of William Timothy Cape[3] and his fellow students included Sir James Martin, William Bede Daley, Sir Henry Stephen and Thomas Alexander Browne (aka Rolf Boldrewood).[4] In his youth William was a keen sportsman. He was a cricketer and active member of the Newtown Cricket Club from its formation in 1858,[5] a boxer,[6] and a strong swimmer, frequently swimming the considerable distance from The Fig Tree, Woolloomooloo, to Garden Island and back.[7]

In the 1850s, Crane and a number of companions went to the Ophir and Turon goldfields where he appears to have been unsuccessful in his gold prospecting unlike his younger brother, Christopher, who struck it rich at Gulgong.[8]  He returned to Sydney and became a law clerk in the law practice of solicitor Joseph Frey Josephson [9] after which, in 1853[10], he entered the New South Wales civil service as a clerk in the Department of Police.[11] He was appointed clerk of Petty Sessions, Water Police in 1861,[12] a magistrate of the colony in 1869,[13] and then in 1875 Clerk of Petty Sessions in the Central Police court.[14] In 1882, Crane was appointed one of Sydney’s first stipendiary magistrates[15] and officiated at the Central Court until his retirement in 1885.[16] He was highly regarded and an able magistrate as illustrated by, for the time, an unusual occurrence in his court when a young man stepped into the witness box, and when the Bible was tendered, shut the book. Said Mr Crane to him: “Why did you shut the book?” He said: “I am a Liberal or Freethinker.” He further stated he had no belief in the Bible, and there was nothing binding on his conscience, and he objected to take an oath. This at first seemed rather puzzling and brought the proceedings to a sudden standstill.[17]

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