Philanthropists and Philanthropy

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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…)

Thomas Walker (1804-1886) Businessman, Banker and Philanthropist

Thomas Walker was, during his lifetime and at his death, widely praised as a great philanthropist. He was variously described as ‘the Peabody’[1] of NSW and as a ‘Man of Ross’.[2] Such designations comparing him to other famous philanthropists were underlined by his very large bequest given to build a convalescent hospital which came to bear his name. At his death, quoting Horace Mann, one tribute to Thomas recorded that

‘the soul of the truly benevolent man does not seem to reside much in his own body. It migrates into the life of others, and finds its own happiness in increasing and prolonging their pleasures, in extinguishing or solacing their pains’. Such a soul had Thomas Walker.[3]

Thomas Walker

Thomas Walker

How philanthropic was the soul of Thomas Walker and how much did he migrate into the lives of others? While some attention has been given to his life, there has been little work done on that for which he is principally remembered and for which he attracted glowing praise: his philanthropy. Thomas was born on May 3, 1804, the elder son of James Thomas Walker, merchant, and his wife Anne, née Walker, of Perth, Scotland.[4]  His birthplace is usually said to be at Leith, Scotland, and he was certainly baptised in the church at South Leith on July 29, 1804, nearly three months after his birth.[5]  According to his marriage certificate, which is unlikely to be incorrect as Thomas himself probably supplied the information, he was actually born in England.[6] It would appear that at the time of his birth Thomas’ parents were resident there and later returned to Leith where Thomas was baptised.

Business

Thomas came to Sydney in April 1822 on the Active when he was 18 years of age[7] and brought some family capital with him as, on his arrival, he deposited £2000 in the Bank of New South Wales.[8] He joined his uncle William’s business, Riley and Walker,[9] and by 1829 was a partner with his uncle and Joseph Moore in the firm of William Walker and Co.[10] Later, his younger brother Archibald,[11] who had arrived in the colony in 1832,[12] joined the partnership[13] and both Thomas and Archibald remained as partners in the firm until 1843.[14] Archibald returned to England, but Thomas remained in the colony and upon retiring from the company kept some of his capital invested with it. William Walker and Co had wide business interests as merchants, ship owners and pastoralists, and was a largely successful and profitable business which negotiated the uncertainties of colonial economic life and conditions. The depression of the 1840s was a particularly difficult time for the company and by 1849 Thomas had become insolvent.[15]  That he, by the time of his death, had the wealth he had was a remarkable achievement and business recovery which was assisted by the diversity of his financial interests.[16] (more…)

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