Robert William Willson

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Robert William Willson (1842 - 1866)


Born in Lincoln, England, in 1794, and ordained in 1824. Robert Willson worked in Nottingham for 18 years. In 1842 he was consecrated the first bishop of the newly created diocese of Hobart Town.

Arriving in the colony in 1844, his chief concern was his mission to the convict population.  He was a leader in advocating reforms in penal discipline and a more humane treatment of insane persons.  After the cessation of transportation in 1853, his principal work became the building up of the Church in parishes for the free community. 

St Mary’s Cathedral was the vision of the first Bishop of Hobart Town, Robert William Willson.   Bishop Willson chose the design and spent years raising the funds. He was particularly inspired by his friend Augustus Welby Pugin, designer of the entire interiors of the British Houses of Parliament and father of the modern English Gothic Revival movement.

Robert William Willson was a man of huge significance in the history of the Catholic Church in Tasmania. Here is an assessment of the man by one of his contemporaries, Archbishop William Bernard Ullathorne OSB, a key figure in the early Australian Church and later Archbishop of Birmingham:

"Among the distinguished ecclesiastics whom England has produced in recent times, there is one whose name is held in benediction at both extremities of the world and whose memory ought not to be left in the shadows of a vanishing tradition. Robert William Willson, a man of singular humanity and benevolence, was the founder of the Catholic church in Nottingham, the episcopal founder of the Church in Tasmania, and the effectual reformer of the management of deported criminals in our penal settlements, was a most influential reformer of lunatic asylums and their management, as well in England as in Australia, and a man who, through his influence with the imperial and colonial Governments, caused the breaking up of the most horrible penal settlement of Norfolk Island."

He returned to England in ill-health In 1865. where he later died in Nottingham on 30th June, 1866.