John West Biography

John West
(17 January 1809 – 11 December 1873)

Reverend John West, the son of a London shoemaker, was raised in a good home and had the benefit of a literary education. Admitted to the Congregational Ministry at Thetford, Norfolk in 1829, he served at a variety of postings over the next decade, until being accepted by the Colonial Missionary Society in 1838 for service in Van Diemen’s Land.

Sailing from London with his wife and five young children, West arrived at Hobart Town in December of that year. He soon relocated to Launceston and became involved in a struggle with the leadership of that town’s existing Congregational Church.

Not willing to accept a rural placement, West had gathered together a second Launceston congregation. Officially approved by the Church in 1839, West’s congregation was first based in an infant school building, moving into its own newly constructed chapel in St John Square in September 1841. West continued to minister there for twelve years.

Widely respected and popular, West soon established himself as one of the city’s leading citizens and made many important contributions to the colony.

In addition to undertaking his clerical responsibilities, he is credited as being instrumental in the foundation of the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute, City Mission, the public hospital, the general cemetery in Charles Street, Cornwall Insurance Co, and as a promoter and fund-raiser for the establishment of Hobart High School.

He is notable for his association with The Examiner newspaper, founded by fellow Congregationalists, James Aikenhead and Jonathon Waddell and the first edition of which was published on 12 March 1842. While the general tone of The Examiner newspaper was more moderate than most of its contemporaries, West successfully used its columns as a vehicle of dissent to promote the abolition of the transportation of convicts to Van Diemen’s Land.

West emerged as a leader in the fight against transportation in early 1847 and during the following three years of campaigning concluded that locally based protest did little to sway the opinion of the British government.

Recognising the need to extend the anti-transportation movement’s influence if the campaign was to succeed, West won acceptance at a Launceston protest meeting in August 1850 to seek the co-operation of abolitionists throughout Australia. Over subsequent months West toured to promote this cause, his efforts culminating in the formation of the ‘Australasian League for the Prevention of Transportation’ in late 1851.

The anti-transportation cause was further promoted by the publication in 1852 of West’s two-volume book, The History of Tasmania. Aimed primarily at providing an account of the colony’s transportation system, the text is also significant, from an historical perspective, for providing a comprehensive, accurate and relatively unbiased chronicle of Tasmania’s history since European settlement.

Through his writings in the newspaper, West contributed much to the debate on political, educational, religious and cultural issues of the day. For example, in 1854 a series of sixteen articles on federation (which has since been described as the first scientific treatment of this topic in Australia) was published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

The same year John Fairfax, the owner and another Congregationalist, invited him to become the Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax had first met West in the early 1850s during the anti-transportation campaign and was impressed by his leadership in this campaign as well as his stance on many political and religious issues.

Throughout West’s life he showed himself to be a man dedicated to many causes, and was motivated not by material remuneration, but by what be believed to be morally right. Through his writings, he contributed much to the debate on political, educational, religious and cultural issues of the day.

Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 2, 1788-1850, I-Z, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1967.

John West, The History of Tasmania, ed. by A G L Shaw, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1971.

Patricia Fitzgerald Ratcliff (ed.), John West’s Union of the Colonies: Essays on Federation, Launceston: Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, 2000.

Patricia Fitzgerald Ratcliff, The Usefulness of John West: Dissent and Differences in the Australian Colonies, Launceston: The Albernian Press, Launceston, 2003.

Alison Alexander, “The story of John West – or not”, in Tasmanian Ancestry, Tasmanian Family History Society, Vol. 41, No. 4, March 2021, pp. 237-8.