Willson, Robert William (DNB00)


WILLSON, ROBERT WILLIAM (1794–1866), Roman catholic bishop of Hobart, Tasmania, born at Lincoln in 1794, was the third son of William Willson of Lincoln. Edward James Willson [q. v.] was his eldest brother. He entered the college of Old Oscott in 1816, was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop John Milner (1752–1826) [q. v.] in December 1824, and in February 1825 was stationed at Nottingham, where he built the spacious church of St. John, which was completed in 1828. Subsequently he erected the fine group of buildings that now constitute the cathedral of St. Barnabas, with its episcopal and clerical residence, schools, and convent. At the suggestion of William Bernard Ullathorne [q. v.] he was made the first bishop of Hobart Town, Tasmania, being consecrated in St. Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham, on 28 Oct. 1842 by Archbishop Polding of Sydney. Bishop (afterwards Cardinal) Wiseman's sermon, preached on the occasion, has been printed. Willson arrived at Hobart Town in 1844.

Besides Norfolk Island, other penal settlements at Port Arthur and on Maria Island came within the jurisdiction of the new bishop. Great social evils had been developed under the prevailing system of penal discipline, but Willson effected many ameliorations in the treatment of the convicts, especially on Norfolk Island. Indeed his representations to the colonial and imperial governments, backed by Sir William Thomas Denison [q. v.], ultimately obtained a thorough reformation of this part of the system. So earnest was he in his purpose that he resolved to come home in order to let the British Government know the truth with regard to the sufferings of the convicts and the horrors of Norfolk Island. He arrived in England in the middle of 1847, and he was listened to with respectful attention both by her majesty's government and by the select committee of the House of Lords. He reached Hobart Town again in December 1847, and, in consequence of his continued exertions, Norfolk Island was eventually abandoned as a penal settlement. Willson brought about other reforms in the penal discipline of Tasmania, and he likewise effected various reforms in the treatment of the insane. His services as chief pastor of his own communion, and as a public man in the development of various colonial and local institutions, were warmly acknowledged by successive governors and by the community at large throughout Tasmania.

He finally left the colony, in shattered health, in the spring of 1865, and settled at the scene of his earlier labours. Having formally resigned his preferment, he was translated by the holy see on 22 June 1866 from the bishopric of Hobart Town to that of Rhodiopolis, in partibus infidelium. He died at Nottingham on 30 June 1866, and was buried in the crypt of the cathedral church of St. Barnabas.

[Memoir by Bishop Ullathorne, London, 1887 (with photographic portrait), reprinted from Dublin Review, 3rd ser. xviii. 1–26; Consecration Sermon by Cardinal Wiseman; Kelsh's Personal Recollections of Bishop Willson, Hobart, 1882; Ullathorne's Autobiogr. p. 222; Gent. Mag. 1866, ii. 276.]

T. C.