Joseph Orton

Joseph Orton (1795 – 1842) Wesleyan Methodist missionary
In his book, The Illustrated History of Methodism, Colwell says “It is cause for constant regret that justice has not been done to this good man’s memory; and that the great work he did for Methodism has never been set before the public. This should be done, if for no other reason than that the Methodists of today may know in some measure, if not in full, what the pioneer missionaries endured.

Prepared by Trish Orton, (great-great-granddaughter of Joseph Orton)

Methodist history in Australia bears testimony to the imprint of Joseph Orton’s hand upon the foundation work of the Church. While Rev. Samuel Leigh was Australia’s first pioneer Methodist missionary, doing a noble work, Joseph Orton was the builder, building up the foundations of a structure which Rev. James Colwell described in 1904 as “standing broad and strong today”. In his book The Illustrated History of Methodism Colwell says “It is cause for constant regret that justice has not been done to this good man’s memory; and that the great work he did for Methodism has never been set before the public. This should be done, if for no other reason than that the Methodists of today may know in some measure, if not in full, what the pioneer missionaries endured in their efforts to preach the Gospel of Peace and to plant Methodism in the Southern Seas.”

Joseph Rennard Orton was born in October, 1795 at Hull, Yorkshire, the youngest son of John and Eleanor Orton, and the 7th of 8 children. John Orton held a position in His Majesty’s Customs as a ‘landing waiter’ (examiner in modern terms), thus being employed directly by the king.

In his journal, Joseph Orton describes his parents as pious, particularly his mother, and there is evidence of a respectful relationship with them. When Joseph was approximately 15 1/2 years old, his father died; his mother had died 3 years previously.
After his father died, Joseph stayed with relatives in London. Here his prospects of a position fitting his capabalities were disappointed and he had to accept an apprenticeship as a sailmaker and ship’s chandler. His early spiritual training was temporarily lost as he joined in the escapades of the other notoriously rowdy apprentices. On occasion he was rescued by his older brothers, captains George and John on leave between voyages.

Orton was introduced to Methodism by Thomas Wilkinson who was born in Sunderland in 1799. His family moved to London and his mother looked for a Methodist preaching place. A West Indian negro woman guided them to a small room where a congregation regularly worshipped. Thomas and his mother also attended services at Wesley Chapel, City Road, and in the old Spitalfields Chapel.
Mrs. Wilkinson visited Joseph Orton when he was lonely and sick, and when he recovered the Wilkinsons made their home open to him. He and Thomas became friends and they attended chapel together. Here Joseph was converted, joined the Methodist society, and became an active Christian worker. Thomas was still a troubled seeker but Orton encouraged him until he too found Christ.
Orton worked successfully in business in London to the age of thirty and persevered in Christian work, leading to his ordination. He married his devoted wife, Sarah Jane Bragg, in 1815. Their first child, Eleanor, was born in 1817. Altogether they had twelve children, of whom four died in infancy.

Entering the Wesleyan ministry in 1826, Orton was posted to Jamaica in the same year. There he found that the missionaries had to encounter persecution from the slave-holders while ministering to the unfortunate slave population. Orton received a letter from the Clerk of Peace forbidding him, in austere language, from holding meetings after 6 p.m. “I endeavoured” he says, “with prudent firmness to evince my determination of pursuing a course in which I was perfectly justified by law and precedents, having made myself acquainted with the rights of the matter.” On the following day he waited on the Chief Magistrate, who told him in the most candid manner that he had been teased by the Church of England Rector into such a course. The Rector alleged that evening services were injurious for various reasons.

This opposition was serious, but undaunted, Orton and his brother missionaries continued their services until an act was passed in the same year, by the Governor and Assembly of Jamaica, prohibiting meetings being held among the slaves after sunset, or the taking of contributions for charitable or religious purposes. This iniquitous Act, obviously aimed at Dissenters, put Joseph Orton in prison for six months. Henceforth he bore in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus – the seeds of the disease which was to carry him to an early grave were sown during his incarceration in a cold, damp and foul prison.

On his return from the West Indies in 1830, Orton laboured inthe Bury St. Edmunds Circuit in London, until the call of the Church came to become Superintendent of the South Seas Mission.

The minutes of the Wesleyan Missionary Committee in London,on 23rd March, 1831 read: “It was stated to the Committee that in pursuance of the resolution of the last meeting, which determined on sending out a person to New South Wales to succeed Mr. Erskine as Chairman of the District, the secretaries had applied to Mr. Joseph Orton, late missionary in Jamaica, to undertake that charge and his reply dated Bury St. Edmunds, March 17th giving his assent to the application made to him was read to the Committee.

Resolved: That Mr. Orton be forthwith appointed to the District of New South Wales as Chairman and that such assistance be given to him and his family in the way of outfit as the secretaries may find necessary.”

And in a letter to “the missionaries recently departed for New South Wales,” May, 1831: “Dear Brethren, Since your departure the Committee has agreed to send Mr. Orton to New South Wales, and have appointed him Chairman of the District. After his arrival, you will therefore consult him upon everything relating to the mission and act under his direction as the appointee of the Committee and one whose experience of missionary toil in the West Indies has peculiarly qualified him for the situation.”

The family left England in May 1831. On his way to Sydney, Orton spent several weeks in Hobart Town, where he assisted the Rev. Nathaniel Turner. The delay was due to the tardy discharge of The Auriga. Concerning Sydney, Orton records “When I arrived in the District in December 1831, the cause (Methodism) was indeed low with but little prospect of success, excepting in Van Dieman’s Land – and even in that place the Society at Hobart Town was in a disturbed state. My path in Sydney was at first exceedingly rough in endeavouring to raise the tone of discipline – and my duties arduous on account of having the entire business of the Islands upon me”. (Journals, v. i. p. 221) At another time he wrote “I met a people whose suspicions as to the character of a Wesleyan missionary had from circumstances been excited, and of which I, in some measure, became the subject.”

The book Great the heritage states that “A new lease of life came to the colony with the arrival of the Rev. Joseph Orton in December 1831,” and the spirit in which his work was done may be gathered from his own words – “My duty to the cause of God and to the Committee is paramount to any mere private feelings of kindness or apparent charity.”

In March, 1832, in his letter to the Committee in England, he writes: “Three more missionaries might at this moment be employed very usefully in this Colony. In Sydney there really must be a second preacher appointed. Here is a population of more than fifteen thousand, and there are but two Churches and one Dissenting place of worship besides our own. We have two places of worship – that is, Chapels – besides several other places, where we are called to officiate, and but one Preacher stationed here, whose time is much taken up with matters referring principally to the islands, and which will increase upon the person who has the charge of this District, in proportion as this Colony rapidly rises in importance and our Island Mission Stations extend and increase.”

Orton threw himself heartily into his work and found relief from his administrative burdens in visiting places where no Wesleyan missionary had yet preached. For instance: “This morning (Sunday 19th August 1832) I commenced Divine Service for the first time at Botany Bay.”

Joseph Orton was not a man to miss the opportunity of extending the sphere of the usefulness of the Church to “the regions beyond”. Within a year of his arriving in Sydney, representations were made to him of the promising field that offered itself west of the Blue Mountains.

From the District Despatch Book p.170 we learn that that he forwarded the following to London in 1832:
“For several months I have been repeatedly solicited to visit the district of Bathurst, about 120 miles from Sydney. My many pressing duties in Sydney have hitherto prevented my compliance, but I have now made arrangements to visit them in a few weeks. We have several friends residing in that district who are very desirous that a missionary be stationed among them and who have promised very liberally to his support. I believe there is an opening for extensive usefulness. The result of my visit will enable me to give more decided information and I hope to possess myself of interesting facts as to the state of prospects regarding the wretched aborigines of the neighbourhood over whose miserable condition my bowels yearn with deepest concern. I judge we are verily guilty concerning this portion of the brotherhood. Providence has brought us to them and we are literally driving them from us. Something must be done for them. The incidents of my visit shall be duly transmitted and I have no doubt that they will be such as will induce you to afford us additional help in this increasingly important Colony, especially for the miserably degraded heathen population.”

Orton’s arrival in Bathurst in October saw the genesis of the Methodist Church in that district, with class meetings and the first church services. The private diary of the Rev. Walter Lawry shows that he visited Bathurst with his brother-in-law Samuel Hassall and preached there as early as October 29th 1820, but Lawry’s visits appear to have been purely missionary in character and there is no indication that he left behind anything in the way of church organisation.

Orton and his travelling companion Mr. S. Terry, set out for Bathurst on Monday 29th October 1832. Terry owned an estate at Mt. Pleasant, near Castlereagh, 36 miles from Sydney, and also a farm at Queen Charlotte’s Vale at Bathurst. They spent a couple of nights at Mt. Pleasant, where Orton conducted a service. On the intervening day, he visited and preached in the little chapel built by John Lees at Castlereagh – the first Methodist place of worship erected in Australia.

The next day, they travelled 56 miles and arrived at Collitt’s Inn, after a slight detour, where Mr. Orton conducted a service for “the family and domestics” – to use his own words.

The following day’s journey ended in Sidmouth Valley near Tarana at “Rainville”, the residence of Captain Raine, by whom they were hospitably entertained. Here they made the acquaintance of Mr. William Lane who had heard they were coming. Lane came from the Nepean and settled in the vicinity of Tarana about 1828. Orton described him as “a member of our Society” and found in him a warm admirer and friend and a staunch supporter of his work. With a promise from the missionary to visit his homestead “Taranah”, Mr. Lane offered to accompany the visitors to Bathurst.

The visiting missionary gives a most interesting description of the country around Bathurst. “The plains of Bathurst extend for several miles in length and breadth with scarcely the appearance of a shrub. The surface of the plains is pleasingly undulated and covered with verdure affording excellent pasturage for the sheep; flocks of which are to be observed in every direction under charge of the shepherds of their respective proprietors. The country around the plains is exceedingly fine, well wooded (though not encumbered) and intersected by numerous refreshing rills of water in meandering directions generally tending toward the Macquarie River. A great proportion of the soil is exceedingly good and fit for any agricultural purposes, requiring but little artificial aid. The atmosphere is very clear and the climate is mild and salubrious though occasionally subject to keen frosts, heavy falls of snow and severe thunderstorms… Upon the whole, this part of the country is conducive to bodily health and pecuniary profit. Its inviting character has allured a considerable population of settlers of various grades, the industrious of whom are reaping the ample reward of their persevering toil.”

The party reached Bathurst on Saturday, November 3rd 1832; where a few hours later Orton met the Anglican minister, the Rev. J.E. Keane who conducted services in a barn while a church building was being planned.

Mr. Orton attended the Church of England service on the Sunday morning and in the afternoon preached to the men on Mr. Terry’s farm which was eight miles from Bathurst. On Monday he rode with Captain Raine and Mr. Lane through Queen Charlotte’s Vale, where the latter had bought a property of 120 acres, on which he intended to build a house to be called “Orton Park” as a compliment to Mr. Orton, and also erect a chapel there. Lane’s homestead “Orton Park”, remains as a reminder that a pioneer Methodist missionary once ‘passed that way’ and left an abiding impression upon the heart of a friend and on the life of a district.

The preacher paid a profitable visit to ‘Springfield’, Mr. William Tom’s house, conducting a service in the home and baptising two of Tom’s children. He also organised a society class of five members with Mr. Tom (afterwards known as Parson Tom) as leader.

Springfield, which is 27 miles from Bathurst on the Orange road, figures prominently in the subsequent religious history of the district and was the virtual centre of the Orange gold fields. Joseph Orton certainly possessed the gift of a true leader in his development of strategic centres for further advance. On the return journey to Bathurst, Orton breakfasted with Mr. George Hawke and Mr. John Glasson who initiated him into the mystery of making “damper”. These two, along with Mr. Tom, were the great stalwarts of early Methodism in the Orange Circuit.

On his way back east to Sydney, Orton saw Mr. William Walker, who had formerly been in charge of the Mission to the Aborigines but had resigned and settled on a grant of land. In a long conversation with Walker, Orton formed the opinion that “he had been judiciously managed by those placed over him.”

The journey had occupied three weeks, and of it he wrote “I have found my heart engaged for the welfare of the people. Surely the Lord will bless the means which my visit afforded a people, who but seldom hear the Gospel preached. If but one soul be saved by these occasional visits and services my labours as an instrument in the hands of the Lord will amply be repaid.”

The District Letter Book III (Mitchell Library) p. 110 has a letter from Orton to the Rev. J.A. Manton: “I do not know when I was more blessed in my work than the other day as I returned from Bathurst. I spent a day on the roads with the gangs and performed service in three different parts of the road to separate gangs. I had a hard day’s work, but a blessed season, and though tired in my work, my encouragement was the almost certainty of not having laboured in vain in the Lord… Labour on and offer all your works to God.”
Mr. Orton forwarded the following official report to the Missionary Committee in London on his return from Bathurst: “I am of opinion that a missionary might be employed to great advantage in that part of the country. We already have a society there organised by myself consisting of persons who were members of our Society in England and who have been in the habit of meeting together as regularly as circumstances would allow and have done credit to their Christian profession though destitute of the public means of grace or pastoral attention. They have pledged themselves to do all they can for the support of a missionary if one be sent. At all events, they intend to erect a chapel and one gentleman has promised œ50 towards its erection and I am persuaded that others will come forward liberally. However, whether we station a missionary there or not, they must have some attention as well as that part of the country in general. I therefore purpose that they shall for the present have a quarterly visit from one of us, the expense of which visits, calculating that we take the circuit horse, will be a little more than œ20 a year. This amount, I have no doubt, will be met by subscriptions from our friends here.” – District Despatch Book p. 178. The reference to ‘the circuit horse’ is amusing when one considers the size of the circuit!


Although his hands were very full, Orton carried the needs of Bathurst upon his heart and in November 1833 took the first opportunity of visiting the district again.

He left on November 1st, accompanied by Mr. Terry, and again preached to two chain gangs near Collitt’s Inn, visited Mr. Walker at O’Connell Plains and Mr. Lane at “Orton Park”. His usual practice was to preach every evening and at every opportunity he had. He was back in Sydney on Tuesday 12th November, the pressure of his official duties as General Superintendent of Missions and Chairman of the District, no doubt preventing a more extended visitation.

Mr. Orton’s third and last visit to Bathurst was associated with important matters concerning a church site and the erection of a chapel, and the appointment of a resident minister. He left Sydney on October 16th, 1834, and on the way he seized the opportunity of preaching to the stockade chain gang and to the 350 men at the Junction Stockade.

On the Sunday he preached in the church at O’Connell Plains which had been built at his own expense by the Rev. T. Hassall, an Anglican minister who had entered upon farming pursuits there. Hassall made the building available for Methodist services. Orton went through heavy snow the following day to Mr. Walker’s farm where he baptised an aboriginal woman. Mr. Lane met him on his way to Bathurst the next day and piloted him through the Macquarie River which was running strongly with melted snow. He preached the next evening (most likely at Orton Park) and “had a spirited and profitable conversation with Mr. George Hawke whom he pronounced ‘a good man’ with ‘a kindred spirit’.

On the Friday he inspected a block of land that Mr. Lane was giving as a church site and declared it to be “an eligible piece of land”. In his diary he has this entry dated October 24th 1834: “Inspected land promised by Mr. Lane, bounded on the east by Bathurst Road leading down to banks of Queen Charlotte Vale Ponds; frontage 10 rods. On West and North by Lane’s farm and South by allotment No. 13 (Mr. Brown’s).

On Saturday October 25th, Orton preached at a Scotchman, Mr. Johnson’s, residence at Queen Charlotte’s Vale. The next day, Sunday, he conducted a service at Lane’s home where a larger and attentive congregation gathered. He preached from the text “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”, and at the close of the service baptised Lane’s child. In the afternoon he officiated at what seems to have been the first Methodist service at White Rock. He spoke upon the text “Godliness is profitable to all things”.

On Monday 27th October Orton, accompanied by Mr. Glasson, paid a visit to Mr. Keane and inspected the Holy Trinity Church then in course of erection at Kelso. Then, the same day in company with Lane, and probably Glasson, he journeyed to Springfield and baptised William Tom’s twin children – Ellen Wesley and Emma Fletcher. He preached afterwards and stayed the night with Mr. Glasson “in his bark tenement”, half a mile from Mr. Tom’s.

A prayer meeting was held at Mr. Lane’s at “Orton Park” on the Thursday, when, to quote Mr. Orton, “the Lord was pleased graciously and powerfully to manifest His presence.” A meeting was held at the close to discuss the matter of the appontment of a minister and the building of a chapel, mission house etc. Amongst those present were Messrs. Lane, Tom, Hawke and Glasson. They were unanimous in their decision to let nothing stand in the way of securing a minister and of carrying out their building project. Generous offers of support were made toward the upkeep of an unmarried missionary. Mr. Lane’s offer of an acre of ground was gratefully accepted and arrangements made for plans to be prepared for a church building to measure 40 ft. x 30 ft. Orton later wrote to Governor Bourke on behalf of the Bathurst Society, pointing out that for some years it had met in private homes in the neighbourhood for worship and requesting two allotments of land for a church and dwelling and suggesting that W. Lane Esq. of Bathurst be permitted to confer with the District Surveyor regarding same.” From this, and the entry in Orton’s diary on October 24th, already quoted, it would seem clear that Mr. Lane’s promised gift of land was at Orton Park and not at Bathurst.

The first Methodist service was held at Macquarie Plains on Friday, October 31st at the home of Mr. West. Orton preached from Romans 8:6, and conducted a service at the Bathurst hospital the next day. On Sunday, November 2nd he preached in Bathurst in the morning and in the afternoon to a crowded congregation at the home of Captain Raine near Orton Park. Writing of the service, Orton says “the large drawing room was filled with persons who all seemed attentive and I trust the Spirit of God conveyed His own Word with power to some hearts.”

Writing from Sydney, Orton sent the following to London, dated 19th Nov. 1834:
“I have just returned from a pastoral visit to our little society at the interesting and promising settlement of Bathurst, situated about one hundred and thirty miles interior from Sydney over a very broken and extensive range of hills called the Blue Mountains… My journey afforded me an opportunity of preaching the Gospel to many who very rarely are favored with hearing the Word of God. It is my practice on these journeys to offociate at the end of every daily stage whether at an inn or a private establishment; and on all such occasions every facility is afforded for assembling the people, who willingly come and thankfully receive the message of mercy.

“My attention is particularly directed to the road parties and iron gangs which consist of men convicted of offences committed in this country, who are sentenced to penal labour and are employed in making and keeping in repair the interior roads. They are interspersed over the country in parties of from fifty to three hundred in number… Whenever I have officiated among them, they have appeared to give profound attention, and in many instances have been suffused with tears whilst listening to the offers of Divine mercy to vilest of sinners… It gives me pleasure to be able to state that the members of our little flock at Bathurst continue to hold on their way, though they have to endure great privation and are exposed to great temptations and danger in the want of the ordinary means of grace and of pastoral attention for which they are very anxious, so much so, that they have renewed their former pledges with increased and praiseworthy liberality, with a view of establishing a regular station and supporting a missionary in that part of the country… “They have in contemplation the erection of a chapel without delay. One gentlemen, Mr. William Lane, has given to the Society an acre of ground, in a very eligible situation and a subscription of œ50. Other friends have come forward in a manner proportioned to their circumstances and the present list of subscriptions will enable them to proceed without embarrassment.” Orton went on to “again beg that the bequest of the Bathurst friends may be complied with by sending them a missionary without delay.” (Methodist magazine 1835, quoted in Colwell’s History of Methodism. )

The Committee responded by appointing the Rev. Frederick Lewis who reached Bathurst on 21st May, 1836. He had as fellow voyagers to Australia the Revs. John McKenny and D.J. Draper, who both figured prominently in the early Methodism of Australia.
On the arrival of Mr. Lewis in Bathurst, the Anglican Church was placed at his disposal. A fine spirit of religious tolerance characterised the various denominations. In the late Mrs. Busby’s Memoirs, Bathurst in the Thirties, we find this: “The Wesleyan communion had the use of the Scotch Church on Sunday afternoon: and the Anglican Chaplain, Rev. Mr. Keane, and the Scottish clergyman, used frequently to worship with the Wesleyans. One Sunday afternoon, the Rev. F. Lewis, the first Wesleyan minister in Bathurst, had in his congregation these two clergymen and the Rev. Mr. Saunders, of Sydney (the only Baptist minister in Australia then), who was with his wife on a visit to the Kelso rectory. This fine spirit of Christian brotherhood among the clergy was not without its effect upon the people, and sectarian rivalry was unknown.”

The long-awaited chapel was officially opened on 10th October 1837, by the Rev. J. McKenny who had succeeded Orton as the Superintendent of Missions in the Colony in 1836. Orton, who was then in charge of the Hobart District, whilst continuing to hold the position of General Superintendent of Missions in Australia, sent a message of congratulation for the opening and wished prosperity to the cause at Bathurst.

In his official letter accompanying the minutes of the District Meeting of 1834, Orton as Chairman writes: “With regard to the cause of religion amongst us in this district, I cannot state anything of a very flattering character; but I think I can confidently state that though our improvement is very gradual, it is manifestly certain; therefore – especially considering the depraved community in which we labour – we have occasion to thank God and take courage.” In September of the same year he writes in a hopeful strain: “The spiritual state of the District is gradually improving and wears a more encouraging aspect than formerly. In Sydney, the Lord is evidently moving in the hearts of the people. The congregations of late have very much increased. The members of our Society appear to have much more stability and devotedness to the cause of Chrust, many of whom are earnestly panting after the fullness of the blessing of the Gospel of Christ.” (District Despatch Book)

This period also marked a great advance in Sunday School work, and witnessed the first attempts to deal with this important department of the Church in a statesmanlike manner. On Whit Monday, 18th May, 1834, a public meeting was held in Princes-street Chapel, with Mr. Orton in the chair, when a scheme for the formation of “The Wesleyan Methodist Sunday School Society of Sydney” was adopted, thus superseding the almost defunct Sunday School Union. The prime mover in this organisation was Mr. George Allen, who drafted the rules, saw the Society safely launched, and acted as General Secretary for some years.

In his 1834 report Orton wrote: “My hopes are sanguine as to the advantage likely to accrue from our Sunday Schools. In Sydney they have greatly increased; two years ago the number of children did not amount to thirty; and now they are upwards of two hundred, conducted by an adequate number of indefatigable teachers, and under the direction of an efficient Committee.”

Writing on Thursday 15th January 1835, Orton says: “This evening the Love Feast was held in Princes-street Chapel. At the commencement, the meeting was rather dull; about nine o’clock there was an evident feeling among the people, which gradually increased. I requested that those who were really seeking the forgiveness of their sins, would simply express their feelings, and many were led to do so. The expression of feeling so much increased, and it was getting late, I concluded the public service and requested as many as thought proper to remain. The penitents were collected near to the pulpit, and we recommenced our supplications. The Lord was pleased to answer prayer. The meeting continued until a little after midnight, during which time a most powerful manifestation of the presence of God was felt. Six persons found the pardoning mercy of God: principally young persons; amongst whom it rejoices my heart to record was my own beloved daughter… I count this blessed season the beginning of better days amongst us as a Society. My heart is excited more ardently than ever to cry “Lord, revive Thy work.’ ” The next day he writes that the District meeting had been attended with much more Brotherly affection among the Preachers, and many refreshing seasons from the presence of the Master of Assemblies.

The District Minutes of 1836 contain expressions of gratitute to Almighty God for His continued blessing. The membership had not largely increased owing to removals and the cutting off of several “merely nominal members”. “We have, notwithstanding, the happy assurance of an increase in piety, unity, and stability throughout the Societies. We likewise have reason to believe that our excellent economy is better understood, cordially embraced, and more conscientiously observed than has been the case in times past; which may be viewed as a pleasing feature, particularly as having a prospective reference to the prosperity of our cause in these increasingly important Colonies. …
“Considering the mixed classed constituting this community – the prejudices arising therefrom – and the consequent nature of the soil, which our Divine Master has called us to cultivate, we have reason to thank God and take courage.”

That the Society did great work was apparent. It gave prominence to Sabbath School work, it jealously guarded the character of its agents, it did much to spread Scriptural knowledge, in addition to teaching many to read, and it trained as useful workers in the Church, men and women whose names have become household words, and who have filled important public positions in the State.

In 1835 Van Diemen’s Land was made a separate District. Orton was appointed as Chairman of the new District, the Hobart Town Society having pressed for his appointment. He retained the office of General Superintendent of Missions.

On 24th January 1836 Orton left Sydney, which had been his principal sphere of work for the previous four years, and where he had passed through many trials and endured racking anxiety on behalf of the Church. But he was sorry to leave “a loving people”.
In Hobart, at the earliest opportunity, in April 1836, Orton, in company with John Batman and his wife who were intending settlers, left for Port Phillip. Orton’s visit was to make enquiries relative to a suitable place in which to form a settlement for the Aborigines, the District Meeting of 1835 having passed a resolution to that effect. While waiting to embark on board The Caledonia at George Town on the north coast, Orton had to sleep as best he could on the floor of the hotel as the place was so full of settlers on their way to Port Phillip. But before he retired, he preached to about thirty persons from Romans 8:6.

They anchored eventually in Port Phillip Bay on Wednesday 20th April 1836, and shortly after proceeded up the ‘Yarra Yarra’, still accompanied by John Batman and his family. The first meal was made in the tent of Dr. A. Thompson, a medical advisor and catechist who arrived in March 1836 and read prayers on the 27th, and who was an old acquaintance of Orton’s. Orton met the notorious Buckley on the way to Dr. Thompson’s, and later held several interviews with the natives, with Buckley interpreting as he did for all the settlers.

On the following Sabbath, 24th April, Orton preached twice on Batman’s Hill. He was the first Wesleyan minister to preach in Melbourne (at that time known by many names, including Bareberp!) The Presbyterian Dr. Thompson, future Mayor of Geelong, “raised the tunes and led the singing”. John Pascoe Fawkner’s diary records the comments of the catechist: “Mr. Orton preached twice this day and Dr. Thomson declares his sermons were most eloquent, and that I lost a treat in not hearing them”. Orton himself described the service thus:
“At eleven o’clock the people of the settlement were assembled for public worship on the premises of Mr. John Batman. The service was commenced by reading the Liturgy of the Church of England, after which I addressed the audience from the young ruler’s question, ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ At the conclusion of my discourse I took occasion to dwell on the propriety of a consistent deportment on the part of the settlers in this new settlement, particularly enjoining them to acknowledge God in all their ways, that they might ensure the Divine blessing with their undertaking; otherwise they might expect His curse in all they undertook. In the afternoon, the people again assembled, to whom I preached from John 1:12. The number of Europeans present was greater than in the morning, but the largest portion of my congregation consisted of natives, about fifty in number, who sat very quietly during the time of service, and seemed particularly interested by the singing. I took the opportunity to make an appeal to the intelligent part of my audience in behalf of these poor depraved creatures, among whom they had come to reside, and whose land they had come to occupy; endeavouring to show their incumbent duty to use all possible means to promote their temporal and spiritual welfare. I have not been more interested in any sight than the one presented this afternoon. My soul truly went out after their best interests. I felt as though I could sacrifice every personal comfort for their welfare. I longed to be able to communicate my views and feelings to them. I could but pray and anticipate the happy day when these poor creatures, or at least their rising progeny, will come to a knowledge of the truth and participate in the blessings of the light of the glorious gospel.”

The next day Orton set out with Mr. Ferguson, whose sheep station lay ten miles from the settlement and was under the charge of six shepherds, to whom he read a portion of Scripture and engaged in prayer. He then wrapped himself in an opussum rug, “and laid me down to rest in a small, rush hut, 7 feet square with two other persons.” On Wednesday he returned to the Settlement, and conversed with Mr. Batman and Dr. Thompson regarding the establishment of the Mission, and the erection of a place of worship for the Europeans near the Settlement. They expressed their approval, and pledged themselves to liberal subscriptions.

Orton then returned to Hobart Town, resolved to recommend to the Committee the early establishment of a mission for “these wretchedly degraded creatures: who are literally vagabonds upon the face of the earth. Not only are they without any knowledge of God: but so far as I could discover, without any but the most imperfect notion of a Supreme being, or vestige of religious form; not even any description of superstitious observance. They have however an idea of a future state, for they decidedly hold the doctrine of transmigration, and since Europeans have settled among them, they seem to have imbibed the ludicrous notion that the white people are their ancestors returned to them – and that after they die they will ‘jump up white man’.” The notion was not ludicrous to the natives, who were trying to explain how easily some Europeans learned the native language and customs. Further confusion and ill-will occurred for the natives when the whites refused to share their goods with members of their own tribe!

In his correspondence with London in August 1836, Orton says: “I am conscious that such a mission will be attended with difficulties peculiar to their awfully degraded condition. Enough to discourage every effort except those made in obedience to the Divine mandate “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every Creature” and proceeding in humble dependence upon Divine influence and in the fullest confidence of the truth of God’s Word.”

Orton wrote many letters to Lt. Governor George Arthur, Sir Richard Bourke and Sir George Gipps concerning the establishing of a mission to the aboriginal natives of New South Wales under the auspices of the Wesleyan Missionary Society. He asked for a suitable portion of land in the vicinity of Port Phillip and for financial assistance. In May 1838 Orton visited Sydney to lay details of the church’s case for official aid before the new Governor, Sir George Gipps, who approved of a mission being established near Geelong, under the general superintendence of the Reverend Mr. Orton.

Gipps granted two square miles, which would revert to the Crown if the venture failed, and also a pecuniary grant. It was further agreed that no European could settle within five miles of the Mission.

The Rev. Francis Tuckfield and the Rev. W. Hurst were appointed to lead the Mission.

Orton was again at Port Phillip on April 18th, 1839, where he was met by Mr. G. Lilley. “A very considerable town,” he says, “has risen up by enchantment. When I was here three years ago there were but two houses of any consideration whatever, and they were comparative hovels. Now I find a town occupying an area of a square mile; in which are several hundred houses, many of which are spacious, well-built edifices; with a population of two thousand inhabitants, enjoying most of the comforts of life, and all the advantages of our excellent political economy.”

Orton set out with Tuckfield for a tour of the country round Geelong. A tedious journey, extending over three days through primeval forest, brought them to the site of the intended town of Geelong; where they found only half a dozen settler huts. On the following Sabbath (May 5th, 1839) service was held in Mr. Fisher’s store, several natives attending the morning service. On the following Thursday they inspected the ground which Mr. Tuckfield thought suitable for the proposed settlement, situated on the Barwon River, 39 miles from Geelong. The station, of 64,000 acres in area, was named Buntingdale, after Dr. Bunting who was a secretary with the Wesleyan Missionary Society in London, and operations began successfully.


On his second visit, in December 1840, Orton wrote: “The state of this Mission has dwelt heavily upon my mind… and after prayerful consideration I can see no reason to alter the views which I have plainly expressed. Less attention should be given to the comforts of a domestic nature, and a very great deal more to the important and sole object of the Mission.”

In May, 1841, he again was on a tour of inspection, and thus records his impressions:- “At 7 o’clock the bell rang for morning worship, when nearly all assembled for prayers, which they concluded with the Doxology, which had been translated by Mr. Tuckfield. My visit to the native school this morning was very gratifying. There were in attendance 17 boys and 12 girls under the care of Mr. Tuckfield. The system of teaching adopted approximates to the British Union or Lancastrian. After attending to their lessons they were arranged for catechetical instruction. At the conclusion of the school they sang to the ‘Old Hundred’ tune, the Doxology as translated by Mr. Tuckfield. Their vocal performance was pleasingly correct. At command they all knelt, and I prayed with them; though in a tongue incomprehensible to them, not so to the Omniscient Being.”

“Though their attention to the European service is of course merely formal, it is notwithstanding pleasing to observe their apparent seriousness and sedateness during the worship – attending to great exactness to all the postures of the whites standing, kneeling, sitting, etc. Not only do they know the return of the seventh day, but some of them have an idea of the sacredness of the day.

“An intelligent native chief, who is in the habit of attending religious worship regularly, on one occasion went to some of the settlers to remind them of the Sabbath and the time of worship. I regret to State that some of them said that it was of no service to go to church, and endeavoured to dissuade him (the chief) from going – but he persisted in going himself, emphatically telling them that if they did not go ‘they would by and by go to the bad place where they would burn in plenty of fire’.”


Mr. Hurst withdrew from the Mission after a few years, convinced it was hopeless and his labours were fruitless. The deep-rooted prejudices of one tribe against the other, the jealousies, superstitions and quarrels of the Aborigines made him feel there was little hope of them associating together peaceably. But the most formidable obstacle in the way of the conversion of this people was their connection with the worst class of Europeans.

In his correspondence to Charles Joseph La Trobe on 7th May, 1840, Rev. Hurst writes: “We are fully convinced that the tribes in the immediate neighbourhood of the Mission Station have decreased during the past year at least ten per cent. This arises principally from their connection with the lower orders of white people. Several have died of disease, the result of promiscuous intercourse with the shepherds and hut-keepers, some have died in the ordinary course of nature, and a few have died in war. We are not aware that there are more than two children under 12 months of age in the three tribes before spoken of. It is true there have been births, but the children were half-caste and have therefore been destroyed.

“Upon a review of the whole, we are decidedly of the opinion that unless prompt and decisive measures are taken to preserve these degraded and deeply injured tribes, in a very few years they will be entirely extinct.”

But Tuckfield was unwilling to abandon the enterprise as a failure and wrote: “It is a matter of thankfulness to Almighty God that at no former period did this Mission present such an encouraging character as it does at the present. And during the whole of the year the general behaviour of the natives towards each other, the Colonists, and their Missionary, has been such, as not only to afford very great pleasure, but to warrant the conclusions that the best mode of improving the moral and social condition of the Aborigines of this land is that of separating the tribes, and treating them as small independent communities… The religious improvement of the natives is also beginning to present a very encouraging aspect. During the year selections from our Conference Catechism have been printed in their language, which have been of great service in conveying Divine Truth to their understanding. Their occasional meetings for prayer before they retired to rest, the repeated invitations which the Missionary has received to come and pray with them, their attention to private prayer, and the improved manner in which they observe the Christian Sabbath, are circumstances sufficient to shew that they enterrain a regard for religion, and that the Spirit of God is at work upon their minds… The temporal department of the Mission is carried on at present with one white man and the natives, and is progressing well. They can grow sufficient wheat, potatoes, and other vegetables for the Station; and it is gratifying to witness the rapid improvement of the men and boys in almost all kinds of manual labour connected with the cultivation of the soil. And it is equally pleasing to see the women engaged at their needlework, making clothes for themselves and their families. The flock of sheep under their care prospers well also, and is rapidly increasing, amounting in all to 550, although the establishment has been supplied from it with mutton for the last four months.” – (District Minutes, 1844).

Orton, Tuckfield and Hurst had seen the plight of the natives at first-hand, and Orton appears to grow in his understanding of it. In October 1838 he wrote to London: “The procedure of the British Government towards the Aborigines of the respective countries which have been colonized under their authority is a subject demanding the most serious and close attention. I hesitate not to state my opinion that the inattention on the part of our Christian Government towards the common rights and spiritual interests of the natives, particularly of these colonies, who have been literally driven from their locations and means of subsistence and there left to perish or worse than that, amounts to an act of injustice which will not fail to move the retributive justice of that God whose province it is to judge among the nations of the Earth with righteousness and equity.

“Much less than one tithe of the revenue from the sale of lands, of native territory, would have afforded ample sustenance, protection and instruction for the natives, and thereby colonization might have been turned to the best account, rather than a reproach and curse so far as our conduct to the aboriginal inhabitants is concerned.

“I have been spending as much of my time as possible in getting acquainted with the language, the manner, customs, etc., of the natives. I have found it to be exceedingly difficult, not having an interpretor nor any part of the language written. I have however got at so much of their language as will enable me to talk with freedom on almost any common subject.

“How to convey spiritual instructions to the mind at present I am almost at a loss to know. This difficulty arises from the paucity of words that there appear to be in their language. I have at times endeavoured to take advantage of some of their superstitions and incantations to convey the more correct and important truths of the Gospel to their minds. When I have taken their own notions as a medium to convey instructions, some have appeared to receive what had been said with credit, while others have expressed their surprise at my attempting to correct their errors and destroy the notions which they had received by traditions from their fathers, having such an imperfect knowledge of their language and being so short a time among them.

“Some few days since, I walked about a mile and a half for the purpose of having an interview with a person whom they call ‘Wer-e-rup’. He is they say, perfectly acquainted with almost all diseases and their cures, and in case of death if he can be brought on the spot in a short time after the spirit leaves the body, he can bring the individual alive again. This he does by flying after the spirit and bringing it back.”

Rev. Francis Tuckfield sent a parcel containing the foot of a black child, the body of which the blacks of Port Phillip were found eating: “This is one, out of many, of the direct evidences which we have that the poor degraded aboriginal inhabitants of (southern) Australia are cannibals, and that of the grossest and most shocking description. That this evidence may speak volumes in their behalf among the friends of missions in England is the prayer of yours…”

When Orton wrote to London in May 1839, he said, “There are difficulties connected with the prosecution of our mission to the Aborigines which nothing but self-denying perseverance in simple and firm trust in the declarations of divine truth can encourage the labourer to hope for success.

“The migrating habits of the natives is not the greatest difficulty to contend with. The Government is fast disposing of their lands – in addition to which an Act has been passed by the local Legislature, commonly called the ‘Squatter’s Act’, under which settlers may establish themselves in any part of the extensive territory of New South Wales, and no reserve whatever of land is made for the provision of the natives, neither in securing to them sufficient portions of their own native land as hunting ground, nor otherwise providing for their necessities. The result of which is that the natives who remain in the neighbourhood of the settled districts become pilfering – starving – obtrusive mendicants, and after enduring incalculable deprivations, abuses and miseries will gradually pine – die away – and become extinct, leaving only an eternal memento of a blot upon the justice, equity and benevolence of our Christian Government, for no adequate provision is made for them.

“The design of the scheme of the Port Phillip Protectorship may be good, but it is cramped in its operation for want of a well digested, liberal and extensive plan. The means to carry such a plan into efficient operation might and ought to be furnished by the local Government…

“On the other hand those natives who may be driven back to the interior must encroach upon the boundaries of other hostile tribes, by whom they will be murdered and exterminated.

“Thus as enterprising settlers extend themselves, under the sanction of the Government, the great object of missionary enterprise will be defeated unless some measure be speedily adopted by the Government to prevent the evil. It certainly must become a great national question; to regulate over-extending colonization, and to make suitable provision for the aboriginal nations and tribes, who may be thereby encroached upon – as much so as was the notable slave question, and nothing less than the ‘hue and cry’ of persevering Christian philanthropists will (I am apprehensive) move the Imperial Parliament to the consideration and adoption of measures on a comprehensive and liberal scale likely to be efficient in their operation.

“The humble individual who thus writes is a personal observer; one who feels keenly and bewails bitterly the oppressions and abuses to which these poor creatures are subject, and though the appeal be humble in its character, it is most sincere – urging Christians and Philanthropists to cry aloud and spare not until a Christian nation is raised to exert herself to obviate so sinful an evil, and thereby avert the wrath of that righteous God who most assuredly heareth the voice of our brother’s blood.”

In July 1839 Orton wrote: “The more I know of the condition of these poor creatures the more deeply I commiserate their miserable condition; which is certainly augmented by the settling of Europeans among them under the sanction of the British Government, whch ought rather to be the means of ameliorating their temporal as well as spiritual condition.

“With due feelings of respect to the Government whether in the Home or Colonial Department, I venture to assert from personal observation that there is a culpable deficiency in the provision made for the Aborigines of countries colonized under British authority. The land is either sold, or tickets of occupancy granted under the Licensing, or Squatter’s Act, to settlers who have now extended themselves over hundreds of miles. The natives are consequently dispossessed and dislodged, their vegetable food is destroyed by the grazing of stock, and their game is driven beyond their reach; so that they are in a state of starving mendacity; haunting in considerable numbers the townships which have been formed within their boundaries, becoming a tax upon the inhabitants, and presenting themselves as heart-rending objects of misery to everyone possessing a spark of philanthropic feeling. Can it be a matter of surprise that they are often detected in acts of petty pilfering for the sake of gratifying their pining appetites!”

But in spite of this accumulation of insight and passion it was not to be. For nine years Tuckfield laboured, but in 1848 Buntingdale joined many other such ventures in apparent failure. There have always been, however, many among the “rising progeny” of the Aboriginal people who have been grateful for these Christian workers who have led them into the light of the Kingdom of God.

Orton himself embarked for England in 1842, with his wife and children. Rounding Cape Horn he died and was buried at sea. He was 46 years old. The “John Wesley of Australia” he is called, travelling to Bathurst, Maitland, New Zealand, Hobart and Melbourne, and always ready to preach (whether to chain-gangs, natives or free settlers) the salvation which God has set forth in Jesus Christ.

Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, entry for Rev. Joseph Orton, published in 1979 by Melbourne University Press.

A Brief Introduction to Rev. Joseph Orton 1795-1842 and His Wife Sarah by Dr. Noel Orton (my father). This has not been officially published. This was part of his draft copy of his book of Rev. Joseph Orton which he was working on when he died in July 1983.

The Illustrated History of Methodism by Rev. James Colwell. Published in 1904 by William Brooks and Co. Limited, Printers and Publishers.

Historical Records of Victoria, Vol. 2.A. Published in 1982 by Victorian Government Printing Office.

A Century of Victorian Methodism edited by the Rev. C. Irving Benson. Published in 1935 by Spectator Publishing Company, Melbourne.

Great The Heritage. The Story of Methodism in N.S.W. 1812-1975 edited by Kath Whitby and Eric G. Clancy. Wholly set up and printed in Australia by E.H. Enterprise Holdings Pty. Ltd., 28 Ewan Street, Mascot, NSW, 2020, for the Divison of Interpretation and Communication of the N.S.W Methodist Conference, October, 1975.

After One Hundred Years The Centenary of Methodism in Bathurst and the West of N.S.W., 1832-1932 by Raymond H. Doust (Rev.) Published in 1932 in (Bathurst N.S.W. by G.W. Brownhill)

Newsletters to the descendants of Joseph Rennard Orton written by Dr. Noel Orton from November, 1979 to May 1981

Melbourne’s Missing Chronicle : John Pascoe Fawkner being the journal of preparations for departure to and proceedings at Port Phillip by John Pascoe Fawkner. Edited by C. Philip Billot. Melbourne, Quartet Books, 1982.

Source :

Further information on Joseph Orton :


Further information on  Irving Benson
Further information on  Rowland Hassall
Further information on  Thomas Hassall
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