March 2021 Print

William Bernard Ullathorne

By Frank Carleton

In February, 1833 there arrived in Sydney aboard the Sir Thomas Munro an English Benedictine monk of very youthful appearance. A lady fellow passenger described him with contemporary English Protestant prejudice as “a nice man but a bit of a Jesuit withal,” an oblique compliment to his subtlety in conversation and behavior. A Benedictine priest, he was Yorkshire-born William Bernard Ullathorne, who came as the Vicar General of the English Benedictine Vicar Apostolic at Mauritius. His vast area of episcopal responsibility encompassed the remote British penal colony in New Holland. He brought with him “a select library of about five hundred volumes. Although chiefly ecclesiastical, I added some of the choicest classics in all the languages of which I knew anything.” This extraordinary cleric, who ended his career as an archbishop in 1889, wrote his autobiography in 1867 not too long after the events it chronicled. He revised the work in the last years of his life. The autobiography was written “not for publication but for record” though the author was “pretty sure it would get out after my time.” The first edition of 1891 was piously expurgated by a nun, resulting in some distortion of the author’s narrative. The original content was transcribed and restored from the first manuscript by the Anglo-Irish Catholic convert Sir Shane Leslie who published it in 1941 with the melodramatic, but apt, title, From Cabin-boy to archbishop. Unfortunately that edition is replete with errors: typographical issues, misspellings, missed words and the loss of whole sentences.

The latest 1995 edition conflates the contents of both the author’s manuscripts and includes explanatory chapter endnotes. It also has a more logical arrangement of chapters. The front cover illustration is the episcopal portrait of Ullathorne complete with tiny armorial which hangs in the monastic refectory of Downside Abbey. Regrettably the edition lacks an index for quick reference to persons, places and events.

After his schooling, which was cut short in a family of ten children, and some time in the family business in Scarborough, Ullathorne was apprenticed before the mast for four years and sailed as far as Russia. In 1823 he entered the Benedictine school at Downside Priory in Somerset headed by John Bede Polding, O.S.B. (1794-1877). The following year, he sought to become a Benedictine monk with Polding as his novice master and was ordained to the priesthood in 1831.

Ullathorne’s long ecclesiastical career, which covered most of the nineteenth century, was to include England, the penal colony of New South Wales, Rome, Ireland, the erection of a Catholic hierarchy in Australia in 1842, subsequently as priest in charge at Coventry and one of the last English Vicars Apostolic who played a vital role in Rome in the restoration of the English hierarchy in 1850. Finally, he was an English diocesan bishop who attended the first Vatican Council. Of Catholic recusant stock, he became the close friend of two famous Anglican converts, Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, and John Henry Cardinal Newman. Both revered him.

Manning he once rebuked in his archaic Yorkshire accent: “My dear sir, allow me to say that I taught the catechism with the mitre on me ‘ed when you were an ‘eretic.” This exemplified John Henry Newman’s tribute to his Catholic diocesan bishop in his Apologia pro vita sua of 1864, in which he comprehensively rebutted the Rev. Charles Kingsley’s calumny of dishonesty laid upon the Catholic priesthood in Newman’s person:

“Did I wish to point out a straightforward Englishman, I should instance the Bishop, who has, to our great benefit for many years presided over [the diocese].”


The Devil is a jackass: being the dying words of the autobiographer William Bernard Ullathorne 1806-1889. Ed. by Leo Madigan. [Stratton on the Fosse, Bath: Downside Abbey Publications, 1995].


In penal New South Wales, the newly arrived Benedictine Vicar General promptly brought order to the local Catholic community and its few priests. The zealous but haphazard pioneer missioner, Fr. John Joseph Therry (1790-1864), was inclined to be patronizing but quickly submitted to his authority. By July 1833 the Legislative Council made grants for four new Catholic chaplains, the completion of three unfinished churches begun by Fr. Therry, and a large monetary grant per year for schools and teachers. Ullathorne’s relations with the liberal Governor, Sir Richard Bourke, were mutually cordial and cooperative. By Christmas, the large St. Mary’s Chapel Sydney in Sydney, subsequently the first cathedral, was in use. By the next year Ullathorne had visited the Hunter River and Bathurst and Norfolk Island, the harsh penal location for recalcitrant convicts. On Norfolk Island, at this first visit of a Catholic priest, it fell to him to announce to condemned men those who had been reprieved and those who were to be executed. He was allowed five days to prepare for death the three Catholics and four others who sought him among the latter. In conjunction with the Catholic Commissioner of the Courts of Requests, Roger Therry (1800-1874), Ullathorne strongly urged the appointment of a bishop resident in Sydney to resolve local dissensions. In 1834, this proved to be Ullathorne’s revered Downside novice-master, John Bede Polding. The bishop’s 1835 arrival in the Sydney penal colony began a vigorous local Catholic mission. Ullathorne served both Windsor and Parramatta, over 15 miles from Sydney, but rode there twice a week to transact the bishop’s business with the colonial government.

In 1837 his bishop sent Ullathorne to Europe for more priests, schoolteachers, and funds. During his two-year absence abroad, the energetic Vicar General could recruit only one priest in England before being summoned to Rome. There, even though he was still conspicuously young, Ullathorne prepared a report for Propaganda Fide which earned him the warm approval of Gregory XVI and a doctorate in divinity. He also obtained a rescript authorizing the establishment of a Benedictine monastery in Sydney at the first St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Returning to England, he persuaded the Colonial Office to allow passage money for ten schoolteachers recruited from all parts of the British Isles. With a ready pen he published a substantial pamphlet in 1837, The Catholic Mission in Australasia, that quickly ran to six editions. 80,000 copies were distributed in French, German, Dutch, and Italian. Assisted by an Irish priest recruited in Liverpool, Ullathorne recruited in Ireland another seven Irish priests, two ecclesiastical students, and five Sisters of Charity, who were the first nuns to ever arrive in Australia. While in Ireland he wrote a pamphlet for subsequent publication in Dublin and Birmingham, The Horrors of Transportation briefly unfolded to the people. In Dublin he acquired a great rarity: a dozen quarto volumes dating from 1519 to 1545 which “consisted of most of Martin Luther’s publications, the original editions, tracts, pamphlets and sermons without any of those expurgations of his abusive language and obscenities which were effected in the collected editions of his works.” Today these volumes survive in the rare books collections of the Veech Library, Catholic Institute of Sydney at Strathfield.

Over two days in February 1838, Ullathorne gave evidence to the Molesworth parliamentary committee on convict transportation, which he explained had utterly failed as a means of reformation and was remarkable for its brutality, evident in its ready recourse to the lash. It reinforced the depravity of the worst and depraved the young and less criminal. In the above pamphlet he had averred, “We have taken a vast portion of God’s earth and made it a cess-pool… we have poured down scum upon scum, and dregs upon dregs, of the offscourings of mankind…” His oral evidence to the committee was a particular ordeal for the young priest, lest his testimony inadvertently breach the seal of the confessional.

He returned to Sydney with three priests, four students, and five nuns, having by now added fifteen priests in total to the mission. Again at Parramatta, he now had five Sisters of Charity to assist him in the Orphan School and the Female Factory where hitherto he had described the general characteristics of the female convict as “immodesty, drunkenness and the most horrible language.” But the Sisters of Charity achieved a startlingly comprehensive moral reformation of these previously refractory women.

Otherwise, the Vicar General became the target of all those who cynically favored the continuance of convict transportation as a prolific source of cheap labor and those who were dismayed to find Catholicism was now a power in the colony. For months he was subjected to almost daily abuse in the press in the unmerited role of “the Very Reverend the Agitator-General of New South Wales.” But Ullathorne was content that his undeserved public notoriety shielded the popular Bishop Polding from public criticism. The bishop “was much in the gaols and in the other penal establishments. He was more frequently and longer in the Confessional than many of his priests.” The sharp reduction in criminal convictions amongst Catholic and converted convicts by reason of zealous pastoral initiatives was widely noted.

Nonetheless, by 1839, Ullathorne had decided to leave the colony. His failure to recruit English priests in 1837-1838, his success in recruiting Irish priests, and his warm friendships with several Irish prelates convinced him that his bishop’s dream of a Benedictine mission could not succeed. New South Wales must be an ecclesiastical colony of Ireland which had priests to spare.

1840, his last year in Australia, was his most active. The bishop gave Ullathorne charge of an infant seminary in Sydney and the whole administration of the diocese. Seminary teaching, public lecturing on Catholicism, and diocesan administration fully occupied him while his intrepid missionary bishop traveled far and wide founding a dozen new churches and schools. Ullathorne’s May visit to Adelaide proved fruitless given the hostility to Catholicism of the Protestant political establishment in that “paradise of dissent.” In August, for the laying of the foundation stone of St. Patrick’s Church, he organized a procession in Sydney to show Governor Gipps the numerical strength and unity of the Catholic body and to protest the governor’s education proposals. By a persuasively prudent public speech, Ullathorne discouraged the mainly Irish Catholic flock from giving the occasion a nationalist character with banners and emblems likely to provoke a public affray.

In November, he accompanied his bishop in sailing for Europe via New Zealand to ensure that further sees were erected in Australia and that he should occupy none of them. Four times he refused the mitre during his Australian association and a fifth time when the see of Perth was established in 1845. He wrote, “I had seen enough of bishops thoroughly to compassionate but not to envy them.” Yet he was the key figure behind the establishment of a Catholic hierarchy in Australia by Papal Brief of April 5, 1842, with Polding as first Archbishop of Sydney. No Catholic hierarchy had previously been established in the British Empire since the sixteenth century. The first Bishop of Hobart, Robert Willson (1794-1866) later remarked to Ullathorne in England, “I had not been in Sydney two days before I saw through the whole of what you must have gone through; and I only wonder that it did not kill you.”

Taking over the Coventry parish in England, Ullathorne published his Australian colonial sermons. He assisted the foundation of the Dominican English Congregation of St. Catherine of Siena, thereby further enhancing his understanding of the spirituality of women religious. In 1846 he was appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Western District as Bishop of Hetalonia in partibus infidelium but was transferred to the Central District in 1848. Both in public and amongst the English Vicars Apostolic at Rome and in England, Ullathorne played a vital role in the complex restoration of the English Hierarchy in 1850, adeptly using his prior Australian experience on behalf of his English brother bishops. That experience also informed his career as first Bishop of Birmingham in dealings with the old English Catholics, the Irish, and the Anglican converts, the three elements of renascent Catholicism in England.

After 1867 he had over twenty years of life still in prospect in total. He concluded his reminiscences, “uncertain whether at a future period I may resume or continue them or not.” Beyond the work’s chronological scope was the redoubtable Bishop Ullathorne’s vigorous defense of convents against bigoted proposed legislation for their official inspection. Appalled and disgusted by the ignorant notion that convents were houses of tyranny involving forced incarceration of women he published A Plea for the Rights and Liberties of Religious Women with Reference to the Bill Proposed by Mr. Lacy in 1851. Also beyond the autobiography’s chronological scope was his attendance at the first Vatican Council. At his retirement, aged 83, Pope Leo XIII accorded him the honorary title of Archbishop of Cabasa.

The introduction to the 1995 edition by its editor relates his last visit after he resigned his see on August 18th, 1887, to Cardinal Newman, who asked his bishop’s blessing. This was given with great astonishment. Newman, no stranger to public controversy, explained, “I have been indoors all my life, whilst you have battled for the Church in the world.”

Ipse dixit!