Vol 4 - The papers of William Porter


William Porter was the Agriculturalist assigned to the Wellington Mission by the Church Missionary Society. He arrived in Sydney Cove on 1 July 1838 but only completed two instalments of his journal before the collapse of the Mission and his own disgrace rendered further submissions unnecessary.The decision to appoint an Agriculturalist to the Mission was one which was urged by William Watson, against the advice of J. C. S. Handt. Handt was disposed to think that an Agriculturalist would be an unnecessary expense on the already scanty resources of the Mission. He may also have felt that Watson's main motivation in urging the appointment of an Agriculturalist was to assist his own ventures in private farming, much of which depended on his use of Mission resources. Of this activity Handt entirely disapproved.

Most missions supported by the Church Missionary Society had a sizeable agricultural component. Missions were sometimes envisaged as providing an induction for native people into the European economy. Farming was also necessary to keep down the costs of maintaining the missionaries and their dependents, and providing a source of food and productive activity for converts and proselytes. Some societies made a point of only engaging artisans for the mission fields, including farmers, so that the productive work of the mission could keep costs to a minimum. By the time of Porter's arrival at Wellington, a number of farmers trained by the Gossner Society were already employed by J. D. Lang at the mission to the Aborigines of Moreton Bay.[1] Indeed, the leader of the Gossner mission to Moreton Bay, Christopher Eipper, was married to the daughter of John Gyles, a missionary agriculturalist from the LMS mission to Tahiti.

In Wellington, Porter's attempts to create a productive Mission farm were largely ineffective. He arrived in the middle of a severe drought, which may have been aggravated by the catastrophic impact of pastoralism on previously ungrazed country. In December 1838 the loss of vegetation was severe enough to cause a dust storm which Porter describes as threatening to bury both himself and his horse and which reminded him of the "sandy deserts of Arabia. [2] His letters and journals contain graphic descriptions of the difficulties caused by the lack of water, particularly the loss of animals attempting to find water in the dry river, and the disappointment of the total failure of crops of grain sown in four successive seasons over 1837 - 41. Porter also felt acutely the tensions between the senior missionaries which he was unable to avoid or placate. In his final journal he concludes that the Society will probably consider his account to consist of "an entire vacuity of real interesting matters either of a temporal or spiritual nature. [3]

Porter was also affected by the calamitous impact of the European occupation of the Valley on his mission charges. After a few years on the station, which, with its cattle, sheep, wheat and grape vines was a contributor to the problem, Porter was very clear about the cause of the reduction in Aboriginal numbers in the Valley. They were being driven out by Europeans whose cattle and sheep drove away the kangaroos and opossums, the Wiradjuri people's chief source of food, so that they must "either pine away or else move into the interior. [4] The hollowness of the oft-proposed solution, that the natives abandon hunting and gathering and become farmers and graziers like the Europeans, was vividly demonstrated by the failure of Porter's own efforts to farm the intractagble Wellington soil, even with all the support of the Government Store and convict labour, such as it was. Porter's journals are full of accounts of his frustration in trying to persuade the Aborigines perform, gratis, farm work for him. Only Watson, who secured children in his service, seems to have succeeded in enforcing Aborigines to labour in his cause.

In many ways, Porter's story is a sad one. He was sent out as a single man, although he had been advised to marry prior to his departure. In a letter to the CMS Secretary explaining his personal situation, Porter announced that he wished to return to England because he had received advice that his chosen companion was no longer hindered by parental opposition from following him to the Mission. [5] No doubt this news had filled Porter with the utmost excitement, but the CMS did not respond to his request. Having received no reply, Porter wrote eight months later, again urging his case, this time begging that the Society would merely pay the passage of "the female in question" and providing her name and address for their attention. [6]

The Society's reluctance to assist Porter in his wish to be united with Miss Beeston was probably related to the need to keep all costs to an absolute minimum. Missionaries who failed to make a suitable connection in England, such as Porter's fellow missionary, J. C. S. Handt, were expected to search for a Mission partner in the colony. There was really no question of covering the expense and risk of a return trip to England for this purpose, except in the exceptional case of an established missionary whose wife had died in the mission field. Even in these circumstances, the missionary was expected, like Lancelot Threlkeld, to take the opportunity of marriage in the field if it presented itself. [7]

The reason for the particular urgency of Porter's plea for a marriage partner may, perhaps, be explained by the circumstances of his final disgrace and departure from the Mission. In 1838 Porter reported in his journal on the "awful instance of the wicked connection between white men . . . . and the Native Women." [8] While this does not preclude Porter hypocritically engaging in similar activity himself, it does indicate that he maintained in principle the strict sexual ethic of his fellow Evangelicals at this time. In October 1841 Porter wrote to London tendering his resignation as a missionary, stating as his reasons the extreme discouragement he had met in attempting to run the mission farm, his dissatisfaction with his obligation to employ "improper", usually convict or ex-convict, servants, and his unhappiness with the overwhelmingly secular nature of his employment. [9] There were other indications of his falling away from the missionary ideal, however much Porter stated his desire to be a "real Missionary," and to be educated in Scripture. In April 1842, James Günther wrote to Bishop Broughton, who had taken on the role of the Sydney corresponding committee in overseeing the Wellington Mission, with some melancholy news concerning Mr Porter. It appeared that Porter had been having sexual relations with some of the young women of the Mission. Although both Porter and one of the women made initial denials, Porter eventually confessed to succumbing to "a sudden suggestion of Satan", trusting that the "exposure of his weakness would tend to prove a salutary humiliation." [10] Even Günther does not seem to have expected Porter to reform, and admitted that both he and Mrs Günther had for some time suspected that Porter might be "liable to such things". Writing again some five weeks later, Günther confirmed his earlier suspicions. It was clear that Porter had been having sex with at least one of the mission women for at least two years. This would date, therefore, from the final disappointment of his hopes of persuading the CMS to pay for the passage of Miss Beeston to the colony.

The Mission had already endured crisis after crisis but the departure of Porter seems to have been the final blow to any hopes that it could continue to limp on in some form. Günther was obliged to take on all the agricultural duties of the Mission on his own with the assistance of convict labour, such as it was. The additional shame of the manner of Porter's departure could only add to the general sense of disappointment in the complete collapse of the Missionary ideals with which all four men had begun the venture. Günther wrote, gloomily, to Broughton: "that to the many discouragements this Mission has met with, another should have been added,. And, that the Aborigines (for the occurrence is known to several) should have a handle against one of its members, very much disheartens me." [11]

I have not been able to determine what happened to Porter after he left the Mission. "William Porter" is a common name, but none of the individuals who turn up in the Sydney Gazette or who are mentioned in other records seems to match him. As the Church Missionary Society no doubt devotedly wished, he more or less completely disappeared. Broughton seems to have completely washed his hands of the affair, not even bothering to reply to Günther but merely forwarding his letters to London for their information.


  1. Christopher Eipper, Origin, Condition and Prospectus of the German Mission to the Aborigines of Moreton Bay, Sydney, 1841. The Gossner missionaries arrived in Sydney in January 1838.
  2. Porter Journal, 4 December 1838 (Journal 2, p.4.) .
  3. Porter Journal, October-December 1838, (Journal 2, p.8.)
  4. Porter to Coates, 21 Jan. 1839 (Letter 2).
  5. Porter to Coates, 21 Jan. 1839 (Letter 2).
  6. Porter to Coates, 30 Aug. 1839 (Letter 4).
  7. In 1825 Lancelot Threlkeld (1788 - 1859),whose first wife died on the South Seas, married Sarah Arndell (1796 - 1853), the daughter of the colony surgeon and his convict wife, while stopping in Sydney on his way back to London to secure a wife. Neil Gunson, ed. Australian Reminiscences and Papers of L. E. Threlkeld, 2 vols., Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies No. 40, Canberra: AIAS, 1974.
  8. Porter Journal, 6 December 1838 (Journal 2, p.4.) 
  9. Porter to Coates, 11 Oct. 1841 (Letter 6).
  10. Günther to Broughton, 23 April and 6 May 1842, CMS Archives, CN/0 13A/11.
  11. Günther to Broughton, 23 April and 6 May 1842.