JOHN DAVIES MEREWEATHER
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JOHN DAVIES MEREWEATHER

John Davies Mereweather was born in Bristol in England on 7 September 1816. He was the son of John Mereweather (1771-1845), born in Bristol, and his second wife Anna Maria Davies (1778-1831), who was born near Newcastle Emlyn but was living in Abergavenny at the time of her marriage. Both came from lines of craftsmen, shopkeepers and traders.

In his first marriage, to Ann Grimes (c. 1775-1809), John Mereweather had three children, Samuel (1798-1839), Ann (1800-1875), who both died childless, and Matilda (1801-1875) who married Stephen Poyntz Denning, the artist. In the 1820s the family's combined house and shop stood on the corner of Small Street and Corn Street close to the church of St Werburgh, where John Sr and Samuel took their turns as wardens. John Davies Mereweather was the only child of his father's second marriage.

Nothing has been traced about John Davies Mereweather's schooling. His mother died already when he was fourteen; by then, in his own words, his half-sister Ann had become his truest guide. The relations with his father may have been strained, for it was only through a last-minute codicil to John's will (a codicil dated in 1845) that John Davies Mereweather inherited anything at all; Ann was the main beneficiary.

In 1832, just before his sixteenth birthday, Mereweather made a tour of the Pyrenees, visiting Pau, Tarbes, Lourdes, Bagnères de Bigorre, Cauterets, the Vignemale, Gavarnie, Luz-St-Sauveur, the Tourmalet. Click on the Pyrenees link above.

During the years 1836-1860, Mereweather recorded in a book of Memoranda (now in the Arfwedson collection) quotations in poetry and prose from various authors, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Shelley, Wordsworth, Homer, Sophocles, Cicero, Juvenal, Dante, Petrarch, Rousseau, Voltaire, Madame de Staël, Guizot, Goethe, et al. The quotations are in English, Greek, Latin, Italian, and French.

Mereweather also wrote down his own thoughts, poems and narratives, e.g. a 198-line-poem about Charles XII of Sweden, inspired by Voltaire. In 1843 he sent in this poem for the Sir Roger Newdigate Prize for English Verse, but it was "rejected by the poetaster Committee of umpires". A few shorter poems seem to be addressed to a specific person whose identity is not revealed.

In 1839 Mereweather had entered Oxford University where he was admitted to St Edmund Hall, known mainly as a centre of Evangelicalism in a time of religious controversy. He graduated BA in 1843.

During the summer months of 1844, Mereweather travelled to Normandy and Paris. He landed at Le Havre and visited Honfleur, Caen and Bayeux; then he ascended the Seine to Rouen. He continued by train to Paris where he stayed for almost four months. Among the people he met were Mr and Mrs Giles and the Rev. J. Lovett. He had plans to get a teaching position, but these came to nothing. Click on the Paris link above for more details.

On 8 December 1844, Mereweather was ordained deacon in the little church of St Faith in St Paul's churchyard, London, and on 15 January 1845 he did his first service at Llanfair in the parish of Llantilio Crossenny not far from Abergavenny in the diocese of Llandaff. Then, in 1848, he is a curate at Holy Trinity, Stretford Road, Hulme, Manchester (this church was founded in 1843 and closed in 1953).

Mereweather could not settle down and decided to emigrate to Australia. He described this in two books:

  • Life on Board an Emigrant Ship: being a Diary of a Voyage to Australia (London, 1852);
  • Diary of a Working Clergyman in Australia and Tasmania, kept during the years 1850-1853 (London, 1859)
  • Mereweather had the intention to work in the Port Phillip district (in the south of New South Wales), about to be the separate colony of Victoria. But he presented himself badly with sketchy recommendations so Dr Charles Perry bluntly refused to license him. Instead, he found his first employment, in October 1850, in Tasmania, only to be transferred after some six months to the inhospitable Edward River district in New South Wales. His last year in Australia he spent in Sydney.

    For more details about Mereweather in Australia, click on the Australia/Rolfe link above.

    In September 1851, in a letter to a friend in England, Mereweather had expressed his hopes to return home after a few years, "settling down quietly in England, or obtaining a responsible Chaplaincy in the South of Europe" (Life on Board, p. 78). And indeed, in 1855 we find him in Venice (which was still under Austrian rule). He became English chaplain, under the bishop of Gibraltar, a post which he retained until he retired in 1887.

    As had been the case in Melbourne, Mereweather's arrival in Venice had its controversies. In February 1857, Frederic Chrenier (or Charnier, Chernier?) who "without much arrogance" called himself "the principal English resident" in Venice wrote to the bishop of London, Archibald Tait, pointing out that Mereweather had came "to Venice under the Sanction of the Bishop of Gibraltar and for some time administered divine service in the Palace of the Consul General"; however, "the Consul General withdrew his protection from Mr Mereweather, and closed his Palace". Since the correspondent understood that it was the intention of Mereweather to apply to be formally appointed minister to the members of the Church of England in Venice, he suggested that the bishop, prior to granting such an application, would make enquiries in Venice as to Mereweather's moral and religious principles.

    A few years passed, and then, in December 1860, John Henry Coward wrote from the Residentiary Houses at St Paul's commending Mereweather to the bishop because of his estimable character and other good qualities such as earnestness and experience as well as his knowledge of modern languages which would make him well suited for a post abroad. That Mereweather had indeed established himself in Venice in a rather informal way is clear from the following passage: "He is a Gentleman of means independent of his Holy Vocation but not wishing to be an inactive labourer in the vineyard and seeing a useful occasion for the employment of his ministerial function, he opened his house for the purpose of giving English residents and visitors to Venice the blessing of public worship according to the ritual of the Anglican Church." 

    These two letters are in the Tait papers in the Lambeth Palace Library in London.

    Mereweather had his quarters in Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni-Corfù on the Grand Canal. Click on the Venice Map link above. During all Mereweather's time in Venice there was no English church building, so Mereweather held services in his own home; in the words of Bradshaw's Continental Railway Guide of February 1881: "Church of Eng. Service (S.P.G. [Society for the Propagation of the Gospel]) – Sunday at 11.30 a.m., at the chaplain's residence, Rev. J. D. Mereweather, B.A., Pal. Contarini San Trovaso". According to Lady Layard (see below), writing in 1887, Mereweather had "for the last 30 years ... droned out a service in his rooms at the top of the Contarini degli Scrigni".

    Mereweather wrote several books in Venice, first Semele; or the Spirit of Beauty: A Venetian Tale (London, 1867); click on the Semele link above.

    Then there were three clerical tracts:

  • La Chiesa anglicana e l’universale unione religiosa / The Anglican Church, and universal religious union (Bergamo, 1868 / Bristol, 1870);
  • On Weekly Communion and Faith in Church Ordinances (Venice, 1869);
  • The Seven Words from the Cross (London, 1880)
  • These titles are of little interest today. The first, for instance, is a pamphlet calling for the uniting of all religions in a happy brotherhood based on the Anglican Church, representing Christianity at its best. The Papacy is called idolatrous and polytheistic, whereas Continental Protestantism is said to be bordering on atheism.

    Finally, at the age of 75, Mereweather had some success with a short play: Bacchus and Ariadne / Bacco ed Arianna ( London, 1891 / Venice, 1895, translated by professor Daniele Riccoboni).

    For details on how some of Mereweather's books may have inspired Frederick Rolfe, click on the Australia/Rolfe link above.

    Mereweather's neighbours, in Palazzo Contarini Corfù, were George Frederick Greaves, late Captain of the 60th Rifles, rentier, his wife Ann née Richards and their large family. George Frederick Greaves died in 1869. George Richards Greaves, the couple's eldest son, pursued a career in the British Army; his autobiography, Memoirs of General Sir George Richards Greaves, was published in 1924, two years after his death. Three younger sons entered Austrian military service. The most successful, Joseph Greaves, reached the rank of Fregattenkapitän (Commander); he died in Vienna in 1914.

    In 1871, one of the Greaves daughters, Adela, married a Swedish officer, lieutenant Carl Edward Arfwedson, of the Royal Life Dragoons; they were both born in 1847. The young couple left Venice for Sweden.

    In 1877, Ann Greaves decided to visit her daughter and son-in-law in Stockholm. Mereweather would have advised her about the journey (and perhaps he even accompanied her). She arrived in Stockholm in the summer, but, tragically, on 27 August 1877 she died of heart failure. She was buried three days later in Stockholm's Northern Cemetery.

    For many years, Mereweather had been troubled by the conditions for burying non-Catholics in Venice. He took the matter up with the Venice municipality, and he voiced his concern in print and in letters the Foreign Office in London, but to no avail. Now, a few days after Ann Greaves's burial, Mereweather acquired a grave for himself in the same cemetery. For a detailed discussion about all this, click on the Graves link above.

    In September 1882, north-eastern Italy suffered from heavy rains which, together with melting snow from the Alps, caused disastrous inundations. The Adige burst its banks, and large areas were flooded. Verona, in particular, suffered serious damage. Communication between that city and Venice was entirely cut off. Mereweather reports to English newspapers that the "misery, ruin, and suffering are widespread and painful to contemplate". And "scantily-dressed men, women, and children may be seen gazing in dumb despair on the ruins of the dwellings from which they escaped as these crumbled and dissolved amid the surging waters". According to the Italian consul in Manchester, nearly 200,000 persons were rendered homeless. In November, Mereweather writes, "a fresh series of storms swept over this unfortunate country and made matters infinitely worse".  Sympathisers in England offered assistance, and in Venice "the collections at the English church from tourist sources amounted to over 2,000 francs, the English residents having also given very generously". In December, the amount had risen to almost 5,000 francs.

    It would have been in recognition of Mereweather's efforts in connexion with this disaster that, a few years later, he was made Knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy "for philanthropic services 1882". This was the lowest class of the order, and, by a decree in 1885, the number of knights to be nominated in any one year was fixed at 1,200. Even so, Mereweather valued this distinction highly.

    In contrast to the relatively short time he spent on his posts in Wales, England and Australia, Mereweather was chaplain in Venice for thirty-two years. This would have made him the longest serving English chaplain in Venice ever. But Mereweather's bishops do not seem to have been very much impressed by his performance, for, when he retired in 1887, no eulogy was published for him, which would have been customary.

    Lady Layard née Enid Guest, who lived in Venice 1884-1912, mentions Mereweather in her diaries (now in the British Library). She is not kind to him, but it should be borne in mind that when she settled in Venice, Mereweather was already an old man, soon to retire and probably distressed by the constant lack of support from the Church of England and the British authorities. Moreover, the post as chaplain was not easy to fill; in the twenty-three years after Mereweather, until 1910, there would have been nine ordinary incumbents and almost as many temporary ones.

    In 1893, the Swedish painter Gustaf Cederström (1845-1933), half-cousin of Carl Edward Arfwedson, visited Venice in company with his fellow artist Alf Wallander (1862-1914). Cederström called on Mereweather and would have brought with him some message from the Arfwedson family. Also Wallander may have called on Mereweather, for, on 22 June, he sent in his card. Wallander made at least one painting there and then, a view of Santa Maria della Salute.

    In September 1895, nine months before his death, Mereweather wrote an English translation of Ode 1. 11 by Horace. Click on the Envoi link above.

    Mereweather died on 18 June 1896. For a summary of his will, made up in 1894, click on the Will link above. On 26 June 1896, The Times published the following note from a correspondent writing from Venice under the date of 19 June: "Yesterday evening there died at Venice in his house, Palazzo Contarini, San Trovaso, at the age of 81 [79], the Rev. Cavaliere J. D. Mereweather, B. A. Oxon., the oldest English chaplain in Italy. He entered upon his duties in 1855, and continued in them until 1887, when he retired from the Venice chaplaincy, although still residing in his adopted city. It is curious to think that he was the direct successor in Venice of Dr Henry Wotton ..., for between Bedell's time and his there were no chaplains."

    William Bedell was appointed chaplain to Dr Wotton, English ambassador to Venice, in 1607, but he would not have been Mereweather's nearest predecessor. In fact, until the fall of the Republic in 1797, Anglican chaplains accompanied all British embassies to Venice as an assertion of English Protestantism. These chaplaincies were able to count on Venice's legendary policy of toleration which was, in their case, not really religious but rather a policy designed to assert the sovereignty of the Venetian State against the dictatorial policies of the Counter-Reformation Church of Rome. For this information I owe a debt of gratitude to Peter Lauritzen, historian and author and resident of Venice for many years.

    In the National Library of Australia (MS 9453), there is a 67-page typescript by the late Dr John Barrett entitled From Bristol Trades to a Gentleman of Venice: The Story of J. D. Mereweather. For the full text, click on the Dr Barrett link above.

    In 1986, with kind permission of Dr Barrett, then Reader in History at La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, I published a short article (followed up in 1996) in The Journal of the Bristol and Avon Family History Society making use of his material. Some general pieces of information are repeated here, but a considerable amount of new material has been added over the years. All quotations come from printed works and manuscript originals as stated.

    Mereweather is elusive. My impression is that Mereweather, in Venice, ordered his life as comfortably as possible according to his own idiosyncrasy not bothering about whether he annoyed others, then or in the future.

    Mereweather's Australian diaries have often been drawn on by historians, but Mereweather himself has received little recognition. The same goes for his forty years in Venice, where he wrote books of various kinds. Historians, if they notice Mereweather at all, tend to give him the cold shoulder. A recent example is Paradise of Cities (London, 2003) by John Julius Norwich where Mereweather appears anonymously and en passant as "the local English chaplain" (p. 203). And, as Dr Barrett pointed out: "The Australian Dictionary of Biography does not even know Mereweather, although some with no greater claim to recognition have gained entry."  This is sad.

    OLE PEIN


    Created on 3 December 2003
    Latest updates: 2 April 2014