JOHN DAVIES MEREWEATHER
John Davies Mereweather was born in Bristol in England on 7
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
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
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
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. Later, 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
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, should make
enquiries in Venice as to Mereweather's moral and religious
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
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
For details on how some of Mereweather's books may
have inspired Frederick Rolfe, click on the Australia/Rolfe
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
In September 1882,
during the reign of King Umberto
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.
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
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
, 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.
Created on 3 December 2003
Latest updates: 2 February 2016