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Dr Barrett

His posthumous connexion with FREDERICK ROLFE

1. In Australia

John Davies Mereweather was born in Bristol in 1816, son of John Mereweather and his second wife Anna Maria Davies. Both came from lines of craftsmen, shopkeepers and traders. But young John had other interests. In 1839 he entered Oxford University. He graduated BA in 1843, and was ordained deacon in St Faith's Church, London, in 1844. Then he was the curate of various parishes until he decided to emigrate to Australia. This resulted 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 is a shrewd observer, and the books are filled with vivid detail of people met and things seen while he travelled, this way and that, through an inhospitable country. The books are still well worth reading.

After a 138-day voyage from Gravesend and Plymouth in the Lady MacNaghten, Mereweather arrived at Adelaide on 16 June 1850. "Adelaide strikes me as a very miserable and squalid place. Wide streets are laid out, but there are few houses in them, and those few are mean and wretched; the roads are full of holes, receptacles of dust in summer and mud in winter; public-houses abound, and drunkenness seems everywhere prevalent." (Diary, p. 2f). After ten days in Adelaide, the Melbourne-bound passengers boarded the See Queen with destination Port Phillip.

On 13 July 1850 Mereweather saw "the Bishop of Melbourne (Dr. Perry), a thin and very acute-looking prelate. Bought a Queen's head for a letter. The portrait of her Majesty is a wonderfully coarse production of art, very much like a public-house sign reduced." (Diary, p. 20)

For two months, Mereweather explored Melbourne and the surrounding area. Among other things he was "initiated in the mysteries of squatting"  (Diary, p. 39), and he was surprised to find that a squatter's life was not at all as dismal as he had imagined.

It was in Tasmania that Mereweather found his first employment, in October 1850. He was happy in the diocese getting on well with his bishop and fellow ministers; he was popular with his congregation. But then a squatter from New South Wales called upon Mereweather and begged him to act as chaplain in the uninviting remote parts of the Edward River district: "No clergyman had as yet been found, he said, to undertake the arduous charge. I determined to go there." (Diary, p. 84f)

On 15 May 1851 Mereweather travelled north from Melbourne on horseback. After four days he crossed the Murray, and, having entered his district, he immediately took up his clerical duties: "Baptized a child. Held Divine Service in the wool-shed. Twenty persons attended ..." (Diary, p. 90). On 24 May he was glad to set up his first headquarters at Moolpa on the Edward River, after having ridden 280 miles (p. 93). The district allotted to Mereweather was enormous, stretching from the South Australia boundary in the west to Albury in the east (over 500 km). "... it is my duty to visit from station to station, to hold morning and evening prayers, and to endeavour to impact spiritual knowledge and religious consolation to the white people scattered up and down in this wilderness. May God grant me power to do it as I should! I am not sent as missionary to the blacks, but I shall study their character closely, and prevent the publicans from giving them fermented and spirituous liquors." (p. 110)

After having made a tour of part of his district, Mereweather writes on 23 July: "I feel convinced that it is absurd for any clergyman to undertake the pastoral charge of this district, unless he be possessed of an iron constitution and great patience; and be cheered by religious enthusiasm. He must combine physical strength with moral determination, and above all, he must look for approval to a higher Power than his fellow-men." (Diary, p. 121)

At Deniliquin, Mereweather was harassed by the irreligious superintendent of the Royal Bank sheep-station who "had advised his people to bring up a large flock of weaning ewes close to the wool-shed as soon as I should begin the Service, so that their bleating might prevent my being heard."  (Diary, p. 149) Moreover, the shearers were amusing themselves with horse racing, and Mereweather had to wait for three heats to finish before he could start. And back at the inn, he found a mob of men savagely drunk.

On 28 July 1852, after returning from a more than month-long expedition, Mereweather learnt that he had been appointed to the district of Surry Hills in Sydney (Diary, p. 205). He held his first service there on 16 October in the Darlinghurst Court-House; about seventy persons attended, their behaviour being most exemplary, and Mereweather was pleased even if he suspected that many had come out of sheer curiosity (p. 223f). He started a Sunday school and organised a choir which he was very proud of.

Many years earlier, Mereweather had written a Song called See Love's web around thee weaving. This poem was published in Sydney by W. J. Johnson & Co. with music composed by Miss Murphy.

After less than one year in Sydney, the entry for 21 August 1853 abruptly states: "I grieve much that the shaken state of my health, consequent on my privations in the bush, will compel me soon to relinquish all that I have worked up here with so much labour, and to return to England." (Diary p. 260) Four days later he sails out of Sydney bound for England.



2. The Frederick Rolfe connexion

The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (London, 1934) by Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo) is based on Rolfe's life in Venice, mainly in 1909. The book's subtitle is A Romance of Modern Venice, and much of its charm lies in the depiction of Venice and the lagoon. Many characters are easy to identify. Nicholas Crabbe, the hero, is of course Rolfe himself. Exeter Warden (in Rolfe's manuscript and in later editions: Londonderry Bagge) is Canon Lonsdale Ragg, one of the many contemporaries lampooned by Rolfe. Also for very minor characters Rolfe used models from real life. And I venture to say that John Davies Mereweather, once English Chaplain in Venice, has inspired Rolfe in more than one way, even if he died many years before Rolfe arrived in Venice.

In 1855 Mereweather settled in Venice. He was Chaplain to the English residents there, a post he held until he retired in 1887; he died in Venice in 1896. He had his quarters in Palazzo Contarini Corfù. For a more detailed account, click on the Home link above.

Mereweather loved Venice, its cultural heritage, its beauty. He published Semele; or the Spirit of Beauty : A Venetian Tale (London, 1867). Semele of Greek mythology is turned into an orphan daughter of noble Anglo-French lineage. She explores the city and the lagoon giving the reader something of a guided tour, often away from the tourist areas. For details, click on the Semele link above.

Mereweather also published three clerical tracts and a short play in verse:

  • La Chiesa anglicana e l’universale unione religiosa / The Anglican Church, and universal religious union (Bergamo, 1868 / Bristol, 1870), a pamphlet against the Papacy;
  • On Weekly Communion and Faith in Church Ordinances (Venice, 1869), objections to evolutionists;
  • The Seven Words from the Cross (London, 1880), a pretentious piece combining religious zeal with poetic ambition;
  • Bacchus and Ariadne / Bacco ed Arianna ( London, 1891 / Venice, 1895), a play.

The post as English Chaplain in Venice 1905-1909 was held by Canon Lonsdale Ragg. It is reasonable to believe that Ragg owned at least some of his predecessor's books and also The Colonial Church Atlas (see below). If so, he could have lent these to Rolfe, or Rolfe could have found them when he spent some time in Ragg's apartment in Palazzo Contarini Corfù (Desire, p. 212); Rolfe would have had the opportunity to rummage through Ragg's belongings which were being crated for shipment to England. Some of Mereweather's books could even have been available in Venetian bookshops in Rolfe's time.

Rolfe may well have read Mereweather's Semele; or the Spirit of Beauty: A Venetian Tale when he wrote The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole: A Romance of Modern Venice. In one of Rolfe’s manuscripts the subtitle is A Venetian Romance.

It is likely that Mereweather and his Australian diaries form, at least in part, the background for the Sebastian Archer story dealt with towards the end of Chapter XV of Desire (p. 156f): "Sebastian Archer, a nice boy stupidly misused by ultra-religious relations was scrapped (at eighteen) into the dust-bin of Australia. His aim had been the episcopalian ministry; and he never lost sight of it. He was a large healthy athletic intelligent witty fellow, clean to look at and good enough for anyone's society. His job was to build a career out of nothing with his naked hands. ... Squatter parents liked him: his pups adored him: his principals left all to him while they danced drunk in doubtful dwellings ..."

If Rolfe somehow saw the The Colonial Church Atlas, he would have seen the maps of the various foreign dioceses, e. g. Gibraltar and those of Australia, and he would have noticed that they were all drawn and engraved by one J. Archer. And if these maps were the source of the surname, it would only be natural if St Sebastian, condemned to be killed by arrows, supplied the Christian name. 

Immediately after the Sebastian Archer story, we learn how Crabbe "stepped out into the gutter and wrote feuilletons for farthing rags and short stories for provincial syndicates the type of trash which unearths little lumps of guineas at unexpected moments the kind of rubbish which the monstrous married mob reads, believing it to be the work of a pair of themselves, and he signed these 'Geltruda and Bevis Mauleverer'." This clearly is "John Davies Mereweather". Rolfe, a Roman Catholic, may have taken offence at Mereweather’s anti-Catholic writings and decided to have a go at him in the same way as he smeared living British residents in Venice.

Thus Rolfe seems to praise Mereweather for his documented achievements in Australia, only to turn against him for his other pieces of writing.


Created on 30 November 2003
Updated on 8 December 2008