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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kirby, Joseph Coles (1837–1924)

by John Garrett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Joseph Coles Kirby (1837-1924), by Mora Studio

Joseph Coles Kirby (1837-1924), by Mora Studio

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 2383

Joseph Coles Kirby (1837-1924), Congregational minister and social reformer, was born on 10 June 1837 in Buckingham, England, son of John Kirby, flour-miller, and his wife Mary, née Coles. Educated at the Quaker boarding school in Sibford Ferris, near Banbury, he absorbed partly from his Quaker mother a lifelong concern for social reform. At 13 he entered his father's business but never lost his passion for reading and self-improvement. After his father's bankruptcy the family migrated to Sydney in 1854. Kirby worked in a flour-mill and, an Independent like his father, joined the Pitt Street Congregational Church where the members included such prominent men as David Jones, John Fairfax and Rev. John West; their encouragement for Kirby cooled as he increasingly criticized the dominant social groups in New South Wales and advocated total abstinence. After abridged training by Rev. Barzillai Quaife Kirby was called as an assistant minister at Ipswich in 1863. Ordained in February 1864 he became a pioneer Congregational minister on the Darling Downs. He was stationed at Dalby where he married Margaretta Hall (d.1909).

In 1871-77 Kirby was pastor of the prosperous Congregational Church in Ocean Street, Woollahra, and active in the Public Schools League's successful campaign for free, compulsory and secular education. A militant and informed temperance reformer, his publications impressed Sir Henry Parkes, who carried the 1880 Licensing Act that granted a measure of local option. In the seamen's strike of 1878-79 Kirby helped to persuade the Australasian Steam Navigation Co. to abandon the employment of Chinese labour. In September 1877 he took over the church extension work of the Congregational Union of New South Wales and was chairman of the union in 1879-80. He attacked academicism in the ministry and offended voluntarist opinion by advocating stronger central initiative in home missions and acceptance of land from the government to build new churches.

Kirby resigned in September 1880 and went to the depressed Congregational Church at Port Adelaide. An assiduous and successful pastor, he provided several youth organizations and induced a number of young men to enter the ministry. With their help he brought his denomination solidly behind temperance, women's rights and social reform. As secretary of the Social Purity Society in 1882 he spent his vacation advocating the cause in Melbourne and Sydney, and in 1885 won ecumenical support in a campaign to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16. On retirement he became a leader in the successful campaign in 1915 for 6 o'clock closing. He also sought religious instruction in state schools and helped to persuade the South Australian Congregational Union to abandon its insistence upon purely secular instruction. Later he became an advocate of an Aboriginal reserve in Arnhem land.

Kirby was chairman of the Congregational Union of South Australia in 1886 and 1906 and chairman of the Congregational Union of Australia and New Zealand in 1910-13. In 1891 he had been an Australian representative at the first International Congregational Council in London and travelled in Europe and India. In 1903 he visited the South Pacific, keenly observing the conditions of the peoples and race relations. An Evangelical, he was devoted to 'The Theology of the Glorious Blood' and steadfastly opposed to higher criticism of the Bible but managed to combine an open-mindedness towards Darwinism and eugenics with his staunch theological conservatism. In 1877-98 he published at least six pamphlets on social reform. Active and alert, he was a beloved patriarch but became increasingly eccentric. He died at Semaphore on 1 August 1924, survived by two sons and three daughters. His estate was valued at £5500.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Robjohns, Three-Quarters of a Century (Adel, 1912)
  • E. S. Kiek, An Apostle in Australia (Lond, 1927)
  • J. A. Garrett and L. W. Farr, Camden College, a Centenary History (Syd, 1964)
  • Congregational Year Book (1863-70)
  • Echo, 22 Aug 1878
  • Congregational Union of Australia records (Eastwood, Sydney)
  • Congregational Union records (Adelaide, and State Records of South Australia, and State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Garrett, 'Kirby, Joseph Coles (1837–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 1 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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