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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mathew, John (1849–1929)

by M. D. Prentis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John Mathew (1849-1929), Presbyterian minister and anthropologist, was born on 31 May 1849 at Aberdeen, Scotland, fourth child and eldest son of Alexander Mathew, factory overseer, and his wife Jean, née Mortimer. He was educated at Kidd's school, Aberdeen, and at the Insch Free Church School where he was a pupil-teacher in 1862-64.

In 1864 Mathew migrated with a brother and sister to Queensland to live with their uncle John Mortimer on his station, Manumbar, on the Burnett River. Stockrider, bookkeeper, and storeman for six years, he became familiar with the language and culture of the Kabi and Wakka peoples, towards whom his Calvinist uncle acted humanely. For two years Mathew was a gold-digger at Imbil and Ravenswood. Next, he served the Queensland Department of Public Instruction as a teacher at Dalby (1872-75) and the Brisbane Normal School (1875-76).

Feeling a call to the ministry, Mathew moved in 1876 to Victoria where he matriculated and graduated from the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1884; M.A., 1886). Although his studies were interrupted by stints as tutor and station-manager he qualified for both degrees with first-class honours, having been awarded a scholarship in mental and moral philosophy in 1885. He took the full course in theology at Ormond College in 1884-86. Inducted to the parish of Ballan in 1887, on 6 July he married Edinburgh-born Wilhelmina (Minnie) Scott (1863-1940). In 1889 Mathew was called to the suburban charge of Coburg, where he was minister until his retirement in 1923. He was elected moderator by the 1911 Victorian assembly and moderator-general for Australia in 1922-24. He was a home chaplain during World War I.

Mathew was a council-member of Presbyterian Ladies', Scotch and Ormond (chairman, 1910-26) colleges. He was a founder and office-bearer of the Melbourne College of Divinity; an advisory council-member of Coburg High School, and a long-standing member of the Royal Society of Victoria and the Australian Literature Society (president, 1915-20). In 1926-29 he served on the anthropological committee of the Australian National Research Council. His scholarship won him further degrees, from the University of St Andrews, Scotland (B.D., 1892), and the Melbourne College of Divinity (B.D. ad eund., 1913; D.D., 1924).

Maintaining a lifelong interest in Aboriginal ethnography, Mathew published two books and numerous papers and articles between 1879 and 1928. In 1889 he won the prize and medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales for an essay 'The Australian Aborigines' which was the basis for his best-known publication, Eaglehawk and Crow (1899). It was, as Mathew had anticipated, criticized by the established ethnographers (Sir) Baldwin Spencer, A. W. Howitt and Lorimer Fison. Spencer wrote a scholarly critique of the book but Fison's attack seems to have been provoked by Mathew's challenge to his own theories of group-marriage, and perhaps also by his amateur status. Mathew received more encouragement and support from other independent workers such as R. H. Mathews and Daisy Bates, who appreciated his assistance and advice.

In 1906 Mathew returned to Queensland to visit the Kabi and Wakka people living on Barambah Government Aboriginal Station and in 1910 he published Two Representative Tribes of Queensland. While his linguistic studies and ethnographic reporting are still well regarded, his more speculative discussion of the tri-hybrid origin of the Australian Aborigines, controversial at the time, is unsupported by data now available.

From youth Mathew was a keen musician, poet, humorist and handyman. He invented a system of shorthand called 'Breviscript'. Genial in society and a total abstainer, he was a short, trim man who sported a full bushman's beard until his thirties, later going bald. An eloquent preacher, he was both liberal in theology and ardently evangelical. Beside his ethnographic works he also published three volumes of verse.

Mathew died on 11 March 1929 at his Coburg home and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. He was survived by his wife, daughter, and four sons who all served in World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Greenway, Bibliography of the Australian Aborigines and the Native Peoples of Torres Strait (Syd, 1963)
  • Presbyterian Messenger, 22 Mar 1929
  • Oceania, 46, no 1, Sept 1975
  • Artefact, Dec 1980
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Mar 1929
  • R. Y. Mathew, John Mathew 1849-1929 (typescript, State Library of Queensland, copies held at State Library of Victoria and Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)
  • J. Mathew papers (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)
  • EDB/02 and /V2 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

M. D. Prentis, 'Mathew, John (1849–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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