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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Powell, Walter (1822–1868)

by Renate Howe

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

Walter Powell (1822-1868), businessman and Wesleyan layman, was born in May 1822 at Tottenham, Middlesex, England, son of a merchant. In 1823 the family left by free passage for Van Diemen's Land where Walter received a poor education in a small school run by his mother. In 1834 he began work as a clerk for a Launceston merchant, leaving after three years to work for an auctioneer. Through the influence of his employer he attended Wesleyan worship services and became a member of the denomination after a revival conducted at Launceston by Revs William Butters and John Eggleston. On 4 March 1845 he married Anne Bell, his employer's daughter.

Powell left for Melbourne where he worked as a clerk. He was appointed a class leader at the Wesleyan chapel, Collins Street, and was also secretary of the Sabbath school at Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. In 1848 he visited England to order goods for establishing an ironmongering business in Victoria. On his return to Melbourne he joined in partnership with two other Wesleyans to form Whitney & Chambers, importers and retailers of hardware. The discovery of gold in the colony during 1851 and the consequent demand for goods made a fortune for the partners. Anxious to use his new-found wealth for the glory of God, Powell gave generous donations to the Wesleyans and to public charities, including the Wesleyan Immigrants' Home and the Melbourne Benevolent Home. Butters, chairman of the district, nominated Powell for most of the major Wesleyan committees and he became a member of the Financial District Meeting, the Education Committee, the Chapel Building Committee and the Wesleyan Grammar School Committee. In 1855 he helped Rev. Daniel Draper to establish a pension fund for clergyman and their wives.

During a visit to England in 1857 for business purposes, Powell ordered goods which were donated for a bazaar held to raise funds for the proposed grammar school. On his return to Melbourne, freedom from business commitments allowed him to devote even more time to church and public affairs. He resumed his committee responsibilities and was particularly enthusiastic for establishing the grammar school. He was organist and Sabbath school superintendent at the St Kilda Church and gave a generous donation for the building of a new chapel opened in 1858. He also gave books and money for opening a Wesleyan Book Depot.

In February 1860 Powell left Melbourne to live in London, where in 1861-68 he was a business partner of Henry Reed, a Wesleyan from Launceston. Although Powell was superintendent of the Sabbath school at Bayswater, he continued to influence affairs in Victoria and sent donations to Wesley Church, Melbourne, and the churches at St Kilda and Launceston. He was critical of the long delay in the establishment of the grammar school and while Draper was visiting England he helped with the choice of a headmaster. A generous donation from Powell enabled the school (later Wesley College) to be opened in 1866. He died at Bayswater on 21 January 1868, survived by his wife and a daughter. In church and public affairs he had displayed the energy and quick decision of a self-made man. He was pietistic, public-spirited and enthusiastic for the extension of education.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Symons, Life of the Rev. Daniel James Draper (Lond, 1870)
  • B. Gregory, The Thorough Businessman: Memoirs of W. Powell (Lond, 1871)
  • Wesleyan Chronicle, 23 Feb 1868.

Citation details

Renate Howe, 'Powell, Walter (1822–1868)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 28 September 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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