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Watts, George Stuart (1899–1988)

by Ruth Teale

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

George Stuart Watts (1899-1988), clergyman, philosopher and educator, was born on 29 September 1899 at Lower Nambucca, New South Wales, fourth of five children of English-born Edwin Watts, farmer, and his wife Harriet Lavinia, née Stuart, born in Sydney. George described his father as ‘a general Anglican’ and his mother, of Highland Scots descent, as ‘a Calvinistic Presbyterian’. From 1905 to 1913 he attended Macksville Public School. Baptised and confirmed in the Church of England, he was briefly a lay reader in that church. In 1917 he became a local preacher at the Macksville Methodist church, noted for his ‘commanding voice and burning enthusiasm’ and ‘marked oratorical powers’.

To train for the Methodist ministry Watts entered Leigh College, Enfield, in 1918. The following year he was accepted into the Joint Theological Faculty attached to St Andrew’s College, University of Sydney, where he became a disciple of Professor Samuel Angus. Appointed in 1921 as the Methodist minister at Gulgong, in 1923 Watts began contributing to the Methodist. He married Ruby Watt on 12 March 1924 at Gulgong Methodist Church. Later that year he was appointed to Muswellbrook and, in 1927, to Uralla.

In mid-1927 Watts resigned ‘voluntarily’ from the Methodist ministry and briefly entered St John’s (Anglican) College, Morpeth. Made deacon on 16 October 1927 by Bishop W. F. Wentworth-Shields, he was appointed curate of Tamworth and was priested on 11 March 1928. In November 1929 he moved to the diocese of Grafton, as rector of Nambucca, and began contributing to the Church Standard, a weekly Anglo-Catholic journal based in Sydney. In 1933 he was named editor and given a general licence in the diocese of Sydney.

After 1935 his editorial policy, which he described as one of ‘progressive theological thought and Christian social justice’, became increasingly radical, and critical of the (Sir) Bertram Stevens and Joseph Lyons governments. In Sydney in 1936 he helped to found (and later abandoned) a Christian Socialist movement inspired by Bishop E. H. Burgmann. In March 1940, however, the politically conservative lay directors of the Church Standard summarily sacked Watts. Since 1934 he had preached frequently at the city Anglo-Catholic churches of St James and Christ Church St Laurence. When Dr Philip Micklem resigned from St James in 1937, Archbishop H. W. K. Mowll made the appointment of E. J. Davidson conditional upon his dismissing Watts. John Hope kept Watts on at Christ Church St Laurence, though the assistant clergy and congregation often tired of yet ‘another very intellectual address’.

In 1940 Watts returned to the diocese of Grafton as curate-in-charge of Casino. Appointed chaplain, fourth class, in the Australian Imperial Force on 6 January 1944, he served with the 104th Casualty Clearing Station in New Guinea from November 1944 to December 1945. Demobilised on 29 April 1946, he returned to Casino and tried writing for Tribune and Vestes. He claimed to have declined ‘high ecclesiastical preferment’ and to have been invited to apply for a chair in philosophy at a New Zealand university, on the basis of articles and reviews in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy.

Recommended by A. P. Elkin, in 1955 Watts was appointed part-time lecturer in comparative religion with the department of tutorial classes (from 1964 adult education) at the University of Sydney and, shortly afterwards, recommended by W. H. C. Eddy, he also taught popular classes in philosophy, first in the city, then at Roselands, Parramatta, Manly, Roseville and Wollongong. In 1956, with Eddy, he co-founded the Sydney Philosophy Club, of which he was later president. At this time he became a follower and friend of John Anderson. Watts published more than twenty pamphlets on theology, biblical criticism, comparative religion and philosophy. He also lectured for the Workers’ Educational Association. After Eddy’s death in December 1973, Watts’s position became untenable. He quarrelled with David Armstrong, Challis professor of philosophy, and D. W. Crowley, director of adult education. In 1978 Watts retired, but continued to write poetry and in 1982 published The Revolution of Ideas: Philosophy, Religion & Some ‘Ultimate Questions’.

Divorced in April 1976, Watts married Sadie Aileen Ghent, a parliamentarian’s electorate secretary, on 11 May at the Sydney registry of births, deaths and marriages; they lived at Neutral Bay. Though he continued to style himself ‘the Reverend’, he did not hold a licence in any Anglican diocese after 1947. Survived by his wife and the son and four daughters of his first marriage, he died on 28 June 1988 at St Leonards and was cremated. A handsome man, well read, with a fluent pen and a flaming temper, he was hampered by his want of formal qualifications.

Select Bibliography

  • L. C. Rodd, John Hope of Christ Church (1972)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Feb 1938, p 12, 7 Mar 1938, p 11
  • People (Sydney), 29 Mar 1950, p 17
  • B883, item NX202776 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Watts papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Watts file (Uniting Church Archives, North Parramatta).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'Watts, George Stuart (1899–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/watts-george-stuart-15846/text27045, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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