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William Williams



The Early Years


William Williams was born on the 18th July 1800, some time after the family had settled in Nottingham. From there, Henry’s younger brother followed an altogether different, and more measured direction – at least until their paths merged in later life. The details of William’s early years are less well known than Henry’s, partly because the latter participated in events that were widely recorded and illustrated in the historical literature, and can be tracked through naval records.


After the death of their father early in 1804 – William scarcely knew him - the family remained in Nottingham in the hope of maintaining the business, which failed in 1809. Here William attended a school run by the mother of Henry Kirke White, a Nottingham poet.[1]  After 1809 they moved to Southwell, near Nottingham, where he attended the Southwell Grammar School [2] and his mother had established a dame school in what remained of the Bishop’s Palace. It was not always usual for children of non-conformist families to attend a school – in this case close to the Southwell Minster – linked to the establishment church. In this case proximity must have overcome any objections.[3]


Following his schooling he was apprenticed to a Mr Robert Forster, a Southwell surgeon.[4] William’s surgical apprenticeship with Mr Forster appears to have been a live-in arrangement that would last some years – we can guess at around five as this would be the expected term.[5] The years of William’s surgical apprenticeship are unenlivened by detail, perhaps because his daily activities were not things that sat comfortably in letters to family, although he was close enough to make visits to his mother and his sisters at Southwell.


Although he completed his surgical apprenticeship he was now dedicated to a life in the Church, and in 1821 he entered Magdalen Hall,[6] Oxford, with the support of the Church Missionary Society. Without their support he would have been unable to afford his attendance. His family background, and the persuasive presence of Edward Marsh, probably helped steer him in this direction- just as had happened with his brother, Henry.


In those days Oxford and Cambridge were favoured for theological training and a preliminary degree was considered necessary for Anglican clergy. He completed a BA in Classics in 1824, and in the same year was ordained deacon, and then priest.[7] His period at Oxford was without incident, and reflected his serious nature and preoccupation with study and religious matters. His contacts there were more likely to have been associated with the Oxford branches of the Church Missionary Society or the British and Foreign Bible Society, rather than with the more boisterous students from privileged backgrounds.[8] He can be said to have been devout, given the character accorded him by fellow students:  “ if any one wished to go to heaven he would be safe if he kept hold of Williams’ coat-tails”.[9]


It is likely that at Oxford he encountered the Reverend William Buckland, the geologist and palaeontologist, with whom he later corresponded when in New Zealand. It is even possible that William, given his medical and related interests, attended some of his lectures. It was a time of some controversy as accounts of biblical events were being challenged by new theories and discoveries, and Buckland was caught up in the evolving debate.


Frances Porter, who edited The Turanga Journals, notes in an introductory history that letters from William Williams’ Oxford period are few.[10] It probably has more to do with his studiousness and single mindedness, than it reflects on family relationships, but his mother on several occasions berated him for not writing to her. The situation improved after he went to New Zealand.


A period at the CMS training school followed in 1825, along with a fund-raising tour for the Society in July that year. At some point during this period it was said that “he walked the London hospitals”. Here he may have learned the techniques of smallpox vaccination, which he later applied in New Zealand. Although there is no evidence that he was ever licensed as a surgeon, this experience, no doubt encouraged by the CMS, would later be of great value.[11] [12] [13] This, his last year in England must have been a very busy one as, on receiving short notice of their departure, he married Jane Nelson on 11 July,1825, and sailed for New Zealand a month later on the Sir George Osborne.

[1] Headland, E. !895, Brief Sketches of C.M.S Workers, No. XXII, The Right Rev. William Williams, D.C.L. James Nisbet & Co. London, p.2.

[2] Associated with the Southwell Minster. In the early 19th C fees were charged. As it took pupils under the age of 12 he may have gone there immediately after their move to Southwell. The Master then was the Rev. Henry Kempson, MA, but it appears he was not a success and he resigned in early 1812, to be replaced by the Rev. James Foottit, BA. The School was built as a large room in 1791, on a vacant piece of ground. P. 196, A F Leach, in The Victoria History of the Counties of England . The History of Nottinghamshire v. 2, W. Page, ed. Constable & Co., London. Also, p. 127, Shilton, R P, 1818. The History of Southwell in the County of Nottingham, its Hamlets and Vicinage. S & J Ridge Newark.

[3] Non-sectarian schools were established by non-conformists under the auspices of the British and Foreign School Society and grew in the early 19th C.

[4] Forster was elected a Fellow of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society of London in 1817.

[5]  We know that his mother, Mary, wrote to William at Mr Forster’s in July 1820, so if we assume he went straight from school around 1817 and stayed until he went to Oxford (1821) that would cover the necessary period (five or six years was normal for a surgical apprenticeship). (, Hospitals and Medical Schools, Brief History During The Snow era, 1813-58) – Forster insisted that he finish his apprenticeship before taking his degree, according to Hedland, E, 1895, loc. cit., p.4.

[6] Later Hertford College, and not to be confused with Magdalen College.  According to Forster, J, 1888-92, Alumni Oxoniensis. The members of the University of Oxford, 1715-1896, he matriculated (ie was registered at the university) on 2 June 1821. This is earlier than the frequently recited date of 1822. There he was under the care of Dr John Macbride, a deeply religious evangelical scholar. New buildings were being completed as he entered, the previous ones having been destroyed by fire after an undergraduate supper party (Salter, HD, Lobel, MD, 1954, History of the County of Oxford: v.3, Oxford University).

[7] Classics was then the core of an Oxford degree, and would have been regarded as essential background for those going into the Church. The Church wielded considerable influence and several of Oxford’s leading scholars were churchmen.

[8] Porter, F, 1974, loc. cit., pp.22,23.

[9] Headland, E, 1895, loc. cit., p.5.

[10] Porter, F, 1974, The Turanga Journals, 1840-1850, Letters and Journals of William and Jane Williams Missionaries to Poverty Bay, Price Milburn and Victoria University Press, Wellington

[11] We should recall that his training occurred in the years before microorganisms were established as the cause of disease, before the use of antiseptics, and the discovery of antibiotics. There were some remedies-herbs, opiates, and chemical compounds such as Epsom salts - and vaccination against smallpox was already being practised (this last was introduced in New Zealand by William to good effect). Although the stethoscope was already in use, diagnostic tools were limited. Surgeons were experienced then in amputations, removing tumours and growths, and setting bones. Cupping was still practised. Within the scope of contemporary treatments, palliative care was probably most important. See also Porter, F, 1974, loc. cit., p. 33.

[12] Headland, E, 1895, loc. cit., p.5

[13] Headland, E, 1895, loc. cit.,  p.5 is the source, and she also says he left College before he had “taken” his degree. This is not correct – or may simply mean to say that it was not yet awarded - as he is listed among the graduates of Oxford University with a BA (awarded 1825) in Forster, J, 1888-92, Alumni Oxoniensis. The members of the University of Oxford, 1715-1896. He was granted an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree by Oxford University, in 1851.





Silhouette of William Williams c. 1824-25

Photo from Rev. J S Williams.

Surgical instruments from the

period of William’s training.


Magdalen Hall, Oxford.

A caricature by James Gilray, 1802, on the subject of vaccination (against smallpox) with “The Cow-Pock”.

A caricature by James Gilray, 1802, on the subject of vaccination (against

smallpox) with “The Cow-Pock”.

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