Mid-Victorian England supported more than 20,000 Established Church clergymen—perhaps twice this number counting ministers of Dissenters and various other unorthodox sects—so I’d expect to see a few in my tree.

And there are. One, on my husband’s side, married to Greg’s third great grand aunt, was a Methodist minister named Francis Tuckfield (1808–1865), who in early colonial times set up an Aboriginal mission near Colac, in Victoria.

Tuckfield was a Cornish miner and fisherman who at the age of 18 became deeply convinced of the truth of Wesley‘s message. In 1835 he was accepted as a candidate for the Ministry and, following two years training at the Hoxton Theological Institution, was selected to serve as a missionary to the Aboriginals of the Port Phillip District (from 1851 the colony of Victoria).

On 13 October 1837, less than a month before sailing for Australia, he married Sarah Gilbart (1808–1854), the daughter of a Cornish Copper Company (CCC) manager at the Rolling Mills at St Erth, Cornwall. They were both 29 years old.

In March 1838 the Tuckfields landed in Hobart, and in July crossed Bass Strait to Melbourne on the ‘Adelaide‘. Their first child, a daughter, was born at Geelong on 12 August 1838.

Tuckfield made several exploratory trips in the Port Phillip district looking for a suitable place to establish a mission station, employing, it is said, William Buckley as translator. Buckley was an escaped convict, now pardoned and appointed government interpreter, who for a time had lived with Aboriginals.

In 1839 Tuckfield chose a site for his mission near Birregurra, ‘kangaroo camp’, five miles east of Colac. Governor Gipps granted the mission 640 acres, a square mile, with a large boundary reserve to prevent settlers from encroaching on mission land.

Tuckfield’s Aboriginal mission, the first in Victoria, was named Buntingdale, in honour of the Reverend Jabez Bunting, who after the death of John Wesley had become the most prominent Methodist in England.

The tribes of this area were nomadic, which made Tuckfield’s work at a single settled place difficult, and though the mission site had been carefully chosen to be at the junction of three or four tribal territories, rivalry and intertribal conflict was common. The Colac tribe (Gulidjan) offered most hope of success and at times Tuckfield travelled and lived with this group.

In 1840, scarcely a year after the mission was established, a fire destroyed many of its buildings.

By 1841 Tuckfield had become convinced that mission work could be satisfactory only among tribes completely divorced from white settlement. In 1842, with Superintendent Charles La Trobe’s approval, he travelled to Echuca, near the junction of the Goulburn and Murray Rivers seeking a more suitable place a mission. However, neither the government nor the committee overseeing Tuckfield’s missionary endeavours favoured this idea. Many believed his missionary project had no hope of success.

Tuckfield continued at Buntingdale, keeping a small number of Aboriginals around him, attending to his school and gradually developing the area into a farming property.

The Birregurra experiment, however, was finally deemed a failure by the Victorian Government. In 1848 the site was abandoned, and in 1850 the mission grazing licence was cancelled. In 1851 the mission buildings were destroyed in the ‘Black Thursday’ bushfires.

The site of Tuckfield’s mission is now remembered with a small memorial cairn. The mission bell is housed in Christ Church, Birregurra.

Francis Tuckfield was afterwards appointed to a succession of churches, first in Victoria and later in New South Wales. On 6 June 1854 Sarah died at the age of 45 in Maitland, New South Wales. She and Francis had eight children.

In 1857 Francis remarried, to Mary Stevens (1823-1886). They had three children.

In 1864 Tuckfield was appointed to the Portland Church, Victoria. In the following year he contracted pneumonia after attending a funeral, and died on 21 October 1865. He was buried in the Methodist section of the Portland cemetery.

The entry for Tuckfield in the Australian Dictionary of Biography summarises his achievements:

Tuckfield was an able and zealous missionary with a gift for native languages; the failure at Buntingdale must fairly be ascribed to causes beyond his control. Later he showed himself to be a greatly loved and self-sacrificing pastor.

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