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Lancelot Edward Threlkeld was born in Southwark, London, in 1788 when his father and mother were respectively 29 and 27 years of age. While Threlkeld was as old as 32 when his father died in 1820, aged 61, and 43 when his mother died in 1831, aged 70, for some reason from the age of 7 he was raised by a female relative, probably an aunt.


While growing up he had three near-death experiences from a fall, illness and near-drowning. As a teenager he took up an apprenticeship to a trade, then when about 17 formed the idea of becoming an actor, and signed up with a circus and then a theatre company, and next made an unsuccessful attempt at business. He was aged 20 by this time, which is when in 1808 he married a local girl, Martha Goss.

After returning to the idea of the theatre without success, he went to a village in Devon, Hatherleigh, in far southwest England. This was to prove life-changing for there he met the Rev. C. Glasscott, an encounter that turned his mind towards spiritual matters seemingly for the first time, giving him a sense of purpose in life that never thereafter seemed to falter. He began preaching, and formed the idea of becoming a missionary, to the point of being accepted by the London Missionary Society (LMS). He duly went to London, then attended a Congregational seminary in Gosport near Portsmouth, finally being ordained on 8 November 1815 at the age of 27.

Image of Reverend Lancelot E. Threlkeld

Reverend Lancelot E. Threlkeld c. 1815, aged about 27


Instead of being assigned to Africa as had been first proposed, Threlkeld was sent to the South Sea Islands, leaving Portsmouth on the ship Atlas, with his by then pregnant wife, for that destination on 23 January 1816. Martha gave birth to a son while on board ship. The ship called in at Rio de Janeiro, and while there Martha became ill. Threlkeld made the decision to quit the ship and stay in Rio for his wife’s sake, but while she recovered the infant, William, died. This abandoning of the voyage brought Threlkeld into his first major clash with the LMS, the Society later communicating unsympathetically that he should have carried on with the voyage in fulfilment of his undertaking to save many souls, necessarily more significant in its view than a single soul only.

Threlkeld finally resumed the journey, leaving Rio on 22 January 1817 on the Harriet. The new ship took them to Hobart Town, arriving on 21 March, before continuing on to Sydney five weeks later, arriving on 12 May 1817. The next phase of the journey was on the Active, which called in at the North Island of New Zealand for a period, finally getting to the island of Moorea to the west of Tahiti on 17 November 1817, after 22 months’ travelling from England.

By September 1818 Threlkeld was on the island of Raiatea, still further westwards in the archipelago. He was to stay there six years, during the course of which the children Thomas (1817), Martha (1819), Tabitha (1821) and Mary (1823) were to be born.


Martha, Threlkeld ’s wife, died on 7 March 1824, provoking a change. Threlkeld with his son Thomas accompanied some members of a deputation from the LMS on a ship that eventually arrived in Sydney on 19 August 1824. His three daughters were left for the time being with friends in Raiatea. Threlkeld had had the intention of proceeding on to London, but this was not to happen.

While preaching in Sydney, notably at the Ebenezer Presbyterian Church at Cattai, near Parramatta, he resumed an acquaintanceship with Dr Thomas Arndell and family, and after a stay of two months in Sydney married Sarah Arndell, the doctor’s daughter, on 20 October 1824. This was only a day or so after he had been invited by the LMS deputation to consider a new missionary venture of evangelising the Aborigines. By agreeing to this Threlkeld marked a new milestone in his life.


Lake Macquarie Mission


The destination first considered for Threlkeld's mission was Moreton Bay, near Brisbane in Queensland. Eventually this was changed to Reid’s Mistake, Lake Macquarie—without the site having been inspected. An area of 10 000 acres was to be reserved for the mission, the aim of which was to instruct the natives and preach to them in their own language. There were two or three settlers only at the Lake at this stage, and as a consequence, Threlkeld was to stay in Newcastle while a mission site was identified and a house got ready. Threlkeld left Sydney by ship for Newcastle on reconnaissance in March 1825, and may have at this time tentatively picked out a site at Warners Bay, next to one of the settlers, Jonathan Warner. The Threlkeld family, his new wife Sarah and the four children somehow reunited from Raiatea, left Sydney on 7 May 1825 to make their home at Lake Macquarie after an initial period in Newcastle while the mission site was being prepared.

Extract from Threlkeld's map of Lake Mac

Extract from Threlkeld’s map of Lake Macquarie, 1827-33

BELMONT: ‘Bahtahbah’

It was not until September 1826 that they finally moved in at Bahtahbah, in what is now Belmont, some time having been lost when the first location at Warners Bay had to be abandoned after considerable labour because the soil was deemed too poor for the undertaking, as the map above shows. Here at last Threlkeld could set about learning the Aboriginal language, and begin evangelising the local population.


Threlkeld and family were to be at Bahtahbah for two-and-a-half years from September 1826 to April 1829, but matters had already begun to go wrong. How could the LMS in London know about the practicalities, and costs, of setting up a mission station on the other side of the world, in a setting still almost in a wild state, virtually without transport, roads or any facilities? What they could see, however, all too well were the financial claims being made upon them, side by side with the lack of any compensating information about progress in conversions to Christianity. The upshot was that the period at this new mission station was to be dogged by financial concerns expressed by LMS about the costs incurred by Threlkeld in establishing and running the mission.


This had become so pronounced that in March 1826, six months before Threlkeld was to move in at Bahtahbah, the LMS had insisted that its agent in Sydney, the Rev. Samuel Marsden, approve and countersign all bills drawn by Threlkeld on the Society (LMS), which at that time had grown to £900. A complicating factor was the time needed of around six months between transmission of a message and its receipt at its destination. It was this delay that accounts for the fact that it was not until November that year that Threlkeld was to respond by asserting that the mission could not be run at a cost less than £500 p.a., a notion rejected by Marsden. Matters were to deteriorate to such a pitch that Threlkeld was arrested on 15 November 1827, only to be rescued by Marsden personally clearing a debt on 26 March 1828, thus saving Threlkeld from imprisonment. But by this time the LMS had had too much, and on 21 April 1828 they resolved to close the mission, notifying Threlkeld of the fact in a letter dated 30 Mar 1828, which he was not to receive until 1 December 1828. Thus Threlkeld ’s period on the payroll of the LMS came to an end, although he was still to remain a member of the Society.


Threlkeld had become committed to the cause of the Aboriginal people in the area, and had made this known. Necessarily he had to move from the LMS mission, but on 18 August 1829 the N.S.W. Governor, Sir Ralph Darling, instructed the surveyor-general, Thomas Mitchell, to provide Threlkeld with a permit to mark out an area of 1280 acres at Puntei, the peninsula across the lake from Belmont (now Coal Point) for a new mission station. This came to pass, and once again Threlkeld had to have a house built for him, the site now being occupied by the Toronto Hotel, Toronto, marked on the map below. He named it Ebenezer, after the locality his wife Sarah [Arndell] came from. The government provided him with a modest annual subsidy of £150, and in return Threlkeld provided an annual report, which he did for the years 1831-41.

Threlkeld and family were to stay at Ebenezer from around 1829-41, about twelve years. There were occasional notable visitors to Ebenezer during that time. One of these visits took place from sometime in April to 2 May 1836, when James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, Quakers, stayed there; these two also visited Tasmania, where they obtained some wordlists.


Another couple were Lt Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition 1838-42, together with the expedition’s ethnologist, Horatio Hale, who produced the final volume in the 6-volume account of the adventure. Hale worked on a dozen or so languages that were encountered, which included, in Australia, both Awabakal (which he called Kamilarai, for which he drew on Threlkeld ’s work), and Wiradhuri. (Hale pp.471-531)

Map of Lake Macquarie showing Threlkeld'

During this time Threlkeld ’s many-faceted nature as a missionary, early settler, parent in a large family, student of language, and benefactor of Aboriginals acquired another dimension—for while at Ebenezer he was to find coal on his property, and undertook to work it, as the first such mine in the district. Coal deposits exist from Newcastle to Wollongong, and evidently at Puntei they were close to the surface. Threlkeld ended up with a small fleet of six vessels of between ten and fifty tons to transport it. He was forced to sell the Ebenezer Coal Estate in December 1844 owing to the financial failure of his eldest son, Joseph.

MISSIONARY: Protector, Interpreter, Evangelist

Threlkeld perceived his role as a missionary as having three aspects, as protector, interpreter and evangelist, and at Ebenezer he pursued these aims as best he could.


His efforts as protector were to prove to be virtually nought, for how could a lone missionary prevail against the prevailing tide of the times? In his Annual Report for 1838, on the subject of interracial conflict, he provided an insight into the extent to which the Aboriginal people came off second best:


On reference to the Minutes of Evidence Laid before the Committee of the Legislative Council, on the Aboriginal question, at page 44, the list given consists of fifteen Europeans killed by the aborigines from 1832 to the present year, 1838; a period of 6 years, making an average of three persons a year, who have unfortunately been deprived of their lives, whilst a secret hostile process has been encouraged and carried on against the Blacks by a party of lawless Europeans, until it gained confidence, and unblushingly and openly appeared, to the loss of upwards of five hundred Aborigines within the last two years! Including the numerous massacres of men, women, and children and the two or three hundred, said to be slaughtered in the engagement which, it is reported took place, betwixt the Horse police, commanded by Major Nunn, and the aborigines in the interior.


In the same Annual Report (p. 7), Threlkeld stated that his role as interpreter was carried out notably ‘In many cases which unhappily occurred at the Supreme Court, when several [Aboriginals] were transported and others hanged.’ Supreme Court cases at which Threlkeld acted as interpreter, often accompanied by the Aboriginal Biraban (M’Gill) included:

—R v Tommy (1827) [24 November 1827: Threlkeld attended with Bungaree]

—R v Boatman or Jackass and Bulleye (1832) [10 February 1832: Threlkeld attended]

—R v Jackey Jackey, alias Wong-ko-bi-kan (1834) [8 August 1834: Threlkeld attended]

—R v Monkey (1835)] [11 February 1835: Threlkeld attended]

—R v Mickey and Muscle (1835) [12 February 1835: Threlkeld attended]

—R v Long Dick (1835) [Long Dick, Jack Jones, Abraham, and Gibber Paddy, all Aboriginal Natives, belonging to Brisbane Water: 12 May 1835: Threlkeld attended]

—R v Murrell and Bummaree (1836) [5 February 1836: Threlkeld attended with M'Gill]

—R v Wombarty (1837) [18 November 1837: Threlkeld attended with M'Gill]


Other occasions when Threlkeld acted on behalf of the Aborigines:

—Case of Jack Congo Murrell [February 1836: Threlkeld provided written statements]

—Case of Charley, a native black {22 August 1835: Threlkeld attended – probably not Supreme Court]

—The Queen against Long-Jack an Aborigine For the murder of his wife. Sydney [1 May 1838: Threlkeld wrote a letter]


As evangelist, Threlkeld ’s achievements may be summarised as an unstinting and productive effort on the one hand and abject failure on the other.


The positive effort concerned his successful attempt to acquire the local language, later known as Awabakal, and producing the following writings concerning it, as summarised in the 1838 Annual Report (p. 7):

Threlkeld's failure as a missionary was that over the entire period of his residence at Lake Macquarie, and in spite of his exertions, not a single Aboriginal accepted the Christian faith. The likelihood of turning this situation around  diminished, rather than improved, day by day, owing to the ever dwindling numbers of Aborigines at Lake Macquarie. This collapse in numbers of the target group was due to the overestimation of the population at the outset, the gradual translocation of the natives to Newcastle, and finally deaths, so that by 1841 there were effectively none left to convert. The NSW Government, which had supported the Ebenezer Mission since 1829, determined that it close at the end of the year 1841, so during that year Threlkeld and family left Lake Macquarie for Sydney.

SYDNEY 1841-59

Threlkeld continued his work as an ecclesiastic in Sydney in the following capacities:

1842    South Head Congregational Church, Watsons Bay

184x    Started school at South Head with money from wife Sarah (Arndell)’s bequest

1845    Took up a position with the Bethel Union Chapel for seafarers, in Erskine St, Darling Harbour (this moved in 1851 to Circular Quay east)


At 10 April 1857 Threlkeld was living at 8 Premier Terrace, William St, Sydney

In 1859 a new Mariners Church, an initiative of the Bethel Union, was begun, with Threlkeld in charge.


All the while Threlkeld maintained his interest in the language of Lake Macquarie, he was in the throes of compiling a lexicon, or list of all the words used in his translation of St Luke’s Gospel, getting as far as the letter ‘m’, the work being published in the 1892 compilation of his work by John Fraser. At the abrupt end of the list there is the following message: ‘NOTE.—This Lexicon is incomplete; the author was working on it at the time of his death.—ED.’

Threlkeld died on 10 Oct. 1859, aged 71.

Jeremy Steele 24 November 2017




CHAMPION, B. W. (1939) Lancelot Edward Threlkeld—his life and work—1788-1859. Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society, XXV (iv-v), 279-329; 341-411

HALE, H. (1846a) The Languages of Australia. United States Exploring Expedition: during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1842 under the command of Charles Wilkes, U.S.N. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., Lea and Blanchard

RAVEN, M. (1992) Rev. Lancelot Edward Threlkeld.  < cultural%20collections/pdf/raven-threlkeld1992.pdf>

THRELKELD, Lancelot Edward. 1892. An Australian language as spoken by the Awabakal, the people of Awaba or Lake Macquarie (near Newcastle, New South Wales) being an account of their language, traditions and customs / by L.E. Threlkeld; re-arranged, condensed and edited with an appendix by John Fraser. Sydney: Charles Potter, Government Printer


Information about Threlkeld acting as interpreter at the Supreme Court:


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