Missionary James Mathers | State Library of New South Wales

James Mathers – Sydney City Missionary

The Sydney City Mission was founded in 1862 by an Englishman, Benjamin Short. When he arrived in Sydney, he was shocked at the poverty and living standards of many of its citizens. Like many other newly industrialised and urbanised cities of the 19th century, Sydney’s slums were teeming with people, many of whom had been attracted to the city by the prospect of work or the temptations of urban life. The Mission encouraged social reformers and evangelical missionaries – the sort of people who wanted to take messages of spiritual hope and offers of physical comfort to the homes of those in need. Sydney City Mission was one of the first of the city missions to minister to the residents of the slum areas. The city was divided into four districts and the Mission assigned a missionary to each area. The missionaries were required to make home visits totalling at least 30 hours per week and were also required to keep detailed journals. Their work included handing out religious tracts, reading to the sick and illiterate, sitting with the elderly and lonely and praying with people. They also dispensed for food, fuel, clothing and money – much of which was provided by wealthy benefactors. The missionaries referred those who needed it to other agencies who could provide shelter, work or education. They also encouraged the needy to improve themselves by signing a pledge of abstinence or regularly attending church meetings. The missionaries also conducted open air services and meetings.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Rocks area had been considered one of the worst slums in Sydney for almost 50 years. In the mid-1850s, W.S. Jevons, government statistician, wrote, ‘Nowhere have I seen such a retreat for filth as the Rocks of Sydney.’ In 1897, James Mathers, a immigrant from Scotland, took up work at the Sydney City Mission as the missionary to the Millers Point District, which included the Rocks. Mathers, who was born in Ireland in 1852, grew up in Glasgow. He worked for the Caledonian Railway Company and was a lay missionary in several city missions in the Glasgow area. Mathers and his family arrived in Australia in 1897, following his brother and sister who already lived in Sydney.
The journals Mathers kept as part of his missionary work were important documents. The Mission required that the journals be submitted regularly for review and extracts were used in the publication of the Mission Herald.

 > View selected extracts from the Sydney City Mission Herald

View selected extracts from the Sydney City Mission Herald

 In his journals, Mathers documents his daily experiences among the slum dwellers of the Rocks, commenting on their lives, their spirituality and their progress. The Sydney City Mission, although a Protestant evangelical organisation, was officially non-sectarian, so Mathers visited Roman Catholic, Jewish and Chinese alike, attempting conversion, but not demanding it. The Mission was unpopular with the local Catholic clergy, and Mathers had several clashes with Cardinal Moran, who called the Mission workers ‘well-paid wowsers’.

Mathers worked for the mission for 14 years. His initiatives, including the formation of a fife and drum band and free Sunday breakfasts for the homeless, encouraged up to twenty thousand people a year to attend the Mission’s evangelical meetings.
On March 30, 1911, two weeks after the final entry in his journal, Mathers had a massive stroke at one of his prayer meetings. He died a fortnight later.

 > Read selections from Mathers’ journals

Read selections from Mathers' journals