Gill, William Wyatt (1828–1896)
by Niel Gunson
William Wyatt Gill (1828-1896), missionary, was born on 27 December 1828 at Bristol, England, son of John Gill of Barton Hill and his wife Jane, daughter of Richard Wyatt, yeoman. Nurtured in Kingsland Congregational Chapel, Bristol, he became a member at 14 and his thoughts turned early to the ministry. After three years at Highbury College, London, and a year at New College, University of London (B.A., 1850), he was discouraged from missionary work, but his eagerness to accompany Rev. Aaron Buzacott to the Cook Islands met with approval and in June 1851 he was accepted by the London Missionary Society. He was ordained at Spa Fields Chapel on 11 July and on 15 November arrived at Hobart Town in the mission ship John Williams. With Buzacott and Henry Hopkins he visited Launceston, Melbourne and Geelong on missionary work. On 23 November he reached Sydney where he met Mary Layman Harrison, a pious Anglican. According to Buzacott, he ‘had to run the risk of his neck to get her having had to go to the “Turon gold diggings” to get her Father’s consent’ before they were married by Dr Robert Ross on 19 December.
Gill worked at Mangaia, Cook Islands, in 1852-72 except for five months in 1858 at Rarotonga in charge of the institution for training native teachers and a visit to Sydney in 1862-63. In 1872 with Rev. A. W. Murray he visited the principal islands in Torres Strait and on 7 November landed the first teachers, including six Cook Islanders, at Kataw in New Guinea. In 1873 he sailed for England where he read to the Royal Geographical Society his paper ‘A Visit to Torres Straits and Mainland of New Guinea’. It was included with other articles in his Life in the Southern Isles; or, Scenes and Incidents in the South Pacific and New Guinea (London, 1876), a work that established his repute in mission circles. His more scholarly work, Myths and Songs from the South Pacific (London, 1876), published at the instigation of Professor Max Müller, did much to improve the missionary image among scientific workers. Gill resumed missionary work and was stationed on Rarotonga from April 1877 until he retired in November 1883 after his wife died in July. In December Gill went to Sydney and in January 1884 sailed to New Guinea with another party of Rarotongan teachers. In 1885 he published in London an account of this voyage in Work and Adventure in New Guinea 1877 to 1885, a work ascribed to James Chalmers and himself, and Jottings from the Pacific. Through the influence of Sir George Grey the New Zealand government had published his Historical Sketches of Savage Life in Polynesia (Wellington, 1880), which was revised for missionary readers as From Darkness to Light in Polynesia (London, 1894).
In Sydney Gill revised the Rarotongan Bible and in 1887-88 went to London to see it through the press with his second wife Emily, née Corrie (1843-1923), whom he had married on 10 June 1885. In 1889 the University of St Andrews conferred on him an honorary doctorate. He returned to Sydney and lived at Marrickville, dogged by ill health but still active in the scientific pursuits he loved. With Rev. Samuel Ella (1823-1899), a missionary colleague, Gill was prominent in the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and contributed to the journal of the Polynesian Society. He also published a pamphlet, The South Pacific and New Guinea, in 1892. Evangelical and humanitarian in outlook, Gill had conducted revival meetings in the islands and his reports on the Peruvian ‘slave trade’ did much to influence the British and French governments to take action. He died on 11 November 1896 and was buried in the Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his second wife and by seven of the ten children of his first marriage. His eldest daughter Honor was married to a missionary in Samoa.