The Indomitable Mr Cotham: Missioner, Convict Chaplain and Monk

The Indomitable Mr Cotham: Missioner, Convict Chaplain and Monk

by Joanna Vials


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James Ambrose Cotham OSB (1810-1883) was a Douai monk of the English Benedictine Congregation, active as a missioner monk and colonial official in early colonial Tasmania, or Van Dieman’s Land as it was then called, and later as a missioner in England. When he arrived in Tasmania in 1835 local society was striving hard to shake off its despised reputation as ‘the sole gaol of England’ for transported convicts, and the social climate around his mission was one of hostility. Nevertheless, he was highly effective in working with transported convicts, especially women, despite inadequate resources from government departments and the personal antipathy of his Benedictine superior, Archbishop Polding of Sydney. At the start of his ministry in Tasmania he built Australia’s earliest Catholic parish church, St John’s in Richmond (later remodelled to plans provided by the English architect A. W. N. Pugin) On leaving Tasmania in 1851 Cotham returned to England and from 1852 to 1873 worked in the fashionable spa town of Cheltenham, which had a strong Evangelical tradition. In Cheltenham he used his mission to reconcile the aspirations of the rising professional class of English Catholics, predominantly converts, with the needs of alienated Irish immigrants, and he was responsible for building Charles Hansom’s Gothic Revival church of St Gregory the Great. Cotham had a reputation for simplicity and a direct and uncomplicated manner which today we might identify as a sign of personal integrity: these stayed with him throughout his life, as did his tenacity, humour, combativeness, and an intense dislike of rain. He remained close to his family, in Lancashire and Australia, withstanding the censure this brought from some of his Benedictine confrères when he used personal financial resources for their benefit. His brother Lawrence died as an ‘old colonist’ whose family had become thorough-going Australians within one generation. Making extensive use of his surviving papers, Joanna Vials’s new biography explores Cotham’s work in both Europe and the Antipodes, and by focusing on the wide reach of his life allows us insight into the interlocking relationships of family, religion and society in developing the spirit of an age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780852449288
Publisher: Gracewing
Publication date: 01/10/2019
Pages: 624
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.38(d)

About the Author

Joanna Vials read Philosophy at the University of Warwick. After living for a time as a Carmelite nun at Quidenham, she took a Diploma in Pastoral Studies at Birmingham University and then followed a career as a relationship counsellor. Since settling in Cheltenham with her husband in 2007 she has researched the development of the presence of the Catholic Church in the town and she currently serves on the Committee of the Cheltenham Local History Society.

Table of Contents


1 ‘I was known there by the name of Little Larry’.

2 Alma Mater

3 ‘The Most Neglected Portion of the Catholic World’

4 ‘You may calculate upon no little trouble with him’.

5 A miserable state of affairs

6 Hobart and Richmond, 1835–1838

7 Launceston, 1838–1844

8 ‘Ce Jeune Prètre Parle le Francais’

9 Widening Horizons

10 Teetotal Society

11 Lawrence and Sarah Cotham in Van Diemen’s Land.

12 New Regimes

13 Taking up the Reins

14 In his own words

15 HMS Anson.

16 Quid prodest?.

17 Fr Cotham’s Oratory

18 Convict Chaplains in the Sole Gaol of England

19 ‘When You Destroy Hope in Man You Destroy


20 Congenial Pursuits.

21 Interlude: Visit to Port Phillip, 1846

22 ‘The Sure Prospect’—Loosening the Ties

23 ‘Called To Go On Board’.


24 Return to England

25 ‘Cheltenham, resort of the good and the gay’

26 ‘I consider it is time we should bestir ourselves in good


27 ‘Numerous but Poor’

28 Appeals and Tenders.

29 Co-Worker and Friend.

30 ‘A Ceremonial of a Very Gorgeous Character’

31 ‘Cum Illo Benè’

32 School Report: Making Good Progress.

33 ‘Much yet remains to be done.’

34 ‘I hope you will withstand their rascality.’

35 Celebrating the Divine Service

36 The Congregation of the Daughters of the Cross of


37 Reluctant Guarantor and Landlord.

38 Family Business and Financial Acumen

39 Indefatigable?.

40 Looking Beyond St Gregory’s

41 Resignation from the Cheltenham Mission

42 Leaving Douai Again

43 The Final Mission

44 Enforced Quiet

45 The Spolia of Ambrose Cotham’s Life

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