A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode

The Indomitable Mr Cotham


The Indomitable Mr Cotham – Missioner, Convict Chaplain and Monk

Joanna Vials

ISBN 978 085244 928 8

Gracewing Ltd



620 page paperback



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.

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