Missionary Ships' Papers

Scope and Content

The Missionary Ships' papers comprise: administration of missionary ships (minutes and extracts from minutes), 1841-1862; the records of the 'Triton' (ship's logs and papers), 1838-1847; the records of the 'John Wesley' (ship's logs and papers), 1845-1864; and other ships' related material, 1845-1864.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Polynesian mission stations received annual visits from vessels chartered by the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society for the supply of flour, groceries and other necessary articles. With the demand for additional missionaries increasing, the Annual Church Conference in August 1839 agreed to purchase a Missionary Polynesian ship. This was seen as a solution to the expense of sending more and more missionaries to the distant shores of Australia and the South Seas and maintaining adequate supplies. It was also part of the scheme that a missionary ship should be at the service of the General Superintendent to facilitate his visitations to the districts.

The 'Triton' was the first of these ships, a brigantine of 119 tons built in Bristol in 1837 and used in the sugar trade with the West Indies. The 'Triton' was purchased by the WMMS in March 1839 and required a number of alterations which included additional cabin rooms and replacement of nautical equipment. The 'Triton' sailed from Bristol on 14 September 1839, carrying eleven missionaries (and their families) and ten crew, all of whom had been chosen for their attachment to the Methodist Society and missionary interest. The 'Triton' arrived in Hokianga, New Zealand, on 7 May 1840 after brief visits to Cape Town, South Africa and Hobart, Australia. From 1840 to 1846 the 'Triton' made regular voyages around the New Zealand coast and to and from the Pacific islands, supplying the Mission Stations and allowing for the interchange of missionaries. As early as 1842 requests were made to dispose of the 'Triton' and procure a larger vessel. However, this was not considered necessary and instead alterations were made in order to obtain additional room for the stowage of goods. In 1845 the decision was taken that a new vessel was necessary, and the 'Triton' was sold by auction in April 1847 to a merchant in Auckland.

The replacement vessel was the 'John Wesley', built in 1846 to a specification approved by the WMMS and considerably larger that the 'Triton' at 236 tons. The 'John Wesley' left Southampton on her maiden voyage on 29 November 1846, arriving in Sydney on 19 March 1847. The 'John Wesley' continued in service until 18 November 1865 when she was wrecked on the Tau Reef near Tonga. Fortunately, all passengers and cargo were saved. A second 'John Wesley' was built, leaving Gravesend on 18 May 1867 and arriving in Adelaide on 5 Sep 1867. No records are available for this vessel.

A Ship Committee was appointed to oversee the purchase and outfit of the missionary ships, and to be responsible for their management; examining and approving the accounts of the vessel, and deciding on the appointment and tenure of the Master. The Ship Committee reported to the General Committee and met annually unless there was specific business to discuss. A prominent figure on the Ship Committee was John Irving, a Circuit Steward in the Bristol North Circuit in 1839. He purchased the vessels on behalf of the WMMS, and along with two or three others was registered as the ship owner. Not surprisingly, because of the distance involved, the widest and most persistent problem of the administration of the missionary ships was the distribution of control between the field and home. Power of Attorney was given to the General Superintendent, providing authority, within limits, to make local decisions on the management of the ship.

However, the missionaries in the South Seas and Australasia increasingly wanted to manage their own affairs. In 1822 an Australasian Methodist Missionary Society was formed as an auxiliary of the WMMS, which in 1855 became fully independent. In the same year the Ship Committee resolved that an arrangement should be made to transfer the missionary ship, with all its responsibilities and liabilities, to the Australian Methodist Missionary Committee.

Further Reading:

Buttle, Nora, The Voyage of the Triton (The Wesley Historical Society (New Zealand) Proceedings vol.22, 1965);

Findlay, G. G. and Holdsworth, W. W. The History of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society Vols. I & III (The Epworth Press, 1921);

Wesleyan Missionary notices, 1816-1904.


The documents have been removed from the original bundles and placed in the following arrangement: administration of missionary ships; records of the 'Triton'; records of the 'John Wesley'; other ship related material. The original order has been maintained as much as possible, to reflect the order in which the documents were microfilmed, therefore documents relating to similar topics may appear in more than one folder.

Access Information

Only to be viewed on microfiche.


Acquisition Information

The collection of archives listed formed part of a deposit (1978-1994) by the Methodist Church Overseas Division (the successor to the Methodist Missionary Society).

Other Finding Aids

Handlist available which includes brief biographical information on George Buck, John Irving and Walter Lawry.

Archivist's Note


Conditions Governing Use

For permission to publish, please contact Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library in the first instance

Copyright held by Methodist Missionary Society

Custodial History

The bulk of the material seems to have been the administrative papers of John Irving, which were transferred to the Methodist Missionary Society

Related Material

The General Committee minutes of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society will contain some brief information on policy decisions and financial outlay with regard to their missionary ships (MMS/Home/Minutes/General/FBN 2-3). It is also possible that some correspondence may also be extant regarding the commissioning and running of the ships (MMS/Home/Correspondence/FBN 5-15).

Wesleyan Missionary Notices ((SCRR) MMSL X15) includes accounts of the visits made by the 'Triton' and the 'John Wesley' to the mission stations in Australasia and the South Seas.

A couple of images of the ships can be found within file 2 of MMS/Australasia/Photographs/Box 1196b.

The records of the Australasian Methodist Missionary Society are held by the Mitchell Library, New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. These should contain information on Methodist missionary ships used in the South Pacific from 1855.