Old Collegians Rugby Union Club



Right Reverend Howell Witt

The Rt. Rev. Howell Witt joined Collegians in 1952 and played as half-back. He served two terms as Club President in 1956 & 1957, was an author, an actor, the Bishop of North-West Australia and the Bishop of Bathurst.

Howell Witt with 1928 Tourer

Rugby Association Dinner 28th July 1982

Howell Witt, Bishop of Bathurst here as a guest speaker at the Rugby Association Dinner pictured with the 1928 Rugby Tourer car used to collect him at the airport and to be given as a prize at the dinner.
Photo courtesy of the Adelaide Advertiser

From the dustcover of his book "Bush Bishop"

HOWELL WITT was born in Newport, Gwent, Wales, in 1920. He attended Leeds University where he obtained his B.A. After reading Theology at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, he was ordained in 1944 in the Church in Wales. He found himself in the unique position of having been baptised by the first Bishop of Monmouth, confirmed by the second and ordained by the third. Following service in England, where he played rugby for the renowned London Welsh team, he came to Australia in 1949 as the first Anglican chaplain to the Woomera Rocket Range. Sixteen years later he was consecrated the third Bishop of North-West Australia-the largest land-area diocese in the Anglican communion. In 1981 he was translated to Bathurst. Bishop Witt is married and has five children and five grandchildren.

From the Christmas, 1999 sermon by the Revd Dr Colin Holden of St Peter's Eastern Hill "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" ....... and as for human beings - the less said the better. In this context I have a particularly vivid memory of Howell Witt, that remarkable Welsh bush bishop in North West Australia, in a small timber country church addressing this very passage. As he strode up and down the tiny nave, he stopped to grasp the knotty arm of a farmer as if he were applying a torniquet, declaiming as he did so "The word became flesh, man, flesh'. The farmer looked as bemused or doubtful that this was really what God was about; as though he might have preferred not only that the bishop let go his grip, and also that God should not have too much to do with the world. That might have consequences.

More on Howell Witt:
MURRAY, James. Rollicking shepherd of an outback flock. Australian 17/7/1998
WITT, Howell. Bush Bishop. Adelaide: Rigby, 1979 (vi), (7)-237p.

The Obituary from The Australian of 17th July 1998

Howell Arthur John Witt
Anglican bishop.
Born Newport, Wales, July 12, 1920.
Died Fremantle, Western Australia, July 8, aged 77.

FEW Australian Anglican bishops have had as varied a career as Howell Witt, if only because the remote destinations of his Australian ministry were unlikely for the son of a Welsh dock worker.

He also had the openness that often goes with those from humbler castes in human society, and those who met him during his years as priest and bishop never forgot him. The countless stories about him have become legend, but none are apocryphal.
But it was the story of the Gospels that first engaged his interest and led him to holy orders. The call, a term he never disparaged, came to him as early as primary school and in his devout home he was encouraged to pursue what would become his life's saga.
After gaining an arts degree at Leeds University, he studied theology at the college of the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield.

In May 1945, he was ordained to the priesthood but showed no disappointment when he became curate in a tiny Welsh village called Usk, where he stayed for four years. It was always remembered joyfully as the place he met Doreen Edwards, his partner of more than 40 years.

His next appointment was to Camberwell in south London, which proved a great contrast. Already engaging the interest of those who heard him in church with his fund of ready witticisms, he showed he could also take things headlong when he played for the famous London Welsh rugby team. In physical appearance he had the nuggety posture of a ready worker.

In 1949, the call came again from an unlikely quarter: to be chaplain to the Experimental Rocket Range at Woomera in South Australia. The ministry there was also experimental, with a potpourri of people from different backgrounds and attitudes to regular church congregations. However, he was not fazed by the experience and found novel ways of communicating the Christian message there from 1949 to 1954.

He was also becoming known as a preacher of extraordinary colour and power, and staid Anglicans found themselves often convulsed by sermons that were rapid-fire and memorable. Where others might simply have developed a reputation as being entertaining, with him congregations always got the point in the context of laughter.

In the mid-1950s, he returned to a city parish. St Peter's College in Adelaide had supported a mission church in the heart of the city for many years and Witt was appointed missioner. He recognised, however, that the city was undergoing change. In 1957, he persuaded the college to allow him to move its focus to the new satellite town of Elizabeth.
It was when immigration was at its height. A migrant himself, he knew the difficulties of adjustment to a strange land. So Witt the innovator was in demand. There were no church buildings but he soon had the church brimming with enthusiasm -if in a different content as a kindergarten, a bargain market, a community theatre and a rock 'n' roll dance centre.
He was in his element, and his acting skills, which saw him on the boards with the Adelaide Repertory Company in Three Angels, came into full play. Meanwhile, services were held in houses and borrowed halls.

His rich singing voice led almost raucous hymn performances at times.
He always entered into them with an embarrassing zest. Not long before he died, the echoes of his favourite Welsh hymn, Cwm Rhondda, Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer, filled his unit.

In 1965 he found himself elected as bishop of north-west Australia, an area that accounted for nearly one-quarter of the continent. He also delighted in telling how Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was surprised to find the church service being conducted in the local police court, with the duke reading the lesson from the witness box.

As a bush bishop, he learned to dip sheep, helped in scouring water troughs, tried his hand at baiting crayfish pots and took to flying a plane -a feat that somewhat dismayed those with more conventional views of appropriate behaviour for bishops.
And he loved to tell the tale of the old bush character he had met who told him, "I always says me prayers in the scrub. Never been to church in all my puff, but I can pray in the bush, no trouble. When I gets bogged now, I prays to heaven and revs like hell." He also made personal dramas real, touching but humorous as well. A woman rang him one morning and announced, "I'm going to put my head in the gas oven now." He jumped into the car -and remembered halfway there that Elizabeth was the "AllElectric Town". 'so she'd have to take a train to Salisbury first!" Much laughter from the congregation.

He left the north after 16 years to become bishop of Bathurst in 1981. It was a different scene but the rollicking shepherd was soon at home again. But in 1985 he was involved in a near-fatal accident, which left him weakened. He struggled on until 1989.
His latter years, spent in a retirement village in Perth, were just as innovative and active. He regularly visited a group of the disabled, whom he encouraged to do creative writing.

The words of Cwm Rhondda, "Pilgrim through this barren land", were fitting, for he had spent so much of his life in barren lands, from the Woomera rocket range to the socially demanding town of Elizabeth, to the north-west.

He might also have had the last laugh.
He had been writing a Mills & Boon style novel, which was unfinished.
David Witt, in his father's tradition, suggested it was just as well. "I don't think the world is ready yet for a Mills & Boon cassock-ripper."

Howell Witt's wife died in 1983. He is survived by a brother, Leonard, five children and 12 grandchildren.

James Murray is The Australian's religious affairs writer.

The front dust-cover of "Bush Bishop", first published in 1979. A good read that can still be located in second-hand bookstores.

A reply to an invitation to be one of the club's vice-patrons, in 1974. This was when Howell Witt was the Bishop of North West Australia.

A reply to the invitation to attend the anniversary dinner in 1987. This was when Howell Witt was the Bishop of Bathurst. Note the flourish to the signature.

From 'The News' Thursday 19th March 1987

"Witt back for a bit of a chat,
By Karen Shaw

"One of SA's most popular Anglican clergyman, the Right Reverend Howell Witt, Bishop of Bathurst, is coming home to speak at a Rugby Union dinner.
The visit will be Bishop Witt's first to Adelaide since a car accident and close brush with death in 1985.

The controversial Anglican Bishop still has a wicked wit at 66, and enjoys a good laugh.

He has fully recovered from the accident in which he suffered leg, arm and internal injuries.

The former Anglican rector at Elizabeth was keen to speak at next month's dinner: he was a great rugby fan although "I don't even watch it on TV these days".

Bishop Witt came to Australia from Wales in 1949 to take up the Anglican chaplaincy to the former rocket range at Woomera. He spent 16 years as Bishop in Outback WA which provided sufficient humorous anecdotes to fill a book, Bush Bishop, which was issued in five editions.
He is now considering writing another book about his work."

From a fragment of a Tregenza Times most possibly early 1982:

"Eh! Old Collegians - C'est moi, Howell", De Witt
"I Shall Return!" - Howell McA Witt

"I Danced at their Wedding" - Howell Feld-Witt

"You fools, give it to me clean" - Howell Half-Witt

The above statements have all been uttered (rather foolishly) lately by one of this club's most distinguished graduates - none other than the current Bishop of Bathurst, the Rev. Howell Witt.
Among his other tricks was to write the whole of the club newsletter using assumed names (such as Feldheim and Van Gelder), very eloquently describing the goings on inside the "Mean Machine" during the early 60s.
Now the S.A.R.U. has chosen Howell Witt to be it's honoured guest speaker at the Golden Jubilee Dinner in July this year

From the 1982 dinner, a poem written and read by Ray Rosser on behalf of the Referees' Association:

The Rugby Ages of Hal Witt

UP north of Adelaide, where accents of the tongue,
Confuse Australian ears, when words are said or sung;
Where we love to play our Rugby, to keep ourselves fit,
And meet with friends or foes, like the Reverend Howell Witt.

He led his team of school boys, upon the Rugby field,
He tended all their injuries, and pronounced each one was healed, He even gave a sermon, to turn the cheek when hit,
And he said it with authority, did the Reverend Howell Witt.

While in his robes he ran the touch, in service to mankind, And he even blessed the ockers, who said that he was blind;
For he held high his flag, in principle to Holy Writ,
To serve those that were his, did the Reverend Howell Witt.

On referees' mistakes, he was the devil's advocate;
He'd subtly ask, "With that decision did you copulate?"
A parabolic nessage, not clear at first I must admit,
Until one thought colloquially, Oh! Reverend Howell Witt.

The Lord promoted him, from green pastures to a bishopric,
In effort to direct his paths, but thoughts on Rugby trick;
But even He could not contain him, from that band so closely knit, For he's with us once again, is the Bishop Howell Witt.

But why he never blew the whistle, we call on him to tell
Did he fear equality with God, or was it fear of Hell?
But on the Rugby fields of Heaven, I'm pretty sure of it, There'll be a referee. Good Lord! It's Archangel Howell Witt.

And crowds in Heaven will cheer, in joyful praise and song, Players, teams and referee, with voices loud and long
For no penalties occur nor judiciary councils sit;
Their only referee, is our beloved Howell Witt.

To Hal Witt,
With appreciation of his services to Rugby
On our 50th Anniversary of Rugby in S.A. 1932-82.