DYER, Alfred John (1884-1968)

Keith Cole

DYER, ALFRED JOHN (b. Melbourne, Vic, 17 Feb 1884; d. Austinmer, NSW, 6 April 1968). Anglican clergyman and CMS missionary.

He was the son of a nurseryman and at an early age became very interested in gardening. After limited schooling he worked as a salesman in Fitzroy. His offer for missionary work with the CMS was received with caution, as he was an unusual person, enthusiastic but erratic dynamic yet unpredictable. Accordingly he had to prove himself as a missionary candidate by working as a stipendiary lay reader in the dioceses of Gippsland and Wangaratta. Finally he was accepted in Mar 1915 to work at the CMS Roper River Mission in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, which had been started in 1908.

Dyer worked at the three CMS missions in Arnhem Land for the next nineteen years. On 24 May 1917 he married Mary Catherine Crome who had been working as a nurse under very difficult circumstances at the Roper Mission since August 1913.

In 1916 Dyer joined the Rev H E Warren, the newly-appointed Superintendent, and made several journeys of exploration on the East Arnhem Land coast and Groote Eylandt with a view to setting up a 'chain of mission stations' in the area. During the next few years the CMS planned to start the first mission of this 'chain' at the mouth of Rose River (now Numbulwar), but nothing came of the proposal. In June 1921 he was a member of Warren's party which founded the CMS mission on Groote Eylandt. He and his wife spent the next two years erecting the buildings for the new mission which from 1924 housed the half-caste children brought over from the Roper Mission. Dyer and his wife founded the CMS Oenpelli Mission in Western Arnhem Land in 1925. Oenpelli had been the home of the stockman, Paddy Cahill, which later became a Commonwealth-sponsored experimental veterinary station. They established a typical mission station, with church, school, dispensary, garden and store, to which they added pastoral work with feral cattle and horses, which were running wild throughout the surrounding plains. Before long several hundred Junwinjku-speaking Aborigines moved in from their tribal homelands, and began to settle at the mission.

Dyer was deaconed on 15 May 1927 at Christ Church, Darwin and priested in Moore College Chapel, Sydney, on 1 May 1928.

In 1933 he joined the Rev H E Warren and D H Fowler as a member of the CMS Peace Expedition which persuaded the Aboriginal killers of five Japanese at Caledon Bay in 1932, and the killers of Constable A S McColl and F Traynor and W Fagan on Woodah Island in 1933, to go to Darwin and give themselves up to the authorities to prevent a threatened massacre by a police punitive expedition. Together with Fred Gray, he took the killers to Darwin in Gray's Oituli. At the trials the excitable and overwrought Dyer made several strange outbursts against Aborigines which quite clearly were out of character. Nevertheless he spent many months in Darwin, standing by the Aborigines when they were convicted and with Tuckiar, when he was sentenced to death for killing Constable McColl. When Tuckiar's conviction subsequently was quashed and he was freed, Dyer was scheduled to meet Tuckiar to take him back to Arnhem Land, but the Aboriginal disappeared and was never seen again.

Dyer and his wife were recalled South soon after his return from Darwin. He was utterly worn out and she was suffering from cancer. While in Sydney they resigned from the Society and he became rector of Guildford, NSW. Mary Dyer died there on 26 Feb 1940. She had been a strict yet loving person who had given herself without reserve in promoting the welfare of Aboriginal people.

Dyer continued in his ministry at Guildford after her death, then at West Wollongong and finally at Austinmer. He retired in 1949, when he remarried. He died at Austinmer on 6 Apr 1968 as the result of a motor accident. At the funeral the Rev Ralph Ogden, a life-long friend, said, 'It is a well-nigh impossible task to bring out in print Alfs strange personality—so dynamic, yet in many ways so erratic, contradictory and elusive. I have always thought of him as a great man—great leader, a great saint and a great writer—it was somehow all there, though always so strangely shackled and frustrated by his chronic incoherence of expression'.

Keith Cole, Oenpelli Pioneer (Melbourne, 1972)



Electronic Version © Southern Cross College, 2004

Content © Evangelical History Association of Australia and the author, 2004