Project Canterbury

Charles John Corfe
Naval Chaplain--Bishop

By H.H. Montgomery

[London:] Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1927.

Chapter I. The Early Years--Ordination

Charles John Corfe was born in the Close, Salisbury, on May 14, 1843, and was the eldest son of Dr. C. W. Corfe, Mus.Doc., Organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. His father was a distinguished organist and composer, and all the sons were accomplished musicians. Indeed the family had a long musical ancestry! For example Joseph Corfe was an intimate friend of Handel, who one day wrote to him an urgent letter begging him to come up to London to be present at the first rehearsal of his new oratorio, "The Messiah." His mother was beautiful, and a deeply religious Churchwoman, associated with Dr. Pusey and many of the other leaders of the Oxford movement. The family lived in old Beam Hall, in Merton Lane; and those who know Merton College Chapel will be amused to learn that Charles' portrait, together with those of his mother and brothers, are painted on its ceiling, Pollen, one of the Fellows, a great friend of the Corfes, being the artist. Years afterwards Charles was amused to find that he figured aloft as a cherub. "I should have expected to find myself amongst the 'imps.' I assure you that then I was a horrid little creature and gave my parents an infinity of trouble."

When very young, he was sent to Lancing College, but was soon removed to a school at Langley. The following extract from Corfe's own account of those days, printed in the magazine of St. Michael's College, Tenbury, in 1918, not only recalls a forgotten piece of Church history, but is one more link in the musical traditions he inherited.

"No account of the early days of St. Michael's College, Tenbury, would be complete without a reference to its origin: for the church and college were a continuation rather than a beginning. For these we must look back to the disgraceful riots which disturbed the church and congregation of St. Barnabas, Pimlico, in London, of which the Rev. W. J. E. Bennett was vicar, about 1850. Sir Frederick Ouseley (a young deacon) was one of Mr. Bennett's curates, and the main supporter of the choir of St. Barnabas, whose surplices were the principal cause of the riots, Mr. Bennett resigned, and became Vicar of Frome. Sir Frederick ceased to be a curate, but saw in his vicar's resignation, an opportunity for carrying out a scheme which he had, even then, begun to think and pray about--a scheme by which he might devote to the Church of England his wealth and his musical talents. Taking a large country house, about a mile from Langley, Buckinghamshire, he transferred from St. Barnabas the boys of the choir and three of the men, who were willing to join him in the undertaking. At the same time he engaged the services of the Rev. H. Fyffe (a graduate of Oxford), who became responsible for all but the musical training of the boys, whose welfare in domestic matters was cared for by Mrs. Fyffe. In Lonehill House, a chapel and schoolroom (both detached from the house) were provided. In the former a good-sized organ was placed, and in this chapel cathedral services (morning and evening) were performed daily, except on Sunday mornings, when the boys walked to the parish church at Langley. When boys' voices broke, their places were taken by others, of whom, in 1854, I was one; the total number of (I think) twelve being always kept up.

"While this part of Sir Frederick's scheme was taking shape in Langley, the future warden of St. Michael's was looking about him for a suitable site on which to build his college. Whilst staying with the late Prebendary Joyce, Rector of Burford, a brother of his old college tutor, he was struck with the beauty of the Old Wood Common, in the neighbourhood of which he determined to buy land and then to build the church and college of St. Michael's, Tenbury, which have been a happy home for so many of us.

"And so it came about that my name (or that of my schoolfellow, Hugh Deane) was the first name in the register of St. Michael's College.

"Let me only add that in the spring of 1857 my voice broke, and I left the college until my return (as Assistant Master) in 1865.--Floreat Collegium."

It will be best to set down here his further association with Tenbury. The Principal, the Rev. E. H. Swann, writes: "He became in later years a Fellow of the College, and when the statutes were revised in 1921 and a Governing Body set up, he was elected a member of it. He left £50 in his will for me to spend as I thought best on some useful object either for the College, or chapel, or parish (the College chapel being also the parish church), and we spent the money on a Persian sanctuary carpet. After his death a sum of nearly £100 was subscribed, chiefly by the Fellows and 'old boys' of the College, and new oak fronts to the choir stalls were placed in the chapel to his memory."

From Tenbury College he passed on to Elizabeth College, Guernsey, spending there five very happy years. He gained many prizes, including one that was called the Governor of Guernsey's Prize, of the value of £10, much coveted, of course, by all and especially because it was to be conferred upon "the best all-round boy"--the boys themselves being the electors, There is not much more to tell about his schooldays. Writing late in life he says he was taken early in the 'fifties as a little boy by his mother to Swanage, "instead of to Madeira, where I was ordered by the doctor, who pronounced me weak in the lungs. No doubt I was taken to church, but of that I have no recollection--not even of the 'toast racks,' a delightful idea. The seats there are doubtless put together as close as the capstan bars on board ship when they rig church. Supported at each end by wash deck buckets they form the seats of the congregation, to whom kneeling is always a physical impossibility." [I hope no Swanage church will take this as a criticism on present-day customs.] Two remarks may be set down at once, namely, that Charles all his life bubbled with humour, and naval customs supplied him with inexhaustible illustrations.

In due time he went up to All Souls, Oxford. It seemed as if he was always to be associated with the musical profession, for on his staircase there lived a son of Samuel Sebastian Wesley. His chief Oxford friends were Professor Oxven, and one whose name was to become fragrant in Melanesia, Dr. Codrington. The only allusion to his Oxford career which I have discovered is in a letter written from Seoul in 1902, after receiving a photograph of the restored reredos at All Souls: "I cannot let your little gift come without a word of grateful reply. It is the only bit of All Souls that I have visible about my belongings. I owe a great deal to that place, both College and Chapel, and ought to have done more credit to it than I fear I did. It was nice to see my place in Chapel: for though you supposed you were sending me a picture of the reredos, had you known it you might have sent me this little card as a picture of the seat which for nearly all my undergraduate days I occupied, furthest east on the port (I mean the north) side. But you know there were none of those splendours in my time. The woodwork of the roof was completely concealed by canvas painted a sepia colour with gilt roses in the centres of the panels. As for the east end that, too, was entirely covered from roof to altar by a picture on canvas of the assumption of the founder, Archbishop Chichele, who was flying up to heaven in a big cope and mitre, being beckoned up by St. Peter who had a. pair of prodigious keys in his left hand, and welcomed by cherubic--very cherubic--hosts. These fat cherubs with their puffed cheeks always reminded me of little David Copperfield who, having heard of people who "played by ear," thought that the people must have been cherubs who had no bodies to speak of. And now I would like to be an undergraduate again and occupy my old seat in Chapel."

He took his B.A. in 1865 and his M.A. in 1869. On leaving Oxford he returned to St. Michael's, Tenbury, as an assistant master, being ordained Deacon in 1866 and Priest in 1867; but I can only give the facts and can find no details of interest to chronicle during so important a period of his life.

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