Project Canterbury

Charles John Corfe
Naval Chaplain--Bishop

By H.H. Montgomery

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

Chapter II. His Naval Career

Whilst Corfe was at Elizabeth College he had determined, by some means or other, to associate himself with the Navy, stimulated thereto by his cousin, J. H. Corfe, then in the school, and a few years his junior, J. H. Corfe became a middy--Charles being too old, bided his time. I may say in passing that these two were life-long friends, in closest intimacy, and no one has been of greater assistance for the compilation of this memoir than Charles' old school fellow and relative, now Captain J, H. Corfe, R.N. In 1867, Charles saw his way clear and was gazetted a Naval Chaplain and posted to H.M.S, Doris. It will be convenient if I set down at once his full naval record of service.

Served in H.M.S. Doris, N. America and W. Indies, 1867-69; Inconstant, channel and detached squadron, 1869-72; Cambridge, Devonport, 1872-73; Victor Emanuel, Cape Coast Castle (Ashanti War Medal), 1874; Audacious, China, 1874-79; Royal Naval Barracks, Sheerness, 1879-81; resigned commission as Naval Chaplain 1881; chaplain to Bishop of N. China, Chefoo, 1881-83 'restored to the active list with original seniority by Order in Council of November 6,1883; Devonport Dockyard,1884; H.M.S. Minotaur, channel squadron, 1884-85; R.N. Div. Chatham, 1885; H.M. Dockyard, Malta, 1885-86; H.M.S. Alexandra, 1886-88; H.M. Dockyard, Portsmouth, 1888-89; placed on retired list at his own request, September, 1889.

Was there ever a chaplain in the Navy so exactly fitted for his vocation as Charles John Corfe? It seems to me that no post for a man in Holy Orders is so completely lived in the limelight. There is no privacy. The chaplain's real life and character are being watched all the time by those who are not only most shrewd judges of men, but also nourish a very high ideal, albeit unspoken as to the life expected from a man of God.

Those who stand the test become of course a mighty means of grace. No one could ever have stood it better than Corfe. I am not aware that he was a preacher in the ordinary sense; but it is certain he won all hearts by his selfless, simple, consistent bearing, coupled with his ceaseless devotion towards every member of the ship's complement. He took to his heart at once the whole service, from the admiral to the youngest boy on the lower deck. In 1897,1 was driving with him through London in a hansom, talking freely. Suddenly he was silent; presently he said: "I beg your pardon, but did you see those two bluejackets on the pavement?" Several have told me that, when walking with him he would rush across the street to accost any sailor in naval dress, just to learn who he was. I can hardly hope to express adequately Corfe's devotion to the Navy, and the response of the Navy in return. I cannot help calling it unique.

It will be unnecessary in so short a memoir to divide his experiences among his various ships: I will just put together details grave, and also gay. Corfe would not have been the success he was had he not perpetually enjoyed the humours of life.

The fun began almost at once. His cousin supplies the following: "Charles was supposed to suffer from a weak chest, and the doctors advised a beard. In those days, of course, officers and men were only allowed to wear side whiskers; so a dispensing order was obtained from the Admiralty permitting him the privilege. On joining the Doris his irate Captain nearly had a fit when Charles reported himself with a full and flowing beard and moustache. Corfe, however, was equal to the occasion and had come prepared for the outburst. Putting his hand into his pocket he produced the Admiralty permit. This did not, however, soothe the irate Captain, who saw his chance and said: "This says nothing about a moustache; go down at once and shave it off." In due time the Doris sailed for the American station, and on arrival at Halifax they found that Mr. Ward Hunt had become First Lord of the Admiralty. One of his first acts being to grant to the Navy the boon of permitting officers and men to wear beards and moustaches, but with the proviso that it was to be 'all or nothing'--no fancy combinations. So he grew his moustache, otherwise he would have been out of uniform."

"Corfe's messmates often told me how they used to 'rag' him by coming into his cabin and saying: 'I say, padre, where is your bed?' It was his custom to roll the bed up, and put it away in the corner and sleep on the bare sacking. Another naval friend said he slung a hammock in his cabin so as to have it clear in the day-time for meetings and opportunities of quiet for the men. Another, now an admiral, writes: "I was at Sheerness for a few months before going to sea in the Tourmaline, one of Lord Clanwilliam's flying squadron, 1880-2, Corfe was Chaplain of the barracks then, and was most kind to me as an unfledged youngster; and with others I was an honorary member of his rooms, and he introduced me to residents and friends. He had an extraordinary influence, not only with the officers but with bluejackets of all kinds--good and bad. He was so thoroughly human and understood men and got hold of their confidence." To illustrate these last words I insert the following letter from Corfe to a friend:

"When I was first appointed to the Navy as Chaplain I was sent to the West Indies, and in those days the punishment of flogging was very common, and one of the first things I remember was that I was called up with the rest of the crew to witness the flogging of a sailor. He was a great strapping fellow, and the Captain said to him before the flogging commenced, 'now you will quite understand that if I have any more of your insolence you will be flogged again.' The man said nothing, and was tied up to be flogged, and the quartermasters were told to do their duty, the man having been ordered 'fourbag,' that is to say, each quartermaster kept a cat-o'-nine-tails in a bag, and the cat became somewhat worn after a dozen strokes had been given, and the punishment was then continued by three other quartermasters in succession; that is to say, the prisoner was to have four dozen.

The man was terribly punished, but bore it without a murmur until the last stroke was given, when he turned round to the Captain and said, 'domino,' which in naval phraseology means 'scored off you old man,' or to that effect. The Captain therefore said "you will be punished again," and turned to the doctor and told him to report when the man was fit for punishment. The Captain then sent for me and told me that there was much more punishment going on than he cared for, and that I must go to the man and see what I could do. I felt the hopelessness of the position: here was I a raw chaplain asked to go and interview a great big insubordinate sailor. However, there was nothing to be done but to obey orders, and after about a fortnight I got the man to unwillingly say he was sorry, and I so reported to the Captain. In due course the doctor reported the man as fit for punishment, and all hands were ordered on deck. It was necessary for the Captain to write out a warrant in connection with each punishment, and when we were all assembled he took the warrant and he said, 'there is a new Naval Chaplain come on board and we are not going to have so much punishment in the future as we have in the past.' He then tore the warrant in half and said,' take the man down, there will be no punishment to-day.' To my dying day I shall never forget the ringing cheers of the crew. I may add that the man who was punished turned out, in the end, extremely well."

Corfe was in the West Indies when the earthquake occurred which submerged the island of Tortola, and the Doris was sent to the relief of the survivors. When later he was on the Inconstant he passed through the storm in which the Captain was lost. Inconstant was sailing in line next behind the Captain and must have passed over her as she sank. But the heavy gale and the darkness prevented anything being known of the disaster till daybreak, when a signal was made to search for her. Inconstant being the fastest ship was ordered to take the news to England at top speed, and though the gale continued heavy gun drill was carried out.

Later again, Corfe was in the Victor Emanuel, the hospital ship on the West African Coast during the Ashanti War, and received the medal and clasp. Again, when he was appointed to the Alexandra, the flagship of H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh, his musical talents were much in request. I may as well here record his intimacy with members of the Royal Family--associations which were continued on most affectionate terms till the day of his death. Their Royal Highnesses Prince Edward and Prince George were middies on the Alexandra when Corfe was the chaplain. King George and Queen Mary have always kept a warm place in their hearts for one of the most unassuming and devoted of men. With members of the family of the late Duke of Edinburgh he kept up a close correspondence after his Maltese life. It was, however, like him to leave instructions that his correspondence with Royal Personages which he had preserved should at his death be suppressed.

He had a daily Celebration on his ships, his cabin was always open, and when he could, he held prayer meetings. It is almost needless to state that he kept up his friendships with those who had served with him as boys, his correspondence with all parts of the world being very large. After his death a tin box full of letters was discovered, but there was a hole in it and sea water had reduced its contents to pulp. Many of us would have liked to have burrowed into those confidential and intimate relationships.

The Book of Private Prayer for Seamen and Mariners Afloat (S.P.C.K.) is the title of a little book lying before me breathing intensity, compiled by Corfe in 1878. Whether it is in use still I know not. It opens with delightful advice most applicable to life at sea. The headings, page after page, are delightful. Prayers, when outward bound, homeward bound, on commission to a ship, on joining a ship, on paying off, in an unhappy ship; prayers after sinning, and when not found out, and again when awaiting punishment, in cells or in prison. Prayers for officers--petty and non-commissioned officers, masters-at-arms, ship's corporals, for boys, for a sentry going on guard. Helps for Holy Communion, of course.

The following letter, written more than twenty years ago by the Chaplain of H.M.S. Inconstant, was given to W. R. M. (boy 1st class) on the occasion of his taking his first "trick" at the wheel after joining the ship. W. R. M. is now, we trust, in the "haven where he would be." He became a ship's corporal and master-at-arms. The latter rating he held in H.M.S. Atalanta--a ship which never reached her port, as all may remember when they look at the beautiful East window in the Dockyard Chapel at Portsmouth and read the touching inscription on the wall beneath it.

Ships have changed much since that day. But they have still to be steered, and the letter is printed in the hope that some of the deeper lessons underlying all the ordinary actions of a man-o'-war's routine may be brought closer home to seamen of the present day:

"Dear Lad,

Whilst you are at the wheel--your first wheel--I am thinking of you and have been saying for you to God, "Prevent him, O God, in all his doings with Thy most gracious favour, and further him with Thy continual help, that in all his works begun, continued and ended in Thee he may glorify Thy Holy Name and, finally, by Thy mercy obtain everlasting life." You see, your first wheel is furnishing me with thoughts, which, as I cannot speak them to you, I am writing down. Surely you don't think me foolish for praying to God that He may be with you in such a work as steering the ship. If we pray that He may go before us in all our doings, if we pray that we may begin, continue, and end every work in Him, surely this two hours work of yours this morning is one in which we may look for an answer to this prayer. Can you not see, dear lad, that to do our work willingly, as to God, faithfully and thoroughly as before God, is a very-high privilege? To think that we poor sinners can please the good God by doing our little duties in Him and for Him and to Him--out of love to Him and for His sake. Besides, I have been thinking of something else. How the attention which you ought to pay to steering should be carried into every other matter. Is not your life the ocean and heaven your port? Have not you got the steering of another ship--your body I mean, to look after? O my dear lad, keep your eye on the compass, keep your ship on her true course.

And then, too, you are not alone at the wheel. You are not steering by yourself. You are helping the other three. Doubtless you consider yourself the weakest and most ignorant helmsman there. Yet you are helping to keep the ship on her course. And so can you help others to keep their course. Young and weak as you are, you can yet help Jem and Fred and Wyrill--and many another perhaps, to sail on the course which brings us to our Heavenly Home. You can help them by letting them see how much in earnest you are in keeping the true course--how attentive you are to your duties as helmsman.

Again, you can help them by pulling with them--not against them. I hear the tiller ropes now and I know that whichever way the weather helmsman has turned the wheel you have helped him by turning it the same way. What good would you do, indeed, if you tried to turn it the opposite way? So you may help others by pulling together with them--so long as they are keeping the right course. And supposing they do not keep the right course--what then? Why, then you must pull against them and pull them into the right course again. You ask me how you shall do this by yourself--so weak, so young, so inexperienced? My dearest lad, in the answer to this question lies the whole secret. You shall do it and prevail by Him Who is preventing you in all your doings. So long as you begin and continue anything in Him you shall succeed. Nay, He will cause you to succeed. A little one shall become as a thousand. He will strengthen your hands, give wisdom to your mind, courage to your heart, earnestness to your feet.

For, after all, He is the true Helmsman, and so long as you keep the right course with Him, dear lad, He will enable you to do all things, little and great, for yourself and for others according to His Holy will.

And now pray for me that I who have prayed for you may not myself become a castaway.

Believe me your faithful,


But also those who knew Corfe at sea often heard his infectious laughter. No one was more quick to see the humorous side. Consequently it is not surprising to hear that he knew his Dickens from beginning to end.

On Board the "Anson" Flagship.

"Yesterday I had a very novel and exciting experience. Asked to preach on board the Queen, 1 went on board and found every preparation made to do me honour (he was Bishop then). It was the Feast of the Purification: the text, 'This is our God; we have waited for him, and the point was that whereas our Blessed Lord caused everywhere great astonishment by His mighty deeds, Symeon accepted Him for what He was when a little child. . . .

The service was on the upper deck, with awnings and curtains making all snug on that vast quarter deck. I had got as far as the astonishment of the people because even the wind and sea obeyed that Voice, and had just got to Symeon's experiences of faith: 'Lord, now lettest thou,' etc., when in the middle of the sentence a big squall, with great suddenness and force swept away in a moment, awnings, curtains and books; a deluge of rain wetting us all! It was extremely funny. Lady Drury and her ladies who had come off to church, fled below by the nearest ladder. I followed on their heels, and 'furl awnings,' 'unrig church,' were the rapid orders given by the folk in authority. No more church that forenoon. I told the skipper--Captain Troubridge, a dear friend of mine, who always read the lessons--that he had brought it about with his 'clouds return after the rain,' because for some extraordinary reason, instead of reading the first lesson for the day he chose to read the last chapter of Ecclesiastes!"

January, 1913.

"The senior midshipman is the son of my great friend at------. He is generally known as Jones, his fellow cadets at Osborne having flatly refused to recognise him by the long German name of ---------. Can't" you hear them? What is your name?----. What? You must be called Jones. And Jones is the name he will carry with him all through his grades."

The following is sent me by Admiral Seymour E. Erskine: "I received once from Bishop Corfe a somewhat embarrassing commission. He was anxious to send His Majesty King Edward two Corean calves, and I rashly undertook the preliminary passage to H.M.S. Barfleur, under orders for home, whose Captain, Sir George Warrender, had also fallen under the Bishop's influence. Unfortunately the Barfleur was detained some months after the arrival on board of the growing pair, and I never heard the last of them from the Commander, who

Corfe was serving in H.M.S. Audacious on the China Station, from 1874 to 1879. At Chefoo he met the two missionaries (supported by S.P.G.), the Rev. Miles Greenwood and the Rev. C. P. Scott, gave them a most cordial welcome and entered with heart and soul into all their problems. From that time he became a fervent supporter of the North China Mission. In 1880 the North China Bishopric was founded, the Rev. C. P. Scott being the first Bishop, and Corfe resigned his work in the Navy in 1881 in order to help him. It was a noble and an unselfish thing to give up a vocation for which he 1 was so pre-eminently fitted, in order to undertake a work for which he may not after all have been nearly so well suited. He arrived in China in 1881 with three young laymen, whom he proposed to train as missionaries--not at home, but in the country for which they were destined. It appears that he considered the plan a failure, an experience which was to have good effect in coming years. He left China for England in 1883 on hearing that his father was on his deathbed. Just after his departure his cousin in the Navy landed at Chefoo, but was disappointed at missing Charles. Here he learnt that Charles had injured his health by trying to live on a Chinese diet. And now a significant thing happened. When he was at home the Admiralty were desirous to reinstate Charles as a chaplain. This was no slight testimony to his worth, since there was no precedent for the re-appointment of an officer after he had resigned his commission in the Navy. It was necessary in fact to obtain an Order in Council for the purpose. Not only was he reinstated, but also he received back his seniority in the service. In December, 1883, he was appointed to Portsmouth Dockyard. Then in 1886 he was serving on H.M.S. Alexandra under the Duke of Edinburgh. Several references have already been made to his life on board and ashore there. The following extracts from a letter to his brother Robert are made all the more interesting because of the contrast between his house at Malta and the "Palace" at Seoul a few years afterwards.

R.N. HOSPITAL, MALTA, Nov. 30, 1885.

"My work lies in all sorts of places involving a great deal of running about. To-day I have spent over 2s. 6d. in boat hire, the average fare being fourpence. Yesterday I was in a boat ten times, being pulled to my various services . . . The dockyard work is very distracting and difficult to overtake. . . . Yesterday I had two Celebrations and four sermons, to say nothing of having mostly been my own organist and choirmaster. ..." (He describes his house)--" A very large and magnificent house it is, having 16 rooms, large and small, not counting two bath-rooms--one with a fresh-water bath, and the other, a veritable swimming bath, into which the sea comes freely through apertures left in the wall. The house is on the level of the sea and stands close enough to it for me to be able to pitch the ends of my cigars into it from my verandah. The rooms are mostly of colossal proportions. They are all some 30ft. high, and the drawing-room is about 25ft. square. It looks out into my garden--or rather, my gardens, for there are four of them rising one above the others on plateaux. Here I watch daily the ripening process of my twenty-four orange and lemon trees, my vines and fig trees, my cabbages, potatoes, tomatoes, etc, ..."

But I pass on to his choirs. "At both Hospital and Dockyard churches we have a surpliced choir. The material is of the roughest. It is sufficient to say that not one of the twelve boys knows one note of music from another." In another letter he speaks of going to live on board the Alexandra: "Already I have begun the 'band' agony. Not long ago I sent the Duke of Edinburgh a pretty large list of music suitable to be performed by large military bands, for he is very fond of getting all the ships' bands in the fleet and massing them together ashore. We once mustered 100 performers."

Here are two estimates of Corfe, one from the quarter-deck and the other from the lower-deck. Admiral Sir Stanley C. Colville writes:--

"My long and treasured friendship with Corfe commenced in March, 1886, when we both joined H.M.S. Alexandra at Malta, he as chaplain and I as a junior lieutenant. The Alexandra was the flagship of H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Station. In May, 1888, to the great sorrow of every officer and man, Corfe left the Alexandra, being appointed Chaplain of Portsmouth Dockyard. He was indeed irreplaceable, his influence amongst officers and men was unique, he was beloved and deeply respected by all.

During my naval career I never was again shipmates with a man who could do so touch good in a ship, and he held such delightful Sunday morning and evening services on board, preaching such excellent and suitable sermons; with his great musical gifts he organised a really splendid choir and the evening service (which usually, I fear, is thinly attended on board ship) in the Alexandra was crowded, and people used to come off from the shore to take part in it. The choir were so good that they were in request ashore for concerts, etc. Corfe loved the British sailor and marine and was a welcome visitor on the lower-deck, where he constantly went to talk with the men and share their joys and sorrows.

"His tact was wonderful, and if anyone by chance said anything in his presence he did not approve of, the rebuke was always a 'model'--for example, at dinner one night in the wardroom a young officer sitting next Corfe was being helped to soup and the servant upset some of the soup into the officer's lap who, in the heat of the moment used strong language at the servant; but he suddenly remembered Corfe and turned to him saying: 'Oh, I beg your pardon, Padre.' The reply came in that soft voice: 'Please don't beg my pardon.'

His kindness of heart was proverbial, ever ready to do a Good Samaritan act: for example, a young midshipman came on board one night under the influence of liquor; Corfe, who had turned in, heard him staggering about outside his cabin, went outside and, to save the boy getting into trouble, took him into his cabin and put him into his bunk where he let him sleep until the morning. Corfe, I believe, slept on the deck,

"My next news of Corfe was in 1889, when he was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury if he would become the first Bishop of Corea, He, as is well known, accepted. Many of us did our best to stop him, telling him it was far more important he should carry out his great work in the Navy and save the souls of the British sailors than try and do the same with the Coreans; but he was adamant, and his reply: 'If you were asked to go on active service, would you refuse? '

"In January, 1899, when Captain of H.M.S. Barfleur on the China Station, I went in the ship to Chemulpo, Corea, and Corfe came and stayed for a week-end on my ship; he simply revelled at once again being on board one of Her Majesty's ships, and spent his Sunday afternoon on the lower-deck amongst his beloved bluejackets; he preached at the morning service and announced his intention of doing so again at the evening service, and nothing could have more shewn his magnetism for, although a stranger to nearly all on board, practically all officers and men attended that evening service. I may add, usually on Sundays it was a very sparse gathering.

"I went up to Seoul and saw Corfe's naval hospital and his house built on Corean lines, with no comforts and absurdly small. The hospital, even in those early days, was doing an immense amount of good and known of all over Corea.

"I always felt he was disappointed with his work in Corea and seemed to think it had not been a success; he said he was too old when he went out, and could not learn the language, which had been such a handicap to him; he would not be convinced he had been very successful in his bishopric.

"As first and Principal Naval A.D.C. to the King, I had the sad privilege of representing His Majesty at the dear Bishop's funeral, on July 4, 1921, when we laid him to rest at Brookwood Cemetery."

The writer of the tribute from the lower deck had risen to be "Warrant Writer" before he retired, and now has an appointment at Gosport.

"It was my good fortune in the fall or the year 1879 to make the acquaintance of the Rev. C. J. Corfe. At that time he was Chaplain of the Royal Naval Barracks, Sheerness, where about 1000 to 1200 officers and men were quartered. And on a certain Sunday morning, at a few minutes before the time appointed for Divine Service, it fell out that no one could be found to play the harmonium. The Chaplain was in distress, and the S.O.S. flying. The Master-at-Arms (Chief of Police) despatched his myrmidons to find and capture any man who could play the hurdy-gurdy--sailors have a nickname for everything. Owing to the unfaithfulness of chums who gave me away, I was immediately piloted to the Chaplain's cabin. I was captivated at once. He came forward to meet me, tall, slender, eyes full of mirth, and a kindly humorous manner.

"Every man who knew him respected him, and those who knew him best, loved him. A great gulf existed between officers and men of the Navy, but our Chaplain with his kindly nature and exquisite tact, easily bridged it. He was, in the truest sense of the word, an officer and a gentleman. But in private talks in his cabin to little groups who met there, he became the wise counsellor, the understanding friend, the elder brother. His cabin became a rendezvous for a certain class of thoughtful men, writing materials and cigars were at their disposal; but the host kept himself out of the way as much as possible, lest he might embarrass his visitors. Between 6 and 8 p.m. he usually came in to talk and, incidentally, usually lost his dinner in consequence. His room became, to some of us at least, an oasis in the desert. He seldom introduced religion, but everything he said or did was tinged with a deep reverence for the things of God, and a fervent desire to impart the spirit of them to his hearers.

"His sermons were simple, straightforward, outspoken and very practical. It is not an easy thing, under the limitations imposed by naval discipline, to address a congregation of many hundreds of officers and men, and yet to speak the word of truth without giving offence to either. But the Bishop succeeded perfectly. He was as popular among his own messmates as among the men, and had always the ear of either. Concerts were given occasionally under his direction. At one of these he brought half a dozen of his friends from Magdalen College, Oxford, to assist in the programme. A few days later the refrain of one of the songs that had particularly caught on was whistled and sung all over the place--

"Six jolly parsons all in a row, and
The best of the lot
Was our own Holy Joe."

The chaplain in those days was known as the Holy Joe.

"As time went on and the men came to know him better the number of his friends increased greatly. He interested himself in everything that interested them, or that would advance their spiritual or temporal welfare. Education in the Navy was at a rather low ebb, but some men aspired to better things, and these the Bishop assisted to the utmost of his power. I have known him to bring them along until they were ready to sit for a Mates' Certificate at the Board of Trade examination, and in several cases, to pay the fees incidental thereto. The Bishop was heart and soul with the Navy, proud of everything spoken in its praise, and retained his affection unaltered to the very end."

Corfe served in the Navy till 1889, when there came a great break in his life. The official record merely says, "Placed on retired list at his own request, September, 1889," and it was then that the Duke of Edinburgh appointed him his chaplain. Probably the retiring Chaplain never experienced greater anguish than when at the call of duty he turned his back upon the work which had won his passionate affection.

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