Project Canterbury

Bishop Montgomery: A Memoir

By M.M.

[London] The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1933.

Chapter VI. Tasmania

Early one morning while Henry was having his weekly talk with his curates, Dr. Farrar was announced. He came unofficially from Archbishop Benson. Would Henry think of going to Tasmania as bishop? If he accepted, would he go to stay? The answers were definite. Henry Montgomery would go wherever sent, and if he went he would be prepared to stay for life. At that time there was a feeling that Australian bishops especially were too much in the habit of giving up their sees. Henry went at once to Lambeth for a short interview, and then on to the Athenaeum to find out exactly where Tasmania was! He had heard of it under the name of Van Diemen's Land, as the island in the antipodes where convicts used to be sent, and where the forests were so dense that it was impossible to escape through them. He came to know these forests in time as few bishops at least have done.

He went, too, to see Dr. Vaughan at the Temple. Of course Vaughan knew all about it, and had assented. They knelt together and prayed, and Vaughan quoted from the psalm "From the ends of the earth will I call upon thee; when my heart is in heaviness."

Henry Montgomery was consecrated on May 1st, 1889, in Westminster Abbey, where he had been married and where his eldest child was baptized. Dr. Farrar was the preacher, and he was presented by Bishop Thorold of Rochester and Bishop Thornton of Ballarat. After his consecration he went back to Kennington for six weeks, and his first act as bishop was to confirm his own candidates--173 in number.

The new bishop, with his wife and family of five children, the youngest a baby of five months, landed at Hobart in October. There was a sense of utter desolation, both on leaving the London docks and arriving in a new country where they did not know a soul. The bishop was to exercise an office about which he knew nothing and where no one of his own order was near to give him any assistance.

Perhaps it was this sense of utter inadequacy which led him, while he was S.P.G. Secretary, to write a pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the Work of a Bishop and on his special Dangers. At that time there was a definite lack of teaching in the Church on a bishop's ideals, and almost every bishop who went abroad for the next seventeen years was offered this pamphlet, and many others have it.

When the Tainui cast anchor in the beautiful harbour at Hobart and he saw a small steamer approaching laden with clergymen, Montgomery was overpowered with a sense of incompetency. "One longed to bury oneself, to run away--anything. Of course English doggedness came to the rescue and we met as though it were nothing unusual. I remember going to the cathedral at once and kneeling at the altar rails."

The family went into lodgings at first while Bishopscourt was being enlarged for them. This took three months. Their first days were full of anguish. Their eldest child, little Queenie, was taken ill a week after they landed, and three weeks later she was laid to rest in Sandy Bay cemetery. "They entered into possession of their new land through a grave," and that grave is left behind as a hostage. Perhaps the very agony raised up friends for the bishop and his family in a way nothing else could have done. Certainly they fell at once under the spell of the charm and simplicity and open-handed hospitality of colonial life, and the twelve years that Montgomery spent as Bishop of Tasmania were ideally happy.

One of his first acts was to raise money for the building of the cathedral chancel. A large meeting was held in the town hall to collect £10,000. Although Tasmania in those early days was in a very flourishing condition, many were quite hopeless about raising such a large sum. There was only one thing to say, "It has to be done," and done it was. The stone was laid. Children came from all over the diocese and presented the money they had collected, £800, through delegates, the procession being led by the bishop's eldest son. They came again to the consecration in 1894 and presented another £400. But before this an awful crash of banks upset all the bishop's calculations. Eleven banks broke in Melbourne in a few days and one of the four Tasmanian banks. Life seemed to stand still. For the bishop, who felt responsible for his clergy and their work, the anxieties were terrible. Would they live through it? They did, and were the better for it. "It forced us all to live as cheaply as possible." The bishop's wife, to her husband's delight, was spoken of as the worst dressed lady in Hobart. "We put down horses, carriage, gardener, everything we could, and devoted the surplus to the diocese. In one year we gave up £300 of our income. Of course it drew us all very closely together, but I trust I may be spared such an ordeal again; it made me very thin!"

But for this there would have been no difficulty about collecting the whole of the £10,000. £2,400 were still needed and a long list of wealthy Tasmanians living in Australia and elsewhere were to be approached. The crash ruined these men and the last sum had to be financed. The bishop got some sixteen men to guarantee interest, whilst he guaranteed twice as much as anyone else. In 1903, eighteen months after the bishop's departure from the diocese, the debt was down to £150, due largely to the generous efforts of his friend, Dean Kite. The beautiful chancel when completed was a great joy to Bishop Montgomery. As he passed by it in the darkest days he would murmur, "Never mind; it is up, it is up."

It soon became evident to the bishop in what direction his gifts lay. He was not a great preacher or orator, nor a citizen bishop. Every fibre of his being responded to mission work, towards the shepherding of the few sheep in the wilderness. Without question his interests during the twelve years of his episcopate lay among the islands where the half-castes lived, the distant Bush districts, the solitary mines, or the lighthouse upon a rock. In time he felt that he came back to Hobart to rest, not to plunge into political or municipal problems. He used to return after a three weeks' tour to a fortnight's quiet at Bishopscourt. One hundred and eighty days in the year were spent away from home and every parish in the diocese was visited yearly. That work, in the Bush, among the country clergy, appealed to the bishop immensely. The life of the parish priest, his Sunday schools, his most distant people, above all his confirmation candidates--how the bishop delighted in it all!

Confirmation became more and more a solemn ordination. He used to beg the clergy not to mass the candidates, but to let him go to each centre in the large scattered Bush parishes, and he never minded if there were only two candidates. The result was that thousands became familiar with confirmation who otherwise would never have known what it meant. And his heart went out to the Bush farmers. He spoke to them as if it were the one opportunity of his life, and he always shook hands with them all afterwards. Once on a Sunday morning the bishop confirmed the majority of the people living in one valley. They had been captured by one of the most earnest of his clergy. The service was held in a kitchen. The grandfather, father, and son of the house were all confirmed together.

The most romantic preparation for confirmation was that of a lighthouse-keeper. The bishop talked with him and instructed him night after night in the lighthouse on a lonely rock, sitting under the revolving light, and then confirmed him. On another occasion the bishop had ridden from Hobart up to the Great Lake, where at the summit he found six men working on a culvert. The rector said to him, "This is the last day of their contract and they cannot leave their job. Will you confirm them here?" "Of course." "We got off our horses, the men, in their shirtsleeves, lined up on their culvert, and I put on a rochet. The scene was glorious. It was a sunny day and half Tasmania seemed to be stretched below us. I talked to the men, then they knelt and I confirmed them. We had more talk and prayer and afterwards we proceeded down, leading our horses. At the foot of the tier we met the wives. 'Were our husbands confirmed?' 'Yes.' 'Then we will be confirmed too.' So we adjourned to the school and another confirmation was held."

It is difficult to say which of his many trips was the most delightful. He himself used to talk with joy of the journeys to the islands in the Bass Straits where the half-castes lived. On one of the islands a small wooden shanty was erected with ' 'Bishopscourt" carved over the door. Here he spent many perfect times, and the peace of that little home haunted him for years after he left. He was able to do a great deal of reading and thinking in the long evenings, for he took away piles of books on these journeys--mission problems, Australian Church problems, the newest books on theology--and the foundation of most of his own writings in later years was laid in these days. Often he would spend weeks in a seven-tonner, visiting scattered families, wading ashore to baptize a child, or have family prayers, wading back and going on ten miles and doing the same. The staple industry of the islanders was the curing and selling of mutton birds. The bishop took a great interest in these birds, and more than once he spent a whole night on the sandhills observing their habits. The Government often applied to him for information about the islanders, and he was able to procure many privileges for them and also to get their industry regulated and protected.

But these trips had their drawbacks. Once in a small boat they were close-hauled with a fresh breeze. For some three hours they shipped green seas, which hit the bishop in the face and drenched him in spite of oilskins. Sometimes in the islands he was hung up for days waiting for the little mail-boat. Then he used to suffer all the tortures--in feeling--of Robinson Crusoe or Enoch Arden. Engagements waiting on the mainland, no means of communication, his family without news of him. The food too, of course, was rough, though plentiful, and the "live stock" often made sleep at night impossible.

Bishop Montgomery was the only minister of any denomination who visited the lighthouses on the scattered islands round Tasmania. Two lighthouses were on King Island, fifty miles long; some dozen families on the island. "What wonderful rides I have had the whole length of that island--alone--hardly meeting an inhabitant."

Some of the bishop's tramps on the west coast were epochs in his life. Within a few months of his arrival in Tasmania he visited the west coast, where the mining fields were developing. There was one mission priest, whose wife and sister were the only women in all that district. Moore, the surveyor and prospector, lent the bishop a horse. The feed of the horse was £1 a day, as everything had to come from Hobart. Rivers were crossed by letting the horses swim, while the men went in a boat holding their bridles. In those days there was no cultivated land on the west coast; it was all dense Bush. In one place where a road was being cut through the Bush it took the prospector eighteen days to go seven miles. On that first trip the bishop had a glorious time. Before he left Hobart by steamer for Zeehan he had determined to ride back to Hobart from the west coast, guided by Moore on a track hardly ever used. There was a hut forty miles from the coast; nothing else except mountains, gullies, Bush. The bishop arranged with a friend in Hobart, Mr. Stephens, that on that day fortnight Stephens would meet them at the hut with a spare horse. Moore was to return with the horse he had lent. There had been no means of communication with Stephens, for the weather was rough and all the wires were down. The bishop and Moore started in faith one morning for the forty miles' ride. They got to the hut at 5.45 p.m. A quarter of an hour later Stephens trotted up with the led horse!

In due time the bishop had on the west coast a splendid Bush parson and one of his greatest friends, the Rev. F. G. Copeland. Many a tramp had they together for days at a time with their swags on their backs. On one occasion they determined to visit Corinna on the Pieman River, thirty-two miles from Zeehan. There was no road, only a track through streams and over hills covered with dense bush. Even the miners told them it was a big walk. They started at 4 a.m. in the dark and rain, carrying swags weighing about fifteen pounds. Their pace was about two miles an hour, their food bread and butter and thick cocoa. They got to Corinna at 6.30 and went straight to bed, too exhausted to eat.

Some two years later the bishop travelled on the railway along those same tracks over which he had tramped. Some navvies came into his carriage, drunk, and made themselves very objectionable. The guard came and asked him if he would like to change his carriage. "I think it must have been an angel that bade me say 'No, they are not bad fellows these, but they are not quite themselves to-day.' When we started again these fellows entirely changed their demeanour. One of them said to me, 'We know you, sir. Aren't you the cove that walked down the line when it was being made?' 'Yes, did I meet you?' 'Yes,' was the answer, 'I helped to pull you across the Pieman in the cage'." How well the bishop recalled the incident! The cage was a sort of chair hung on two ropes over a big river roaring in a gorge seventy feet below. With legs dangling over the abyss you pulled yourself across. The first half of the aerial journey was down a gentle slope; then came the tug, to pull yourself slightly uphill the rest of the way with your heart in your mouth. And when the bishop was across he found the upright which held the ropes very insecure. A big, red-haired giant of a navvy, his friend of the train, helped him over and was warmly thanked.

This and other adventures on the west coast are described in the second series of Visions.

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