Project Canterbury

Bishop Harper and the Canterbury Settlement

By H. T. Purchas

Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1909.

Chapter II. Country Life--Mortimer

"The soothing lustre streams
Around our home's green walls, and on our churchway path."

Mr. Harper's departure in 1840 seemed to be the signal for the breaking up of the Eton brotherhood. In the following year George Selwyn, in spite of his comparative youthfulness, was consecrated a bishop, and departed for New Zealand, amidst the admiring regards of the whole Church. Some of the other Eton men--notably Charles Abraham--promised to join him later on, but he never seems to have thought of making any proposal to his old friend and guide, probably thinking that a man who had settled down with a large family in a country parish was too firmly rooted to leave his native land. For the next fourteen years, therefore, their courses lay apart. Some correspondence there may probably have been, though no trace of it remains. All that we can be sure of is that the Vicar of Mortimer must often have had in his thoughts the Bishop of New Zealand.

As for himself, the lines had fallen in pleasant, if quiet, places. The parish of Stratfield Mortimer, to which he was presented by the college, covered a large and fairly populous district in Berkshire, on the high land between Beading and Basingstoke. Much of it was open common-land, given up to gorse and heather, while the west end contained its own attractions for young people in the shape of large fir plantations. The village of Mortimer itself was within eight miles of a railway, but the Harper family made the whole journey thither (30 miles) through the snow, in a large coach, the luggage following in waggons. The house was well suited for a numerous family, being large and surrounded by an ample acreage of glebe and garden. The former vicar, who had held the living for forty years, had planted the garden with choice rhododendrons and azaleas, and had erected extensive stabling. Such an establishment was an expensive one to maintain, and together with a growing family of eight children, rendered the income of £173 far from sufficient. The vicar therefore resolved to take in pupils, which his Eton connection enabled him to obtain easily. He usually had twelve young boys in the house whom he prepared for school. Most of these were sons of nobility or wealthy gentry--among them being a future Chancellor of the Exchequer, (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach),--and their fees enabled the vicar to keep a curate and to develop church work in many directions.

This, indeed, was highly necessary, for the former incumbent had given so much attention to garden and stables that he had little left for the parish. Mr. Harper immediately instituted a monthly communion, and a service on Saints' Days at 11 a.m. He soon took in hand the restoration of the church which, though large, was a poor structure, and has since been entirely swept away. The process followed the course usual at that period. The chancel had been almost cut off from the nave by a rood-loft, which was occupied by a faculty pew belonging to Wokefield Park. Another gallery at the west end (which, like the rood-loft, had its own staircase from outside) was tenanted by the choir and a brass band. By the exercise of tact and patience, the vicar removed the musicians from the gallery, and persuaded the Park family to take it in exchange for their own pew. He then cleared away the rood-loft altogether, leaving only the open screen, and proceeded to restore the chancel--largely at his own expense. The walls were cleansed, the floor laid with Minton tiles, and open stalls substituted for the high pews which the vicar's family used. But how about the dispossessed musicians? In their department a radical alteration was made. The cornets and trombones were abolished, and the instrumental accessories reduced to an organ, which, by the mere turning of a barrel, produced mechanically a certain number of simple tunes. This strange instrument was set up in one of the side galleries, and on either side of it was ranged a choir of children trained by a Beading singing-master. On one side of the organ were twelve boys in surplices, on the other twelve girls in blue tippets and white mob caps. The leader of the old band, being the most vigorous personage, was given the post of "organist," and the rest of the members were merged in the general congregation.

The church was large for a country parish, and held 600 people. But it was not too large in Mr. Harper's time. Though the whole population of the parish was but 1700, and many of these lived at a considerable distance, yet the congregations were equal to the capacity of the building. There were many country gentlemen at Mortimer, men of the old stamp, who lived on their estates nearly all the year, and found their recreation in fox-hunting and other field sports. These all came to church on Sunday morning, waiting outside the lych-gate to salute the vicar as he came from his morning Sunday school. The farmers, too, who were still holding the land which their ancestors had tilled for generations, never failed to attend this morning service. Evening Prayer began at 3 o'clock, and then appeared all the labourers and the servants. Once a month the vicar catechised at this service; on the other Sundays he delivered a plain sermon. Public worship was now over for the day. Mr. Harper never held an early celebration of Holy Communion, nor a late evening service. In fact, he had never been present at any such services when he left Mortimer. He organised district visiting throughout the parish, and procured the erection of a pretty little chapel-of-ease at a distance of two and a half miles from the mother church. He also instituted a coal-club, but otherwise his work was conducted on quiet simple lines, with an entire absence of fuss and elaborate machinery. But it was effective. He won the respect and love of all classes. Bishop Wilberforce who often stayed at Wokefield Park, considered the vicar of Mortimer to be one of his best parish priests.

Much of his most lasting work was done within his own house. During the sixteen years of his parochial life his family grew from eight to fifteen, and these, with pupils and servants, formed a numerous household. On Sunday evenings children and pupils were gathered together to listen to the reading of some book of church history or missionary enterprise, the servants were then summoned and a short service closed the day. These readings were thoroughly appreciated by most of the youthful auditors, as were also those from secular literature--history, travels or fiction--with which their games were varied on two evenings in the week. The young people never went out in the evenings, but enjoyed a healthy home life which was saved from monotony by its busy occupations and varied interests. The elements which then made up the life of the country-side are now changed, but in Mr. Harper's time they remained (except for the intrusion of a railway) in all their old-fashioned simplicity. If not fast and sparkling, at least the stream ran deep.

Mortimer was not altogether cut off, however, from the outside world. The adjoining parish of Strathfieldsaye contained the house and grounds given by the nation to the Duke of Wellington after the victory of Waterloo. The aged general was still alive, and would occasionally ride over to Mortimer and pay a formal call at the Vicarage, the groom coming forward and delivering a card "With the Field-Marshal the Duke of Wellington's compliments." Remembrance also is kept of one winter day, when some excitement was aroused in the village by the news that the Queen would be passing through in her special train. The day was a Saint's day, and after service the Harper children were allowed to go to the station to see the royal carriage pass by. The weather was bitterly cold, and after the excitement was over one of the little girls was crying in front of a fire in the waiting-room. Her tears attracted the notice of the conqueror of Napoleon, for military instinct had brought him also to the scene, and he had stood on the platform to salute the passing train. Coming up to the child he spoke a soothing word and put a coin into her hand. A minute later as the old man passed out of the building he stumbled over a mat and would have fallen headlong to the ground had he not been caught in the arms of the vicar's eldest son who received a hearty word of thanks for his timely help. More than this the Harper family did not see of their august neighbour, but they became intimate with another Wellesley, the Dean of Windsor and trusted counsellor of Queen Victoria. This "Prince of Deans" did Ms utmost to further Mr. Harper's interests, and offered him the more lucrative living of Isleworth, near London. The offer was declined, for Mr. Harper was not ambitious and probably looked forward to staying in his quiet country parish for the rest of his life.

But a day came, in 1854, which was destined to usher in a complete change from this peaceful English existence. On that day a visitor arrived at the vicarage in the person of Bishop Selwyn, who had returned from his distant diocese after fourteen years of absence. He had come to gather clergy for New Zealand and for the Melanesian Mission which he had founded. The interest he aroused at Cambridge and elsewhere was intense. Patteson and other young men volunteered to follow him back. But his communication to the Vicar of Mortimer was of quite a special character. He could not ask such a man to serve under him, but he offered to divide his diocese with him. A new bishop was wanted for the southern part of New Zealand. Would his old friend undertake the work?

The last of the turning-points had now come in Mr. Harper's career. Again he was called to a new office without any seeking or expectation on his own part. In many respects this choice would be the most momentous of them all, for it would mean not only a new work, but a new country. It would mean striking out into the unknown when he was already past fifty years of age, and had no less than fifteen children to provide for. Well might he be cautious. Well might Mrs. Harper be more cautious still. They could hardly fail to have heard of the difficulties and delays which had already occurred in the appointment to this proposed bishopric of Christchurch. Mrs. Harper as a prudent mother felt bound to insist that there should be a definitely expressed invitation from the people of Canterbury themselves, and some security as to a house for the family, and the wherewithal to maintain them. With these conditions Selwyn was bound to comply. He left England with no definite promise, but he took with him two of the Vicar's sons (Charles and Leonard), one of whom looked forward to the career of a colonist, and the other to work in the Melanesian Mission.

The visit of Bishop Selwyn to Mortimer coincided nearly in time with the despatch of the allied armies to the Crimea. Sebastopol had fallen before the answer came from New Zealand. Those months and years were a time of intense anxiety to the English nation, and doubtless the Vicar of Mortimer shared the feelings of his neighbours. But he would await with a special and individual interest the arrival of a mail from his sons and his friend at the Antipodes. To understand the cause of the delay and the meaning of the answer which was to come at last, it will be necessary to look back a few years and to trace the history of the new diocese.

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