Project Canterbury

Bishop Harper and the Canterbury Settlement

By H. T. Purchas

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

Chapter XIV. Private and Domestic Life

"Thou hadst one aim, one business, one desire;
Else wert thon long since numbered with the dead!
Else hadst thou spent, like other men, thy fire!"
--M. Arnold.

In the early days of the colony it was sometimes charged against Canterbury by North Island critics that its creed consisted of but three articles--the scab, the land-fund, and the bishop. Of the three objects which thus bulked most largely in the public mind, the scab was gradually banished by persistent effort, the land-fund was lost at the abolition of the provinces, but the bishop still lived on and retained to the end of his life the trust and veneration of his people.

What was the secret of Bishop Harper's popularity? He was not a brilliant orator, nor a fiery preacher, nor a great statesman, nor an original thinker. His life was uniform in its quiet regularity, his manners were unassuming, not to say reserved. Perhaps the following extract from a book already quoted may afford a clue to the secret of his influence. The scene is that of an up-country service in the seventies.

"The little church to which his lordship came was within a mile of us, and though all in it was pot, quite as it may be by and by, yet those who came to it then lacked too many things to criticise too closely what they gained; and his lordship wore his robes with dignity, and a good man will beckon his people after him, even though his raiment be somewhat ruffled in his duty: so the settlers heard him gladly, and said of him what, for a moment, may sound hardly well to say; still, it is true, and has a meaning beyond the words.

"This is what they said of the bishop, when at sunset he had bid them good-bye; they said, There is no mistake about Bishop Harper. Is there any bishop anywhere who would be offended, or think himself disparaged, if this, heartily, were said of him?"

There was no mistake about Bishop Harper. In church or in the saddle, at home or abroad, he was always the bishop, always the high-bred gentleman, always the simple Christian, always the genuine man. His outward garb, may be taken as an index to his inner life. Beyond the putting on and off of his vestments for worship, no one ever saw any change in his appearance. Even on ship-board he wore his full episcopal costume, and he was "the man with the hat" among the miners and road-makers of Westland. But he could never have passed unnoticed even in disguise--his look, his manner and his speech would soon have betrayed his character and his calling.

"What amazes me when I look back on those far off days" (writes Canon Stack) "is the fact that an English clergyman of studious habits, without sporting instincts of any sort--accustomed all his life to the comforts and refinements of a good English home and the congenial society of scholarly men--could, when his habits were all fixed, have borne to be transplanted to a country such as New Zealand then was; and that he could adapt himself so readily to his new environment. For there was nothing of the "new chum" about Bishop Harper. He seemed to take naturally to the altered condition of things in which he found himself placed, and cheerfully endured all the deprivations which colonial life in the fifties entailed. In one thing alone he differed from most colonists: he was never slovenly in anything, and never did or said anything unbecoming his sacred office, yet no one identified himself more with the unconventional ways of the homes he had to visit.''

This unity of deportment and simplicity of character is, perhaps, the chief feature in the Bishop's personality. The picture of such a life must necessarily be lacking in the dramatic surprises and many-sided interests which are afforded by the careers of a Wilberforce or a Magee. In its depth and singleness of purpose it rather resembles that of the saintly Bishop Wilson of Sodor and Man.

During the thirty-seven years of his residence in New Zealand, Bishop Harper only twice travelled beyond its limits--each time in order to attend a Lambeth Conference. His first visit has been already mentioned. The second visit was much shorter, but through his very anxiety to make a quick return to his diocese he was enabled to see something of foreign countries. Leaving Auckland on May 1st, 1878, with Mr. and Mrs. Acland, he had a few hours at Honolulu with Bishop Willis, and arrived at San Francisco to hear the sad tidings of the death of his old friend Bishop Selwyn, whom he had been hoping to see once more. At Chicago he diverged from the direct route in order to visit Niagara, Toronto, and Montreal, but was soon in New York, where he celebrated the Holy Communion on Whit-Sunday. A few hours before sailing on Whit-Tuesday he took part in the consecration of Bishop Seymour of Springfield. Landing at Liverpool on June 22nd, he was almost immediately engaged in the work of the Conference, the formal opening of which took place on the 29th. August and September were spent in visits to old friends and parishioners, and on October 11th, he left England for the last time. Choosing the Suez route in order to save time, he was able to see something of Paris and Nimes before joining the P. and 0. boat at Marseilles. At Colombo he went on shore with Bishop Coplestone, and with the aid of an interpreter gave an address at a Cingalese service. On November 28th he landed at Albany for a few hours, but saw nothing of Melbourne, save a few glimpses from the sea, for on his arrival in that port at 4 a.m. on December 5th, he and his party were immediately transhipped to the New Zealand steamer. His only visit to Australia was thus a disappointing one. He reached Christchurch at 8.30 a.m. on December llth, just in time to take part in the Christ's College Commemoration which began at 11 on the same day, and in the second service held within the Cathedral walls, on the Anniversary five days later.

He never left the colony again, for he felt himself too old to attend the Conference of 1888. Within New Zealand he still travelled to the General Synod meetings which were held every three years in the different cities, but he never took a journey merely for pleasure's sake. His short and rare holidays were generally spent at the homes of his sons or daughters--particularly at Mount Peel or Orari Gorge.

It is difficult, indeed, to say in what way Bishop Harper found his recreation. He had no hobbies and seemed to need no amusements. His health was always good, and he found enjoyment in his work. He invariably rose at six in the morning, and, with no other refreshment than a glass of cold water, engaged in private devotion and study till it was time to attend matins. Except when absent from home, he never failed to be present at this service, either at the College Chapel or (in his later years) at the Cathedral. He was generally in his place at evensong also, for he appreciated to the full the regular daily offices.

He was noted for his punctuality. He had always at least ten minutes to spare before an engagement, and often utilised the waiting moments by reading. His letters were always answered with promptness, and though not a voluminous correspondent, he never wrote a letter which was not well considered and carefully expressed.

In money matters he was less methodical. Scrupulously exact with money belonging to others, he was generous to an extreme with his own. His episcopal income gradually rose from £600 to £1000, but he put nothing by. He gave Mrs. Harper, who was an excellent manager, an allowance for house-keeping expenses, and the rest went in various charitable directions--most of them secret ones. To an appeal from a distressed clergyman or a friend in difficulties, his usual response was a cheque for £10.

Simplicity and regularity being the predominating characteristics of his nature, it is not surprising to find that he had no particular inclination to any kind of artistic pursuit. There are few poetical touches in any of his writings. Such an entry as the following shows that he was by no means wanting in susceptibility to poetical impressions, but it is almost the only specimen of its kind in the whole of his journals. The reference is to the funeral of a daughter-in-law in 1862. "Quiet warm evening--sombre clouds with bright rays of sunlight on the hills--a funeral evening, solemn and gloomy, but cheerful withal--sorrowful, yet rejoicing." His reading lay chiefly in the regions of Anglican theology of the more classic and sober kind, and he used to say that there was no better guide than Hooker to an understanding of religious difficulties. But he revelled in a new book, and did not disdain a good novel. One of the favourite works of his later years was Professor Milligan's treatise on "The Resurrection of our Lord."

The old-fashioned strictness and dignity of his own habits was usually mellowed by a genial tolerance of the freer ways of others. He was fond of children and preserved a certain youth-fulness of mind even to the last. In his early days he had been a good cricketer, and in January, 1893, (when he had entered his ninetieth year) he took bat in hand once more for a game with one of his great-grand-children at Mount Peel. The following story (which belongs to his middle life) is characteristic. In the course of his pastoral visiting at Hokitika he came to a rough shanty, where was a little girl all alone in a state of great trouble because the fire would not burn. "Let me help you," said the bishop, and kneeling down upon the hearth, he coaxed the smouldering wood into a flame. His own appearance, even after he had reached his eightieth year, was so suggestive of youth that it formed the subject of a public comment by the then Governor of New Zealand, Sir William Jervois, who was being entertained at a banquet on the occasion of his first visit to Christchurch. When his health was being drunk, the band played, ''The Old English Gentleman." His Excellency in responding demurred to the insinuation of old age. "Why here is your Primate," he pleasantly added, "he is twenty years older than I am, and he is a young man yet."

The impression he produced in his own home is thus described by Dr. Gerald Harper, his youngest son. "My father's resolute and almost stern character, as I knew him in middle life, was much concealed by his calm and conciliatory manner, but we boys knew that he was never to be trifled with, and that he would punish with severity any sort of idleness or ill-behaviour. In his desire to avoid showing us any favour he was at times hardly just, as we found to our cost in school examinations. I worked very hard for the Somes Scholarship which should have been awarded to me if my father had not interposed on behalf of-----. I felt the disappointment keenly, but did not venture to discuss the subject. . . . He left upon me the deep impression that he never had an ideal of power, or wealth, or fame, but that to go about doing good and to promote the welfare of his fellowmen with all his strength were the objects he had in view in his whole life."

In his family Bishop Harper was indeed highly favoured. Nearly all his sons settled in Canterbury, and his six daughters were all happily married. Besides the son (Paul) who was lost at sea in 1863, the only death was that of a younger son, Herbert, on September 7th, 1869. The news was communicated to the father at Lyttelton, two days later, on his arrival from the Peninsula, but it was not unexpected, for the illness had been a long one. All the other members of his family seemed to have inherited the vigorous constitution of their father, and they all took an active part in helping forward the bishop's work. Besides the two sons who entered the ministry of the Church, their brother Leonard was a member of Synod and an active vestryman in his own parish. The same may be said of another brother, George, who was also a regular lay-reader as was also his elder brother Charles. The six sons-in-law were not behindhand, for Mr. Acland was a lay-reader and synodsman, Mr. Tripp a Church Property Trustee, Mr. Blakiston a synodsman and member of the original Cathedral Commission, Mr. Maling a synodsman and Mr. Cox a lay-reader, while Mr. Douglas was also a Sunday school teacher and an active member of his parish vestry.

On December 12th, 1879, the bishop and Mrs. Harper celebrated their Golden Wedding, and gathered round them on that occasion no fewer than sixty-nine children and grandchildren.

This was one of the red-letter days of the bishop's life. The proceedings commenced with a celebration of the Holy Communion in the College Chapel, at which his two clerical sons officiated--Archdeacon Harper of Timaru, and the Rev. Walter Harper, then Vicar of Ellesmere. A thank-offering of £39 was collected, and the money was expended in the purchase of a silver-gilt alms dish for the Cathedral. This piece of plate bears on its under side the inscription--"The twenty-two sons and daughters and sixty grand-children of the Most Reverend the Bishop of Christchurch, Primate of the Church of the Province of New Zealand, with their friends gave me on the fiftieth anniversary of his wedding-day, in token of gratitude to Almighty God, for use in the Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Christ-church, N.Z." [This includes six sons-in-law and four daughters-in-law, viz: Mrs. Leonard Harper, Mrs. Charles Harper, Mrs. George Harper, and Mrs. Walter Harper.]

In the afternoon a reception was held in the garden of Bishopscourt, at which about 500 friends attended. The presents included an illuminated address from the Presbyterian ministers of the city, and a silver-gilt tea-service from the ladies of the diocese. The summer day was everything that could be desired, and everyone bore away the happiest remembrances.

For some years it seemed as though there might be a diamond wedding also at Bishops-court. This, however, was not to be, for on the sixtieth anniversary of his marriage the Bishop found himself alone. In 1886 Mrs. Harper's health gave way, and for two years she was a confirmed invalid. One of her most pleasure-able experiences during this period was at the jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887. Sitting up in her bed, she could hear the cheers with which her husband was greeted in Hagley Park, and on his return home she could watch the carriage with its four horses and its escort of red-coated cavalry. In the following year her strength failed rapidly, and she passed peacefully away, about mid-night on June 10th, 1888. She was buried by the side of her son Herbert. The day of the funeral was one of those warm, bright winter days for which the climate is renowned, and all sections of the community came forward to do honour to one who had been a leading figure in the social life of the early days, and whose extensive charities, though dispensed with secrecy, had raised up friends in all classes. Her memory is kept alive by a window erected by the bishop in the north aisle of the Cathedral. The figures of Nathaniel and of Dorcas are expressive of her unostentatious benevolence, while the arms of the see of Winchester recall the place of her birth. Her name was already associated with various objects in the Cathedral, for the many handsome service-books and the stately eagle lectern were her gifts.

Belonging rather to his private than to his public life was the bishop's work among the sick and suffering. The pastoral instinct which manifested itself so strongly at Eton as well as at Mortimer, was never crushed beneath the pressure of his larger duties, and was, if possible, intensified as life drew to a close. He was well over eighty when, on his return from a railway journey on a winter night, he found a request to visit a young married lady who was dying of consumption. He could not go that night, but at six o'clock next morning he started off on foot across the park, amidst falling snow, and reached the house only to find that death had been beforehand. Though unable to do anything for the departed, his words of consolation so wrought on the bereaved mother that she was saved from entire disbelief in Christianity.

During these same years, while on a visit to a country parish in very stormy weather, he was prevailed upon by the vicar not to attempt the drive to a distant church at which he was expected to preach. He therefore stayed at the vicarage, but after a time his hostess missed him, and fearing that some accident had befallen him, searched high and low throughout the house. At last she found him in the empty church close by. He was engaged in intercession, and his whole soul seemed to go out in fervent utterance. It was not often that the veil was lifted which lay upon the bishop's inner life, but no one to whom a glimpse was granted was left unimpressed.

Glimpses are all that this chapter can attempt to give, for over the greater part of that inner life the veil remains.

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