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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


HARPER, Right Rev. Henry James Chitty


First Bishop of Christchurch.

A new biography of Harper, Henry John Chitty appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Bishop Harper was born on 9 January 1804 at Gosport in Hampshire, a small market town near the great naval base of Portsmouth, where he and his brothers and sisters must have gone in 1815 to see Napoleon Bonaparte walking the decks of HMS Bellerophon. He was the second son of Dr Tristram Harper, a physician, and Mary, daughter of Adam Jellicoe, Naval Paymaster at Portsmouth, through whom he was related to the future Earl Jellicoe of Scapa, Governor-General of New Zealand.

Harper was brought up amid very religious surroundings, morning and evening prayers and scripture readings being part of the household routine. He was educated at Hyde Abbey School in Winchester, where two of his contemporaries were George Arney, later to be Chief Justice of New Zealand, and Henry Sewell, later a leading member of the Canterbury Association and a Minister of the Crown. He won a university scholarship which took him to Queen's College, Oxford, from where he graduated B.A. (1826) and M.A. (1834).

At the invitation of his old headmaster, Harper returned to Hyde Abbey School as a master but shortly afterwards accepted a position as tutor to the two young sons of Sir Charles Coote of Castle Cuffe, Ireland, and when the boys were old enough he accompanied them to Eton College, where he served as a tutor, and where one of his fellow tutors was George Augustus Selwyn, who became a lifelong friend. It was Harper who influenced Selwyn to take holy orders instead of law.

On 12 December 1829 Harper married Emily Woolridge, whom he had met in his teaching days at Hyde Abbey. In 1831, when one of the two chaplaincies of Eton fell vacant, the Provost appointed Harper to the position, although he had not taken orders. The reason for this was that the Oxford Movement, then sweeping England, was making its influence felt at Eton. Harper, himself, was not an active member of the movement, but could scarcely avoid being deeply affected by it.

Harper was ordained by Bishop Murray of Rochester on 17 June 1832. He continued as chaplain at Eton until 1840, when he became Vicar of Stratfield Mortimer in Berkshire, a living the presentation of which belonged to the college authorities. There he remained with his growing family until 1854 when he received a visit from Bishop Selwyn, who had come to broach the possibility of his accepting the newly formed See of Christchurch. Selwyn's visit proved successful, for on his return to New Zealand the citizens of Canterbury settlement petitioned Queen Victoria to appoint Harper Bishop of Christchurch. He was accordingly consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr Sumner) on 10 August 1856, and Oxford University signalised the occasion by awarding him an honorary D.D. With his family Harper sailed on the Egmont for Christchurch, arriving at Lyttelton on 23 December 1856, where Selwyn awaited him. There the two bishops, with coats off, helped to trundle handcarts containing family goods up the bridle path over the Port Hills. Harper was formally enthroned as Bishop of Christchurch on Christmas Day, in St. Michael's Church.

In 1857 Harper made his first pastoral journey, travelling on foot, and spending nights at isolated homesteads where he held services. A second pastoral journey took him as far south as Bluff, and he was accompanied by his son Henry (1857–1911), afterwards Archdeacon. Harper tried always to make at least one annual visit throughout his diocese, baptising, confirming, marrying, consecrating churches, and holding services at isolated homesteads and pioneer communities. He laid the foundation stone of Christchurch Cathedral in 1864, and next year paid his first pastoral visit to the West Coast, then in the throes of a goldrush.

He attended the Pan-Anglican Synod at Lambeth in 1867, and urged official recognition of independent status for the Colonial Church, whose constitution he had helped to frame (1857) soon after his arrival. On his return to Christchurch from Lambeth he was welcomed with beflagged streets, a triumphal arch, and a civic reception, so great was his popularity.

On Selwyn's departure in 1868, Harper was elected Primate of New Zealand. As Primate he was always a keen advocate of church schools and religious teaching, but the State grants-in-aid of such schools were terminated, leaving parish schools little option but to close.

In 1878 he attended the second Lambeth Conference. He was then 75, and had consecrated 60 churches in Canterbury alone, adding five more in 1879.

Harper celebrated his golden wedding in December 1879, and was presented with a family portrait by his 22 sons and daughters, and 60 grandchildren. He consecrated the nave of Christchurch Cathedral on 1 November 1881, and in the following nine years consecrated 30 more churches in Canterbury. He resigned his See in August 1889, to take effect from March 1890, and on 1 May 1890 consecrated his successor, Bishop C. Julius. Diocesan authorities allowed him the use of Bishopscourt during the remainder of his life, and Sir John Hall introduced a Bill in Parliament allowing him a pension of £600 per annum to be paid from the bishopric endowment estates. He died at Bishops-court, Christchurch, on 28 December 1893.

Bishop Harper, a man revered not only for his work but also for his personal influence and character, possessed rare humility and modesty. No man has so endeared himself to the people among whom he lived. He came to a region of roadless plains and unbridged rivers, where hardship and exposure were a normal part of the day's work. In such a land he established good government in church affairs, and showed shrewd judgment in dealing with the problems of his infant diocese. He was known and welcomed in the remotest corners of his diocese, by all sorts and conditions of men, for his courtesy and kindness. By his personal conduct he conveyed the sense of a true Christian life.

Most of his large family settled in New Zealand, and played worthy parts in shaping the country of the Bishop's adoption. His descendants, who in 1955 numbered 632, have achieved distinction in many fields.

by Oliver Arthur Gillespie, M.B.E., M.M. (1895–1960), Author.

  • Bishop Harper and the Canterbury Settlement, Purchas, H. T. (1909)
  • Through Canterbury and Otago with Bishop Harper, Stack, J. W. (1906)
  • Letters from New Zealand, Harper, H. W. (1914).


Oliver Arthur Gillespie, M.B.E., M.M. (1895–1960), Author.