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Charles Perry (1807–1891)

by A. De Q. Robin

This article was published:

Charles Perry, by Antoine Fauchery, c1858

Charles Perry, by Antoine Fauchery, c1858

State Library of Victoria, H84.167/17

Charles Perry (1807-1891), Church of England bishop, was born on 17 February 1807 in London, third son of John Perry, sheriff of Essex and wealthy owner of the East India Docks at Blackwall, and his second wife Mary, sister of Richard Green, who became a partner and carried on the business after John Perry died in 1810.

Charles was educated in private schools at Clapham Common and Hackney and for four years at Harrow, where he played cricket against Eton. In 1824 he followed his brothers to Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1828), graduating with first-class honours and as senior wrangler, seventh classic and first Smith's prizeman. In October 1829 he passed the examination which entitled him to a fellowship of the college. He had been admitted to the Inner Temple in 1828 but after two years and a half his health broke down. Forced to abandon legal studies, he returned to Trinity (M.A., 1831) at the invitation of William Whewell (master 1841-66) and was an assistant tutor in 1832-40.

The example which his mother had given him in simple Christian duty helped Charles considerably at this difficult stage of his life. At Trinity he was given a Bible by the students for attending chapel most often amongst the fellows of the college when the fellows themselves ordered attendance at chapel eight times a week instead of five. Perry's example was appreciated by the students who formed a 'Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Undergraduates'. Through one of his pupils, Edward Hoare, Perry was introduced into an Evangelical circle which included Thomas Fowell Buxton and Joseph Gurney. The effect of this association was to settle his religious doubts and confirm his desire to be ordained. He became impressed by the duty of private judgment and subsequently seldom doubted the correctness of his doctrinal views. On 16 June 1833 he was made deacon at St Margaret's, Westminster, by the bishop of Gloucester and on 26 November 1836 ordained priest by the bishop of Ely.

Beside his academic work Perry developed a special pastoral interest in the growing area of Barnwell near Cambridge. Having bought the advowson of the living of St Andrew-the-Less, he began to develop it into a parish. Appointing as vicar a contemporary at Trinity College, Rev. Thomas Boodle, he encouraged and assisted the building of two other churches. Christ Church, Barnwell, was completed in 1839 and St Paul's, New Town, was opened in 1842 with Perry as assistant curate under Boodle. When the parish was divided in 1845 Perry became vicar of St Paul's. Meanwhile he had resigned as a fellow at Trinity and on 14 October 1841 married Frances, daughter of Samuel Cooper, a Hull merchant.

Perry's keen interest in developing theological education within the university and his active work on behalf of the Church Missionary Society brought him under notice, and when the secretary of state for the colonies was seeking a suitable candidate for the proposed diocese of Melbourne, Perry was nominated by Henry Venn, secretary of the C.M.S., and accepted by the bishop of London and the archbishop of Canterbury. On 29 June 1847 in Westminster Abbey, Archbishop Howley consecrated Charles Perry as bishop of Melbourne, William Tyrrell as bishop of Newcastle, Augustus Short as bishop of Adelaide and Robert Gray as bishop of Cape Town. The University of Cambridge had conferred the degree of D.D. (literas regius) on Perry in May.

The new bishop arrived with his wife in the clipper Stag at Melbourne on 23 January 1848 and was installed at St James's pro-Cathedral on the 28th. His letters patent designated Melbourne a city by virtue of being the seat of the bishop's see and defined his jurisdiction as 'bounded by a line drawn from Cape Howe to the nearest source of the River Murray, and by the course of that river, until it reaches the one hundred and forty-first parallel of East Longitude'. The population in this area was over 43,000, nearly half of whom were Anglicans; within eighteen months Perry had visited all the main centres. Disappointed at the ineffectiveness of the three colonial chaplains stationed at Melbourne, Geelong and Portland, Perry had to rely heavily on the three clergy and three lay readers who had accompanied him. Of these, Rev. H. B. Macartney was to prove his most trusted and able helper. The shortage of clergy was partly solved by appointing colonists who offered for ordination as lay readers under the superintendence of a clergyman until they had passed a qualifying examination. In the 1860s Perry's use of lay readers was severely criticized but in the early stages it was a valuable expedient in a diocese short of both men and money.

Perry's legal training made him appreciate that the ecclesiastical laws of England could not be applied in a colony where the Church of England was not 'established' and that clergy would be reluctant to serve in a diocese subject to the arbitrary will of the bishop. He also saw that the laity, unaccustomed to the necessity of supporting the clergy financially, could not be encouraged unless they had a proper share in appointing clergy to parishes and in the government of the Church. The practical needs of the diocese, coupled with a strong desire to divest himself of what he described as 'despotic power', led Perry to press for a revision of ecclesiastical law at the first opportunity.

After a conference and correspondence with his metropolitan, Bishop Broughton, Perry had two bills introduced by his registrar, Henry Moor, in the Legislative Council at Sydney in August 1850. The bills were designed to place clerical discipline on the same basis as that in England and to give the laity a distinct share in patronage. Local misunderstanding, denominational jealousy, hasty preparation and dislike of Moor led to withdrawal of the bills after a public meeting in Melbourne petitioned against them.

Two months later Perry was amongst the six Australasian bishops who met at Sydney 'to consult upon the various difficulties in which we are at present placed by the doubtful application to the Church in this province of the Ecclesiastical Laws now in force in England, and to suggest such measures as may seem to be most suitable for removing our present embarrassments'. The bishops were unanimous that the Church in Australia should be self-governing but were divided on the best way to achieve this aim. Perry believed that nothing short of an imperial Act could give the Church this right and was supported at this stage by Bishop Tyrrell. Bishop Selwyn of New Zealand and Bishop Short saw no legal barriers to drawing up a constitution on the basis of consensual compact, but no immediate action was taken beyond forwarding the minutes of the conference to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the hope that the British government would provide a solution.

Feeling in church-state relationships was intense in 1850 because the Privy Council had overruled the ecclesiastical Court of Arches and pronounced that opinions on baptismal regeneration expressed by Rev. G. C. Gorham were consistent with the articles and formularies of the Church of England. At the Sydney conference Perry had incurred the displeasure of his fellow bishops by putting forward an independent statement on holy baptism doctrinally in sympathy with Gorham's opinions. This statement, coupled with Perry's insistence on the need for a constitution by legislative enactment, led him to be accused of 'Erastianism'. However, he was a strong contender for the voluntary principle and in his primary Charge to his clergy in 1852 he showed that his views on baptism were reached independently of any party. With Selwyn, Perry insisted strongly on the need for adequate lay representation in any future synods, and in mid-1851 he called an assembly of his clergy and lay representatives to discuss the minutes of the bishops' conference and to express their views on the desirability and mode of synodical government. The assembly coincided with the separation of Victoria from New South Wales and Perry was able to obtain the unanimous support of the assembly for the Church of England in Victoria to begin to investigate ways and means of becoming self-governing. When Archbishop Sumner's colonial church regulation bill was rejected by the House of Commons in 1853, Perry asked William Stawell to draw up a bill based on this defeated measure but designed to apply exclusively to the Church of England in Victoria. The purpose of Sumner's bill had been to remove legal objections to any diocese drawing up its own constitution, and local sympathy for this principle was sufficient to enable Perry to obtain the support of a representative assembly of his own Church. He then had the bill passed by the Victorian Legislative Council in November 1854 and left immediately for England to plead in person for Royal assent. On 12 December 1855 Act 18 Vic. no 45 became law. In October 1856 he summoned the first legally authorized synod of the Church of England in the colonies. The Victoria Church Act became the model for other Australian diocesan constitutions and was cited in other colonial attempts to obtain synodical government.

Perry's episcopate coincided almost exactly with the transfer of educational responsibility from the church to the state in Victoria and when he left Melbourne in 1874 the church was receiving the final instalments of government assistance towards clerical stipends and church buildings. Perry did not favour the National schools, introduced to Port Phillip in 1848, because the teacher was forbidden by law to give any form of religious education and he did not believe that Christianity could be successfully imparted by a visiting instructor once a week. State aid to all denominations he described as 'a false and pernicious principle … stereotyping, so far as the State can do, every existing religious error'. In 1852 he told the select committee on education that state aid to denominational schools encouraged the establishment of rival schools in rural areas where the population was not sufficient for more than one. However, although he preferred the voluntary system, he would not oppose the majority of his fellow churchmen who believed the government grants for stipends, churches and vicarages, to be absolutely necessary; later he admitted that in the circumstances the Church of England could not have done without state aid.

A conflict between his views as an individual Christian and his official position as bishop, caused Perry to have difficulties in the field of government control of education. He recognized the practical necessity for the state to support elementary schools, especially in the gold rushes, but he did not believe that education should be altogether paid for by the government. Perry held that parents, not the state or the church, were primarily responsible for education. The government's responsibility, he said, was 'to take care that facilities for religious instruction are given in accordance with the tenets of the several parents and to confine its exertions to the secular instruction and moral education of the children', whilst the churches were to provide the religious instruction which the parents required. He was happy with a curriculum of religious instruction in primary schools on which all non-Roman Catholic churches could agree and believed that distinctive denominational principles should be reserved for secondary schools.

When National and denominational schools were brought under a single administration in 1862, Perry had no quarrel with the policy of the Common Schools' Board, provided that the property rights of his church were protected. He was even ready to allow voluntary combinations of churches to run a school and to provide religious instruction in areas where the population was not sufficient to justify more than one school. His liberal attitude brought him into conflict with the denominationalists on his own education committee. In 1867 he led a determined attack on Higinbotham's public instruction bill, embodying the recommendations of a royal commission that sectarian instruction in National schools and state aid to denominational education should be discontinued. Perry believed that such measures would foster an irreligious people and his opposition was largely responsible for Higinbotham withdrawing the bill. But the reprieve was only temporary and many Anglican day schools were closed after state aid to religion was abolished in 1872.

Perry's greatest contribution to education in Victoria was in the establishment of the Melbourne Diocesan Grammar School, begun under R. H. Budd in 1849, and the Geelong Grammar School which commenced under Rev. G. O. Vance in 1857. A warm admirer of the principles of Thomas Arnold, Perry believed that schools of this nature with a continuing tradition for sound learning and a religious education were best adapted for providing leaders in the community. He was personally responsible for the choice of Dr J. E. Bromby as headmaster of Melbourne Grammar School in 1858. In the field of tertiary education, the bishop was a foundation member of the Council of the University of Melbourne and a beginning had been made on Trinity College before he retired; he also gave 400 of his books to its library.

H. G. Turner's estimate of Perry as a pious but somewhat narrow-minded Evangelical, who was out of touch with contemporary thought, needs qualification. Certainly the bishop showed a marked antipathy to ritualism, partly because he believed it at variance with the literal sense of the Articles of the Church of England, partly because he saw ritualism as a danger to the unity of the diocese and the well-being of the Church. But as early as 1855 the five sermons which Perry preached before the University of Cambridge show that he was aware that scientific discoveries were challenging traditional interpretations of the Bible. In his numerous lectures delivered in the 1860s Perry acknowledged the need for scientific criticism to be met honestly. At the same time he remained confident that neither historical criticism nor scientific discoveries could ever demolish the essential truth of the Bible.

By the mid-1860s Perry saw that his diocese would soon need subdivision as the population continued to increase steadily after the spectacular immigrations to the goldfields in the 1850s. Reviewing the progress of the Church since 1851, the bishop told the Church Assembly in 1869 that in two decades the total number of clergy had increased to 113, whilst 162 churches and 75 parsonages had been built. State aid had supplied about a third of the cost of these buildings and clerical stipends, but an adequate maintenance for his clergy remained his most pressing concern; from his own pocket Perry more than once helped his clergy in distress. The creation of the bishopric of Ballarat was made possible in 1873 by appropriating capitation grants from the state to endow the new see.

On 26 February 1874 Perry and his wife sailed for England. He had been given the task of choosing a bishop for the new diocese in consultation with Sir William Stawell and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Having chosen Rev. Samuel Thornton, Perry wrote to Dean Macartney, the vicar-general, announcing his retirement. He agreed, however, to assist in finding a suitable successor and on 22 October 1876 Rev. James Moorhouse was consecrated as second bishop of Melbourne.

After the death of Bishop Selwyn Perry was appointed Prelate of the Order of St Michael and St George in the 1878 Queen's birthday honours list and at the invitation of Bishop Ollivant became a canon of Llandaff Cathedral. In retirement he was an active vice-president of the Church Missionary Society and a committee member of both S.P.G. and S.P.C.K. Until 1883 he regularly attended the Church Congress, often speaking strongly for the Evangelical viewpoint. His greatest achievement in retirement was the foundation of the theological college, Ridley Hall, Cambridge, officially opened in 1881. By introducing the principle of doctrinal tests to which members of the council were expected to subscribe, Perry drew criticism upon the whole project from such eminent scholars as B. F. Westcott and J. B. Lightfoot, but as chairman of the council he justified this action as being necessary at a time when both ritualism and rationalism were distracting the Church.

Canon S. L. Chase, who served under Perry for many years in Melbourne, described the bishop as a man made up of many paradoxes, in whom an intensely affectionate nature hid itself under a crust of repelling severity and a confiding spirit under a veil of sternness and suspicion. Lacking the brilliance of personality to match the force of his intellect, Perry was often underestimated by his contemporaries. His refusal to compromise his doctrinal convictions made him unpopular with critics who did not always equally appreciate his readiness to sacrifice his own interests and his scrupulous attempts to be impartial. The Argus had often attacked his policies but described him as an antagonist whose courtesy freed arguments from bitterness and one whose life was a daily moral lesson to the community. His outstanding achievement was to obtain legal synodical government for the Church of England in Victoria and his greatest insight was the importance of the laity in the total organization and life of the Church. He died on 2 December 1891 and was buried in the family grave at Harlow, Essex. His wife died on the first anniversary of his death; they had no children. His probate in Australia was sworn at £33,000.

A portrait by Henry Weigall is in the La Trobe Library, Melbourne, and his personal copy was bequeathed to Ridley Hall, Cambridge.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Goodman, The Church in Victoria During the Episcopate of the Right Reverend Charles Perry (Melb, 1892)
  • R. Robson, Ideas and Institutions of Victorian Britain (Lond, 1967)
  • A. de Q. Robin, Charles Perry, Bishop of Melbourne (Perth, 1967), and for bibliography
  • K. E. Dear, ‘Bishop Perry and the rise of national education in Victoria, 1848-1873’, Melbourne Studies in Education, E. L. French ed (Melb, 1965)
  • A. de Q. Robin, ‘Bishop Perry and lay representation in colonial synods’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Apr 1964.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. De Q. Robin, 'Perry, Charles (1807–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Perry, by Antoine Fauchery, c1858

Charles Perry, by Antoine Fauchery, c1858

State Library of Victoria, H84.167/17

Life Summary [details]


17 February, 1807
London, Middlesex, England


2 December, 1891 (aged 84)

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