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Chambers, George Alexander (Jerry) (1877–1963)

from Anglican (Sydney)

George Alexander Chambers, first Bishop of Central Tanganyika, was rather more than a great figure in the life of the Australian Church and the Anglican Communion.

He was of that dazzling company of Australians, which included Maurice Hankey, Gordon Childe, Fisher, Gilbert Murray, John Hunter and a dozen others – many still living – who achieved eminence in the great world of the Commonwealth and Empire, far from what used to be the most sluggish of Antipodean backwaters. By his life, like the others, he both shed lustre upon his native land and impressed upon us the reality of our oneness with the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world.

“Jerry” Chambers, to most people, was also a bit of a puzzle.

His preaching was often quite lamentable in style, sometimes woolly and diffuse, so that the hard point he was trying to make frequently escaped his hearers. He was on his own admission not a good man with figures and accounts. He denied that he had any gifts of organisation. He was not particularly an intellectual of any kind, and least of all a theologian.

Born Leader
I think what he had were qualities not of intellect, but of heart. Not that he was not a highly intelligent person; but he was one of those who went far beyond mere logical reasoning, to the spirit of things.

These qualities of heart meant two things: he had the courage of a very lion, and he was the most friendly and approachable of men. What appealed to people, one imagines, was his simplicity and humanity. He was a born leader, on the kind which sees an objective clearly, and decides to achieve it. The difficulties are there only to give a bit more zest to the task. The details can be worked out by experts – and Chambers was a master at getting “experts” to work for him.

Oddly, his deficiencies (judged by ordinary standards) included an inability to write strait-forward English prose at any length.

On and off, for ten years, he acted as an honorary correspondent-at-large for The Anglican. His occasional “news’ despatches were remarkable during all that time for their unprintability. But his letters! Here was something different! He met everyone, knew everything. And was an invaluable source of both “background” intelligence and hard news through his private letters. His own personality shone through those letters: cheerful, boyish, always charitable, always forward-looking, and, above all, completely unselfish.

He was born in Sydney in 1877, and educated during his most impressionable years at that nursery of Australian brain and character, Fort Street Model School.

Fort Street, which then occupied its original buildings near the Sydney Harbour Bridge, had not then become a “high school”, although it offered post-primary education.

Wide Influence
Chambers went on to what was then known as “The High School, Sydney”, which had been established in Mary Ann Street, Ultimo, on the site of the present Sydney Technical College.

He preceded here his two friends, the late M. C. Alder and W. G. Hilliard, by precisely ten years.

To a younger generation, accustomed to regarding men like Hilliard and Alder as “old”, this demonstrates how much more long-lived Chambers was.

In due course he went to St. Paul’s College within the University of Sydney, whence he took a first degree in Arts, followed by an M.A., in 1900.

He only spent a year at Moore Theological College before being made deacon in 1901. He was priested in the following year.

The first tangible indication of Chambers’ future greatness became apparent during 1904 to 1911, when he was vice-principal of Moore College. It was in these years that he earnestly induced a number of men, mostly in the Diocese of Sydney, not merely to take Holy Orders, but to equip themselves the better for ordination by proceeding to university degrees.

Chambers always insisted on the need for at least a well educated and well trained ministry, even if not necessarily a “learned” ministry of the kind which the United Kingdom boasted for so many years.

In 1911, and for the next seventeen years, he was Rector of Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, in the Diocese of Sydney.

The tangible memorials to this incumbency there are such things as Holy Trinity Church, St. Stephen’s, Hurlstone Park, and St. Aidan’s, Dulwich Hill.

Far more important than these buildings was his impact on an ever-increasing group of young men, some of outstanding ability, whom he inspired and trained.

To name only a few, such outstanding figures in the Australian Church as W. G. Hilliard, W. Wynn Jones, W. J. Edwards, E. F. N. Cash and E.J. Davidson were “Chambers men”.

He started Trinity Grammar School, with thirty-six boys, in his rectory at Dulwich Hill. No schoolmaster himself, he “elected” W. G. Hilliard to take charge of the teaching.

On the very day that the school first assembled, the euphemistically termed “school council” “resolved” to buy a large house nearby. The question of how much money it would cost, and where the money would come from, was brushed aside.

It was not long before the property was bought and not very much longer before Chambers acquired the former Hurlstone Agricultural College to house the school’s expanding numbers.

The financing of the acquisition of the old Agricultural College was a masterpiece of financial impertinence. Chambers himself, with two of his loyal churchwardens, jointly and severally guaranteed the large sum of £25,000, which they extracted from a banker, whose doubts melted under the Chambers charm.

Chambers was known throughout these years, 1913-1928, as “Warden” of Trinity Grammar School. His precise powers and functions were apparently never closely defined. It was hardly necessary: he was the school.

One of his most loyal supporters was the then Archbishop of Sydney, John Charles Wright, who sent him off to England in 1917, to see what the Colonial and Continental Church Society was prepared to do in helping the Australian Church with a number of problems.

Chambers did not hasten unduly. He met everyone who mattered in England, including Winifred Marian Rice – the daughter of an English clergyman – whom he married. He did not return to Australia until 1919; but he came back with a little money, a promise of more, and undertakings by three or four clergymen to come work in Australia. Most important of all, he came back with some clear-cut views on how to organise a society in Australia which would do for this country what the “Col and Con” did from England.

The result was the formation of the Bush Church Aid Society, of which Chambers was one of the original four moving spirits, and to which he gave his enthusiasm and organising capacity for several years thereafter. He had the satisfaction, before leaving Australia in 1927, of seeing the B.C.A. complete with one priest flying his own aeroplane.

On All Saints’ Day, 1927, Chambers was consecrated by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, who ad resolved to appoint him first bishop of the newly-created Diocese of Central Tanganyika, which C.M.S. in Australia had promised to support. Before going to Tanganyika, Chambers felt it was imperative for him to put Trinity Grammar School on a proper financial basis. He accordingly came back to Sydney and, with the aid of J. H. Bosch (who himself gave £10,000) and Sir Kelso King (who raised a similar amount) freed the school of debt and established it on a footing which, although the economic depression of the next few years at one stage affected it seriously, none the less enabled the school to survive.

On of the most successful Episcopal “pirates” of all time, Chambers set about collecting a team to take with him to Tanganyika. Sixteen of them set forth, in 1928 – backed by a not inconsiderable sum of money, and promises of much more to follow.

The new diocese had been carved out of the former swollen Diocese of Mombasa. It had little in the way of personnel; but what it had was first rate material. It had no money or financial resources; but that did not bother Chambers: he had faith. Ever practical, ever concerned with the practical expression of Christian belief, he and his wife were appalled at the infant mortality rate in the new diocese. A harassed Director of Medical Services told him that his most urgent need was nurses for maternity work. Chambers persuaded six very well qualified young women to go to Tanganyika from Australia. From that nucleus grew what came universally to be regarded as one of the most efficient missionary medical services in the world.

Even in Tanganyika, Chambers remained in spirit a school “warden”. He started immediately on the problem of education in his diocese. The results are seen today in the Mvumi School for Girls and the Dodoma School for Boys – now known as the Alliance School – and many others.

To build schools, churches, hospitals and dispensaries, even to the modest standards demanded in Tanganyika in those days, required money. Precisely how Chambers did it has mystified most of his admirers and even many of his closest collaborators. What is beyond dispute is that he was extraordinarily successful at putting it to people that, if they had a few pounds or a few shillings to spare, then he could use it for really good practical purposes.

It is said that during the ‘30s, when he made an appeal over the B.B.C. in the series “The Week’s Good Cause”, that five-minute talk brought in a total of £6,000 sterling. In terms of real purchasing power, this would be the equivalent of not less than £30,000 Australian currency today.

Extensive Tour
After twenty years as Bishop of Central Tanganyika, Chambers decided to make way for younger men to build on the basis he had laid. He was appointed to be Chaplain of the British Embassy Church in Paris – and Rural Dean (!) of France, a post in which he served with humanity and distinction for the next eight years.

In 1955, at the age of 78, he resigned his appointment at the Embassy to undertake an extensive tour of the Church of South India and the work of the Church in Hong Kong, Australia, Jamaica and elsewhere.

He was a little dubious by 1957, when he had after all passed his eightieth birthday, about any future work beyond occasional engagements. However, a friend who was incumbent of the old Garrison Church of the Holy Trinity at Windsor persuaded him to lend a hand there, and he served as assistant curate in Windsor for two years.

Perhaps the most extraordinary appointment he accepted, and the one most typical of the man, was his last. In 1959 he returned to his old diocese, at the invitation of Bishop Stanway, to become Chaplain of St. George’s Church, Iriga, which was in urgent need of repair and redecoration. The old master had not lost his hand. With the same boyish enthusiasm which saw him found Trinity Grammar School, he set to work in the district, and by writing to his friends all over the world, to raise the necessary money.

That task accomplished, he returned to Sydney, where he spent his remaining years in retirement.

Original publication

  • Anglican (Sydney), 19 December 1963, p 6

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Citation details

'Chambers, George Alexander (Jerry) (1877–1963)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/chambers-george-alexander-jerry-27504/text34906, accessed 18 October 2019.

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