CHASE, Corrie Denew (1878-1965)
The longest-serving member of the staff at Campbell College was Albert Maxwell, who retired as Head Porter in 1993 after 64 years of unbroken full-time service. Amongst the academic staff, however, Corrie Denew Chase - universally known at Belmont as ‘Chevy’ - was the schoolmaster whose name was associated most enduringly (60 years) with the institution.
He was born on 12 August 1878 at Weston-super-Mare, where his father (Rev Charles Henry Chase) was curate to his own father (Rev Henry John Neale Chase). One of Corrie Chase’s great-grandfathers, Samuel Chase, had been Mayor of Reading in 1842, but their genealogical inheritance primarily encompassed members of the professions: medical and legal, plus many ecclesiastical figures, boasting two Bishops of the Church of England (Frederic Henry Chase, Bishop of Ely 1905-1924, and his son, George Armitage Chase, Bishop of Ripon 1946-1959). Additionally, a nephew, Michael White, became a world expert in animal cytogenetics and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. In 1882 Corrie Chase went to live in the Lake District when his father obtained the incumbency of Ambleside. A clerical neighbour was Rev Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, the founder of The National Trust, whose interests and writings in nature, botany and rambling ultimately may well have exercised some influence upon the young Chase.
In 1891 Corrie’s father became Rector of St Minver (near Wadebridge) on the north Cornish coast and, after a very brief period at a prep school near Malvern, the fourteen-year-old was sent for his education to Blundell’s School in Devon in 1892. Here he was raised in the prevailing philosophy of ‘manliness’ or ‘muscular Christianity’ - so avidly introduced at Campbell College by its second Headmaster, R A H MacFarland (1908-1922) - which sought to combine the ideals of a Christian ethos with athleticism. Corrie readily participated in the principal sports of rugby and cricket, and excelled at gymnastics, but was also sufficiently scholastic to earn a scholarship to Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge (1897-1900).
Upon graduation he started in September 1900 as a Classics master at Woodbridge School in Suffolk. At some stage he determined to pursue an interest in Modern Languages, and in 1903 resigned and spent the next two years studying German at Heidelberg University and French at the Sorbonne in Paris. Possibly as a result of his acquaintance with his Sidney Sussex contemporary, George Ritchie Thompson - one of the first pupils at Campbell College in 1894, who returned to become a member of staff in 1900 - Corrie Chase took up a post as a Modern Languages teacher at Belmont in 1905. He was appointed Senior Modern Languages Master in 1911, a post he held until his official retirement in 1938. In the years before the First World War, Chase encouraged familiarity with languages by taking small groups of pupils on visits to the continent during the summer vacation, and even translated nursery rhymes such as Jack and Jill and Baa, baa, Black Sheep into French.
Chase was closely involved in the formation of the Campbell College OTC in late 1909 - the first school contingent in Ireland - and, as its Commanding Officer, organised regular Field Days, shooting practices and camps in England. Despite the fact that, as an Englishman, he may have felt that the struggles of Ulstermen against Home Rule were not his problem, he signed the Solemn League & Covenant (September 1912) at Campbell College, in company with a number of colleagues. When the European war erupted in August 1914 he enlisted in the Royal Irish Rifles, being appointed a Captain in no.3 Company of 16 (Pioneer) Battalion, alongside his Campbell colleague, William Henry Madden. He was presented by the Headmaster with an inscribed pair of binoculars which are still in the family’s possession. After being transported to France in October 1915, his unit was based near Raincheval, just behind the Somme front. Over the winter months, in appalling weather, Chase led his Company in constructing trenchworks and dugouts, often within 200 yards of the German lines.
During the first five months of 1916 Chase and no.3 Company were intensively engaged in the construction of a 20-mile, full-gauge railway from Candas to Acheux, close to the front lines. On 19 June he was temporarily appointed second-in-command of the Pioneer Battalion. Chase was actively involved when the Battle of the Somme erupted on 1 July, and the Battalion War Diary records that, at the end of the day: “Capt Chase showed great calmness and military skill in helping to make arrangements for holding our first line lest the enemy should attack. All Thiepval Wood was under heavy shell fire and the scene is beyond description”. On 3 July his Company succeeded in cutting the only trench to be laid across no-man’s-land. Later in the year Capt Madden recorded in a letter to Campbell College that his colleague had “had a lucky escape as he was returning from the line when the strafe started, and [Chase] is said to have beaten even time in the last hundred yards”.
In May 1917 he was mentioned in the despatches of Field Marshal Haig, and two months later moved with his Company near Poperinghe to the west of Ypres. He became briefly involved in the early stages of the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele), before returning to the Somme sector in late August. Three months later he was assigned to the General Staff List, and was awarded the Military Cross on 1 January 1918 which The Campbellian magazine claimed was for “conspicuous gallantry in the field”, although Chase always claimed it was a ‘routine’ award. He was eventually demobilised on 1 February 1919, when he returned to teaching duties at Campbell College.
During the 1920s he became one of the boarding Housemasters, and unsuccessfully applied for the Headmastership in 1922. As head of the languages department he was probably involved in the brief engagement of Samuel Beckett at Campbell during the first half of 1928. In many ways ‘Chevy’ Chase typified the traditional, conservative approach to schoolmastering. He adopted a very frugal life-style, although this was often typical of his profession. Teaching was very badly rewarded between the Wars, with pay cuts not unknown, and some of his colleagues suffered a precarious financial existence. He was known for his spartan wardrobe. When travelling abroad for several weeks during the summer vacation, apart from the clothes he travelled in, he regarded one additional shirt and one pair of socks as adequate luggage. Whatever the weather, until his later years, he never donned a raincoat and within the school buildings he almost invariably wore carpet slippers.
He never learned to drive, and could walk prodigious distances. When visiting the centre of Belfast, Chase would usually walk between the Belmont and the city, which took him through the economically depressed parts of East Belfast, the problems and realities of which seem to have eluded him. Committed to the academic life, much of his private time was spent in reading. At his funeral it was said: “His bookshelves were tightly packed. Here there was evidence of judicious selection and planned reading ... His tastes lay mainly among the well-tried classics, for he had no use for the ephemeral and catch-penny. He was a good scholar, sound in classical languages and widely read in several modern ones”. As he wandered through Ballymacarrett, Chase could not comprehend why so many men gathered pointlessly on street corners or at the entrance to public houses: “How far better these men would be employed”, he suggested in 1930, “had they some rational interest in life, some hobby, which would take them out into the open country to study the works of nature; or if they were to remain quietly at home reading some work of philosophy, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, for example, or Dante's Divine Comedy, or even - shall we say - their Bibles?”
When, as a consequence of the school regulations, he was obliged to retire at the age of sixty in 1938, he asked to be allowed to stay on at Belmont “on the understanding that his services should not involve the Governors in any financial liability”. This was accepted, and when seventeen members of the Campbell Staff enlisted on the outbreak of the Second World War and the College was evacuated to the Northern Counties Hotel in Portrush in late 1940, Chase’s continued service proved invaluable. In August 1943, at the age of 65, he was legally obliged to retire, but he offered to teach without salary in return for board and lodging. He returned with the College upon its resettlement at Belmont in February 1946, and continued to teach part-time, offering tuition to those entering public examinations (particularly Oxbridge) and nature study classes in the school grounds to junior classes.
The latter stemmed from his enduring interest in natural history. There is evidence that Chase began collecting botanical specimens before the First World War, when he was encouraged to assist his colleague, Stephen Bennett, in cataloguing the flora of the Belmont estate. In 1919 Chase joined the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club (BNFC), and rapidly became a highly respected and very active member. He botanised widely, taking the opportunity to gather plants at all locations - on the Campbell College estate, at rubbish tips, in gravel pits, by the side of railways lines, at Ballykinlar Camp, and particularly along the north Antrim coast during the school’s sojourn in Portrush. After his lengthy summer holidays abroad he would present exhibitions at the annual BNFC Conversazioni, and gave numerous public lectures. In 1927, during his Presidential address, R S Lepper declared that Chase’s “wide knowledge of the plants of Ulster, of Europe generally, and even of other continents, bade fair to become encyclopaedic”.
The Englishman’s botanical expertise was respected by all the other leading figures of the period, such as Robert Lloyd Praeger of Holywood who, in 1949, included Chase in his collection Some Irish Naturalists: biographical note-book, in which he conceded that: “[Chase] is an excellent field botanist, and has done useful work in the north-east. His holidays have been spent mostly on the continent and in North Africa, where he has carried out widespread herborisations”. He was especially adept at discovering alien plant species in Ireland. Chase contributed a number of articles to the Irish Naturalists’ Journal, and is listed amongst the Principal Collectors and Recorders in S A Stewart and T H Corry’s essential volume: Flora of the North East of Ireland. His personal Herbarium of (it is claimed) approximately 4000 specimens is now held by the Ulster Museum.
In 1930 he was elected President of the BNFC, a post which had been held in 1922 by his colleague, Stephen Bennett. Following the initial impulse given by the latter, Chase’s manifold articles (most of which featured in numerous editions of The Campbellian) on the estates’ flora and fauna were consolidated in 1949 into The Natural History of Campbell College and Cabin Hill. He encouraged others - particularly pupils - to become engaged in the gathering of information. William MacQuitty - who left Campell in 1923, and later produced the film A Night to Remember - indicates in his autobiography (A Life to Remember) that he discovered a specimen of early purple orchid.
Others owed a greater debt to the idiosyncratic supernumerary schoolmaster. John Pate, a pupil at Campbell College in the late 1940s who lived in Cherryvalley, demonstrated an interest in birds. Chase fostered this enthusiasm, to the point of encouraging the young day-pupil to defy the school regulations and (along with boarding pupils) visit his first-floor room in the evenings by climbing a drain pipe and parapet. The illicit sessions paid dividends and Pate was later to acknowledge his debt, and he became successively Professor of Plant Physiology at QUB (1970) and Professor of Botany at the University of Western Australia (1974); like Chase’s nephew (White), he was appointed a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1980), and a Fellow of the Royal Society five years later.
The ‘Chips’ factor
In 1958 Campbell College named a House in honour of Corrie Chase. He suffered illness in his final years, and spent some time in Wandsworth Nursing Home, and finally at 51 Dundela Avenue, being cared for by Hanna MacMullan, but his name was closely linked with Campbell College until his death on 15 October 1965. His funeral service was held at Belmont Presbyterian Church where, despite being raised in the Anglican tradition, he had worshipped during his years at Campbell and where his name features on the congregational War Memorial. Following the service, the cortège then drove to the Belmont estate and wound through the grounds with which Chase had been so familiar, with the entire College lining the route in silent tribute. His remains were then taken to Roselawn Crematorium.
His sixty-year association resulted in inevitable comparisons with ‘Mr Chips’. Chase fitted the legendary image in appearance, demeanour and disposition. He remained popular with pupils until his final days at the school, and was renowned for knowing all of them by name and being familiar with their genealogical ties for up to three generations. One early pupil, Dr Leslie Gregg (who was to become an expert in tropical diseases), wrote in tribute on Chase’s death that: “I had the greatest regard for Mr Chase who appears to have become a real Mr Chips; he most certainly won my affection ... I cherish the memory of happy school days epitomised by C D Chase”. Professor Pate echoed this sentiment: “A truly Mr Chips character in appearance and generosity of spirit if ever there was one”.
The ‘Chips’ persona concealed one truly remarkable coincidence which no-one at the time - probably not even ‘Chevy’ Chase himself - realised. The Classics teacher whom Chase succeeded at Woodbridge School in 1900, and with whom he probably shook hands, was William H Balgarnie on his way to The Leys in Cambridge - where he matured into the very model for James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr Chips!
From his book - A brief history of Knock, Belmont and Strandtown, published by Ballyhay Books of Donaghadee.
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