COSTER, GEORGE, Church of England clergyman and professor; b. 29 Nov. 1794 in Newbury, England, son of George Nathaniel Coster, a clergyman, and Anne Allen; m. Eleanor Hansard, and they had nine daughters and one son; d. 8 Jan. 1859 in Fredericton.
George Coster was the eldest of three brothers who served as missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and who all eventually settled in New Brunswick. Educated at Charterhouse, London, and St John’s College, Cambridge (ba in classics and mathematics, 1816; ma 1829), he was ordained priest by the bishop of London in 1819. Although he had expressed a wish to work in the Canadas, that year he went to Bermuda to become head of a college; it proved unsuccessful and he stayed on as rector of a parish. In 1822 he became a missionary of the SPG. Coster was not satisfied with the response to his efforts among the poor blacks in the parish, but apparently his superiors were impressed by his talents, for in June 1825 he was transferred to Newfoundland as bishop’s commissary and that colony’s first archdeacon. He resided at Bonavista and personally served that very large outport parish. He travelled extensively by boat and is credited with leading his parishioners in building their first three miles of roads. Living so far from the capital gave him an appreciation of outport life but made it difficult to carry out his responsibilities as archdeacon. He had firm ideas on the pastoral duties of missionaries and on the teaching of church doctrines in the schools. These beliefs led to disagreements with the governor, Thomas John Cochrane*, and with the Newfoundland School Society. Coster felt the governor was “too” liberal and “conciliating” in encouraging “Parsons, Priests and Dissenting ‘Clergymen’ to meet on an equal footing at Government House, and in issuing licences to unqualified persons so that they could perform marriages. Also objecting to the governor’s criticisms of clergymen, he argued that the out-harbours required a “humbler description” of men than the gentlemen of talents, attainments, and polished manners that the governor and the Council were seeking. Coster’s objection to the school society was based on his belief that it was more concerned with religious zeal than with Church of England principles.
In October 1829 Coster was appointed to succeed the Reverend George Best* as archdeacon of New Brunswick and rector of Fredericton. He arrived in Fredericton the following July. When recommending the transfer, John Inglis*, bishop of the diocese of Nova Scotia (which included both Newfoundland and New Brunswick), had written of the “immense good” that Coster had been effecting in Newfoundland and of “the plans of improvement which thro this arrangement might be left unfinished.” He was nevertheless concerned to remove Coster “to a situation of superior advantage and comfort” in view of his ill health. He was also anxious to have his own man in New Brunswick, for he saw the archdeacon as “the confidential agent and Eye of the Bishop.” Inglis had moved vigorously to assert his right of nomination to the archdeaconry in order to head off the appointment of Benjamin Gerrish Gray, rector of Saint John, the favoured candidate of Lieutenant Governor Sir Howard Douglas* who had the right to nominate the rector of Fredericton. Gray did not share the bishop’s high church ideas of episcopal authority. Coster did.
In passing over Gray, Inglis unwittingly divided the Church of England in New Brunswick. Gray refused to acknowledge Coster’s authority and, when Coster did intervene, attacked the archdeacon’s ideas and friends from the pulpit and through the newspapers. As a result, Coster’s influence did not extend into the city of Saint John, though his point of view was effectively expressed on the other side of its harbour by his combative brother Frederick, the rector of Carleton.
In the polarization of evangelicals and high churchmen within the Church of England, Coster was firmly with the latter party. Until his arrival, the more prominent clergymen had all been evangelicals: Best; the Reverend Edwin Jacob*, the new principal and vice-president of King’s College (after 1859 the University of New Brunswick); and the influential Gray. In Coster’s eyes, a fondness for “vital religion,” which they shared with Methodists and Baptists, led to their paying too little attention to some important teachings of the church. There was also laxity in the supervision of SPG funds intended for the support of parish schools, often referred to as the Madras or national schools [see John Baird]. In a number of places schoolmasters who did not belong to the Church of England were being employed. Since the New Brunswick assembly was generous in making funds available for the parish schools, Coster saw it as his duty to ensure that SPG funds were used to support only those teachers who taught the full catechism and instilled church principles. However, being mild-mannered and conciliatory, he moved gradually in making changes. His thorough, careful, and lengthy appraisals, and his downright assessments of the character and competence of teachers, show his concern to weed out incompetence and to improve the general quality of education in the province.
In 1832 Coster chaired a meeting at which it was suggested that there should be an annual convention of clergy, open to lay delegates, for the purposes of encouraging local support of the church in New Brunswick, then still largely maintained by funds and priests sent from England. Initially, Bishop Inglis disapproved but in 1836 he gave his permission, “if we can make all of its parts harmonize with the two great Church Societies [the SPG and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge] whose objects must form our limits.” Otherwise, he noted, “we shall be in danger of running wild.” According to Ernest Hawkins*, the SPG secretary, the establishment of the Church Society of the Archdeaconry of New-Brunswick (Diocesan Church Society of New Brunswick) in 1836 was “the first systematic attempt made in a British colony for the more full and efficient support of its own Church.” The society placed emphasis on providing funds for missionary work in remote parts of the province, on assistance to church building, on aiding candidates for the clergy, and on the training of schoolmasters and schoolmistresses. Its central figures, until the arrival of Bishop John Medley* in 1845, were Archdeacon Coster and his brother Frederick. The society grew to have such pivotal importance to churchmen in New Brunswick that it became known as “the Parliament of the Church.” On Coster’s recommendation, annual reports were published from the beginning, helping to provide Anglicans throughout the province with a new sense of identity and purpose.
Although Coster was cautious in making innovations, he showed persistence and skill in looking after the interests of the church in its relations with the government of the colony. Particularly noteworthy was his success in gaining title, in the name of Church of England institutions, to public lands set aside for the support of religion and education. In most cases the title went to parish corporations, but they were difficult to control and, just before responsibility for crown lands was transferred from the Colonial Office to the assembly in 1837, Coster arranged that the property the church had yet to receive should be placed under a board of trustees of church lands, made up of prominent officials.
In the two decades before 1837, the Colonial Office had used part of the public revenues it controlled to support an Anglican system of education. Coster feared that when it surrendered those revenues to the province the church’s influence would be undermined. However, in 1838 the reformers in the assembly failed either to carry proposals for amending the charter of King’s College or to make changes in the Madras School Board. The house did pass an appropriation for the support of a Baptist seminary in Fredericton, but this was rejected in the Legislative Council by a large majority. “The only point that they [the anti–Church of England group] have gained against us,” Coster wrote in a report to the SPG offices on 6 March 1838, “is an extension of the right to celebrate marriage among parties not of their own denomination; which before they did not hesitate to do whenever they had the opportunity.” For the time being at least, he was encouraged, and noted, “Our Churchmen are evidently awakened to the necessity of exerting themselves in defence and support of the Church.”
The attacks on King’s College, which persisted until 1859, were of particular concern to Coster, because from 1829 to 1845 the archdeacon of the province was its unpaid president under the terms of the royal charter. Day-to-day administration was in the hands of the vice-president, Edwin Jacob, with whom his relations were never cordial and Coster’s formal duties were confined to chairing meetings of the council. However, in 1841–42 when Jacob was on leave in England, he went up to the college every day to supervise its operations and to teach Jacob’s classes in divinity. On Jacob’s return, Coster continued to hold a weekly tutorial for prospective clergymen, emphasizing “the peculiar position of the Church and her positive dogmatic teaching.” This, in the words of William Quintard Ketchum, a former student writing many years later, “was far from a popular course; the tide was all the other way.”
Evangelical hopes reached their high point in New Brunswick during the régime of Lieutenant Governor Sir John Harvey. They were to ebb with the appointment in 1844 of one of the highest of high churchmen, John Medley, as the first bishop of Fredericton. Coster wrote of his nomination, “We want such a man exactly as he is represented to be.” Earlier, when Harvey had urged the appointment of Jacob, a low churchman, Coster had himself reluctantly agreed to be a candidate if the appointment was to go to a clergyman already in the colony. Medley brought youth, vigour, and new ideas to the church in New Brunswick; even more essential to his success, however, were the financial resources and the support of his tractarian friends in England. In the presence of this powerful figure, Coster faded into the background.
The four years before Medley’s arrival were probably the happiest of Coster’s life. Lieutenant Governor Sir William MacBean George Colebrooke* was his friend and the Costers went “often to make music at Government House”: the archdeacon was a fine musician and his wife, son, and several of their daughters were singers. Whereas his letters to the SPG in the late 1830s had been pessimistic about the future of the church in the colony, they were now full of hope, with reports on the excellence of candidates for the ministry, on the greatly improved condition of the national schools, and on the success of his ideas within the church and of the church within the community, even though newspapers and political figures alike seemed often to be “friendly to dissent.”
In handling his own parish Coster was very cautious. He insisted on adhering strictly to the rules of the prayer book with reference to the celebration of Holy Communion and holy days, but the only significant innovation introduced was the institution in 1835 of evening services at the direction of Bishop Inglis. The parish vestry was a conservative body which maintained the church as a bastion of privilege, discouraging the attendance of the poor by refusing to provide free seating. The advent of Medley disturbed this cosy situation. He decided that the site of the parish church was the most suitable that could be found for his new cathedral. This decision required either the removal or the demolition of the old church building. In 1846 the vestry voted to cooperate with the bishop, but popular agitation arose against the incorporation of the parish church into the cathedral; eventually, in 1853, it was agreed to split the parish and cathedral properties. The upsetting of old social customs and the proposal to make the cathedral seating free probably had more to do with the popular feeling against the union than anything else. Throughout the controversy Coster adhered rigidly to the old church principle “Nothing without the Bishop,” obeying even when ordered to hold services in the cathedral instead of in the parish church. Finally, to Coster’s relief, his parish congregation was reconstituted at St Anne’s, an attractive stone church in the Gothic revival style, which Medley had had erected as a chapel of ease. When collections in the new church proved to be inadequate, Coster himself paid most of the costs of poor relief that had previously been met by the congregation: the sum amounted to more than £70 annually. The last months before his death were to be disturbed by yet another action of the bishop; his brother Nathaniel, the rector of Gagetown, received what Coster considered to be a harsh condemnation for striking a parishioner.
In 1831, the year following their arrival in Fredericton, the Costers had lost most of their possessions, suffering two house fires in five months. The vestry then constructed a fine brick parsonage for them. In this house the poor were received with Christian charity. There were also pleasant parties, with Eleanor Coster “always ready for a rattling discussion.” And there was music, both sacred and popular. In the evenings there were readings: “The best plays of Shakespeare he knew by heart. No one enjoyed more the fun and wit of Dickens and Thackeray, or felt more deeply their beauty and pathos.”
The household became a centre for the British community in Fredericton. James Robb*, a young Scottish medical doctor who was professor of chemistry and natural history at the college, was converted to Anglicanism by Coster and married his eldest daughter. Other sons-in-law included James Carter*, the chief justice; Edward Barron Chandler*, member of a prominent political family; and Frank Wills, the architect of Christ Church Cathedral in Fredericton and a pioneer among the architects of the Gothic revival in North America. Coster’s son, the Reverend Charles, was a master in the collegiate school in Fredericton.
The archdeacon was “a good staunch Tory” who defended the privileges of the church and, in particular, opposed efforts to make King’s College a more secular institution. He had little sympathy with the emergence of popular politics and was unhappy about the coming of responsible government, with the accompanying decline of families whose fortune depended on high official salaries and life tenure in public offices. In his later years he suffered severely from asthma, and frequent illnesses curtailed his public activities. He was, in any event, essentially man of the study and of the pulpit, not of the active political world.
Coster’s few published sermons are models of clarity. Bishop Medley described them as distinguished for conciseness and purity of style with considerable force of expression. On his death the bishop wrote, “The Church has lost in him an able and accurate scholar. . . . The poor will feel the loss of a very kind friend.”
Anglican Church of Canada, Diocese of Fredericton Arch., Christ Church Anglican Church (Fredericton), records (mfm. at PANB). Guildhall Library (London), ms 9532A/2 (Diocese of London; bishop’s act-book, 1809–28). Lambeth Palace Library (London), Fulham papers. PAC, MG 24, A17; RG 7, G8 B, 10, no.23. PANB, MC 58; MC 211, MS4/5/1 (“Notes on the history of Fredericton parish church . . .” (typescript, 1922)); 4/5/2 (“Manuscript notes on the Fredericton parish church”); 4/5/3 (“The present (Fredericton) parish church” (typescript, 1922)); MC 300, MS4/9 (“A calendar of the S.P.G. . . . ,” intro. Lillian Maxwell (typescript, [1940?]); “Ven. Archdeacon George Coster, 1829 to 1844,” comp. E. M. Chapman (typescript, 1936)); RG 7, RS75A, 1859, George Coster. PRO, CO 188 (mfm. at PANB). USPG, C/CAN/folder 253; C/CAN/NB, 6, nos.4, 7, 10, 12–13, 23, 33, 36, 39, 42, 56, 62, 65, 68–69, 71, 74; D11: 225–30, 397–402, 493–94 (mfm. at PAC). UNBL, MG H1, “Old Fredericton and the college: town and gown as described in the letters of James and Ellen Robb,” ed. A. G. Bailey (typescript, 1973). Church of England, Diocesan Church Soc. of N.B., Report (Saint John), 1837–59. Ernest Hawkins, Annals of the diocese of Fredericton (London, 1847). [John Inglis], A journal of visitation in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and along the eastern shore of New Brunswick, by the lord bishop of Nova Scotia, in the summer and autumn of 1843 (3rd ed., London, 1846). Robb and Coster, Letters (Bailey). SPG, [Annual report] (London) 1822–59.
W. J. Clarke, “An introduction to the constitutional history of the Church of England in British North America” (ma thesis, Univ. of N.B., Fredericton, 1944). G. E. Fenety, Political notes and observations; or, a glance at the leading measures that have been introduced and discussed in the House of Assembly of New Brunswick . . . (Fredericton, 1867). I. L. Hill, Fredericton, New Brunswick, British North America ([Fredericton?, 1968?]). W. Q. Ketchum, The life and work of the Most Reverend John Medley, D.D., first bishop of Fredericton and metropolitan of Canada (Saint John, 1893). G. H. Lee, An historical sketch of the first fifty years of the Church of England in the province of New Brunswick (1783–1833) (Saint John, 1880). MacNutt, New Brunswick. C. F. Pascoe, Two hundred years of the S.P.G. . . . (2v., London, 1901). J. E. Pinnington, “Anglican reactions to the challenge of a multiconfessional society, with special reference to British North America, 1760–1850” (2v., phd thesis, Univ. of Oxford, 1971). J. D. Purdy, “The Church of England in New Brunswick during the colonial era, 1783–1860” (ma thesis, Univ. of N.B., 1954). Douglas Richardson, “Canadian architecture in the Victorian era: the spirit of the place,” Canadian Collector (Toronto), 10 (1975), no.5: 20–29.
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