CURLING, JOSEPH JAMES, army officer, Church of England clergyman, and author; b. 31 Jan. 1844 in Herne Hill (London), England, only son of Joseph Curling, a businessman, and — Wilson; m. 27 Sept. 1876 Emily Marion Robinson, youngest daughter of Bryan Robinson*, in St John’s, and they had three sons and a daughter; d. 18 Nov. 1906 in Datchet, England.
Joseph Curling was educated at Harrow and the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich (London). In 1865 he joined the Royal Engineers with the rank of lieutenant. He successfully pursued a military career for several years, in 1869 becoming aide-de-camp to Major-General Sir Frederick Edward Chapman, governor of Bermuda, a position he retained after Sir Frederick was recalled to England the following year.
A man of some wealth since the death of his father, Curling is on record as a generous supporter of the Church of England in Bermuda. While there, he met Bishop Edward Feild* of Newfoundland and Bermuda and his coadjutor, James Butler Knill Kelly. In 1871 he donated his yacht, the Lavrock, to be used as a church ship in Newfoundland, replacing the Star, which had been wrecked. Curling assumed the cost of equipping the Lavrock with ecclesiastical furnishings, sailed it to St John’s in 1872, and presented it to Bishop Kelly. He afterward made a brief tour of eastern North America.
In 1873 Curling resigned his commission to become a missionary with the Church of England in Newfoundland. His decision and his choice of field seem to have stemmed from conversations with bishops Feild and Kelly in Bermuda, his observations of the colony, and a series of sermons he attended in London in December 1872 and January 1873. Clergy were needed in many of the remote parts of British North America, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), a major Church of England missionary society, was actively seeking recruits. The Anglican population of Newfoundland at that time was just under 60,000 with 5,000 communicants, 54 clergy, and 51 parishes or missions.
Curling was ordained deacon on 1 Nov. 1873 in St John’s and priest about a year later. His mission was the Bay of Islands, covering an area of some 100 miles along the west coast of Newfoundland from the bay north to St John Island in a region known as the French Shore. It was isolated from the rest of the colony and had received little in the way of governmental attention. The mission included two small outports, Birchy Cove in the Bay of Islands (in 1904 renamed Curling and now part of Corner Brook) and Woody Point in Bonne Bay. Travel between these communities was only possible by boat or on foot, or by dog team in the winter, across rugged terrain. The combined population of the Bay of Islands and Bonne Bay in the early 1870s was under 2,500, predominantly, but not entirely, Protestant.
Joseph Curling was the second Anglican clergyman to serve in the mission, which the SPG had opened in 1865. He made his headquarters in Birchy Cove, where he built a rectory and made some improvements to the church. His financial independence allowed him to employ several schoolmasters and to build a number of churches, schools, and houses. He visited throughout his mission frequently, conducted services, gave religious instruction, and seems to have been respected and well liked. His experience in handling boats and his stamina earned him the admiration of his congregation, men and women engaged in fishing, farming, and logging and their families, to whom hard, dangerous work and privation were no strangers. Curling himself nearly lost his life in 1874 through an accident in which a theological student who was working with him and a sailor both drowned.
In 1879 Curling was made a rural dean, a position that gave him responsibility for the Anglican parishes and missions along the west coast and the Strait of Belle Isle, an area of some 500 miles. To facilitate travelling he had a mission vessel built at his expense and of his own design, which he named the Sapper. At about this time he obtained a certificate in navigation and in 1885 he published a work entitled Coastal navigation.
The physical demands of his ministry were beginning to affect his health. In 1886, after he had been almost 13 years in the Bay of Islands, Curling and his family left Newfoundland for England. He studied at Oriel College, Oxford, where he obtained a ba in theology in 1890 and a master’s degree shortly after. Then he and his wife returned to St John’s without their children, who were being educated in England. From 1891 to 1892 Curling was principal of Queen’s College, established in 1841 to prepare students for ministry in Newfoundland. While there, he began a history of the college later completed by Charles Knapp, who succeeded him as principal.
After this last term in Newfoundland, Curling returned to England. He served as vicar of Hamble in Hampshire for some eight years and worked locally for the SPG and the bishop of Newfoundland as a commissary. Curling resigned the living of Hamble in 1900, but he and his wife continued to live there spending some time in London and, when he was well enough, travelling in Europe. After five years of uneven health, he died at Datchet in November 1906.
Joseph Curling seems to have been a man of energy and excellent organizational ability. His military and nautical experience, together with his training as an engineer, provided him with valuable skills for the work he had chosen. That a town should change its name to his while he was still alive speaks of his popularity not just among members of his own faith.
In addition to preparing Coastal navigation; or, notes on the use of charts . . . (Portsmouth, Eng., and London, 1885), Joseph James Curling is the compiler of Catalogue of the Royal Engineer Corps libraries; (except Chatham and Dublin), edited by Charles Edward Luard (London, 1876), and List of missions of the Church of England in Newfoundland and Labrador . . . compiled in 1877 with the assistance of the clergy, by one of their number (London, 1877; an edition may also have been issued the same year at St John’s). He also produced Historical notes concerning Queen’s College, St. John’s, diocese of Newfoundland, 1842–1897, completed by Charles Knapp (London, 1898), and a pamphlet, The sign of the cross; being a conversation between a clergyman and a dissenter from the church (Oxford, 1904).
Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 3 Oct. 1876. Times (London), 20 Nov. 1906. Diocesan Magazine (St John’s), 2 (1890), no.9: 9; 3 (1891), no.4: 1; 4 (1892), no.7: 1; 19 (1907), no.1: 4–5 (copies in ACC, Diocesan Synod of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador Arch., St John’s). DNLB (Cuff et al.). Encyclopedia of Nfld (Smallwood et al.). Joseph Hatton and M[oses] Harvey, Newfoundland, the oldest British colony; its history, its present condition, and its prospects in the future (London, 1883). R. H. Jelf, Life of Joseph James Curling, soldier and priest (Oxford, 1910; 2nd ed., 1910). T. R. Millman and A. R. Kelley, Atlantic Canada to 1900; a history of the Anglican Church (Toronto, 1983), 119–20. Prowse, Hist. of Nfld (1895), supp.: 14–15. SPG Report (London), 1873. Who was who, 1897–1915 (1988).