The Rev Alfred Walton Caffin: Church of England Clergyman

The Rev Alfred Caffin, Vicar of St Matthew’s Cheltenham 1887-1902.

When Alfred Caffin was asked by a newspaper reporter whether he was related to Mathew Caffin, the Puritan Independent preacher, who lived during the reign of King Charles I and the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, he indicated he was. The reporter’s question originated from his reading of a book written by Florence Gregg entitled Mathew Caffin. While Alfred did not know of the book nor its author he suggested the information contained there was probably taken from a manuscript, held in the British Museum, which recorded the early history of his family. Alfred Caffin, vicar of St Matthew’s Church of England at Cheltenham in 1890, agreed ‘the historical facts related to his ancestor’. [1]

Mathew Caffin, born in 1628 and adopted by the Onslow family, began his education under a tutor before attending a grammar school in Kent established by king Henry VIII. From there as a seventeen year old he proceeded to Oxford University to study for the Church of England ministry. A few months after his arrival in Oxford, the city supporting the English king, Charles I, came under siege by the opposing parliamentary forces. Despite the political situation he continued his studies but after two years began to have doubts about the teaching of the Church of England and the Presbyterian divines. He questioned whether their views were in ‘harmony’ with the Bible. When called to explain his ‘new and strange’ doctrines by the university authorities he refused to give them up. As a result he was expelled.

Returning to learn farming with his father and being unable to worship in the parish church with his family, he joined a small band holding unorthodox views. There he took up a successful ministry until he was arrested and imprisoned. Various terms of imprisonment followed. With the execution of king Charles I Mathew gained his freedom and found himself involved in public controversy with Church of England clergymen and nonconformists such as the Quakers.

Nonconformists fared reasonably well under Cromwell and his puritan allies, but with the return of the monarchy their services could not be held openly. Caffin was again fined and thrown into prison. He continued to be persecuted later in life when differences arose amongst the people to whom he ministered. In June 1714 he died, being succeeded in his ministry by his eldest son.

Many generations later Alfred Walton Caffin was born at Brighton, Sussex England, to William, a draper, and his wife Mary Ann (Shrivalle). He was baptised in the Royal Chapel on 1 September 1843.[2] Alfred with parents and brothers and sisters left England as unassisted passengers on the Robert Passenger. They arrived in Melbourne in October 1854. Shipping records list their names and occupations as William 46 draper, Mary Ann 44 wife, Mary Ann 22 draperess, Elizabeth 20 milliner, Ann 18 draperess as well as teacher of young children , and John 16 grocer. James 12, Alfred 10, and Ellen 7 were noted as scholars.

More than two hundred years after Mathew Caffin went to Oxford University to commence his studies for the Church of England ministry Alfred Caffin embarked on the same mission, moving to Moore College in Sydney. After completing his studies he was ordained a deacon in 1875 by the Bishop of Tasmania in the absence of a bishop in Melbourne. (Bishop Perry had retired the previous year) The following year on 18 June 1876 he was made a priest by the Bishop of Ballarat.[3] Prior to ordination Alfred had been a Sunday School Teacher at St Jude’s Carlton, followed by further work in the church as a layman at St John’s, Soldiers’ Hill, in Ballarat. [4]

It was while he was working at St Jude’s Carlton that he met his future wife, Alice Bleasdale, who was a co-worker in the Sunday School. Subsequently they were married there on 1 July 1875. They had four children; Melbourne Shrivalle, Ethel May Cartmell, Jessie Blanche Elman and Stanley Lara, the last born in 1886. The first son graduated from Melbourne University, became a teacher at Melbourne Grammar and later was appointed principal of Wadhurst, the preparatory school to Melbourne Grammar. The youngest child, Stanley Lara, served as a stretcher bearer in the First World War at Ypes, being awarded the Military Medal for bravery at the battle for Passchendaele.

In 1875 the Rev Alfred Caffin was appointed to the parochial district of Station Peak (Lara) and remained there until 1887. On leaving to take up an appointment at Cheltenham he was presented with a purse containing 50 gold sovereigns. [5] This was an indication of the esteem with which he was held.

St Matthew’s Church of England, Cheltenham c1910. Courtesy Shirley Joy, Kingston Collection.

At the time of Alfred Caffin’s 1887 arrival in Cheltenham, the church had no vicarage so his family lived for a time in Mentone in a house owned by Ada McGeorge and later in a house in Charman Road in an area Caffin named The Glebe. He purchased Lot 218 in Silver Street, Cheltenham, on 25 November 1887 from Richard Gifkins for £130. This allotment was a small part of the Two Acre Village subdivision, originally developed by Josiah Holloway. At the time of purchase and some years later Silver Street was a sand track. Perhaps Caffin made this purchase with the intention of building a house to accommodate his family. However, at the annual meeting of the church in that year the need to build a vicarage on church land was raised by a participant. Caffin strongly supported this venture and by 1889 the project was well advanced. In December 1889 he sold his land in the Two Acre Village subdivision to William Woff and Lindsay McCurry for £300. The vicarage on the corner of Charman Road and Park roads was completed by October 1890 allowing Caffin and his family to take up residence.

Vicarage of St Matthew’s Church, Cheltenham 1964. Courtesy Leader Collection.

During his appointment to St Matthew’s Cheltenham he had the oversight of several other churches. At various times Christ Church, Dingley; St David’s, Moorabbin; All Souls, Sandringham and St Nicholas, Mordialloc which were part of the Parochial District of Cheltenham. Supporting his work during the years he was at Cheltenham were several lay readers including W R Looker, Thomas Bastard, Nicholson, G H Traill, F A Griffiths, Richard Budd, Fred Frewin, Cottell, MacDonnell, and A T Hayhow, In addition to lay readers, Caffin had vestries at the various churches to assist him. Mrs Caffin was also of great assistance to Alfred in his work. She was described as a skilled needlecraft person, a leader of the ladies sewing guild, superintendent of the Cheltenham Sunday School, and an ideal clergyman’s wife. [6]

In 1890 Alfred Caffin conducted a service at Christ Church Dingley, preaching to a large congregation. The young people brought bouquets of flowers to be taken to patients in hospitals. A local reporter, while writing that the flowers were numerous, and judged some as being very beautiful, commented on Alfred’s sermon. He thought it was rather long for such an occasion. [7] A few years later he was preaching at St Paul’s Frankston to what was described as a very meagre attendance. Nevertheless his audience listened attentively as he spoke in ‘the most earnest and impressive manner.’ ‘He was very able and he had excellent deliverance.’ [8]. When he was leaving the parish in 1902 there was a large gathering in the Mechanics’ Hall when a number of people spoke of his work and what had been achieved during his tenure. One speaker said ‘though his sermons might not be marked by great eloquence, his life was one continued sermon’ and he was praised especially for his attention to the sick. Speakers said he was held in high esteem by the community.

Christ Church, Dingley, c1900. Courtesy Helen Stanley, Kingston Collection.

Alfred Caffin was known as a ‘great walker’. He said he walked so much in his parish, ‘not simply because he liked it but because it facilitated his pastoral work in going out amongst his people.’ [9] Nevertheless, when he preached at St David’s Moorabbin , St Nicholas’s Mordialloc or Christ Church Dingley he drove his buggy. In January 1890 it was reported in the Mornington Standard that a new set of harnesses was stolen from his residence in Cheltenham. The reporter reporting this theft commented, ‘ the thief evidently had no respect of the cloth of the owner.’ [10] A year later members of the Sandringham congregation invited their vicar to select a buggy to the value of at least £40 to replace one he had lost by theft. Cr David Abbott was requested to act as treasurer and pay the account when it was presented, a task he said he was pleased to undertake. [11] Eight years later the issue of providing a suitable conveyance for their vicar was again raised. The secretary of the Dingley congregation wrote to the church in South Brighton (Moorabbin) requesting their cooperation in raising funds to provide their incumbent with a buggy. This they declined to do. They replied that they were not in a financial position to be able to contribute and suggested that it was the privilege and duty of the Dingley district to find a means of conveyance for their Pastor. Mr Lorraine in writing the history of St David’s parish at Moorabbin pointed out that the parish was far from healthy at the time and Christ Church Dingley had the benefit of being liberally endowed by the Attenborough family. In addition, he wrote that the Rev Caffin was able to commute between Cheltenham and Moorabbin by train whenever he had to appear at St David’s. [12] This rebuff from South Brighton did not prevent Dingley achieving their goal. They held a garden fete in the church grounds and devoted the proceeds to purchasing a new Alexandra cart for their vicar. [13]

In his role as clergyman Alfred Caffin was involved in the marriages and funeral arrangements of many Cheltenham and district residents. Caffin conducted the burial service for Richard Bloxsidge, George Gomm, Charles Jewell Hearle, Edward Cotton , and George Whitehead amongst many others. All those listed were buried in the Cheltenham Pioneer Cemetery. He conducted services for the Cheltenham Rangers and acted as chaplain to the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society in 1891 & 1892. [14] Along with other local ministers he was a member of the Moorabbin branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society and served as secretary for several years.

Caffin was an advocate for many causes. It was Alfred Caffin who first proposed a memorial to the Moorabbin boys who served the Empire in South Africa fighting the Boers. He suggested a fountain and offered to subscribe the widow’s mite towards the cost. [15] He was a strong advocate for the building of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum at Cheltenham. When the Premier of the State suggested that the Asylum’s committee might consider a site in Frankston, Caffin responded with surprise and indignation pointing out that the alternative Cheltenham site was closer to the city and a had a permanent water source necessary for the production of flowers and shrubs.

Boer War Memorial, Cheltenham c1920. Courtesy Betty Kuc, Kingston Collection. Photographer P Fairlam.

Chairing a meeting of the Erica Society, Alfred Caffin commented on the paper read by J Macpherson entitled ‘Aristocracy and a White Australia’. While praising the quality of the paper Caffin thought the speaker should have declared which side he was on. Was he for or against the White Australia policy? Caffin was pleased to learn that Macpherson declared for the exclusion of alien races. [16] Caffin himself was a speaker at various organisations. Shortly after his arrival at Cheltenham he, together with other local clergymen, spoke at a meeting supporting Bible teaching in State Schools. . [17] He was also one of a number of speakers at a meeting of the Loyal Orange Lodge celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne . [18]

In 1902 Alfred Caffin left Cheltenham after fifteen years to become the incumbent of St Paul’s Ascot Vale. There he served until his retirement in 1913. [19] During his retirement he continued to assist in many parishes throughout Victoria during the absence of their vicars. In 1914-1915 he was locum at St Peter’s, Merino, during the absence of the vicar. From 1914 his place of residence was 52 Coppin Street East Malvern. He died there on 1 March 1930 in his 87th year and was buried in the Cheltenham Pioneer Cemetery. His wife, Alice outlived him almost by fourteen years dying while living with her daughter. She was buried with her husband at the Cheltenham cemetery. [20]

Gravestone of the Rev Alfred Caffin and his wife, Alice, Cheltenham Pioneer Cemetery. Courtesy: Kingston Collection.


  1. Mentone and Moorabbin Chronicle 13 December 1890.
  2. From Family Search, International Genealogical Index
  3. Church of England Messenger, 3 June 1875.
  4. Church of England Messenger, 7 March 1930.
  5. Brighton Southern Cross, 26 February 1887.
  6. Moorabbin News, 1 Nov 1902.
  7. Mentone Chronicle, 3 May 1890.
  8. Mentone Chronicle, 30 March 1893.
  9. Mentone & Moorabbin Chronicle, 28 February 1891.
  10. Mornington Standard, 25 January 1890.
  11. Mentone and Moorabbin Chronicle, 28 February 1891.
  12. Lorraine, A G., A Building of Faith, 2001.
  13. Moorabbin News, 26 May 1900.
  14. Mentone and Moorabbin Chronicle, 23 July 1891.
  15. Moorabbin News, 5 January 1901.
  16. Moorabbin News, 8 June 1901.
  17. Cheltenham Leader, 16 July 1887.
  18. Cheltenham Leader, 6 July 1889.
  19. Church of England Messenger, 7 March 1930.
  20. Grave 102, Section D, Church of England. Cheltenham Pioneer Cemetery.
27 May 2014
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