Incidents from fifty years of Anglican Ministry in England, the Island of Tristan da Cunha, Southern Africa and the Island of St Helena.
Canon David Neaum
09/06/1912 – 28-12-2001
(Should you wonder at the title of this series of reminiscences: bells and pomegranates decorated the hem of the High Priest’s ephod or chasuble in ancient Israel.)
I have never doubted the efficacy of prayer, even when the answer is “No”. Over eighty years ago I was met, indeed no, was accosted, by a great bear of a priest who said, ‘Are you David Neaum?” In mortal fear I answered, “Yes”. “Be at the Church at 5.00. I’ll teach you to serve.” Off he went. So did I at 5.00. Children obeyed their priests in those days, and I became a four or five times a week server until I left home at the age of seventeen. Shortly after that, the great bear of a priest left and was followed by a saint who, next to my parents, had the greatest influence on my life of anyone, as too did his wife, for she taught me how to cook and care for a house. When I was about twelve we had a Missionary preacher from the West Indies preach at Mass. His words were my first call to the Ministry, but I shied away. Who would want to be a priest? Instead of going to University I went farming trout - a delightful job in the perfect countryside of mid-Derbyshire. All went well with good prospects. I was my own boss, and had a stone cottage all ready to be enlarged.
Then came a fateful Friday. I was teaching an old man to drive. He was a travelling chemist, and went on his country round each Friday . The fateful day had been one of car trouble and I had spent most of the time under the car. On the way home, face, hands and clothes filthy, I remembered I had to call at the vicarage. To my delighted horror I found there a most lovely girl. I decided she would be my wife. She did not so decide, at least, not then. I went away in a dream. Then came the halcyon days of walking, picnics and visits to the trout farm. Everything in the garden was lovely, fitting into pattern like hand into glove. Until all the joy went out of life, and I knew why! Though my intended wife had said she would never marry a parson, being herself a daughter of one, I knew what I had to do. I phoned the Bishop, who sensibly arranged to see me as soon as I could get to Derby. After a half hour chat he accepted me and sent me off to Lichfield for three years’ training. “What you need is discipline” he said. How right he was! At this time I wrote to my saintly priest who was then in Norfolk, to tell him my news. His reply was short for he liked writing letters about as much as I do. He wrote, “Lillian and I have never missed a day praying that this would happen.” What hope had I against the prayers of such a couple. And now I trust you realise why I have never had doubts about God answering prayers.
All that lot is in the way of introduction, for after the three years of discipline (quite hard to bear at times) I was made a Deacon on Trinity Sunday in 1937 and the years that followed have been full of joy.
But what about this lovely girl who would never marry a Parson? She changed her mind, a feminine prerogative, we are told, and my first boss, wanting a married assistant, was happy to have us married a month or so later. Since that great day I have always felt that we were in the work together (though I must say that Dorothy never showed any signs of wishing herself to be a priest) and so it continued until her death.
My first two years in the Ministry were enveloped in the smell of brewing beer, yeast and ‘marmite’, the English equivalent of ‘vegemite’ in Burton on Trent. I had a wonderful Vicar, but the only two Churchwardens in my whole ministry whom I found it hard to like. My salary was £135 a year and the Wardens subtracted the six days taken off for our marriage and honeymoon. Miserable skinflints! However, we enjoyed those years. There were seven Doctors of Divinity among the clergy in the Deanery so I didn’t go short of instruction; but only two assistants. This meant that I ministered to the local country congregations who were priestless and so preached sixty two times during my year as Deacon instead of the regulation twelve. Many incidents come to mind: my first funeral, a grave-side one, during which a little cloth-capped man stood by the grave. Immediately after I had finished the service he picked up a clod of turf, flung it on to the coffin and said, “There, you old sod, that’s where you ought to have been long ago.” I felt like knocking him in after the clod, but instead just walked away. Perhaps I have always been a coward?
My second wedding (after being priested) was for an elderly couple who were both cross-eyed. The groom spent the whole time with one eye towards the roof and the other seeing that his nose was not dripping. The bride also gazed in different directions. However, he found the finger on which to put the ring and all went well.
After two years our local doctor told me that the Vicar had a groggy heart and ought to retire or he would die. I asked the vicar what he would do when I left and being assured that he would retire I gave him my notice.
From beer we now turned to coal. A mining “village” of nine thousand, which was a part of a parish of seventy thousand and which should have had seven assistants, but had only three. This was 1939 and Hitler had started his evil frolics. I asked the Bishop if I should offer as an Army chaplain, but am ever grateful that he told me to stay where I was. The Vicar was a lame and delightful old bachelor, an extraordinary man who, whenever he called on us, happened to find us doing what we ought to be doing! I often think that if after death one still takes an interest he must have been very disappointed to see us as we really were! What memories spring from there. My wife’s two miscarriages and then the birth of the loveliest baby ever, out daughter Sue; the lovely walks over Cannock Chase, miles of hilly plantations; reading forty nine sets of Marriage Banns on Palm Sunday and taking weddings every twenty minutes all day from 8.00am to 6.00pm. After one such Boxing Day I walked to the Vicarage to have a drink and the Vicar said, “they tell me that this is the greatest day in these couples’ lives. It’s the worst in mine!” Then he went and died in the night. God rest him.
The Bishop then put me in charge of the parish until a new vicar was appointed and I had the task of arranging forty three Services each Sunday with only three priests and a few Lay-Readers. But the time had come for my departure into a “Living” on my own. The Bishop knew I was a countryman who desired a country ministry, so he offered me six town parishes, all of which I refused. But he was a patient and loving Bishop who, a week later, offered me a dual country parish in North Staffordshire: Kingston with Gratwich. This I accepted on the spot and so prepared to move with our six weeks old baby
Off then to the country; North Staffordshire, “A land flowing with milk and honey”. The change back to corn from coal was a delight in itself. The two parishes were peculiar in that the Rectory was in the smaller, a mere eighty parishioners, while the larger was four miles distant. I shall never forget my first ride to take the morning Mass at Kingston - a misty, warm April morning with the hedgerows white with damson blossom. After four months of running a parish of seventy thousand it was like a glimpse of paradise.
The Rectory was through a field; it had a large neglected garden, pump water and oil lamps. Occasionally black flecks would appear in the water from the taps - bits of rotting bats that had drowned in the storage tank. But it never did us much harm and all the baby’s water was boiled.
The church was a little 13th century gem, seating about sixty with a choir and a chancel as long as the nave, oil lamps and two iron stoves for winter warmth. It was the first (and last) place at which I had to dig a grave myself; a year of bad harvest weather when every hour of sunshine was used on the farms; no one could be spared for grave digging, but neither could a funeral be postponed, there were no cold chambers in those days! So it was up to the only free man to see to it. I did! And as I dug deeper into the clay I felt relieved that it was a child’s burial, despite its sorrow for the parents. Since then I have never begrudged the grave digger’s charge.
Opposite the Church gate was a truly mucky farm owned by a delightful Scot who must have liked working in a ten inch mixture of mud and muck. He could not get to evening service, he said, because of milking. Eventually I persuaded him to come just as he was dressed, in the middle of milking, without troubling to change - “God sees you, not your clothes”, I told him. He came, and sat just by the back iron heater. As this grew hotter a strong stench of drying cow muck began to fill the Church, growing stronger as the iron grew redder. Eventually it became so strong that even he realised what it was and he quietly left the Church in the middle of the sermon. I thought I should never see him there again, but the Scots are better folk than that! Next week he was there all dressed up in his market best. I asked him about his milking and was told he had delayed it until after the service. This he did for the remainder of our time in the parish and then as we left he brought me a golden sovereign as a farewell gift. I still have it, or rather son Andrew has - a gift to be cherished, not spent!
This was of course war time and we had a camp of five thousand German POW’s in the parish, half of them were Roman Catholics who were cared for by the local priest, but half of them were Lutheran who had no care. With my Bishop’s permission I ministered to them as well as to the British soldiers in charge. I learned enough German to be able to take a service in that language and three of them would translate and write out my sermon in German for me to read. All went well until one day a short burst of laughter, instantly cut off, came from my congregation. My translators would never tell me what I had inadvertently said - it must have been something extremely vulgar for they were extraordinarily well behaved men.
Later, the Germans left and were replaced with Italians who were allowed to work on the local farms. They were more “romantic” and gave me a record marriage and baptism: twin daughters aged sixteen, hugely pregnant, married together and then about three weeks later, three baptisms, one each from the twins and the other from their mother (who had been romancing with one of the prisoners too!). The mother herself was only thirty three years old!
One Sunday morning, as I was in the little curtained-off vestry a strong smell of mothballs came to me. I beckoned my Warden, the local game-keeper’s wife, to ask who the four strange smelling visitors were. In a whisper she said, “the squire and family from the neighbouring village.” After the service I greeted them and said I would visit them for a cup of tea on Monday. After tea, the Squire said, “Well Padre, what can we do for you?” Most folk think that if the Parson calls he must want something! I answered, “I came to ask why you were at my church instead of your own.” “Well!” he said, “You’re a fine bloody parson, don’t you want us to come to your Church?” “No!” I replied, “You are the Squire of the parish and should be at your own Church if only for an example to your people.” “Our fellow is mad,” he said, “mad as a hatter!” “Mad or sane”, I retorted, “You, of all people, ought to know your duty.” He didn’t throw me out of the house but we came to an agreement that as our Services came on alternate Sundays he could come to mine if he promised to be at his own on the other Sundays. The family kept to the agreement and he became and remained, up until his death a few years ago, one of my best friends. We both kept bees and when either was on holiday the other would care for the bees if they swarmed. I went away and three of my stocks swarmed on the same morning. My ‘watcher’ duly let the squire know. He was lame from a war wound and as one swarm had lighted on the top bough of an apple tree he used the ladder to reach it. The bees turned nasty (he, like me, never used a veil) and went on a stinging spree. He dropped down without using the ladder and when I returned from my holiday I found a note from him. It read “Dear Dave, next time you go away get your worst enemy to look after your bloody bees, not your friend.”
I had much more courage in those far off days and dared to observe a prayer book rubric with three of my wardens who were leading farmers in the district. They had had an open and public quarrel at the weekly market and vowed not to speak to each other again. Hearing of this I called on them and told them I expected them to be at church the next Sunday, but not to receive Communion, while I would explain to the congregation. This we did. On the Monday they phoned me for a meeting at which they made their peace with each other and the Sunday following I announced this and restored them to the fellowship. I never had to do this again whilst in that parish, and have never had the courage to do it since; though I ought to have done many times - perhaps I have never again had such Church members with whom I was sure it would work. I certainly wonder if it would work with the church folk of today, would they not more likely leave the Church in a huff and with nasty gossip about the Priest?
One of the great joys of being in the country again was that I could join in the corn and hay harvesting. Most country folk of those days thought the Parson was good for little other than talking and it was a pleasure to show that I could do the job almost as well as they. It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know the farm-workers on their own ground and most responded by getting to know me on mine too. I found that hard manual work was no hindrance to meditation though hoeing turnips was rather a bore. I remember working at this in a ten acre field with the farmer himself. He met up with me after he had hoed a row and a half to my single row and, not stopping, said “Keep your eyes down and stop looking how long the row is!” How right he was! - an example of “Putting one’s hand to the plough”
Our greatest personal joy at this time was the arrival of our first son Andrew. As stated earlier, before our daughter Susan was born, Dorothy had two miscarriages and during her third pregnancy we had found an excellent Doctor. She wished to continue under his care so I had to take her to a small Nursing Home where he lived, about thirty miles away. It was a cold, foggy, November night - 10.00pm - when the need became quickly evident. It took us two hours driving and whatever Dorothy had in hers, I had butterflies in my stomach! I knew nothing about births and was sure we would never arrive in time. We did - just! After leaving Dot at the Home, I went off to the Doctor’s house where his wife insisted that I must have something to eat before returning. It was still “Rationing” time and she gave me mutton dripping toast and goats milk - I can still taste it! Eventually I got home and fell into such a deep sleep that the phone failed to wake me even with the news that we had a nine and a half pound son. It took Dorothy a long time to get over the fact that I was sleeping - while she wasn’t.
During this time I had visited and got to know all my parishioners by name - a joy in a country parish which cannot be done in suburbs. Among my country parishioners was a family evacuated from Manchester. The father, though a shop-fitter, was most impractical but loved to do little jobs to improve the Church building. One Saturday he decided to varnish the pews with the inevitable result that on Sunday they remained tacky. Early on the Sunday morning I found him sitting on each pew in turn and sliding up and down taking the excess varnish off with the seat of his trousers.
Life was very full at this time with two little ones at home, two parishes and Churches, a large prisoner-of-war camp to care for and my hobby of bees and pigs, to say nothing of giving a hand on any farm as relaxation. Looking back it seems as though all the days were sunny in that beautiful part of Staffordshire. Church life thrived with good attendances at morning services but even better at Evensong - that lovely service that has almost vanished from Anglican Churches.
I always managed to build up a decent choir because, in Dorothy, I had a beautiful singer and organist. We often needed the former more than the latter and I grew to like four part unaccompanied singing better than that with the organ. But people used to sing more (and better) in those pre-telly days. I find I sing at all times and particularly when showering and shopping. Many shop-keepers here must think I’m a little mad when I go in singing but some do say, “How nice to hear you singing, you must be happy.” What a pity we don’t do more of it if it gives rise to that reaction - we can certainly do with more evident happiness instead of constant money talk.
Kingston was the only parish I have had where we had an annual ‘Do’ to raise money for the running of the parish. I have always believed and practised that a Church that could not pay its way by direct giving was a dying Church and any money raised by ‘Do’s’ was for giving away. Gradually the idea percolated at Kingston and came to full fruit during the time of my successor. I now wonder if could have made this idea work in the parishes of today, but I am sure it ought always to be our aim so that we can give to further the work of God in other places. I often wondered how it happened that St. Paul recorded a saying of our Lord’s that never reached the Gospels, “It is a happier thing to give than to receive”. How true a saying it is!
During my time at Kingston with Gratwich I was driving a “Singer 9" car. It cost a hundred and fifty seven pounds new! I always acted as chauffeur to my neighbouring Rector who live four miles away and was intending to retire as soon as he found a house to live in. He began urging me to let him put my name forward to the “Patron of the Living”, Lord Bagot, so that I could take over when he left. My answer was always “No! I haven’t been long enough in my present parish.” But fate - in the guise of my Bishop - intervened when on a lovely summer morning my phone rang and he told me he had a move arranged for me. On asking where it was he said he could not yet tell me as he had to find a place for the present incumbent. I then asked, “Town or Country?” He replied, “Town.” This dashed my pleasure and I said, “What happens if I am offered a living in the meantime, would you be annoyed if I accepted?” He assured me he would not so I ‘phoned the old Rector and told him I was prepared to let my name go forward to replace him when he left. In due course I had a note from Lord Bagot, the Patron of the Living, asking me to visit him. This I did at Blithfield Hall and the only memorable part of the interview came when I mentioned that the income at Leigh would be less than I was getting at Kingston. Lord Bagot replied, “I think it good for young folk not to have too much money.” My reply really ended the meeting for I said, “That may be so, but I don’t think you are the one to have said it.” Returning home I reported to Dorothy “No good! I’ve offended the old boy.” However, in spite of this he offered me the living but didn’t come to my Institution, nor did he pay the legal fees! But I’ve jumped the gun. Long before I had given my permission for my name to be put forward, the Bishop made me a member of a Commission to enquire how much the Rector of Leigh could take from the stipend as a pension - he being too old to come under the pension scheme. Meeting at my Rectory the seven of us (including the Diocesan Registrar) decided that he could take £175 per annum. Little did I think that that would be the cause of a certain amount of poverty for his successor - a handsome young married man with two children, as it turned out. This little story had a sequel: after my Induction to the parish of Leigh I received a bill from the said Registrar for £25 to cover the cost of the Commission on which I had sat! I wrote back refusing to pay only to get the reply that the amount could be recovered in the Civil Courts. I paid!
How to describe the parish of Leigh, Staffordshire? It had a little gem of a Church - like a small cathedral - set in the middle of nineteen hamlets, four of which amounted to villages - a lovely spot with a pub over the garden wall, a reasonably sized rectory next door to the church building, with two acres of garden - a farm across the drive and stabling for four horses. The whole front was covered with wisteria and the garden beautiful with seven lawns (and a hand mower!). There were innumerable flower beds and a large vegetable patch with a small orchard.
Then followed six years of happiness despite having to sell my car as too expensive a toy. I did, however, get a motor bike - an English one in those days of course - much as I loved walking, the parish was too big for that. I used to ride to one of the hamlets, park my machine and then walk, visiting all the local homes and farms. One problem was what to do with those voluble parishioners who, being in the garden, wished to have a long gossip with the Rector - even when they had already been visited. I soon found the answer; I started talking to them twenty yards away and never stopped until I was twenty yards past. It worked like a charm! So many interesting events occurred during our years at Leigh that it is difficult to choose which to write about without this becoming like a too long sermon. I won’t bore you by telling of the everyday work of a parish priest, though that had its moments. I had a farmer and his sister who expected me to “morning tea” with them each Thursday after visiting my two Church Schools. The purpose was to discuss my sermon of the previous Sunday. They were remarkable in that they seemed to remember every word (far better than I did!), and insisted that I explain any doubtful points. It was a good exercise so long as I remembered to take my notes with me. It taught me something of the difficulty of those who can only listen to a sermon yet are expected to remember it (and live by it too!). If I, who have prepared it, made notes for it and preached it, cannot remember its contents a few days later, what can and ought we to hope for from our listeners? Here I must digress. When I was at College I used to visit a priest friend in a small Leicestershire village most Sundays and stay for Evensong. He was an excellent preacher who wrote out his sermons in full. On returning to the rectory one evening I congratulated him on the fine sermon. He was very despondent, his congregation was certainly a bit dumb, and said, “What’s the use, they never listen. Will you be here next Sunday?” Being told that I would, he continued, “I’ll preach the same sermon and you’ll see: no one will notice” On second hearing it was better than before and nothing was said by the congregation. “Will you be here next Sunday?” my friend asked. “Yes” I said, “I’ll preach it again,” he replied. He did this - it was an excellent sermon on a text no one could forget - “God is love.” As the Church-warden came into the Vestry after the service he said “That was a fine sermon you preached Father.” On the way back to the Rectory my friend said, “There! I told you they didn’t listen, it’s taken three times to sink in.” But he was not a countryman and wouldn’t believe me when I told him that what the Warden meant was “It’s a good sermon but we’ve heard it enough now.”
Let us now return to Leigh in 1946. Much of the Rector’s stipend came from rents paid by farmers for use of the “Glebe” land. Unfortunately for me a small three acre field of this was unrentable as it lay by the river and was waterlogged. The War Agricultural Committee of that time decided that the river must be dredged and those owning land on its banks must pay for the work. They came to me for £70. I hadn’t got £7 never mind £70, so I asked what I must do. There were three choices: I could borrow the cash: I could resign the “Living” or (and this was my suggestion) I could work it off. “What could you do?” asked the representative. “Anything that your chaps can” I said. “Could you see to the operating bank, felling trees, cording them and see to the hedges?” he asked. “Easily” I replied. While he went off to see his Committee I phoned the Bishop to see if he would agree. After asking about the running of the parish whilst doing this other task from 8am to 5pm and my response that I would be up at 5am for office and services and do the outside parish work from 6pm onwards, he agreed. The War Ag. was equally responsive and it was arranged that I should start at 8 am the following Monday. As the two dredger workers were camping out at the bottom end of my parish over the weekends I decided to call on them after Children’s Church on the Sunday. They were horrified! Their looks said “A Parson! What can he do and how shall we have to behave?” I reassured them as to the former and told them I should be at their direction in all things save one - they could swear as much as they liked but if they used God’s name I should rebuke them. That Autumn was outstanding in its weather - a glorious September and October and it was a delight to have manual work, with no worries, in beautiful surroundings. I sharpened my axe and billhook and set to work. By lunchtime I was a quarter of a mile ahead of them and while eating together they told me I must slow up. Even better than ever! They were the grandest couple of youngish men I have ever worked with! I never heard a word out of place and before long they were teaching me how to use the dredger. After ten lovely weeks we had finished that year’s task and as my wage was £5 per week I still needed £20 to pay off my debt. The couple tried to get me to stay on “Tidying up” as they called it but as it was drawing near the busy time of Advent and Christmas I refused and phoned the War Ag. to “Sign off”. Later that week I had a letter from the Committee thanking me for my work and telling me that it was an unanimous decision of the Committee that my debt be regarded as paid up. Two results of my ten weeks as a labourer, (apart from the enjoyment and strengthened muscles), one amusing and the other profitable, were as follows, the farmers had done nothing but grumbles at the mess dredging makes, but with me there and the farmers being my parishioners, not one grumble was heard. To the contrary, we had a constant stream of folk coming to see the unusual sight of a Parson doing some “Work” for a change. The second result was that which had followed my helping on the farms - the farm workers accepted me as one of themselves and began coming to church.
With the coming of 1947, three events in the parish overshadow all other memories. It was the year of the great snow. I do not exaggerate when I say that we had twenty feet of snow and the end of it was not seen until well into May. As roads were slowly opened we drove between snow walls twelve feet high. A wonderful experience until March 7th of that year. Why March 7th? Because it was on that day that the third Neaum child decided to come into daylight. We had no roads open to get to the Doctor at our town of Uttoxeter, but the milk farmers had been able to make a tractor passage covering the four miles to the main road. I made arrangements with my Churchwarden to borrow his tractor, so that I could pick up the doctor from the main road, if necessary. We were fortunate in having the district nurse living in the village and as events turned out there was no need for the Doctor. So in the middle of early morning on March 7th a lusty eight and a half pound boy was born and eventually baptized with the names of Peter Christian. All three of our children’s births and first few weeks of life spell bacon and eggs for me. I seem to have had an unending job preparing such for all who came round. In those ration times such a meal was a treat, and as I kept pigs, cured and smoked our own bacon, and because eggs were no problem in the country, it was no great hassle.
During our first year and a half at Leigh despite snow, babies and no car I was busy getting to know my folk, about two thousand altogether, and was not satisfied until I knew them all, man, woman and child by name. I then thought it time to call in the diocesan Missioner for a new experience for us both, a Country Mission. Previously his work had been confined to the town parishes and I had never taken part in one at all.
We worked out the programme carefully so that we could start with Matins and Mass at the Church and go to have breakfast with a parishioner. From there we continued our visits, having morning tea where we landed and arriving as arranged for lunch at a different home. Our day then continued with visits until 5.00pm when we had a ‘local’ service in either one of the Chapels or at a larger farm where we had dinner. At 8.00pm we had the end-of-day Service in the parish Church. This was our programme for the ten days - Dorothy had a fairly restful time with only the three children to look after, the large house to clean and our beds to make! Our farmer parishioners were very generous in sending in butter, cream, eggs and meat “for the visitor”, though he, with me, was never home for a meal, but none of it went to waste.
Our congregations increased daily from twelve to forty three at Mass, and from a hundred to three hundred at the evening Service, the last one of which was the weekday harvest thanksgiving with the Bishop as preacher. It was a time to remember and from then the parish never looked back. One great result was the continuing co-operation between the different parts of the church within the parish. The next year I had forty six to prepare for confirmation!
I can only remember two things about the Missioner. He was talking to our local doctor, a good Christian, about attending Mass every Sunday. The Doctor said he couldn’t manage more than every fortnight as he was on his own and called out at least four nights a week. Didn’t the Missioner think that was enough? I listened for the reply. “It is not what I think,” he said, “But what you think. Is it enough?” From then on the dear old doc was there every Sunday. The other memory is of a silly little tale which he told in one of his addresses and which stuck in my mind but without its context. Two old ladies were getting out of the country bus backwards and the conductor asked them why. They replied, “It’s because of those two young men who got in a short time ago; we heard them say “when those old dears get out we’ll pinch their seats.” Perhaps he was having a go at those churchgoers who look with (almost) hate when they find someone has taken their regular place.
Family names and their origins have always interested me and I was delighted in my visiting to find one of my best farmers, named Knobs had two workers whose names were Barks and Tickle. Perhaps the forbears of the first two were experts in door furniture and guard dogs - as for the third, I’ll leave you to work out where you think the name came from.
During our time at Leigh I had kept my interest in bees and increased my stocks to twelve. To my delight I had one of Staffordshire’s best beekeepers in the parish who, being allergic to stings, had to cover herself entirely with slacks tucked into wellingtons, hat, veil and gloves, before dealing with her stocks. We worked together a lot and would take some hives to any fields where charlock (wild mustard) grew. One lovely summer day we were returning from such a visit and were held up in the narrow country lane while my “Gentleman-Farmer” Churchwarden maneuvered his combine harvester out of a field. Facing the bright sun he walked up to the car where my passenger sat, still veiled and almost unrecognisable, and said, “Hello Phyllis. I though you were a bloody mummy!” Then he saw me in the driving seat - consternation indeed! This was of course England fifty years ago, not modern Australia. From that day on we became great friends, each realising that the other was human.
One Sunday, towards the end of my sermon, the old verger crept up to the side of the pulpit and tugged my surplice sleeve. I leant down to hear his whisper: “Your Number Two and Number Seven hives have swarmed and I’ve got my grandson watching where they settle, so no worry.” Immediately the Service was over I hastened to the garden only to be pursued by a most irritating parishioner who wanted to talk with me. I said I must first see to the swarms but be could come with me if he liked. He didn’t like, but still came. He watched impatiently while I gathered in the two swarms and then said, “I can’t see why you are so interested in bees.” My reply still gives me a small twinge of conscience. “I like them,” I said, “because they differ so much from people - when they sting you they die. People don’t!” He had no answer ready for that remark!
English farmers were notorious for liking several cups of hot and very sweet tea before the early morning milking and sugar rationing was still going strong. Because of the importance of bees for pollination, and honey, the beekeeper was allowed up to twenty pounds of sugar a year to keep the stocks alive through the winter. As I took my stocks to the heather on Cannock Chase in the autumn, the bees usually had enough food without the addition of sugar. I became a very popular visitor when accompanied by a pound or two of sugar.
My reputation for curing and smoking bacon preceded me so that I had no need to keep pigs while at Leigh. I built a proper smoking house in one of the outbuildings and by the time we left I was curing and smoking bacon for forty three of my parishioners. Being a generous lot their gifts from the finished produce made it unnecessary for me to build pig-styes.
I did, however, have a go at growing and curing tobacco as, like Australia now, its price was rocketing. The plants grew marvellously in the rich dark soil of that beautiful garden and had leaves almost a metre long. In due time I hung them to dry in the upstairs storehouse of one of the stables which had a good through-draught. When ready I took out the spines, painted a line of rum and honey down the middle of each half side and then put them into a book press to “Wet-cure”. I ended up with a block of tobacco bigger than a shoe-box weighing about six kilograms. Then I tried it! Horrible! The seed seller had given me Havana instead of Virginia seed and cigars don’t taste good in a pipe. Despite the cost of buying other tobacco I put my block aside and forgot it. It was only an experiment anyway and had cost little.
Then one day the farm “Yard-broom” man called. On being assured that I did not need any broom-heads he asked if I had a pipe of “baccy” as he had run out. My neglected experiment came to my mind and I told him to hang on a bit. Going into the house I found the large heavy block and with my butcher’s knife and a mallet I cut off about two inches and gave it to him, warning him of what it was and where it had come from. He accepted it gladly. A month later he visited me again with his two dozen broom-heads on strings over his shoulders. “So you are still alive,” I said. “Alive! That was the finest baccy I have tasted.” “Hang on a bit,” I replied and I’ll give you the rest of it.” His eyes nearly popped out when he saw the size of the block. “What do you want for it,” he asked. “Nothing,” I replied. “Only for you to enjoy it.” He stood silent for a moment, then fiddling with the strings he let go the loosened ends and dropped the twenty four broom-heads in the yard. “You must have these for it,” he said. Nothing I could say would change his mind. For some time after that I was able to take a broom-head with the sugar on my rounds.
About half way through our time at Leigh, in Staffordshire, the church boiler decided it was tired and blew up. The cost of replacement was £800 - a tremendous figure then for a small parish to cover. I knew that if we started making appeals and having “Do’s” it would take years to pay off, so I sat down to make a list of all my farmers and work out what each must give if the bill was to be paid quickly. I knew that all of them would regulate their giving by what the “Squire” gave. (The squire was the head of the biggest auctioneering company in the district and knew the wealth or poverty of everyone in the area). I worked it out that if he gave £100 I could get £650 from my farmers and the remaining £50 would come from the other folk. Phoning the squire I invited myself to a sherry. After partaking he said, “Well, Rector, I think I know the real purpose of your visit and I have it all ready for you.” He then handed me a cheque for £50. Taking it and looking at it I handed it back saying, “I’m sorry Mr B....but this is no good.” He was a trifle annoyed, wanting to know what was the matter with it. I told him I wanted it doubled. He went a bit red at that until I asked him to let me explain. After my explanation he reached for chequebook and wrote out another cheque for £50 and with a wish for good luck saw me off. Reaching home I phoned my first victim, Mr Knobs whom I have already mentioned. Before I could get a word in he said, “How much has Mr B given you?” (no secrets in a country parish!) “What has that got to do with it?” I asked. “I’ll give you half what he’s given,” was his reply. “Good,” I said, “let me have a cheque for £50 then.” He took some convincing but on my offer to take the cheque to show him, he promised to let me have the amount I had asked for. So it went on with the two next most prosperous farmers giving the same followed by the lesser figures from others. In sixteen days I had the £800 in hand.
Having a new heater meant enlarging the fuel store as it was much cheaper to buy the anthracite by the truck load. As we could not raise the roof without obscuring one of the stained glass windows we decided to deepen it by a metre and to do this I enrolled about six lads from the youth group to help me in the evenings. The problem was where to put the earth we were removing. In the churchyard, next to where we were working, were three large flat granite tombstones, one of which was cracked and out of alignment. I went with two of the lads to lift up the broken piece to see if there was, as is usual in such cases, an empty space under the stones. It was dusk, nearly dark, when we managed to lever up the half stone to find, not only six feet of space, but lying peacefully in it, a complete skeleton. My two lads turned pale and even I wondered who had been murdered, and the body hidden in such a proper place. I told the lads to say nothing and we three saw to the careful covering of the bones and then carried on filling up the space until, being full, we could replace the half stone. I later spoke to my old verger about this and the shock it had given to us. He laughed and confessed that when digging a grave in the old part of the cemetery he had come across an entire skeleton and thought the best thing to do with was to place it in another grave. In doing this the covering stone had broken. Such a simple explanation for what might have been the record of a violent incident.
The usual work of the parish went on quietly. The children turned from babies into children and we cared for an old deaf and dumb aunt who had had a stroke and so was bed-ridden for the last two of the four years we had the care of her. I remember returning from Christmas Midnight Mass to find Dorothy washing five sheets and three night dresses and realised that something must be done if she were not to have a breakdown. The matter was taken out of our hands by our excellent Doctor. A few days later he phoned asking us to have the aunt all ready by 9.00 the following morning as he was having her moved to hospital. We protested, but he was adamant and we went off with her with heavy hearts. We need not have worried, for she loved the company and life of the hospital ward and enjoyed being there until her death about six months later..Among many memorable happenings of her stay with us two remain in my mind. I had a lovely canary coloured pullover which when washed was put on the top of a ‘twenty four hour” stove in the living room, to dry. Dear Aunt Katherine was never content with normal heat in a room and would open, not the air vent, but the whole door of the stove to make it roar away. She did this when my yellow delight was drying and Dorothy, attracted by the uncommon smell rushed in to find a yellow-brown cinder in place of the pullover. The younger children, the boys, couldn’t understand why auntie never answered their questions. One day we heard her saying (in her peculiar “speech”) “Naughty boy, naughty boy....” On going in to see what the matter was Dorothy was told that Andrew had kicked her. He was tired of asking and getting no answers!
One of my greatest joys in Leigh was the choir. I have never been so fortunate since in having four good tenors, five good bass, a bit thin on contralto, as my best one was also the organist, and twenty or more soprano (boys and girls). We were able to sing many items that were normally far beyond a village choir.
Trying to teach my choir that they sang not only to lead the congregation, but also to worship God was made easier by the shape of the Church building, for being cruciform with a central tower its chancel was huge, for in olden times the Bagot family had their seats round the walls and were separated from the `hoi polloi’ by a beautiful oak screen. I started a practice to further the worship of God which turned into a delight. On Saints’ day evenings we sang Evensong, plus anthem, unaccompanied so that I could have my good contralto with the choir sitting in the old Bagot family seats. I also told the congregation that I didn’t want them there, but if they wished they could come and sit quietly in the nave where they would be unnoticed and no distraction. It was a place perfect for singing so that the choir, unselfconscious before God, as they never were before the congregation, found it such a delight that we began marking some of the ‘lesser’ saints. The first time we sang thus I noticed a few folk in the darkened nave; after a few months the numbers increased almost up to Sunday evening services, but we continued to take no notice of them, never putting on the nave lights, and not even taking a collection from them!
Those choir days of 1946-52 must have made a deep impression, for when Dorothy and I were in England, before going to St Helena Island, in 1981, one of the members gathered all the choir of that day who were still living and invited us to a dinner to meet them all again - a great and touching evening.
My choir was also the basis of the Church Youth Club - though “Youth” is hardly a fitting word as the ages went from seven to seventy two. I ought to have learned a lesson from this in that so-called Youth Clubs nearly always fade away because it is unnatural for one age group to last. Ours was more of a family gathering based on a love of singing God’s praises. We met after choir practice, in the Rectory and after tea and sandwiches varied our amusements according to the weather. There were always a few who delighted in having a game of whist and a chat, but in summer we played croquet. I had arranged a course, made up of three croquet sets, which used all the seven lawns, two of which were in front of my bee hives, with a hoop in each. If anyone funked these they lost a point for each. Great fun!
On winter nights, and after I had foolishly handed round glasses of my homemade Mead, we would often sing choruses from Handel’s “Messiah”. Our children were of course in bed, but not asleep. Being above, it was the bass singing that reached them and for many years it was the bass line that we would hear them singing, not the air.
I seem to mention very little about the children at this time. If you ask Peter of his strongest memory when he was young he will reply, “My father kicked me!” Let me hasten to say that he is mistaken. He was playing outside the back door one evening when I heard his mother calling him for his bath. When he took no notice of the third call I put my foot under his backside and lifted him up the two steps to aid him in quicker obedience. That was all! By this time Susan was becoming a “Little Mother” to the boys, old enough to be left in charge of them both while her mother slipped out to early communion. On her return one day she found Susan with her nose stuck up against the glass panel of the front door and on opening it she heard Sue, almost stammering in her eagerness, say “Oh that Andrew! He is a naughty boy.” “What has he done?” asked Mum. (She had left breakfast already on the table - a boiled egg on each plate). “Do you know,” said Susan, “He came downstairs and stood in the doorway looking at the table and said “What a bloody little egg!”
Television was reaching the country districts at this time and I remember very well my first contact. I had gone down to my Warden’s farm to help cut up and salt down two pigs. Some weeks before his schoolboy son had fallen through a roof on to a concrete floor which meant he was on his back for nine months. His parents thought a Telly would help him pass the time and it was on that night that it was delivered and tested. The salesman came just as we were sharpening our tools and my host excused himself “for a few minutes” as he said. I carried on with the job. Two hours later when I was washing my hands and tools he returned, rubbing his hands and saying, “Well, now! Let’s get on with the job,” only to see that all was finished and I was ready to depart. He found it hard to believe that his fascination with the new toy had lasted for two hours. Such was, and is, I fear, the power of the ‘Box’.
During my six and a half years at Leigh, despite the coming of the children and the care of the old aunt I had never lost the certainty that my “calling” lay abroad, but circumstances seemed to be against it and we were not growing any younger. We had just finished the enforced five year “do-up” of the Rectory, everything posh and painted, the drive tarred, the churchyard paths done at the same time and, with the help of about twenty of my men parishioners, the cemetery with its hedges, grass and flowerbeds had been made tidy and beautiful.
Friday morning and the arrival of the weekly “Church Times” newspaper. I used in those days to look at appointments and vacant “livings”, now I look first at the obituary page! As I was out doing my stuff at my two schools Dorothy glanced through it while having her morning cup. On my return she handed it to me pointing out an advert. It was from the S.P.G. (The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, now the U.S.P.G.). It asked for applicants for the job of Chaplain to the island of Tristan da Cunha. “What about that?” asked my good wife. That evening, when the children were bedded, we discussed it together. Were we too old? What about the children and their education? What about the parish, was it time to leave after six years? And so on. We decided to let it simmer in our minds and seek guidance in our prayers over the weekend. Come Monday we both felt sure that I ought to apply, but in a way that would put off the Society if they thought my answer too outrageous. I wrote a postcard, I can remember its exact wording. “Re your advert for a Chaplain on Tristan da Cunha. I am forty, happily married with three children in a delightful parish. Feel that Tristan is my job. If interested please write.” I must have thought I was sending a telegram!
Oddly enough they did write to make an appointment with both Dorothy and myself to meet the Committee at S.P.G.House in London. As we were due to stay with friends in Gloucestershire we decided to do that, leave the children with our friends and go down to London by train. We set off early to give us time to have a look round the great city before our afternoon appointment. How peculiar the memory is! For some unknown reason I had developed a large haemorrhoid an affliction I don’t usually suffer from, which made the journey down most uncomfortable. I decided to have my beard trimmed by a hairdresser who shortened it so much that it looked as though I had forgotten to shave that morning. Being a hot sunny day we decided we needed a cool drink. It was the first and only time in my life that I have had a ‘Coke’! Horrible!! Walking the London streets cured my lower affliction and I came to the conclusion that it was a result of nervous apprehension and that it disappeared with exercise. I may be wrong in both suppositions.
The fateful time came and we were climbing the steps of 15 Tufton Street, well before 3.00pm. Very little of the interview remains in my mind. There was a Bishop there, several clergy and a number of odd bods. They didn’t seem to ask the right sort of questions. I can only recall the Bishop saying, “You must realise that you will be on your own, there will be no Bishop or Archdeacon to contact.” To which I replied, “I can think of few things nearer to heaven”. But he was a decent fellow and didn’t appear to take offence. After the meeting the usual Anglican cup of tea and cream cake followed by Evensong in the Chapel and then back by train to the children and our friends, not knowing whether of not we were to continue in Leigh or be sent off to `The Loneliest Island in the World’.
You may ask, “Why go there?” We wanted to test if we were too old to be any good for work abroad and what better a testing place?
On our return from London and the completion of our holiday we began that state of suspended animation with only the Bishop knowing our hopes. He gave his blessing, but as his son was due to be made Dean of Singapore, tried to persuade us to go out with him rather than to the ‘Loneliest Island in the World’, where he seemed to think my talents (?) would be wasted. We had been told that there were over a hundred applicants for the Tristan job and so did not have a lot of hope. As the days and weeks passed the delights of our present work seemed to grow, with our folk more responsive, the rectory, garden and churchyard in the pink of condition and the Church building well `spring-cleaned’ and lovely. Even the bees produced an excellent crop of honey (no bees on Tristan!). I think that both Dorothy and I felt a slight chill in the heart at the thought of leaving home, parish, relations and friends for such an isolated spot.
Then came the call for another trip to London for the final selection by the SPG Committee and two things remain in my mind about it. We had slices of delightful pork-pie with our tea and after the interview we were told that we were the ones chosen to go, evidently the maddest among the hundred applicants! When were we to go? October. How? By the Union Castle ship ‘Athlone’ to Cape Town and then the last one thousand six hundred miles in the Royal Navy frigate ‘Actaeon’ sailing from the Naval Base of Simonstown.
I have always counted a good memory as one that remembers good things and a bad memory one that remembers only bad things. I have very few memories of the two months after hearing of our acceptance. There is little joy in leaving a loved parish and people, none in parting from relatives and friends and horror in packing and storing one’s earthly possessions while deciding what little to take and what to leave behind.
The reaction of our folk in the parish to the news was, I suppose, reasonable. Had I been made Dean of the Cathedral or Archdeacon there would have been rejoicing in the reflected honour, but to leave for such a place as Tristan was almost an insult! But being the folk they were they came round and still, thirty nine years later, I count them as friends and they give me a joyful reception when I visit England.
Our last weeks in England were marked by the extraordinary interest people had in Tristan da Cunha. We were besieged by journalists whose writings were almost always concerned with inessentials. The work we were hoping to do (and I had done as a Priest) was of little concern. They grabbed hold of my occupation before being ordained and such headlines as “Trout for Tristan” were common. I remember the reporter for the ‘Telegraph’, chiefly because he took a photo of all the family in which even I looked respectable and to whom I said, “For heaven’s sake forget about the trout farming when you write your article”. Although he agreed, the heading of his article was, believe it or not, “Trout for Tristan”. Since then I have taken everything I have read in a newspaper with two pinches of salt.
On the credit side were the firms (and others) who wished to help. We had in the parish a representative of Wedgwoods whose firm sent to the docks a crate of pottery to go with us. This kindness taught me a small lesson. He asked me which design we would like and not wishing to name any that might be too expensive I said,`any except the fluted pattern (so difficult to keep clean) will be gratefully received’. After our arrival we opened the crate with great anticipation to find it full of fluted ware! Moral: never mention the thing you do not want for that is the one that will remain in the mind of the donor and you will get it!
The local cake and biscuit firm also sent us a case of fruit cakes and another of biscuits - forty eight delicious fruit cakes in sealed tins which lasted us for `occasions’ during our three and a half year stay on the island.
One gift I shall always remember. When trout farming I had about four hundred acres of rough shooting land on which I allowed a Gipsy family to live. I knew they poached a little game and fish from the stream, but better one family than hosts of others. They were quite open about it, for when I went down for a chat, old Bob Smith would pop a couple of my rabbits or even a pheasant into the iron pot simmering over the fire giving me a sly wink as he did it. His wife and daughter would be out selling pegs etc. until late at night. One of the daughters used to call at the Rectory (18 years after) selling pegs. When we were almost ready to leave for Tristan she called to tell me she and her family were off to Ireland for the winter. On hearing that we also were off to distant places she said she would see us before we left. She called next day to give us six dozen pegs and £1! And the folk in England say that Gipsies only beg and steal. Had the £1 been a coin we would have kept it, but being merely paper we spent it. The pegs we took with us and they proved resistant to the gales of Tristan far more than did the machine made ones.
At last the day of departure came. Eighteen tea chests gone, all farewells said and the Neaum family collected by the bee-keeping Squire to be driven to Stafford to catch the train for Southampton. On that car journey we all learned from our driver how to eat sweets to which the plastic wrapping had stuck. It must have been Sue (the only polite one of the three children) who passed a packet of `Spangles’ to him. He popped three into his mouth, chewed strongly and opening the car window spat out the plastic. Very effective, though not a very good lesson for children, I thought.
Having been always too idle to keep a diary I wondered why I had no memory of that train journey to Southampton. Of course I hadn’t, for it didn’t take place that way! We were off to London to stay with a pianist friend and cousin and to share in a `Farewell Service’ in the SPG chapel with several others who were going abroad. Only after this did we catch the (romantic sounding) `Boat Train’. Little did any of us think at that time that we were leaving England for good, except for vacations. There is one hymn that ever afterwards my wife would never let me choose - we sang it at that Farewell Service with its haunting tune and rather trite words, “God be with you till we meet again”. Fortunately for us it was a prayer and He has!
So to Southampton. Three skinny children and quite trim parents, the war and rationing didn’t make for much fat. After a night at ‘The Dolphin Inn’ we boarded the ‘Athlone Castle’. Those who are older will remember the joy of travelling by ship. No luggage limit of twenty kilos, no miles to walk to get to the plane, no beastly uncomfortable crowded seats and no plastic meals! It took longer thank goodness, for it was the holiday of our lives. Fourteen days of delight before reaching one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Capetown.
There being no other priest on board I became ship’s Chaplain and so had access to all parts. There is no need for me to bore you with a detailed account of the trip, for if you have experienced it you will know all about it, and if you haven’t then no words of mine will adequately describe its joy. There was of course no modern air-conditioning, merely a ‘blower’ of cool (and sometimes dirty) air. Few today will realise the delight of being in an inner cabin, with only a curtain for a door, the blower full on and lying in a sea of sweat; of scalding hot sea water baths with a bowl of fresh water to rinse off the salt. How distant it all seems, but the pleasure of walking the decks morning and evening surrounded by the unending sea is not easily forgotten.
On that one trip only we called at Funchal in Madeira and I went ashore to buy some bananas (the nicest bananas in the world), but I saw never a one until returning to the jetty. There was a man with a square basket full, about eight dozen. I asked how much and was told eight shillings. That started the bargaining until eventually I got him to agree to two shillings and ninepence. On his agreeing I said “I’ll give you four shillings.” “No, no”, he said “Two and ninepence!” Then it percolated and pushing the lot at me he said, “Yes, yes, four shillings.” When I returned to the ship I found out why there had been no bananas ashore. They had all been taken for sale on the ship. Dorothy, knowing my liking for Madeira bananas had bought about six dozen. But none of them went bad. Not with a fruit-starved family of five.
There came the early morning when the ship took a list as its whole complement dashed to the side where Table Mountain was first sighted, ‘tablecloth’ and all! As I sit typing this, I have a large ‘poster’ picture of it facing me. Its beauty never palls.
In those days, before land was reclaimed and filled with high-rise buildings, the ship docked at the bottom of the famous Adderley Street and we were in the city even while on the ship. We disembarked and were taken to a small hotel at Seapoint where we were to stay until the Navy was ready to ship us the one thousand six hundred miles to Tristan.
It was a funny little three storied place full of resident, retired old dears (or so it seemed). Two of them asked if we would like to see the ‘lights’ of the city from Signal Hill. As we said that we would indeed, they took the whole family that evening. Our driver, bless her, appeared to be about ninety and drove at about five miles an hour. She may of course have been much younger but to the youthful eyes of a forty year old she seemed ancient. As we approached a right-angled corner, in the middle of the road and at walking pace, we met another car, the driver and speed the same. Neither made the slightest move to get out of the other’s way, so we pushed each other to a complete stop. No damage was done (cars in those days had a solid frame) but what a hullabaloo. The police must be called and so on...Eventually, when everything had been sorted out our ancient Jehu decided that the car must be examined at a garage the next morning as it might not be safe to go up and down such steep hills. To our relief a friend took us for the marvellous view some days later, again a sight never to be forgotten.
We had a lovely two weeks in Cape Town, with perfect weather, and were fortunate to have friends who took us all over the beautiful Cape. To all of us it remains one of the most beautiful places on earth. No wonder I love visiting my daughter and family who live there.
Sight seeing, shopping, bathing, the time passed so quickly; docks (I love them) to be visited, gardens and a beautiful and at that time unfinished Cathedral. So many things to delight. But all good things come to an end and ours came with the message that we were to leave from Simonstown on the Frigate HMS Actaeon in three days time. What was much worse, we were to have the company of the assistant Bishop whom we did not know. Had it been the famous Archbishop Clayton we would have been delighted for we had met him during our stay and he had been my Archdeacon in England.
Simonstown, so familiar to me now, was in those far off years a thrilling place, as are all docks and dockyards. All our heavy luggage had been sent ahead so that we had only our few suitcases to take with us. What a good thing that was, for we were taken to a small cabin which one of the ship’s officers had vacated for us and which, apart from a narrow gangway, was filled by the five bunks specially placed for the Neaum family. Just outside the door was an oval hole with a ladder leading down to the engine room and through it came a strong breeze redolent with the smell of hot oil. We were advised to unpack and keep out of the way until the frigate sailed, but would be allowed on deck after cast off. This we did and were able to see all the beauty of ‘False Bay’ as we steamed out of the dockyard followed by a South African frigate. On asking if both ships were going to Tristan we were told that the second frigate was on some training exercise and that we were to drop off three depth charges as part of it. And yes, we could stay on deck to watch!
The sea in the bay was like a mill pond as we turned south to round the Cape. Few places could be more spectacular than the mountainous Cape seen from the rail of a frigate on a calm blue sea. Then the first of the charges was dropped. We waited. It seemed longer than the two minutes silence of November 11th! Then a mighty boom and a whoosh of water rising high between us and the following ship. The whole frigate seemed as though it were to be shaken asunder and with it its six passengers too. It was enough to loosen the very teeth in your head. The second and third didn’t seem so bad. We were prepared for them. Shortly after the South African frigate left us and we began rounding the Cape into the open sea.
Whether or not it was the depth charges or just coming out of the bay we never found out, but from that moment life became almost impossible for six days. Dorothy found her bunk and stayed there eating nothing, the children came into the wardroom, had their meal and went off to part with it, upwards, while I, feeling queasy, managed to keep both my dignity and my food though with a certain amount of difficulty, I must admit. There was no easement throughout the whole trip for Dorothy, but there were two for me and one for the children.
That first evening after dinner when the Bishop had retired the Officers asked if I played poker. How green I was! I had not heard the truth “Never play poker with the Navy”. I didn’t play poker but I knew how, or thought I did. My idea of poker was like the ‘Bluebells of Scotland’ compared with Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto as far as the Navy was concerned. I won’t tell how much I lost during that six hour stint, rather let me say that it was the only time I forgot a rough sea and small ship. It was well worth it.
About half way though the trip a watery sun appeared and along came one of the officers to invite the children and me if I wished to some shooting practice. So long as the gun was pointed away from the ship there was no danger of hitting anything and the children had a fine time with the same effect as the game of poker had had for me, but at no cost. They forgot about feeling seasick and both wolfed and kept down a huge plateful of sandwiches.
So the days passed. The cabin had a small fixed porthole just at sea level. To look at it made one’s stomach turn. I also remember that the rather healthy smell of hot oil while in port becomes the foulest stink when on a rough sea, and we got a blast of it whenever we left the cabin.
Along came Saturday night and the Bishop, all six foot three of him, said he would be celebrating Mass at 7.00am on Sunday in the Captain’s cabin. I offered to serve for him. Some server! The cabin was high up on the ship and the movement, to a land-lubber, beyond description. I knelt down and there I was and there I stayed throughout the Service, unable to give a hand at all.
The sea never let up during the whole six days. All the ship’s company were excellent in their care of us, but who can control the sea? The one most concerned was the Captain’s batman, my apologies to any naval folk who read this, but I am afraid I am not familiar with naval terms, who constantly tried to tempt Dorothy with delicious tidbits, to no avail.
But as all good things come to an end, so do bad ones. No words could have been more welcome to us than the cry ‘Land ahead’. The children and I went on deck and there in the far distance was a white peak with a cloudy halo round it. “That is Tristan da Cunha” we were told. We stayed on deck as we drew closer to the island, close enough eventually to see that most of the island stood two thousand feet up out of the sea, rising to one single cone of a supposedly extinct volcano that was six thousand seven hundred feet high. Facing us was a gently sloping plateau covered with the greenest of grasses and dotted with smaller, also supposedly extinct cones. Sailing nearer still we were able to see that the plateau was also dotted with small thatched cottages, while nearer the sea was ‘The Station’, built by the Navy, with its red corrugated iron roofs. Then came heaven after six days of Hades, for we came into the lee of the island and consequently a calm sea.
Before we could think of going ashore there was to be a visit to the ship by the island’s Administrator, its Chief Man and others. For this the Captain’s steward had prepared the usual food including large plates of sandwiches. By this time Dorothy and the children, feeling better immediately the ship entered smooth waters, had come on deck. Seeing the sandwiches they fell on them like starving wolves and soon emptied the plates. The steward was so pleased at Dorothy’s quick recovery that he quickly produced many more and pressed her and the children to eat all they wanted.
Feeling much better we watched as three ‘longboats’ drew near. We had already heard of these boats made of wooden frames and covered with canvas and were interested to see them as we were due to go ashore in them. As the guests came aboard we were introduced, but I have little memory of things until the time came for us to leave the ship and be rowed to land. All the family were in one boat with six oarsmen and about half way to the beach we saw a smooth rock, oval and about six by two metres, just above the level of the sea. Watching it as we passed it quietly sank below the surface and vanished. It was our first whale, frightening in its size from so close. We had come at the mating season when the whales move up from the Antarctic to the Tristan area. We were to see many during our three and a half years on the island, but that first one, so huge and near to our small boat was a sight never to be forgotten.
There was no jetty or landing, merely a mighty stretch of black volcanic sand crowded with people. Pausing at the outer edge of the breakers we waited for the ‘big one’, when after one last haul on the oars, the rowers shipped their oars and the leading oarsman flung a rope which was caught by the men on the beach who began hauling. We were told to stay where we were while the men jumped out to help with the pulling. The boat was drawn right out of the water and then out we stepped on to dry land - Tristan da Cunha - the ‘Loneliest Island in the world’ as it has been named.... Each person on the beach came to greet us in turn and they all looked alike. It was some months before we could identify individuals.
As the men had to stay to begin off-loading the ship we were escorted by the women and children up and along a rocky track to the ‘Willage’, as the islanders called their village, and to our little house. It was a frame and corrugated iron cottage, ten by five metres and included a verandah, sitting/dining room, kitchen, three bedrooms and a bathroom, plus a small workshed, all set in a little gully, the sides of which were covered with ‘New Zealand flax’. It was delightfully isolated though only about twenty metres from the nearest house which was the Administrator’s. In front was the everlasting sea with its ever-changing beauty and behind the house the gully turned a corner leaving us with a view of the green two thousand foot cliff to what was called ‘The Base’. It became for us a lovely home when once we had grown used to the smallness of the rooms after the size of English country rectories. Sue’s bedroom I remember was six foot by four foot six and contained a twenty one inch bed, a ship’s set of drawers and a stool, the boys’ room was nine by nine feet, and so on.
The ‘Station’ folk were prepared for our gear not to be landed for two or three days and had made up our beds and we were to eat with the manager of the crawfishing company, so there was no worry on that score. Three easy days to take our bearings and find out what was the job to be tackled.
There were about thirty expatriates including children and nearly three hundred islanders. The former included a doctor, nurse, agriculturalist/postmaster, two teachers (not yet arrived) and two ‘Met.’ men. The rest represented and managed the fishing company. Over all was the Administrator who served as the British Government representative under the Governor of St. Helena, an island fifteen hundred miles away. All these expatriates lived in the ‘Station’ while the Islanders themselves had their thatched-roofed stone houses all around the church which, in those days, was central not merely to the village, but also in the lives of the people. I hear to my grief that this has changed a lot since the islanders all spent some time in England after the volcano erupted.
The Tristanites were a mixture of a variety of races. Were I to go into detail of the people’s history this series of articles would never end. Little do you, my readers, know your luck. Dorothy kept a very full diary at that time, thirteen books of ninety six pages each, it is in the possession of my daughter Susan in Cape Town, so as I write about our years on the island it will be merely the high spots I remember and record.
During those early days I found that my work was to care for all on the island, to run the school and, for the first year, with Dorothy, to do all the teaching. I was an ex- officio member of the Island Council and as it turned out, almost a Union leader as well for there was only the Chaplain to stand for them in their dealings with the fishing company.
A few words about Tristan. It is one of a three island group, the other two are ‘Nightingale’ and ‘Inaccessible’. They lie in the South Atlantic Ocean almost midway between Cape Town and Montevideo. Tristan is roughly circular and about twenty four square miles in area. Apart from the ‘Village’ plateau (about four miles long and three quarters of a mile wide) and two small stretches on the East and South, the whole island stands two thousand feet up and rises from there to a volcanic cone of six thousand seven hundred feet. A map of the island looks rather like the sawn end surface of a log that has cracked as it dries out. The cracks being deep gullies washed out by the rains of the centuries. Few have ever tried to walk or climb round the island. It is easier by boat!
The Tristanites had only seven ‘family’ names and were, in those days, delightfully unsophisticated. The men were masters of the sea and the women always knitting. The men’s long-johns, knee socks, jerseys etc. were all knitted by the women in natural home-spun wool, the socks having one, two or three bands of colour for which bought wool was used.
Very soon after landing I undertook a very “unparsonical” job. The store keeper had left on the ship when it departed and there was the threat of the store closing down until a replacement could be found - a matter of four months before the small fishing ship returned from Cape Town at the end of January. I volunteered for the job and got it. No pay of course!
What a mess I found it in. The departed manager had spent his time drinking and had used no rotation of stock, placing the new incoming goods on top of the old in the store house. Because of the humidity few of the thousands of tinned goods had any labels left. I thought it best to get the bulk store cleaned out. The island swarmed with rats, mice and flies and the store was not rat-proofed. How to describe that store? First, there was a three inch deep slurry of melted sugar, flour and chewed soap covering the floor. From this rose sacks of flour and sugar full of rats nests. There were crates of what had been candles but which were now reduced by the rats to cases of string. There were heaps of blue gravel, from the mottled soap of which the rats did not eat the blue parts.
The first job was to clear the whole store with a couple of men at the doors with sticks to kill any rats that tried to escape. The total ‘bag’ was a hundred and forty two. Then while the store was being cleaned the doctor and I sorted out what was still edible and fit for human consumption. We had to discard for destruction eighty tons of flour and twenty five tons of sugar! We then made the place rat-proof, cleaned every corner, and returned what was fit to return. A good days work for which the Company Manager never forgave me as the store was, under agreement, a non-profit venture and the cost was laid at the Company’s door. After this the task of getting the shop in order was easy. We identified as many of the label-less tins as possible and sold off the rest as ‘mystery’ tins at a shilling each. This caused great fun for you might find you were lucky in opening a tin of bacon (normally 4/6 a tin), but it was disconcerting to get an old tin of granadilla with nasty looking black pips dried out on the top, if you were hoping for a tin of baked beans.
It was in the very early days of our stay on the island that two of the young men asked me if I would like to go with them to Sandy Point (on the East of the island) to collect their dinghy. “How do we get there?” I asked. “Oh, we walk. It is a nice easy walk” they answered. We arranged for them to call for me at 7.00am the next day. “What about food?” I asked. “No worry”, they said. “we’ll use some of the store left in the huts there.”
I was getting myself a little breakfast when they turned up at 6.30 the next morning. They wouldn’t stay for a bite and told me not to bother as it would not take long to get there. As I stuffed a pack of biscuits in my pocket, we left for the unknown. Up till then I had not seen a detailed map of the island. Had I seen one I should have seen that the path we were about to take was named ‘The Ugly Road’ - but ignorance is bliss we are told.
We walked over the black sands of ‘Big Beach’ and then the path climbed up one thousand five hundred feet, a mere goat track, up and down, up and down, skirting precipices - for ever! The lads were very patient. By about 9.30 we were at the turning of the Big Bluff - the last spot that could be seen from the village. Here they stopped and lit a small smoky fire to let their folk know we had arrived. Then we walked on until we came to a huge rock face at about forty five degrees - smooth as a baby’s head - with a scree below just above a one thousand five hundred feet drop into the sea. They, in their home made mocassins, just walked across it. I quivered and went across with feet, seat and hands all in contact with the rock. So we continued until the path vanished into the mountain side leaving a gap about eight feet wide with nothing below but broken rocks washed by the sea - a long long way below. Knocked into the mountain side were three bolts and three small cut-outs for footholds. I knew that I dare not cross the gap, but I knew also that if I didn’t I may as well return to England. So I crossed, losing about 5 kilograms weight in fright. Shortly after, we were gong down hill and came out on a rocky beach. “Are we nearly there?” I asked. “Yes, Father,” they replied. So we stopped for a biscuit and cigarette. It was 12.30pm.
From there we walked along beaches of huge pebbles, “It used to be sand,” they told me. At the end of each beach we climbed a bluff of broken rock, one, two, three, four hundred feet up and down. The wind covered my specs with salt, but fatigue was forgotten as a huge whale and calf swam along at our pace and close to the shore, the calf flipping over and under its mother.
At about 3.00pm we faced a bluff higher than those surmounted so far and I was whacked. Weary, hungry and thirsty, I sat on a rock and we had a smoke-o. Then Ernest said, “You have a little rest, Father, with Harold while I go on and get something ready to eat”. After a short rest Harold and I set off to the top of the bluff and there, facing us, was a huge stretch of smooth sand. We had arrived! “Where are the huts?” I asked. “Up there, Father” said Harold. Looking up I saw two tiny huts on the ‘Base’, two thousand feet up. We got there. Below us was a deep gully filled with trees, an apple orchard and a huge vine that covered an acre, but no one ever tasted any grapes as the rats got there first. Just before 4.00pm I sat on a bench and we had a bully-beef stew with tinned vegetables. “Plenty more” said Ernest as we sat replete. The view was magnificent, but the toilet even better. A path wandered through the thick bush and at its end was a small shed with no door and a view to take one’s breath away. At a bend in the path was a wooden notice with ‘Occupied’ on one side and ‘Empty’ on the other. This acted as a door.
Hearing a slight noise of rattling pot and pan while having our smoke I wondered if someone lived in the second hut. No! Our plates and the pan, half filled with stew were as clean as could be when we went to wash up. The rats had also had their meal!
Refreshed and happy we walked down to the beach, found the dinghy and carried it the half mile to the sea. The breakers were some two metres high. “Can we launch it in this?” I asked. “That’s for you to say, Father” was the reply. “Would you launch it if I weren’t here?” I asked. “Oh No!” they replied, “We should be turned over and swamped. We never set off from here, its too risky”. We carried the dinghy back to the foot of the cliff and went back up to the huts to stay the night and see what the morning brought.
At 2 a.m. I was wakened by a torch shining into my eyes. It was one of the lads from the village who had set off after the dance at midnight and taken under two hours to cover the same ground that had taken me nearly ten hours. He had a cup of cocoa and then set off on his return, telling us that a longboat would meet us where we had come down to the sea. So morning came and the walk over the beaches and bluffs was most enjoyable after rest and a good breakfast There, at 9.30a.m. as arranged, the longboat picked us up to return us to civilisation.
I used an account of my trip along “The Ugly Road” in my two hundred and twenty two talks given during our nine months in England after our return and it made a good twenty minute talk. We were also asked to go on the BBC Show, “In Town Tonight” and the producer wanted to use the story too, but said it must take only one and three quarter minutes. “Impossible” I told him. But it wasn’t! We were drilled by him from 5.30p.m. to midnight and by that time he had all our stories reduced to 13 minutes. It made me think that parsons are a bit long winded sometimes.
Before taking our ‘walk’ it had been arranged that a good half of the Islanders should go on their annual visit to Nightingale Island to collect eggs, fat and guano on the first day the wind was right, and I was to go with them. The day of my return was the right day. I had had all necessary clothes and food ready at home and found that these had been collected so that the ‘rescue’ boat never even landed at the settlement; instead there was a distant, rather annoyed wife standing on the beach seeing her rescued husband being taken off into the unknown without even a goodbye kiss.
However, I could do nothing about it (the wind rules all on Tristan) and we rowed hard to get round the point of the island to catch the wind. To our right was Inaccessible Island like a huge whale, all of it two thousand ft. above sea level and thirty five miles away the lower twin peaks of Nightingale. My boat team had brought along the ‘Father’s rifle’ - an old 303 which resided at the Chaplain’s house “to shoot any sharks that came too close”, I was told. I looked at the canvas skin of the boat with some trepidation - what could a shark’s fin do with that, I pondered.
The longboats were about twenty eight feet long and had a crew of eight men with four passengers - in our case all men. Up went the sail and immediately I began to feel queasy. Lime juice was pressed on me as an antidote, but it didn’t work so I sat in the stern with eyes closed & they all thought I was asleep. How much I then learned about their ‘courting’ hopes: I soon knew which lad had hopes with which girl! Later, when the wind dropped and rowing had to take the place of sail, I felt better and we had tremendous fun as I re-told their talk, to their dismay. They were all good- humoured about it and it began a confidence with the younger men that lasted all the time we were on the island.
It took us about eight8 hours to cover the thirty five miles and as we drew nearer to the island it had a quiet beauty and none of the harsh appearance of the other two. It was lush and green and as the evening was coming on the sky was filled with millions of gulls - mostly ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens’ as they were called. I looked for a beach but there was none. “Where do we land?” I asked, and was told that we landed on a flat rock on to which the boat was drawn to be safe. “Be careful not to drop in between the boat and the rock or you will be crushed” I was told. What a life for an ageing parson of forty years, I thought. As you will be aware, I did not fall between the boat and the rocks but it was quite a to-do to judge the right moment to step from boat to land. When our crew were all ashore we waited until the sea surged level with the rock and with a long haul pulled the boat on to, and a distance up the slope where it stayed, safe from the sea, during our four days on the island. It was the light construction of the boats - canvas over a wooden frame - that made it possible, and indeed ideal, to fulfil the island’s demands.
Gathering up our belongings we carried them to a small terrace lined by small huts, one for each boat. My crew told me to go and have a look round while they prepared an evening meal. The island had two peaks, one lower than the other and between them an incredibly green valley which looked perfect for walking, for much of it was covered with grass instead of the usual ‘Tussock’ which grew up to two metres and had leaves sharp enough to cut the flesh. The wide valley was interspersed with hard mud flats covered with little mud and grass ‘castles’ about sixteen inches high and each with a large roosting bird on top: the Tristanites called them Mollymauks, but they were the lesser albatross, magnificent birds the size of a goose with a four inch beak, hooked at the end, and eyes that said ‘don’t come too near!’ - they were sitting on the eggs , some of which we had come to steal. Between where I stood and the sea was a large expanse of flat rock, solid with the small rock-penguin with its golden tassels - hundreds, no, thousands of them, each sitting or rather, standing over its one or two eggs. The beauty of the place is beyond my ability to describe. I then turned to the other direction and walked past the huts and landing place to find a huge cave down the wall of which flowed the only fresh water on the island - one reason that it was inhabited only by sea birds.
Then came supper time and I was handed a large soup plate, cold and full of food. I was still feeling a little queasy but on taking the plate was told that my crew had brought an onion specially for me, it was a time when onions were almost unobtainable. I took my plate, knife and fork and went over to the rocks where the penguins were, sat down and looked at what I had received. On top were about fifteen of the small island potatoes, under them four mollymauk eggs overlapping and covering everything else. Under them were what I was told were ‘cut-ups’ - the breast and wing of the petrels that the lads had caught, skinned and cooked. To me they looked like cinders with a white bone stuck through. All this lot rested on a solid base of rancid cooking fat with bits of white onion sticking up from its sickly bed. The very sight of the whole was enough to make a starving man decide he was not hungry. I looked around and saw that the others were all some distance away and none was looking my way. I put the potatoes on to the rock and quickly flipped the huge, deep orange coloured eggs among the penguins; then came the ‘cut-ups’ turn: one by one they too went among the penguins. With my fork I managed to scrape the fat and onion into a small cleft in the rock and cover it with small stones. I then returned to the potatoes to the plate and ate them with relish. Fortunately no one had observed this manoeuvre and taking my plate back when empty I was able to fulfil the needs of courtesy by congratulating the cook!
But then came the awful thought; had I to suffer such food for the remainder of our stay on Nightingale? I had a brainwave when we sat talking together as the sun went down. I asked of the work they all must do while we were there: first, to fill their boxes with petrel eggs, then to ‘render fat’ and lastly to fill bags with guano for the potato patches back home. I said “I had better make myself useful by taking over the cooking and washing up to leave you all free for your tasks.” This offer was accepted eagerly as they really thought that such work was for women (and Parsons!) and not having brought any of the women with us it was a good thing if ‘Father’ took their job. Having taken a sack full of tinned goods I was able to prepare fairly decent meals for them and escape having to eat ‘cut-ups’ myself. One of the fish that was very good eating was ‘Five-finger’ - so named because of the markings on its body. I enjoyed sitting and catching them from the landing rock and cooking them.
Having managed to arrange for myself to be the cook I became interested in the other jobs being performed. We all went to the grassy valley. Easy walking did I say? It was almost impossible to walk at all, because the petrels nest in holes and tunnels and the whole valley was a honeycomb with no place to put the foot. Many of the eggs lay on the ground as there were not enough burrows to accommodate the millions of birds that had darkened the sky as they returned home at sunset. A great number of these uncovered eggs had been eaten by the skua gulls, so hands had to be put down the holes and were often well bitten in the process. But in a short time the boxes were all filled and the second part of the work had to be done - the rendering of fat and the subsidiary job of salting down the ‘cut-ups’ in small barrels that had been brought with us.
The catching of the birds was too easy and would have been horrible had it not been a necessary part of the Tristan diet. Most sea birds need an eminence to mount to enable them to take off, so the men sat on a piece of rising ground and let the birds run up their bodies. As the birds ran up so were they caught and killed until the men sat surrounded, almost hidden, by the heaps of dead birds while the remainder flew off to their day’s fishing. The place chosen was on a rising cliff edge which immediately became the skinning place so that the unwanted skins could be thrown over the edge into the sea which was soon littered with feathered deadness - a horrid sight.
At this season the birds were covered with a centimeter thick layer of fat, so all the carcases were taken down to the ‘rendering’ site near the landing rock. The fat was stripped and put into tins set over many fires while the breasts and legs were put into layers of salt in the barrels to be taken back home for eating in winter. I watched for a little while, but the sight and stink soon drove me off to wander round the island which in that spell of beautiful weather was enchanting. Never again should I see such a wealth of seabird life nor such huge rookeries of penguins.
With the eggs collected, the fat rendered down and the ‘cut-ups’ salted, there remained the collecting of guano. The weather held, in fact it held too well for the wind was unfavourable for the return to Tristan. Days passed, each with a two hour confabulation to decide if it were possible to sail. What is more, food that I called edible was getting short. I was told that in years past there were times when it was two months before it was possible to return. However, after eleven days there was a change of wind, not enough to get to Tristan, but just right for Inaccessible Island, from where it was more likely to encounter a wind that would get us home.
This was a trip of about twenty miles to the North East and the boats, being heavy laden, rode more smoothly. The island was visible all the way - like Ayers Rock stuck in the sea, only much bigger. The whole island stands about two thousand feet high with a narrow stony beach all round and one place, on the West, from which it was possible to walk to the high plateau. We landed on the lee side, drew up the boats, unloaded and then up-turned them to be our shelters while we were on the island. There were some wild sheep on the plateau and while some of us piled boulders around the sides of the boat a few of the young men climbed up to the plateau to find and kill a sheep.
Our building work done and a small gap left for getting under and into the up-turned boats we went beach-combing for anything the sea had washed up. There were many planks, highly prized by the islanders as there is no building wood left on Tristan, and a forty four gallon drum, rusty but full of something solid. The only way to find out what was in it was to cut off the top, so a hammer and chisel were soon found. Then treasure indeed - it was a barrel of beef dripping which was divided among all the families on our return.
It was a beautiful sunset and as it grew dark we waited and waited and waited for any news of the lads on the plateau. Eventually I got tired and hungry and prepared a meal of bully and potatoes for my crew. Then I made up my bed on the pebbles inside the boat and was falling gently to sleep only to be awakened by a crashing noise. I crawled outside quickly and was in time to see a sheep’s carcase tumbling down the rock-side, through the tussock and landing about fifty metres from the boats. Not being fond of butchering I returned to bed only to be disturbed a couple of hours later by one of the lads bringing me a plate of rather tough chops which were very welcome for sea air increases the appetite. I asked what had happened to the liver and on being told it was saved for the ‘dorgs’ (as they called dogs) I asked for it to be put aside for breakfast instead. Came morning and we had a lovely breakfast of sheep’s liver fried in beef dripping. (No fish oil if I could help it! )
As the wind was still contrary we spent the day on top of the island, all hills and dales, reminding me of North Derbyshire and making me feel a little homesick. We walked right round as there were no deep gulches and returned the way we had come - by the more gentle path on the West. After the super-abundance of sea-bird life on Nightingale the almost total absence of such on Inaccessible was most noticeable.
During the night the wind changed and at dawn all was hurry and bustle getting the boats into the water, loading them and setting off. The return trip was delightful for we were under sail all the way and the movement was not ‘sick-making’ at all. Home was in sight all the way, but apart from the low green plateau where the village stood, how formidable the island looked with its bare cliffs and foaming seas at the foot.
Our trip was over but there is one memory that will always be with me. We had to spend a Sunday on Nightingale and our Holy Communion Service was held in a natural cathedral - the huge cave near the landing place - a rock for the Altar, no chairs or pews, no special dressing up except for the priest, but everyone there and all kneeling on the hard rock! It was an experience never to be forgotten and, of course, the real reason for my going and leaving a layman to take Matins while I was away.
Returned from my trip to the outer islands we quickly settled down to ordinary things - and I had better do the same in my writing. We found our little house very snug but as winter drew on, quite cold, so that my first task, as a hobby, was to build a fireplace in the sitting room to take the place of a small inefficient, stinking oil-heater. This proved a great attraction in cold weather as all small meetings were held there including the choir practice.
A Specialist Doctor in Derby had been the doctor when the Royal Navy was on Tristan. He told me he had left a piano there some eight years before and if it was still in existence I could have it. I found it, badly battered and with the middle three octaves missing, in the Community room/library. Getting it to our house and taking it to pieces was fun. I then ordered the missing parts from Cape Town and shortly after their arrival had a useable instrument. It may seem hard to credit, but we sang quite a number of Handel’s “Messiah” choruses. I remember the Agriculturalist, a grand chap, being rather scornful about these at first, but after some time, and success, he said, “You know, that fellow Handel wrote some decent music.” My reply was, “Thanks, Jerry, I’ll tell him you said so when I meet up with him..”
It was here that we also practised the Sunday music and it led to an experience that made me decide never to choose that lovely hymn “Rock of Ages” unless I had a good choir or at least an organ loud enough to overpower any congregation. I chose it on my first Good Friday for the Three Hour Devotion when everyone on the island, except some of the pagan expatriates, came to fill the church to overflowing. Our ‘organ’ was a harmonium given by Queen Mary, played by a more than competent organist, my dear wife Dorothy. Both she and it and also I were overwhelmed! The congregation took it into their own hands and went slower, and slower and slower, until it became impossible - but it did save me giving one of my talks - there was not time!
Almost all the Islanders were regular at church save a few scallywags who came only occasionally and when they were honouring God by their appearance would always be outside their houses in their Sunday best to make sure I saw them as I walked up to church.
I always remember my first Christmas Mass, starting at 11.30pm on Christmas Eve. It was the one occasion in the year when the Fishing Company allowed the generator to be used, outside the 4.00pm-6.00pm daily run for ironing, for a church service. I went up at about 10.00pm to get things ready and to have a little time for quiet prayer. It was a pitch dark night, hot and humid. Unfortunately I dropped my torch when opening the church gare and it stopped working, so in I went and touching the pew ends made my way up the empty aisle to the vestry to get and light a candle. There was not a sound. Coming out of the vestry with my lighted candle I glanced down the ‘empty’ church to find about two hundred and fifty pairs of whites of eyes looking at me. It was quite a shock to find emptiness so full and so impossibly quiet. They had, of course, gone early to make sure of a seat as the church building was not large enough to hold all the folk without some standing. But what a memorable service - all the people together in God’s House in the biggest parish in the world for we were the centre of a circle with a radius of one thousand five hundred miles of sea, empty but for the few ships that might be within the bounds.
We had to face one big problem. The Tristanites were strict Sabbatarians and refused to work on Sundays. This meant that they would not load or unload ships - a serious problem when there might be only one day when the sea was fit for such work in a month and the cost of keeping a ship waiting was, in those days, £500 an hour. Eventually we decided, on such occasions, to transfer Sunday to Monday or Tuesday. This worked very well and the transferred day was always kept with the same intensity as a Sunday would have been.
The main source of income was through cray-fishing. The larger tails were frozen and the smaller ones canned (the factory is now under a hundred feet of lava) It was a great joy when the mainly Dutch ships called to collect a cargo of frozen crayfish tails, for we would go aboard and have a good meal and I would be the one to catch the purser to buy any goodies that could be spared. Such days were holidays. Even the school was closed “so that ‘Father’ could go aboard.” One visit was always remembered with great gloom as the purser was slow in getting our purchases ready and the sea was making up. But as the Administrator had business with the Captain he promised to see that all the goods were put into his boat. We all waited eagerly on the beach for his coming - but he had forgotten, and the ship was already almost out of sight. How unpopular was the Administrator for a while. However, on the ship’s return from Rio, it again called and we received our treats.
Tankers also would call on the pretext of needing the calm water to effect some repairs, but chiefly to give their young crew a glimpse of the island. They never came ashore, but were most welcoming when we visited them. It was through the Captain of one such ship that I managed to get the promise of a ‘lift’ to Cape Town when our time came to leave.
I think the Chaplain’s house had the best garden on the island. Everywhere the chief enemy was the wind which would blast anything. Our garden had high turf walls surmounted by New Zealand flax and given a little fertilizer it would grow anything - there was no shortage of fertilizer. On good fishing days one of the men would call saying, “I’ve brought you a little fish Father.” He would enter and deposit on the kitchen table a ‘Blue Fish’ weighing about 80 lbs, then sit down for a short smoko before leaving. The first time this happened I was caught , as scarcely five minutes later there was another knock with a similar gift from a different fisherman. However, he didn’t seem put out by the table already full of fish, and putting his neatly on top he also had a short smoko. By that time I was warned and took the two monsters into my little work shed. How right I was to do so. Within the half hour we had six of the monsters, which happily was the total.
The problem was the disposal of all this fish, for at that time there was no fridge and the fish, most uninteresting eating in any case, were already beginning to smell out the house. I took the only option possible with all gifts of perishable food during the hot months of summer, and wonderful fertilizer it proved to be - over 100 kilograms of tomatoes from twelve plants, more beans than we could give away and a bucket full of potatoes from each root.
Later, when the Fishing Company gave me a gift for my four month’s work in the store, I purchased the first refrigerator to come on the island and matters improved. It was only a small one, but when the ship came in January and we knew there would be no more fresh supplies until October, I stored up with eighty lbs of butter, five large round cheeses and a cut up lamb. This left enough space for a square bottle of milk and the only one I had was a bottle of gin, which I emptied down the sink! No, I am not tee-total, but I needed the bottle and gin cost only two shillings and seven pence a bottle!
In my evening or wet-day visiting on Tristan da Cunha I was able to discover which lads were ‘after’ which girls. I would call, be offered the inevitable cup of tea and sit for a chat. There were very few comfortable seats - a bench or two, a chest and a few hard chairs. Before long, in would come a young man, followed at short intervals by many others, even six or more. Having greeted the father and mother (and me) they would sit down in solemn silence with the daughter taking not the slightest notice of any of them. This would go on for months (while I presume the girl talked it over with her parents ) until the day came when the girl would go and sit next to one of the lads. The signal being given all the others departed and from that day the girl started knitting for her chosen one the white natural wool long socks of the island. During the first months the socks would have one band of colour round the top. When two bands appeared the other lads would start teasing the chosen one about naming the day until he appeared with socks with three coloured bands. When that happened I knew it would not be long before the couple came to see me to arrange their wedding.
There was very little immorality on the Island - and no policeman . There was a bit of stealing by the improvident when their potatoes ran out, a few dog fights started on the beach when waiting for the sea to go down (a fine of 5 shillings for this which the culprits brought to the Administrator on their own accord), but very little promiscuous sex. The only case I knew among the young folk was caused by the colour bar! All the islanders were of mixed blood and in any family there would be a range from white to very dark. If a family had a very fair girl the parents would go to almost any length to stop her marrying a dark lad. The case I knew of was between a dark lad and the fairest girl on the island. She became pregnant (with full intent) and the parents would not consider her marrying the father. It is good to know that the two kept their affection for each other and when the volcano blew up and all the Tristanites went to England the couple got married.
I realise that I cannot begin to write of all the interesting things of Tristan life; of the school happenings, camping with the Scouts, and Cubs, the day when we had ten and a half inches (265mm) of rain in ninety minutes minutes and our little house sat like Noah’s Ark in a water filled gulch; of the turnip I grew and on which I scratched the name of my favourite Islander and his wonder at his name being on a turnip in my garden (grown bigger than my head); how he took it home and on my next visit I found the piece with the name on it pinned up on the wall; of visiting ships and loony letters from a nut in America addressed to “My dear Nellie, the Chaplain’s wife”.
After about one and a half years I realised that a two year stint was no good, so I wrote to USPG (the Missionary Society) asking if we could stay for three years. They in turn contacted the Island Doctor requesting to know if we were still sane! We were, and so stayed eventually for three and a half years as it proved a bit difficult to get a successor.
I wonder what our young folk here would think of a three year preparation for Confirmation. We had a Confirmation with the Bishop who came to the island for a short visit on the frigate that brought us and departed on it. I then started a new class and after nearly three years heard to our great delight that Archbishop Clayton was to come out to Confirm and visit the Island (which had now become a part of the Province of the Church of South Africa. His coming was a special joy to me for he had been my Archdeacon in my younger days. I cannot remember the name of the frigate he came on, all I remember is that being rather stout, aged and lame he was lowered into the island boat in a boatswain’s chair. The movement of the chair was fumbled by the one in charge and the wooden guard over it was dropped neatly on the Archbishop’s head - but being ‘Derbyshire’ it caused no permanent damage.
The Archbishop’s visit was the high-spot of our time on Tristan although he was not noted for his tact. It fell to me to take him to visit all the houses on the Island, the first being to the home of the ‘Head Woman’ - Martha Rogers - who was of the same bulky figure as her visitor. After being introduced he laughed and said, “We must have sprung from the same stock, our parents must have been sea elephants”. Like Queen Victoria she was ‘not amused’, particularly as she was slightly lacking in a sense of humour. However, being an Archbishop he was easily forgiven (I doubt if I should have been being a mere parson!). My other task was to be his valet and when, after three good days, we were told that the wind was making up and all folk returning on the frigate must be aboard within four hours - I hastened to the Bishop’s room to help him pack. He had been having dinner with the Administrator and on being told to come in I found him in vest and underpants and all his dress clothes and robes just stuffed into the suitcases. I duly rebuked him for such lack of care and was told, “It doesn’t matter so long as the cases will shut!” It was a hot and humid night and about 10pm . As I began to re-pack he sat down as he was saying, “We’d better have a chat as there will be no other chance”. I duly finished the packing and then had a couple of hours talking with him, being interrupted four times with urgent messages to hurry down to the beach . Each messenger was told to “Go away, there’s plenty of time”. At last the Administrator and I managed to get him to give us his Blessing and then escorted him to the boat. The sea was truly ‘making up’ so that we had an unpleasant row out to the frigate - the Archbishop sat unperturbed. We two were not able to go aboard as the Captain wished to sail immediately so when our passenger was safely aboard we rowed back rather dismally and somewhat dangerously and so to bed.
As I write this so many memories return that I could bore you for months. It’s about time we got off the island! Some months after the Archbishop’s visit we heard that a successor had been found and our return to Cape Town must be arranged. We had three choices; to wait three months for the little six hundred ton fishing ship, to try to get a lift on the cruise liner Coronia which was due to call in early March or to contact the British Tanker Co. to see if they had a ship passing at that time. We chose the latter and sent a wireless message to ask. The reply came by return - their ship the ‘British Flag’ would pick us up at the end of February. We were happy to accept the offer and waited daily for a radio call as to the day and time of arrival.. It duly came - would we be ready, 4 miles out, at 4pm.
Our departure was almost heartbreaking as we were sure we would never see the good folk again. Every woman and child stood on the cliff top to say farewell - a kiss and hug for and from each - then down to the beach where all the island men were ready with their ‘long boats’, our luggage stowed and in we went. The sea was calm as glass and as be began our row we saw the tanker begin to round the point. As she was returning to the Gulf empty we were surprised to see her so low in the water but found later the Captain had filled her tanks with water to make it easier for us to get aboard. Up the rope ladder we went, Mum first, then the three children, then me, followed by all the island men. We stayed for an hour or so, for the crew to do a bit of barter with the Islanders and then we bade farewell to all the men with no kissing, I am thankful to say! We watched them return to their boats and set off into the sunset. None of us will ever forget the scene with the sun dropping behind the island peak and the small boats rowing away, never to be seen again. This was the end of three and a half memorable years that had changed our lives forever and for which we have never had any regrets.
Now began a new way of life - passengers on a tanker. The Captain had greeted us and then vanished. We had stood watching the boats and the island disappear into the gloom of night. Then came a steward to take us to our cabins, and what cabins! There were four ‘Staterooms’ each with its own bathroom and each the size of a large bedroom. We could use any we liked. Unfortunately we could barely understand what the steward said and wondered if three and a half years of island life had made ordinary English incomprehensible! But it was not so, for most of the crew were ‘Geordies’ and spoke a version of English that few would understand at first hearing. We did however manage to understand that we could smoke only in the accommodation part of the ship and that high-tea, (dinner) was at 5.30pm on ordinary days, but 8.00pm this night, especially for us.
After a clean up and short rest we found our way down to the dining saloon. Captain’s table for eight, all the rest of the tables for four. I sat Dorothy and the children at one and was asked by three of the crew to sit with them. After a good meal it was bed for the children and, we hoped, for us also, but not so. We were invited to the Captain’s cabin for a chat, smoke and drink and with us as well the First Officer and Chief Engineer. We found Captain Cole to be a delightful host who, at about 9.30 said to Dorothy, “You’re looking a little tired, let me take you to your cabin.” He held out his arm and off they went. I stood up also to depart but was told the night was young and to stay where I was. At 10.00pm the Captain said, “Mr Steven, I think it time you were on the Bridge,” and off he went. I stayed. At 10.30 the chief engineer went off to his engines. I stayed. At midnight the captain said, “Another small one, Padre?” On my refusal he went on, “Well, Padre, we’ve had a good day, a calm sea to take you off that island and everything going nicely - will you say a prayer of thanks?” So together we thanked God for the day. That done I thought it time to go, but there was no hope. I was bidden to sit down and there we stayed until 2.30am when the Captain set off to tour his ship and I crept off to bed. And so it was on every night of the trip. Great fun except for that first night when I needed props to keep open my eyes.
At breakfast the Captain and officers were all seated when the Neaums appeared. I seated the family as on the night before and looking for a place heard the Captain call, “Over here, Padre,” beckoning me to the seat beside him. He then told me that he often had to carry passengers, but liked to vet them before enjoying their company at ever meal time. I had evidently passed the test.
We had a Sunday on board before reaching Cape Town. On the Saturday the Captain asked if I would take a Service for the ship’s company and if I would work out a service and suitable hymns he would get enough copies made for all. This we did with the whole ship’s company present except the Captain himself who, because we had our prayers together each night, took entire charge of the ship to allow the others to be there. He also asked if I would like to accompany him on his weekly inspection. I was surprised at the size of all the cabins and at the bits of Sellotape on most of the walls. He laughed at my question about the latter, explaining that the crew knew I would be going round with him and had taken down all their ‘pin-ups’.
Nothing could have been a greater contrast than this return trip from the island to that we made to the island on the frigate, save only the kindness and helpfulness of all concerned on both ships. The children loved running along the tanker’s ‘catwalk’ and being lifted to see the bow wave and to have the free run of the ship barring the engine room. Perhaps our greatest delight was the freedom of the Officers’ deck at the top of the ship, from which could be seen the whole circle of the sea. The weather was kind and when the captain asked if we would like to continue with him up the Gulf and then to England it was a great grief to have to refuse because I had to sign off with the Archbishop in Cape Town.
So back to that beautiful city Cape Town and a fortnight there before we left for England on a Union-Castle ship. Because of the almost entire lack of fresh fruit while we were on the island I promised the children I would buy them the largest bunch of grapes they had ever seen once we landed. It was almost shop closing time before we could find the time to search for a fruit shop. We found one and there in the window hung the largest bunch of grapes I had ever seen. I went in wondering if I had enough money with me to pay for it. It cost one shilling and sixpence! It reminded me of the bunch carried back to Moses by two of the twelve sent out to report on the land of Canaan and which they found by the brook Eshcol and had to carry back on a pole.
Our two weeks in the Cape passed very quickly with friends taking us to many of the beauty spots and to several wineries. Then came the joys of sharing in Cathedral worship with music to lift one to the heavens and long, sunny, hot days with endless beaches, towering mountains and thick forests. How quickly it passed! Still, there lay before us fourteen joyous days of peace and quiet on the liner. After three and a half years of entire responsibility I relished the thought of being incognito on the ship and letting some other travelling priest care for the passengers (and for myself). But such luxuries are evidently not for me. I had hardly set foot on board when I was asked to see the Captain - he had an attempted suicide on board and would I look after her welfare during the voyage - on top of that there was no other travelling parson on that trip - so out came the necessary vestments.
What a wonderful manner of travel the ocean liner provided. A lovely fortnight on the high seas that began with the thrill of boarding from a quay crowded with those bidding farewell, then watching the tugs with their loud hoots and the magical moment when the ship began to creep away from the wharf with a blast or two of its siren. Then out of the harbour, Table Mountain gradually vanishing from sight and the open sea with the ‘Cape Rollers’. Infinitely preferable to the narrow aisles and packed seats of aeroplanes. The ever changing sea which never loses its delight, except to those who suffer from sea sickness! The the joy of finding one’s way around - the dining saloon, the lounge, the various bars, doubly attractive because of the low cost for drinks and cigarettes, and the open decks with swimming pool and games set out. Two weeks of beautiful peace except for the constant dragging of reluctant children who thought the side rails were there for climbing!
I didn’t find my priestly duties too onerous - Mass each morning at 7.00 a.m. in the Library then, after breakfast, a couple of hours with my ‘victim’ in the small ship’s hospital, plus an hour or so in the evening and the rest of the day was mine. This time the children had a smooth crossing of the line for they were old hands and had Fr. Neptune’s certificate safely in their keeping.
One last thing disturbed me a little. I had eventually found out the trouble that lay behind the attempted suicide and, I think, saw the patient landed at Southampton with a sound and quiet mind. That was good but before we could follow I had another request for me to see the Captain who thanked me for the trouble I’d taken and then spoiled it by saying, “She can jump into the sea if she wants now that she’s off my ship!”
It was March when we reached England and I had warned the friends we had made on board to be prepared to wear their winter woollies, so off we all went to find our seats on the ‘Boat Train’ to London. It was a lovely sunny day and before long we were all in shirt sleeves because of the warmth.
Because of the children I had arranged with the Missionary Society that we should make our way straight to Belper, (Derbyshire) where my family lived and then take a trip down to London to report and find out where they wished us to go after our seven months furlough. How well this returns to my memory, for it was the first time I had ever seen (and smelt) freesias! There was a fruit and flower shop at the station entrance from which, in years gone by, I had always openly taken an apple or a few cherries on my way to school, and calling for some flowers for my Mother I discovered this delight that has stayed with me ever since. I was greeted by the same owners who seemed delighted to tell the other customers that here was the lad who always stole some fruit as he passed and always held it up for them to see before going on to school. It’s a habit I still have and no one seems to mind - even in Australia!
In a few days we managed to rent a pleasant little three bedroomed house only a few hundred metres from my old home. I remembered it being built and the first notice outside, “For Sale - £350.” When we were in England in 1981 it was up for sale again and its asking price was £28,000. We retrieved our furniture and settled down to what Missionary Societies call ‘furlough’. For seven months I travelled all over the country talking of our time on Tristan. During that time I gave two hundred and twenty sermons and talks. Some holiday! I travelled north as far as Durham, West as far as Birkenhead and Bristol, South to Brighton and Rye and East as far as Happisburgh. This was really great fun as everybody seemed happy to listen, but writing ‘Thank You’ letters to my many hosts was not much fun - I hate writing any letters!
One happening I must relate, not in any boastful way - I have never counted myself a good preacher - but because of its incredibility. Nineteen fifty-six was a year of late and heavy frosts in England and we found it impssible to buy any potatoes, so I asked my father (who always knew everything!) where I could get some. He said, “Go down to the first farm on such and such a road, he has tons and is waiting for the price to go up”. I went, knocked on the door and waited. The small, tight-faced wife came and said, in a very curt voice, “Well! What is it?” Before I could answer, her tall husband looked over her shoulder and said, “Are you Master Neaum?” On my answering “Yes” he went on “The parson one? - the one that’s been on that Island?” After my “Yes” he continued, “I heard you preach your first sermon”. Being a bit doubtful of this I asked him where and he mentioned a small village ‘Mission’ Church where I had been asked by a neighbouring Vicar to take Evensong during my first vacation from College. How I sweated over that sermon, writing it out and reading it through so many times I knew it almost by heart. There were of course (in nineteen thirty-four) only oil lamps, and one by my shoulder made the reading of the service easy; but on mounting the pulpit I found there was no lamp and my writing was invisible. I stood for what seemed to be ten minutes, but was about five seconds, when my text came back to me and after that all was easy. It was from then that I decided never to depend on written sermons and, if possible, not to refer to my notes.
The farmer carried on, “I could tell you what you preached about”. (I think this amazing feat must have been because he had never been to church since!) “What can I do for you?” he then asked and I explained our difficulty. He answered, “You shall have a bag delivered before lunch”. “What do I owe you” I asked, in thanking him. “Nothing! Put it down to that sermon”, was his reply. This, I must admit, is the most visible response I have ever received to a sermon in all my fifty years of Ministry - and very welcome too!
Visiting so many parsonages while on furlough in England, provided enough comical incidents to fill a book so you will have to do without most of them! I had a bit of fun while attending a clergy conference in Ulster - A very Evangelical Church is the Church of Ireland - I went down to breakfast late and in my cassock. On entering the hotel dining room I said loudly, “Good morning, Fathers!” The shock of such a greeting silenced them for a moment, but they took it in good humour.
We also spent our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary at a little village called (I think) Hay, near Battle, at a residential hotel where, on being told that it was our twenty-fifth, a special meal was prepared. There was also a bottle of champagne and a small gift from the residents. But the best part was the walk through the woods in the early Sunday morning sun for Holy Communion in an ancient and beautiful small country church - a memory to be treasured.
Eventually the Missionary Society told me that we must consider the children’s education and so suggested we go to Rhodesia. Arranging this took some time, and as my old Vicar in Belper had retired I was asked to take charge until we left - a great joy to take Mass in the convent at which I had Served from six years of age, and to have my own sons serving in the same red cassock and slippers that I had used so many years before, convents are very thrifty!
It was quite an experience fixing things up with the Diocese of Mashonaland in Rhodesia, which was part of a Church Province and therefore not a missionary diocese as such. The Bishop offered me a particular place and by the next post wrote changing it to a different one. A week later I had a letter from him saying how pleased he was that I was going to a totally different job. None of this mattered much because not knowing anything about Rhodesia one place was a good (or bad) as any other. But when a fortnight later I got a letter saying I would be going to another different place I thought I had better find out something about it. I found it was an assistant’s job, with no house, as yet, and a shared church. I wrote back saying that I thought this would be stretching faith into foolishness and I would contact a Bishop I knew in Australia. However, the neighbouring Bishop of Matabeleland was due in England about then and I waited to see him. He asked me to take on a ‘Mission’ in Mahonaland that was in a mess. I asked about the language only to be told that he himself didn’t know it and got on all right - I found later that a Bishop could be ignorant, but for a priest it was impossible. However he was a good persuader and we clinched the deal - I was to be priest-in-charge of St. Bernard’s Mission which was in a mess and needed cleaning up. The term of service was five years, so we decided that it was not worth while storing our goods. We spread the nice bits round my family and sold the rest, being told that there would be a furnished house, plus suitable car - we didn’t even need curtains. What innocents we were (and what deceivers at the other end, even if unwitting!) - but all that will come later.
All that mattered now was getting everything arranged and a passage booked once more to CapeTown - the very thought thrilled us, both the trip and the destination, although this time we were not to have any time in CapeTown, but were to catch a train which would be our home for three days and eventually land us at the small country town of Marandellas - a mere twelve miles from our destination of St. Bernard’s Mission - the home of the first Anglican martyr of Mashonaland.
On arrival in Cape Town we had very little time to catch the train after all the hoo-ha of getting through Customs etc. and arranging for our baggage to follow us. My chief concern was the piano, for Dorothy being an excellent pianist (and organist) would need some such comfort while her husband was away “On Trek”. Just as the guard’s whistle blew an official came up saying, “I have managed to get your luggage on this train but it will cost you £65 which I must have before you leave”. I had £70 in the Cape Town Bank so wrote out a cheque. I found, on arrival in Salisbury that, as immigrants, the cost should have been £5!
In those days, 1956, the train engines were those magnificent machines which used coal - not the stream-lined nondescripts we now have using diesel or electricity. They also had a two tone ‘Horn’ - haunting music - for use at road crossings and the rare tunnels. The only unfortunate part was the flecks of soot which covered the pillows at night (and the face too!) and always seemed to have a fiendish pleasure in getting into the eyes. But what matter? Three days of peaceful enjoyment travelling slowly through an unknown country of great beauty, all five of us in one compartment with six bunks that folded away during the day, not much bother about keeping clean (a delight to the boys), beautiful meals and an open ‘verandah’ end to the carriage where one could sit or stand to gaze around and keep cool. It was truly a journey to remember and one that never lost its appeal by repetition.
But as I said before, ‘All good things come to an end’ - mountains, deserts, rivers, cities, Kimberley and the ‘Big (diamond) Hole’, through Botswana (as it is now called) to Bulawayo, where we had a three hour stop, and could have a shower, though it was the middle of the night, and feel human again. Then on to Salisbury where we were met by the Diocesan Treasurer, it being Sunday morning there were no clergy free. The Treasurer insisted on our going to the station restaurant for a cooked breakfast that none of us wanted. He left me to pay for it! He also dropped a suitcase on Dorothy’s hand-bag and broke the catch! We then pressed on for another fifty miles to Marandellas where we were to detrain. Here we were greeted by the District Commissioner who was Church-Warden of Marandellas parish and to become one of our great friends, the Principal of the Mission School and the Mothers’ Union representative who lived on the Mission. We duly ‘En-carred’ and set off on the maddest trip that I had up until then experienced. It was along a dirt, deeply corrugated road and we were driven at seventy miles an hour. Being almost terrified we were assured that this was the only speed possible for a comfortable ride that did not tear the car to pieces. I quickly learned the truth of this and such a mode of travel was mine for the next twenty or so years, though as the roads improved the speed became safer and much more comfortable.
My first task was to take “Evensong” with a congregation of two hundred school lads and teachers. They all had to put up with English and I had a teacher interpret the sermon. We didn’t realise for some time that the house we were to occupy was only half finished, no ceilings, a high flush lavatory that wouldn’t flow until the seventh mighty tug and the most basic of basic furniture. Our predecessor must have had Australian leanings for the sitting room wall of yellow was festooned with little green boomerangs - quite psychedelic and soon removed, I didn’t then know that we should one day land up in Australia! The bedsteads were, of course, the old iron and wire with mattresses filled with coconuts (or so it felt). Here I must move ahead a little to two incidents concerning the lavatory and the beds. When our bachelor Bishop came to stay he needed the lavatory in the middle of the night. Before leaving he tried to pull the chain gently with no result, I hadn’t warned him of its malignant strike action. Trying this several times, he lost patience and gave it a mighty tug which worked and naturally woke the whole household. On his return to his room, there being no ceilings, our two cats had quickly found a warm bed - he hated cats! The other incident concerned our Doctor - a wonderfully courteous and Christian man. I had to call him during the night about Dorothy who had a high temperature. He insisted on coming out and on entering the bedroom saw Dorothy sitting up in bed with her back on the wall. Immediately he went to her, said, “Oh! My dear!” and put a pillow behind her. We never forgot that little courtesy and he and his wife became great friends our family.
The Mission Church building was one of the oldest in Rhodesia and in a shocking state of disrepair: hand made bricks, high walls and thatch. Its builder had been, I think, a certain Fr. Crane - a saint who like many such had some peculiar ideas. At ground level he had left spaces every metre or so “To see that white ants didn’t go up the walls”. They did not fulfil that purpose as the roof was full of them. What they did allow was an entry for every kind of insect skellum small enough to get through them.
At our first ‘Evensong’ on December 22nd - the middle of the wet season - Dorothy noticed a look of horror on the faces of the children and on looking for its cause saw six inch long millipedes, as thick as your finger, hastening on their two hundred or so legs to greet the different smelling strangers who had come. We later found these most endearing creatures to be harmless, except to tomatoes and the like, and they were called, believe it or not, chilongololos.
The school lads knelt on bare concrete in church, though some would bring with them pieces of cardboard. Eventually I was able to produce small kneelers. Before this they often left their piece of cardboard ‘for the next time’ but always lifted it carefully before kneeling as small snakes found them a good cover.
While getting settled-in one thing was paramount: I must learn to take the Services in the native language - Chishona. I decided that on Christmas Day I must be able to take the Great Thanksgiving, the Consecration Prayer, in a language that the many surrounding farm workers, especially the women, could understand. This I did and discovered that, like all people, my congregation were most appreciative - and expressed it! Outside the Church after Service they were all waiting to shake hands, greeting me with a strange word and wide smile, “Makorocoto quazwo” - meaning, “Many congratulations” - and this for a Shona prayer in thick Derbyshire! The other parts of the Service were of course in English, with an interpreter for the address.
It took me a month to be able to take the whole Service in Chishona and many more months, with the help of my excellent African priest, Fr. Michael Zambezi, to get it reasonably understandable; the pronunciation of Zvi and Zwi being the most difficult. Fortunately there are no ‘clicks’ in that language. One thing I remember was the first real feeling of homesickness when ‘O come, all ye faithful’ was sung in a strange tongue.
But there was no time to stand still. The Archbishop was retiring on December 31st, so I had to be licensed before then, it should have occurred before I began to Minister, but arriving on a Sunday and three days before Christmas was sufficient to break that rule. I had an appointment with the Archbishop on Holy Innocents Day and after a chat in his office, he was six feet four inches and most imposing, he said, “Oh! You need licensing, kneel down.” I knelt, was licensed and blessed and left. About three months later I received the impressively sealed licence.
It was time to start work. The School Principal at the mission station had introduced me to the eleven teachers and three hundred students. We went into Marandellas, to the second hand furniture store to find what was necessary to make the house habitable: my African Assistant Priest came down from the second centre (about sixty kilometres away) to greet me and make plans. He was, and still is, an excellent priest and he and his handsome family are remembered lovingly in my prayers and will be as long as I live. We decided that we must ‘Trek’ together for the first few months to enable me to find my way round the thirty-one schools and forty-five Church Districts which were the Anglican part of those six thousand square miles of Central Africa.
But where was the car that had been promised in the letters I had received while still in England? Needless to say, there wasn’t one! The Principal brought over the books - the Auditor had refused to certify them: they showed a balance of £300 belonging, as I thought, to the Mission. I went off and bought a tenth hand Chevrolet ute. Now I was mobile, the Mission was broke and I soon found that the £300 belonged to the district schools - and much more than that! But I’m sure you don’t want me to start with money. Eventually I got that all sorted out though it took me over a year to work out how to keep easily understood accounts when each school had eight different accounts and each Church Centre four. Apart from a headache for two days at the end of each month I managed with little trouble to satisfy both my African Committees and the Diocese that all was as it should be.
What was my task? Apart from the personal spiritual care of the Mission Centre with its boarding school and the surrounding farms my main task was administrative. The real work at the second Centre and the outlying districts was done by my friend Fr. Michael and local unpaid Catechists. I visited each of the forty-five centres four times a year plus special occasions and supervised all cash and building.
There were, because of the sinful divisions in the Church, many other Missions in ‘my’ area; three Roman Catholic, one of them with 13 priests and a Nunnery, two American Methodist with ‘Bishops’, two English Methodist, one Seventh Day Adventist and, by necessity several J.W’s. I managed to get good relationships with all but the J.W.’s who regarded us all as “Satan’s Synagogue”. On visiting these other Missions I soon lost all disquiet at my Derbyshire accented Chishona, finding it far preferable to the American accented version.
As we had arrived during the start of the ‘wet’ season I found the first three months of trekking a nightmare, because apart from the twin-strip road from Salisbury to Blantyre, in what was then Nyasaland and is now Malawi, all our travelling was on dirt tracks. I also got used to passing an R.C. school while still on a decent road, six miles further on a Methodist one, while the road was still passable, and several miles further, on an impossible track, my Anglican church and school - usually across a river. My repair bill for broken springs and leaking sumps came to £87 (a lot of money in those days) during the first month. As time passed the Government made all roads to schools fit for buses - the Africans are great travellers and were always prepared to fit ninety folk into a forty seater bus!
But what fun it all was! Lovely hilly country covered with scrub and trees, green and lush in the wet, brown, dusty and hot in the dry: Fr. Zambezi, an excellent travelling companion during the day, but not so good at night when he snored enough to frighten lions away, the Africans the most cheerful and talkative of all people, and me, in khaki bush shirt and shorts, putting on my ‘dog-collar’ as we approached a centre, driving like a dervish, or should I say a ‘Jehu’. We would set off before dawn to reach our first station in time for early ‘Missa’ - Holy Communion, then a quick cup of tea and slice of bread and onto ‘inspect’ the school during its morning session. I loved taking the second class - seven year olds - for an English lesson and would be given the three words they were to learn. The children thought my pronunciation of my own language excruciatingly funny. One morning the words were bench, goat and train; their own teacher would have said them as Bennnsh, Goo-at and try’n.
After school a quick lunch and then a teachers’ meeting followed by Evensong (how they could sing!) and a meeting with all the adults which could last until 11.00 p.m. if I let it; then after a short night in the small ‘Priest’s hut’, off in the dark to the next station.
During the few months before the new Bishop was chosen and enthroned I felt some disagreement between myself and the diocesan authorities. It was nothing definite, rather a feeling that we were pulling in different directions. I had found that some time previously a parcel of mission land had been sold and the £1500 was being held by the diocese. I requested that the money be spent on restoring the church building. A lump of white-ant soil as big as a football had fallen on to the altar while I was celebrating Mass - fortunately at an unused end! The whole thatched roof was in danger of collapse. I was told that this could not be done as the money was earmarked for a new borehole. This surprised me as our present supply of water was more than adequate for our needs. I also found that the money had to have my approval before it was spent - so it stayed in the Bank.
With the arrival of the new bishop I found that plans were far advanced for my mission centre to be taken over and made into a posh, grammar type school for African lads. Knowing of my building experience the perpetrators of this vile plot had hopes that I would oversee all the building. Little did they realise my anger at this, to my mind, misuse of a ‘Mission’.
It was, and is, my view that the first task of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel - the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ - followed by the works of faith, healing and education. As a priest I have never been interested in intellectual pagans, except to convert them.
This whole scheme had been worked out by three educationalists and presented to the new bishop as an agreed plan between me and the diocesan authorities. For over a year this caused an estrangement between me and the Bishop; he thought I was behind it and I thought he had worked it. This was the only time in my fifty years in the Ministry that I was at odds with my Bishop. Later we found that it had been ‘worked’ during the interregnum and both of us had had the wool pulled over our eyes.
The two results were harmony between us which he then endangered by making me an Archdeacon, and my removal from that centre to found another mission centre about sixty miles away, while retaining charge over the same district, until the new school had a Chaplain who saved me from that one disagreeable spot.
I had a church and school about sixty miles away in the Chikwaka Reserve and went to the Chief to ask if he would like to have the Mission in his territory and if so if he would grant me enough land. Having arranged an appointment Fr. Michael and I set off with the necessary ‘courtesy’ gifts - sugar and tobacco.
He was a grand old man whom we met, with his advisers, under a huge wild fig tree. After a long indaba they agreed that we could have sixty acres and as I had chosen hilly land of no agricultural use they were even more pleased. We presented our gifts and then the Chief, clapping his hands, had two girls bring out ‘tea’ - stale brown bread, a treat for the Africans in the country, and weak tea. We were then presented with two live hens and left.
On the journey back we had a puncture in soft muddy ground. While we attended to this the hens escaped - I often wonder who enjoyed the windfall!
Now started the task: the land had to be fenced, the church building enlarged and a house built and all with no money. I went to the diocese for our £1500 to be told that I could have only £1000, very diocesan that! I then wrote a scathing letter to the secretary of the new school committee demanding £5000 which, for very shame, they gave me. I demanded the cheque be made out to me personally and the Bishop said, “Don’t you trust me?” We were still at odds then and I replied, “No! I don’t trust anyone who runs this diocese”. I got my cheque as demanded.
We now had to find somewhere to live as the old mission was too far away to oversee all the work to be done. I knew a farmer on the edge of the reserve through taking Services for the local white community. He had two farms and two houses, one of which he used for storing fertiliser etc. He offered this to us and had it cleaned up, except for the fleas - millions of them! Fleas apart, it was a paradise; no other building in sight, well farmed land, surrounded by wooded hills, a large vlei or marsh and countless birds and buck. Here was one of the two places I have seen ‘Fairy rings’ of mushrooms - a complete circle about six metres in diameter with a meter thick white band of mushrooms for circumference - all edible too! Happiness surrounded us and the children, at weekends and on holidays from boarding school, found it the best place they had known, up to then. We needed a telephone and there was one already on the wall but disconnected. We applied for a connection and an African linesman came out and refixed two wires. For this I received a bill for £20. On enquiry I was told that this was the fixed fee for all connections. Later this was to stand me in good stead for my new house was three miles from the nearest line. I asked for a phone to be told that it would cost £120. I went to see the Minister for Posts and Telecommunications telling him of my previous charge and the fixed fee. I think he saw the humour and agreed to fix this new one, poles and all included, for the £20.
Having drawn the plans for the new Mission Centre’s house myself I sent them to the Archdeacon for approval. He suggested certain changes which I rejected, telling him that he had the plans as an Archdeacon not an architect (I was still at odds with diocese!) and sought an African builder. Finding one I asked if he could read plans and let him have them to work out the costs. He returned saying he would build it for £500. “Too much”, I replied. He looked a bit disappointed and said, “What about £250?” I should have been warned about his ability to read plans, (or to build for that matter). Failing to get even the angles right for the foundations I sacked him and found another young man who became my builder, not merely for our years on the mission but for any work I had when in a parish.
Young Fred proved excellent; he did all the foundations, floors, building and plastering (no hardboard walls there!) while I did the roofing, woodwork and plumbing. I bought an ‘Aga’, which had been used as a demonstration at Bulawayo Show, very cheap so we had no problem with hot water and a hot oven when we returned from trek. It was a large house (twenty by fifteen metres) set on the top of a hill for cool breezes and had the river at the bottom with a line of thirty high trees. We settled in - it cost £1700 complete - pressure lamps of course and a paraffin fridge. During the building of the walls I had supervised the fencing and drawn plans for the enlarging of the church while, naturally, continuing my mission work and care of schools plus the care of five scattered white farming areas.
On one Sunday each month I drove three hundred and twenty miles taking seven Services - little wonder I have a wry neck! What a fool I was, but what enjoyment it all was too!
All our building so far had been done with hand-made, ant-hill soil, homeburnt bricks. I never understood the art of building a brick kiln - to me it was a tidy clump of bricks with channels filled with slack (small coal) and fire holes at the bottom. The whole was plastered over with mud and the fires when lit, constantly fed with logs. When smoke without steam escaped from the top the bricks were ‘done’ and could be used when cool.
So far I had used half my capital and was thinking it time to consider transport. Then the Bishop phoned asking me to take an African deacon, to train. This meant building him a house and as we were out of bricks I decided to build him a stone house using the many boulders of which the hills provided plenty. Apart from the large amount of cement used, a dollar a bag, we built a most attractive house. I wanted to thatch it but Africans love iron roofs so we had to spoil it with such.
As I was thinking my building days were over the Government brought out a scheme to upgrade all Standard Three schools to Standard Six. For this they would make a grant of £1500 towards the cost of a three classroom plus office and storeroom block and three teachers’ houses. Because of this, and the sorry state of so many of the local church buildings, I found I never got away from building all the years we were on the Mission. In all we built three houses (one, of course, for Fr. Michael Zambezi which I forgot to mention), eight churches and over thirty classrooms and teachers’ houses. It was work I could do and enjoy, so no harm done.
My last building job, but after I had moved into a parish, was a church at one of the farming communities I cared for and where we had hoped to retire for our “declining” years, as adverts so nicely put it. We built this with the free gifts of all concerned and the work of the women’s group. It was, I think, the only church built in Rhodesia that was paid for on the day it was completed - I have always hated debt and even worse, paying interest on borrowed money - what a way to build a house of God!
You, my readers, will be saying you’ve had enough about building - well! so have I, so we’ll move on to better things. When once settled in our new centre under the patronage of St. John the Baptist, it was taken for granted that both Dot and I were experts in medicine, Red Cross training during the war was my only qualification, so ‘sick parade’ was a daily chore.
Monday mornings were the busiest for sick parade as the Mission Centre stood at the centre of three large African villages which stretched rather like the three legs of the Isle of Man logo - three lines of huts rather than a grouping together. At weekends all the Salisbury relations would visit their homes to have a beer drink from Friday night to Sunday. The beer they drank was home brewed from maize or rapoko which was first boiled in a forty-four gallon drum - this was the task of the women and like porridge in a pan had the nasty habit of boiling over suddenly. Scalds, scabies, cuts and burns we felt able to cope with; anything more serious we carted off to the nearest clinic or, if necessary, hospital in Harare.
Three incidents come to my mind. One Monday morning along came a most pleasant faced woman in apparent perfect health. On asking what was wrong she lifted up both breasts revealing fearful scalding. I asked how she had done it. She looked at me with large brown eyes saying a friend had caught her elbow while she was drinking a cup of tea. “But, Amai (mother)” I replied, “That would have scalded the top not underneath”. No answer! I went on, “Amai, you were stirring the beer when it bubbled up and caught you - is that how it happened?” With a shy look she said, “Hongu (yes) Baba”.
Dorothy and I then prepared two large pieces of lint covered with anti-flavins, I think it was in those days, and I clapped them under the breasts. The problem was how to keep them there. Dorothy produced a long foot wide strip of sheeting which I duly put around the woman and tied a knot at the back. That seemed most satisfactory until the woman said, “But, Baba, how can I feed my baby?” I had told her not to remove it until we did so next day. This stumped me for a moment, then taking out my biro I drew two small circles around the necessary parts for feeding: off came the cloth and the two circles were soon made into holes and the cloth replaced correspondingly. She was so pleased that she went down to the school to show the teachers. She was a nice lass and after two to three weeks when all was healed she brought us some beaded food covers as a thank you.
Scabies were very common among the children of the villages around the mission, and our ‘cure’ was gentian violet which I bought by the gallon and put it on with a 2 inch paint brush. I remember one little lad of about 4½, big eyes and white teeth and scabies. Dressed only in shorts he was covered from head to waist, so starting at the top I ‘purpled’ him to the waist. Dropping down his pants his mother said, “But see, Baba”, - the scabies went down to his feet. Out came the brush until he was purple from crown to toe. I have never seen a child so pleased! Refusing clothing, he danced off to show all the other children.
One day my good builder came carrying his younger sister, who was backward almost to the point of idiocy and who had fallen asleep by the fire and burned her heel off. I was for taking her to hospital but he begged me to see to it myself. With grave doubts I did so. It took about three months to recover but all was well eventually.
So one could go on, at times funny, often horrific, like the wife whose husband had bitten a chunk out of her cheek - in love we hoped, but always cheerful. It was good to know that they always thought we could cure anything, while we had the comfort that nearby was a doctor, a clinic and one of the best hospitals in the country.
Once a year the Bishop would come round the districts with me for Confirmations and Dedications of new church buildings. Unfortunately he had got the impression that I was a tee-total puritan! ME! He had got this false impression at two of his ‘Sundowner’ parties at which time I was taking some pills that forbade drinking alcohol and he saw me taking soft drinks only. So much for the T.T., but what about the puritan? I can only think that there must be something about me that gave that erroneous impression. On our trip together we usually kipped down in a classroom, or should I say two rooms, for who would choose to share a room with a Bishop, one would never know when to stop one’s prayers! On setting off from home I thought the Bish was not looking well and Dorothy suggested I took along with me a half bottle of brandy. While supper was cooking I went in to the Bish’s room with the bottle and two glasses. “Could you do with a tot before supper?” I asked. His eyes shone, “I could,” he said, so I poured him a stiff one. Just as I was about to do the same in the second glass he looked at me and said, “I have a flask of orange juice which I’m sure you would prefer.” And so it continued, not as the carol says, “both day and night”, but every night of our trip.
During all this time the work of the mission was going along nicely - some political trouble, a few churches burnt down, though none in my district I’m glad to say. I had one particularly poor ‘Station’ with a disgraceful church and a school little better. Talking to the parents I told them there was a two gallon tin of petrol in my truck and I would be happy if some of them used it during the dark to burn down both buildings and promised them that if they did so, however, they would never have another as long as I was on the mission. This stirred them up and though they didn’t use the petrol they decided to build decent places for worship and education.
Apart from the ‘white’ farm districts which had many farm schools my area was in four ‘Chiefdoms’. Two of the chiefs were Christians and two not, but all were helpful, mainly, I fear, because they saw education as vitally important for their children.
The task was really fourfold: first and foremost to bring the ‘Light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’ to those who lived in fear of ‘spirits’; then to see that schools were available for all; then to train our African priests to be able to take charge and lastly to bring them into a cash economy.
After four years the Bish thought my friend Fr. Michael fit to run a mission on his own and I lost him as a fellow worker. He was replaced by another good priest Fr. Onias and also a deacon for me to train - a most excellent chap whom I lost when he was priested. This training was, of course, doing me out of a job, for the number of white priests in charge of missions was getting less and less. But even when I felt my time was up and I moved into a parish I never lost touch, for as Archdeacon I was made overseer of all missions - a job which I loved though it nearly killed me!
Before I leave missions I must record one great joy. Turning from their old beliefs to Christianity took three years. Most of the teaching fell to the local Catechists with a ‘Pep’ lesson each month by the African priest and a similar one from me four times a year. They were then made catechumens with a further two years before baptism. Baptism was done at the central Mission where all the candidates gathered for a week during which they received final instruction from both priests. At one such baptism, when it was too flooded to use the river we had ‘pour on’ instead of immerse. There were a group of women from a distant tribe whose custom was to build up the hair with red mud until it stood a good foot above the head - mud castles! I expected Fr. Michael to take great care as he did his stuff with them, but not on your life! I was amazed at the water he poured on - and none came out!
Eventually the day came when I was sure that our African priests could take over my mission. I wrote to the Bishop telling him that my task there was ended and asked him what he wished me to do. Instead of sending a reply he went on leave for four months. He didn’t seem to realise that when I said my job was done I meant now, I’ve never been known as extraordinarily patient! I waited for a month or so and then wrote to him at his English address to reinforce my earlier letter. I received in reply a truly episcopal note telling me nothing and hinting that patience was a virtue.
At this time I heard that the rector of the parish nearest to my mission was leaving to take a job as tutor at a new Provincial Theological College just built in Lusaka in Zambia. So I wrote again to the Bishop asking if he would like me to go to that parish. His reply was that he was not yet sure of the Rector’s move and would attend to it, and me, on his return.
That day duly came and the Bishop told me that as the departing Rector was going to train African priests and had no experience in Mission work, would I be prepared to have him with me at the mission for three months and give him a bit of training in practical things. He was a very learned parson, but most impractical. I enjoyed this, especially as his efforts at the Chishona language were quite as poor as mine had been some years before.
The day came when I was able to leave him in charge of the mission until he left for Zambia and we were to move into a parish, leaving behind almost completely African work for the mixed task of a suburban Salisbury parish. The loss of an entrancing job had two compensations - we would be able to have the children with us at home instead of at boarding schools and (as I foolishly thought) the days of excessive travelling over bad roads was ended. What a hope!
Before I move on from mission work in the bush to the trials and tribulations of suburban parish work in Africa, I must tell of one of those joys that life, or more properly God, brings so unexpectedly. You may remember my telling of our sorrow, like St. Paul at Ephesus, at leaving the Tristan folk when we left their island with no hope of seeing them again in this life. Of this we were certain. But towards the end of our first five years in Rhodesia we heard of the volcano erupting on the island and of the removal of all the inhabitants to England. Then came our six months furlough with its trip to England and four months gadding around our home country ‘telling the tale’ of our five years on an African Mission. The children had to be left at boarding school, spending their holidays with some good farmer friends at Arcturus.
We quickly heard that all our old island friends were at a disused RAF camp at Calshot near Southampton and a Sunday came when my preaching duties were over by noon and we were invited by the Chaplain to visit and stay the night. We asked him to say nothing to his folk and arranged to arrive during their ‘kip’ time in the afternoon so that none would see us until Evening Prayer. At tea the Chaplain asked if I would like to preach or take the Service but I declined as we would prefer to creep into the church as they sang the first hymn and sit quietly at the back, greeting our friends afterwards when they all stayed for a gossip over a cup of coffee.
This we did, but the hymn was one I loved and I am absolutely unable to keep quiet while a good hymn is going. So, in a moment, all faces in the church were turned backward showing astonished surprise and, I hope, pleasure. I was sorry for the preacher during the sermon for I’m sure none heard his message - but he was a sensible lad and after announcing our known presence talked for a few minutes only.
The pleasure and excitement of the next few hours, we got to bed at 3.00a.m., are beyond my ability to express as was our sorrow on hearing that two of our older island friends had died. Next morning we were awakened at 6.00a.m. by visitors and all who were not due at work were with us for Mass at 7.30a.m. Knowing that we had to leave at 3.00p.m. for our long drive to Derbyshire we spent the rest of our time in the canteen talking and drinking, innumerable cups of tea with food of all kinds.
In such ways God refreshes us in our walk through life! Even that was not the end of it, for when we re-embarked to return to Africa we found the island doctor had become our ship’s doctor and six of the young island men were part of the ship’s crew. As a conclusion to this it is good to record that our daughter Sue (now resident in Cape Town) had her best island friend Pamela Lavarello visit her in March 1988, a happily married matron with two grown children. Since that time they have seen each other fairly regularly.
But back to our story. At the time of our moving from mission to parish we were busy building a church at Arcturus - one of the farming/mining communities I had cared for while being mission priest. I asked the Bishop if I could continue with my Arcturus charge as well as the parish of Highlands as they adjoined each other. He said, rather snootily I thought, “I offered you the parish of Highlands”. I got the impression that he felt I had offered myself the parish and felt a bit put out about it. I did wonder who he was getting to care for the five large farming districts I had cared for during most of my mission days, but accepted his ruling, knowing that I had more than enough to do in a large mixed parish. However, after a few weeks he asked me to see him. After greetings he said, “I think it would be possible for you to keep Arcturus, but would you also continue to care for the remaining four districts up the Mtoko road?” I was quite happy to accept this although it made my parish one hundred and eighty miles long! He then said, “I’ll see you have an assistant”, so all was well.
St. Mary’s, Highlands was one of the three ‘posh’ parishes of Salisbury and was some three miles from the city centre, separated from the Cathedral parish by the gaol, which I was pleased to find lay in that parish not mine. It had a large modern church, seating four hundred and a separate hall, which had once been the old church. It had only one small rectory which had been built for a bachelor Rector. There were two junior and two senior schools at which we taught Religious Knowledge and a private junior (mixed) and senior (girls) school where services were taken as well as confirmation classes. Most of the Salisbury clergy cared for a ward each in the city hospital, though I later swapped mine for the entire charge of the large maternity hospital - I’ve always liked mums and babes!
So we moved from the large house I had helped to build on the Mission into one so small that we had to turn the dining room into a bedroom for the boys and even there the beds would only fit if the head of one was up against the foot of the other. One of our lads said he was permanently injured by the smell of the other’s feet!
Then came the problem of housing an assistant and once again good fortune or rather our good Lord attended us. My Churchwarden heard that the house on the other side of the church was for sale as the family in it, or rather the parents, were contemplating divorce. I went to see them - such a pleasant couple - and after a week or so they decided to separate and sell the house, she going down to her parents and he moving into an hotel. As they wished to sell the furniture too we bought the lot. The only fly in the ointment was the break-up of a nice family. The wife asked if we would look after her spaniel for a month or two. This kept us in touch and I made it a part of my work to do the same with the husband.
We moved in - a most pleasant low level house in an acre of ground with another acre for free if we kept it tidy. We quickly built a pathway through the hedge to the church and prepared the first house for our assistant.
After about six weeks the former owner’s wife came to collect her dog. I asked where she was to live and she told me that after the separation she and her husband had decided they couldn’t live apart and were buying a house further away, but still in the parish. “What about your furniture?” I asked, “Do you want to buy it back?” “No fear!” she said, “We are starting afresh, new house, new furniture and a second honeymoon as well.” We were overjoyed - it seemed to alter the whole atmosphere of the house, and we had four more church members, with the two boys becoming servers.
The Bishop now sent me a Deacon of four months who had been doing temporary work in another parish until we could house him. He was, and is, an excellent chap and with his wife, son and daughter settled in nicely even though we were enlarging the house and restoring the dining room to its proper function. As the main road to Blantyre divided the parish into fairly equal parts we decided that for a year I would get to know one part while he did the same with the other and then change over year by year (he was an experienced man being about ten years younger than me. This worked very well, particularly as he wasn’t such a talker as I. Meeting for Evensong after an afternoon and evening’s visiting I would ask, “How many visits today Geoff?” and he would answer, “Only fifteen, I’m afraid.” “What about you?” he would ask. “Only two" I would reply. “Whatever were you doing?” he would say. “Talking!” I would reply.
We were very open with each other. I remember being in the church porch at the end of a service when he turned to me and said, “I didn’t agree with a word of your sermon.” “Hard luck” was my answer - and no offence taken on either side.
But first things first. He had an extremely good baritone voice and had been in the choir at Windsor as a boy. I could make a cheerful noise and so having three good organists and a delightful little pipe organ, we got working on the choir - a delight to me for all the seventeen years I was in the parish. Rhodesia, rather like Australia, was a morning congregation country, at least for Anglicans, but my chief choir delight was Evensong - as per 1662 Prayer Book. Here we had the keen core of the choir, eight or ten of us, capable of singing most church music We occupied the organ side of the choir stalls with the congregation opposite and any extras in the front pews of the church. Preaching was a joy as one could talk quietly while sitting, back to the altar. To me it is a great loss that folk nowadays seem to prefer, clapping, choruses, testimonies etc rather than the peace of God found in Evensong and lasting through the week. You will gather that to me the good Archbishop Cranmer had a far deeper feeling for worship than Fr. Jasper and all the modern liturgists!
But back to work. I had thought that on leaving the Mission I had finished with building - how foolish can one be! Our new house was small by Rectory standards and had no room for office nor a garage. I called in my mission builder and we got down to work. But the same applied with Fr. Geoff’s house so I turned over to him my new office while Peter, Andrew and I enlarged one end of the verandah of our home to make another for myself. Apart from having vestries built and the hall enlarged that ended my building activities at St. Mary’s although we still had to complete the new church at Arcturus. The latter was, I believe, the only church in Rhodesia that was completely paid for as it was completed. It was our intention to retire there when that time came but circumstances changed and such hopes were frustrated.
Up to the time of my assistant’s coming and during his diaconate it fell to my lot to do all the travelling which meant, on one Sunday a month, travelling three hundred and twenty miles mostly on strip or dirt roads, and taking eight Communion Services - 6.00a.m. and 7.00 a.m. at St. Mary’s, 8.30 a.m. at Arcturus (twenty miles away), 10.45a.m. at Mrewa, 12 noon at Koodoo Range, where we had lunch, then on to Hoyuyu and Mtoko, plus a visit and service at the Leper Hospital. Sometimes we stayed the night with the doctor and wife, but usually returned home. No wonder I enjoyed my day off on Monday! This was shopping day, with a snatched visit to the Hospital while we were in town.
Later, when my Deacon was Priested things eased up a little for a couple of months until the Bishop phoned and talked non-stop for half an hour with me saying an occasional yes or no. The upshot was that I found it impossible to refuse his request, or was it an order, to become Archdeacon of North Mashonaland - on top of my other work. There was no extra pay of course, indeed my parish went further and paid all expenses. This appointment gave me great pleasure through my contact with all the priests and folk in my area, but also great annoyance in the constant diocesan meetings, as I was soon on every committee there was.
Fortunately we had no money problems in the parish. The newish church had a debt of £8000 which I told my folk I wanted paid off before the end of the year. We started with a ‘gift day’ - a delightful day on which I stayed in the church porch all day receiving gifts and chatting with all who came. That day produced about £1500. I then persuaded twenty parishioners to promise £1 a week if no other gifts came in. Each Sunday I announced the total and what had been added during the week, letting my £1 a week-ers know that I would expect their £1 no matter what. They all took this in good part. We had no ‘Do’s’ to help towards paying the debt on the principle that if we wanted a church we must pay for it. It was with great pleasure that I was able to announce that the church building belonged to us before my first year was up - but it was, of course, a wealthy and generous parish.
It was about this time that we changed from £’s to $’s. About half our total income was swallowed up by diocesan assessment and a fair bit more in various donations. So much so that towards the end of the year we often looked like being in the red. When this happened the Wardens and I sent round a letter acquainting the folk of the situations and asking their help. It never failed during my seventeen years in the parish - they were a good lot!
One last thing before I finish with money. I had several folk who ‘tithed’ and some of them were of the opinion that such giving should be spent at the Rector’s discretion. I knew what they wouldn’t like it to be spent on (things like W.C.C.) and they were happy for me to decide. This meant that my discretionary fund was always in good fettle and on the occasions when it wasn’t I would tell my ‘Occasional Office’ congregation who would pay up to the tune of $100 or more - a great parish!
About this time we had an amusing experience in tolerance in the rectory. Our daughter Sue was away in Bulawayo (some three hundred miles away) training as a children’s nurse, while Andrew had started at the local university with Peter still at home. Andrew and I gathered a large collection of ‘Classical’ music - from Bach to Beethoven while Peter was still at the ‘Rolling Stones’ stage. I wired up speakers into every room, except the smallest where I thought it might look odd to my successors as rector to have a round hole in the lavatory door! Peter’s speaker was that of an old radio/record player in his room. Both lads were totally intolerant of the other’s choice of music and Andrew had his choice whenever he was home. Then Peter discovered that he could play a Rolling Stones record on his machine out through all the speakers at the same time as Bach was surging into his room and all other rooms through the same speakers! The resultant mix was unpleasant to all, so we had to fix times for each to listen to their own choice. Peace reigned!
The church at Arcturus was nearing completion - a beautiful situation as it stood on a hill surrounded by farmed valleys which were themselves circled by hills in which were two of the richest gold mines in Rhodesia. All my farmers and the mines had been most generous, as were many businesses in Salisbury. I got the entire tiling for the roof for a mere $R60 and decided to have a roof-wetting braai (barbeque) to pay for them and other costs. People from the whole district came and paid to inscribe their name under the tiles at fifty cents each. This produced over $300 - a help towards paying the builder. Soon all was finished, furnished and painted and the consecration day arrived.
Back at St. Mary’s three things were needed: the vestries were unfinished, built only up to ground level and all we had as a vestry was a small room under the porch; the church itself was beautifully light and airy with main and side altar, but no place for quiet prayer, and with cremation coming more into fashion, we had no place for the reverent keeping of the ashes save the horrid walls at the crematorium which was seven miles away at the cemetery. There was a nice space where the side aisle had not been taken up to the east wall - just right for a chapel to seat about thirty. There was also a terraced lawn separated by a path from the south wall of the church - ideal for a burial ground for ashes. We walled and laid paths on the part of the lawn we needed for the ‘Garden of Rest’ and then proceeded to solve the problem of those who wish to place some memorial in the church to their dead. We decided to make the proposed chapel a Memorial Chapel and in comparatively short time were able to start the building and, as Sir Francis Drake said, “Continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished”, altar, four stained glass windows, furniture and all. This proved a godsend for the daily Offices, weekday Communions, Confessions and meditations.
By the way, I wonder if you are familiar with Drake’s prayer - here it is:- “O Lord God, when thou givest to thy servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same, until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory; through him that for the finishing of thy work laid down his life, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.” A good prayer for perseverance.
To turn to less exalted matters. Shortly after moving into our house which was new to us but old in years, the lavatory began retaining its contents instead of removing them in that ‘elemental surge of waters striving to reach their own level’. I called in the plumber, not now being on a Mission where I should have seen to it myself. He came, rodded the drains, left and sent a bill for $45. A week or so later there was an odour, certainly not of violets, which strengthened daily and then a horrid seepage from what was, I discovered, the septic tank. Before removing the cover I knew what had happened: the plumber had rodded too strongly and broken the ‘T’ pipe into the tank. We decided to replace all the drains and with the help of the gardener lads, and begging both pipes and cement we did the job for $7. Unfortunately that set the game - we had six septic tanks on the whole four acre property and it fell to my lot to keep them all in good working order. I am lucky that I can switch off my sense of smell at will!
As with every parish I have ever known we had a wonderful band of women in the ‘Women’s Guild’ or ‘Church Women’s Association’ as it was called there; which brings me to three of the most joyful occasions of the whole seventeen years in St. Mary’s parish.
By good fortune all three of our children were married in St. Mary’s and I was able to take the services while, for the sons, their Ma played the organ. She wouldn’t do this for daughter Sue as she knew she would be shedding some tears - not a good thing when being an organist! Just to make modern mums jealous the entire cost of Sue’s wedding day was ninety nine English pounds, five shillings and no pence, with two hundred and fifty guests plus about fifty children. This was chiefly due to the parish ‘Gels’ who did everything including the ‘Flowery Bower’ in the church, with us paying only for what food and drink wasn’t given.
Unfortunately, the reception being in the garden, we found when the couple had departed that we had forgotten to cut the cake! I would commend this to parents who have children married - it means a plenitude of lovely rich cake in the home for weeks! It was, of course, a real ‘Parish’ affair with an open invitation to all.
The weddings of the two boys were somewhat different as they necessarily brought in with them another parish, but they were equally enjoyable though smaller, and for that matter more expensive! Peter’s Sue had been a member of our congregation for some time before their marriage, so St. Mary’s was a natural choice. No! I did not use undue persuasion! Andrew had the sense to marry a girl he met while studying in South Africa who came up to teach in Rhodesia. Margaret too had been a ‘part’ of us, and though Andrew was Assistant at the Cathedral in Salisbury there was no idea of getting married there - it was too dangerous! At the bottom of the aisle was a huge Baptism pool round which the couple would have to go either one side or the other or, the awful alternative, one going each side while holding hands; in which case the husband, being the stronger physically would drag his poor new wife into the pool - and a wet bedraggled bride is not to be contemplated on her wedding day.
While the building of the ‘Memorial Chapel’ was being done we also had the vestries completed, altering the original plans somewhat so that we had only two rooms - a large one for the choir, big enough for meetings, and a smaller ‘Priests’ vestry. I found a retired architect who sold me two chests of ten large, shallow drawers ideal for vestments for $5 each. The end of building came with the enlargement of the church hall to include a parish office and store room.
Church Council meetings were almost always a joy. We started with Compline in the chapel then moved to the vestry. I would ask the members what time they wished to finish. Starting at 8.00 p.m. they usually said 9.15 p.m. and at 9.15 p.m. I would wind up the business so that we ended on time after the ‘Grace’. I remember one meeting that of necessity had to be longer. One older member had remained silent from 9.00 p.m. and at about 9.25 p.m. I asked his opinion on the matter under discussion. His reply confirmed the wisdom of a set time to close; “I don’t think after 9.00 p.m.” he said. We closed the meeting in the face of such irrefutable logic!
I always remember my first ‘Vestry’ or ‘Annual Meeting’. After discussion with the wardens we asked the meeting to choose between two ways of electing the next year’s Church Council. A choice between the election of nominated individuals, which usually means a lot of talkers rather than workers, or the election of the leaders of the various parish organisations, with four members ‘without portfolio’. At that meeting and for the next sixteen years they chose the second option so that the parish was run by workers, not just talkers.
Throughout the whole of my fifty years in the priesthood I have delighted in three great blessings - a perfect wife, good bishops and excellent church-wardens, and for forty-nine of them a fourth blessing - good Church Councils, only the very first comprised a divided, contentious lot of folk and I had to bear them for that first year! I have never been one of those priests who think it good to change wardens every year or two - when you have a good man or woman, keep ‘em.
During my seventeen years at St. Mary’s we had only five wardens, two died on me, one left the country and the remaining two are still serving God with all their might. None of them was a ‘Yes-man’. But I never brought any matter before the council unless we three agreed on it - I waited until I could convince them they were wrong!!
St. Mary’s was a delightful church for weddings though I had, at times, to repress my flower ladies when they forgot that the flowers remained in the church for Sunday worship, and so the way into the prayer desk and choir was blocked by beauty - often with thorns!
Apart from our three family weddings, two remain in my memory, one of them heartbreaking and the other joyful. On the morning of the former the bride’s sister was killed in a car accident as she, a bridesmaid-to-be, went to collect the bouquet. What to do? Fortunately the bridegroom was a Presbyterian whose Minister was a friend and excellent chap. We met at the bride’s home. Should the wedding be put off for a few months? Surely that would only renew sorrows. Should we have the wedding but cancel the reception? There were three hundred invited guests. This seemed best, but how to let the guests know? I would do that as they all came to church. This I did, and have never had a service where there was such a sense of sorrow, love and fellowship.
The joyful one, for me, was with a bride - a lovely girl - who lived about ten miles from the church. Waiting to greet her with my assistant, all was smiles and cameras until the bride took her father’s arm in the porch - then horror! Where was the bouquet? It had been left at home! Tears! A quick word to the father to fetch it, a message to the groom and organist not to worry, and I was left with the weeping bride. I took her hand and talked. Tears into smiles! And in far too short a time the father was back and all was well. After the service my assistant said, “What did you say to her, I’ve never seen anything like it?” “Oh”, I replied, “I’ve no idea, but it was a very delightful fifteen minutes for me while the groom was sweating!” And so it was - she was a lovely girl!
It’s little wonder that parsons look at life differently from other folk. To see the babes soon after they were born, part of my job at the maternity hospital, and their mums too - to baptise them, prepare for Confirmation, marry them, or rather take their weddings, and after caring for them, take their funeral - all give a different view-point where material things mean less, and spiritual (eternal) values are pre-eminent. Perhaps the clergy should always be able to quote honestly the slum dweller’s remark, “We ain’t got much money but we do see life” - right through to life eternal.
Sunday worship and the daily Offices and almost daily Mass, have always been a delight, even with seven services and seven addresses - if my voice was in good trim, while the ‘Occasional Offices’ have provided an excellent evangelistic opportunity. For some things I am glad to be towards the end of my Ministry rather than at its beginning, especially in the changing attitude to worship. “Clap hands, here comes Charley” type of ‘Worship’ seems to me to be consumer religion, while the question put to god-parents at Baptism “Do you turn to Christ?” is wishy-washy compared with the old service, “Do you, in the name of this child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh”. This latter speaks to people of what they know - the former doesn’t! But I must remember that I am old, out of touch with modern ideas and no liturgist.
After about four years in my suburban Rhodesian parish my assistant priest was made Rector of a parish on the far side of Salisbury. Two years on my own followed - a pretty wearing time with the Archdeaconry thrown in. Then I was given an excellent assistant priest who knew all about accounts. It provided an excellent opportunity for the diocese because I was given the job of enquiring into all the mission stations in the diocese - their running, finances and what not. Fr. Knight, my new assistant, was able to borrow his dad’s caravan and off we went together for three days of each fortnight to get this job done.
I will only tell of one of our trips. We were advised by locals to take a new road to a most inaccessible mission centre. It was getting dark as we slowly climbed a steep stony hill through a forest. Near the top of the hill the road ended - no means of turning round and too far to walk to our destination, so we levelled the caravan and prepared supper. In the morning I saw a sight new to me - the whole rising sun and the whole setting moon.
After a bit of food a gang of road workers appeared, trees were chopped down, the road made just passable, and apart from a dented sump there was no trouble in getting to the mission centre. It was truly in the wilds. We met the priest too late for Mass and quickly got down to work. At 11.00 a.m. we were called into the old thatched house for morning tea. To our astonishment, miles from anywhere in the African bush, there was set out a beautiful china tea service, sandwiches and cakes such as are seen only in the best of hotels. We ate and said nothing and were told that lunch would be at 1.00 p.m. Here we found the table beautifully set, hot soup, a soufflé as light as a feather and an exotic sweet. Afternoon tea was of the same quality and we were told we were expected to stay for dinner which, when it appeared, was a first class four course meal. We were amazed as we knew the priest’s wife was a country lass who would have prepared ‘Sadza and relish’, the staple African food. This went on for the three days we were there, and though we normally fed ourselves on these visits, the priest would not hear of it. At last I had to ask how he had done it and was told that on the station was a retired chef from the best Salisbury hotel and he had offered to look after us. We reimbursed the priest for his hospitality, but on trying to do the same with the Chef he let us know it would offend him, so we had to be content with thanking him.
Not all our visits were like this. We had one priest who sent a four page letter to the Bishop saying that he would shoot us if we turned up. The Bishop was so concerned that he wanted me to take his ring as authority. This I refused, and on arrival (to a very dismal welcome - like Andy Capp asking the shop assistant if he had any doormats with ‘Buzz-off’ written on them) it didn’t take long to sort out the trouble. Oddly enough this was the only mission on which we found nothing wrong - even the accounts were all in order.
That job done I lost my assistant and once again was on my own for some years as we were short of priests and the ‘War’ was hotting up. On top of this I was getting no younger and got a thrombosis which paralysed one leg - just before we were due to drive two thousand miles to Grahamstown to collect Andrew after his years at college there. The doctor duly put me on rat poison, and in three days the leg was all but better. I decided to do the drive using the good leg only - it worked and shortly thereafter we had the joy of Andrew’s Ordination, or rather, being ‘made’ a deacon.
How impossible a task it is to try to record highlights of a seventeen-year ministry in a good parish where every day had its joys and sorrows. You might ask, “Were all your folk kind, good and pleasant?” And I should have to reply, “By no means!” for we had the usual proportion of ‘Stinkers’ but such people have never been a bother to me. I always tried to put things right, but if they wouldn’t have it, it was their loss. I have always held the view that anyone who shares in Holy Communion cannot bear malice and in that view there has always been a reconciling power that works with a sincere Christian.
But on to joyful happenings. I mentioned that I had a thrombosis and I must say that I was a bit overdone, which sounds like a spoiled steak! There was too much travelling, too many schools for Religious Instruction, too much of everything. Then the phone rang with the voice of my first Assistant. “They tell me”, he said, “that the Diocese is killing you. Would you like me to come back and give you a hand?” “You can’t do that when you have been your own boss for five years!” was my reply. “Try me,” he said, “Give the Bish a ring and see if he will wear it”. On being assured that he meant it I spoke to the Bishop who was quite agreeable and back came Fr. Geoff for several years. I think his willingness to come was as great a healing as his sharing in the work.
But I am not intending to bore you with the everyday life of a suburban parish. Let me turn to holidays for Rhodesia (as it was) and South Africa are two of the most beautiful countries in the world. We were lucky in that priests had four weeks holiday each year and ex-pats four or six months back home every five years of service. Let me hasten to add that three of the four or four of the six were spent in gadding all round Great Britain “Telling the tale” for USPG - the Missionary Society - which usually included a Retreat and a couple of Conferences.
As we were not overpaid ($114 a month) all our ordinary annual holidays were camping and one of the great days of my life was when the boys were grown enough to put up tents while their mum and dad sat down with a drink. Buying a small trailer we soon had everything necessary for good camping holidays - and what places there were for this pleasure! Added to that was the certainty of the weather which, apart from a week in June, was completely dry from April to October, with day and night about equal in length, the sun rising and setting in cloudless splendour.
As the end of our first year drew near I began asking ‘old-timers’ about beauty spots, only to find that many had never been to the Victoria Falls, nor the Eastern district mountains, nor even to Beira (a port in that most appealingly named country ‘Lebombo’, Portuguese East Africa, or Mozambique on the maps. Most people seemed to head straight for Durban or Cape Town. We decided that our first pleasure should be to see the beauties that our own country provided and so headed for the nearest - the mountainous Eastern districts. Not being a descriptive writer I will mention only one little incident that revealed my wife’s character very clearly.We decided one cool morning to climb mount Inyangani, over eight thousand feet above sea level. The sun shone, the rills were edged with ice and we walked and scrambled up the steeper parts. I was ahead with Andrew while Peter lovingly stayed with his Ma. At the summit was a long almost level glade leading to a rocky outcrop on top of which was a survey post. Andrew and I climbed to this post to find the view no better than before the last difficult climb. Going down we met the other two at the foot of the rocks. I said, “I wouldn’t bother going up these rocks, the view is just as good from here.” The reply I got put me properly in my place, “If you think I’ve come this far not to reach the top you’ve made a mistake!” - and off she and Peter went up the rocks.
My first long leave was memorable, in addition to the joys of all that England meant, for its return passage on a Union Castle liner. I found there were three priests aboard so set off to see if I could shed being chaplain on to one of them. Instead, we found each others company so refreshing that we decided to make the ship our parish for the fourteen days. One was a retired American Episcopal priest who was travelling first class; the other was a Dean in South Africa. We left the ‘firsties’ to the American: I found the Dean liked young folk so he cared for them and I had the rest. We had great fun and managed, not only three daily Masses but Evensong, sung with hymns in the saloon on Sundays - to a packed congregation, a thing I’ve never experienced since. The cash handed over for seamen’s charities surprised even the captain.
As the retired American priest and I ‘clicked’ he decided to visit my mission station during his stay in Africa. This he did with the result that my African priest was presented with a second hand Land Rover and I with a Ford Zephyr - he felt he was grossly overpaid and wanted to do something for the Mission. We were, of course, more than happy with this generosity and I “ran-in” my Zephyr by taking my holiday to the north west.
We set off with our camping gear, a sack of potatoes and some tins of bully, and spent the first night on a spot which is now two hundred metres below the water of the Kariba dam, this was when the dam wall was being constructed. From there we went up the Zambezi valley to the Kafue river where we camped for the night - a beautiful spot - with hippotamuses prowling round the tent. We, poor innocents, had no idea of the danger nor indeed that the river was full of crocs. But God looks after the simple! Arriving at Lusaka we hoped to visit a game reserve about two hundred miles north but as I had only taken £50 for the entire holiday we turned back when I passed the £25 mark (for petrol) and went to Livingstone to spend three nights at the Victoria Falls - a sight of such majesty and power that we returned twice in later years. Then on we went to Wankie game reserve for a week - living mostly on bully beef and chips, cooked in the tent as nights were cold, then down to Bulawayo and the three hundred and fifty miles home where we arrived with two shillings of our original £50.
Other holiday trips included a visit to the Matopos, where Cecil Rhodes is buried, and the mysterious Zimbabwe Ruins. We then felt it was time to visit foreign lands and the sea, so off to Beira with its very Portuguese atmosphere, its lovely beaches and cheap wine to wash down the excellent sea-food. It was always my hope to drive down from Beira to Lourenço Marques (Maputo), but the road was not fit for ordinary cars and never was before the anti-colonial war began. We did however, drive to Lorenzo Marques eventually only to find a wet spell which, with children, meant spending money we could not afford, so off we went to Pretoria and the best game reserve in the world on the way - the Kruger National Park.
From then on we found all our holidays were to be spent in South Africa for Andrew was training for the Ministry at Grahamstown and later Peter decided to go to England to study. Daughter Sue was a trained children’s nurse and herself on a job in England. So the four of us set off to Durban where we picked up a hired caravan and took the beautiful coastal ‘Garden Route’ to Cape Town. After seeing Peter off on the ship the three of us started our journey making for the Drakensberg mountains. But fate, in the form of a mighty wind, stepped in. We drove from the park at Worcester in lovely sunshine, up the hill and were met by a sandstorm like a pea-soup fog. After about twenty miles we came to a spot where the wind thrashed through a gap in the mountains and we heard the most horrid sound of metal grating on gravel and broken glass - the caravan had been blown over on its side. The next moment I found my shoulder separated from the road by about an inch - we too were on the side of the car - helpless! Grinding nicely the car decided to ride on its head, with us the same and eventually came to a stop having turned a complete U and nicely parked on the grass verge. Andrew and I were unhurt but Dorothy had dislocated her collar-bone. From then on we met nothing but kindness. Dot was taken by a passing motorist to the local small town and a message taken to the garage there. Andrew and I surveyed the wreck - the caravan looked a write-off and a car is less beautiful than a camel when upside down! What a lot of rubbish one carries in a car! It needs to be upside down to realise how much!
Eventually with help from everybody and the garage truck we righted both car and caravan and I drove both slowly to the small town, with the caravan going over once more but not the car. After tidying up at the garage we set off for the hotel to see if Dot was alright and then went to the church, it being Saturday, to see what time services were. On hearing of our plight the Rector insisted on our staying at the Rectory for three days while the car was made fit to travel and the caravan returned by rail. We then continued on our trip to the mountains and the rest of our holiday. Quite an experience - it made me nervous of winds for a few months!
My years in Rhodesia went by and I came to retiring age - 68. A horrible thing to happen when sixteen years have been spent in one place. I had arranged to spend six months in England but before that could happen the Bishop asked if I would consider staying for another year as he had a Deacon in need of training. My people being happy at the idea, I stayed.
After the seventeen years, we were given a grand send-off. One last thing we did before leaving was put in to the west wall of the parish church a beautiful stained glass ‘Rose’ window, in memory of all who had died in the civil war.
Ever since being on Tristan and missing being sent to St. Helena Island I had had a yen to go to the latter island. Now might be the chance! I wrote to the Bishop who replied that there was hope, and that if we could take the ship from Cape Town - the ‘R.M.S. St. Helena’ on the way to England, we could stay the night at Bishopsholme and have a chat. This we did and he offered me the post of Vicar of Jamestown when the present incumbent left and on a satisfactory word from my old Bishop.
Having spent some months in England we heard the job was vacant so back to Zimbabwe we went to spend ten days with each of the children and then the sad farewell to them, our friends and our country and off to that delightful two days train ride to Cape Town.
The R.M.S. ‘St. Helena’ was a converted three thousand ton ship, very nicely furnished and taking seventy-one passengers. It plied between Avonmouth and Cape Town via Ascension and St. Helena, - the provided the only means of communication, in person, between St. Helena and any other place. We met the Bishop and wife in Cape Town where he was due for an Episcopal Synod and left them there, we going to live at Bishopsholme until the present incumbent of Jamestown could leave on the ship’s next trip.
Those first six weeks on the island were delightful for convention forbade me taking part in the parish of which I was to be Rector, but I was able to give a hand in the nine churches of the other two parishes, one of which was the Cathedral. This helped us to know our way about the whole island - an astonishing variety of scenery for so small a place, about nine by five miles. The whole island was centred round three not particularly high peaks, with deep valleys separating the clusters of houses and villages. You could travel twenty miles to get to a village which was only half a mile from where you started. There were about fifty-eight miles of single track roads, most of them tarred, half of which was taken up by a circle round the central massif. The remainder were roads to the various settlements. The north and centre of the island was lush and green - tropical - while the remainder was arid for, like Jamestown, it had only about eight inches of rain a year. One road was our chief delight for it was a high dividing line with lush lands on one side and a barren ‘moonscape’ on the other.
The Bishop eventually returned alone as his wife had taken a trip to England, and as the ship went to Ascension Island and returned before sailing for England, we could not take over our parish and vicarage until the retiring priest left. The Bishop had a heavy cold so on the way home he asked me to stop at one of the stores where he purchased a bottle of whisky. Normally he was a quiet chap but after two rather good whiskies he expanded and I dared to say, “I’d love to know what my old Bishop said about me.” He replied. “What he wrote was, of course, confidential but I think I can tell you what made me accept you: he said you were a benevolent dictator, and that is what I wanted”.
He promptly made me Archdeacon - a job I thought I had escaped for the end of my active ministry. As time went on I saw why, for apart from his first few years he had been an RAF Chaplain and then a school chaplain and so he knew little of the workings of the Church especially as St. Helena came under the Province of South Africa and he came from England
Then came my Induction as Vicar of the city of two thousand folk on the Island of St Helena, the only city or town on the island. The church, St James’, was oblong, plain and filthy. The vicarage had sixteen rooms and was even filthier, with a super-abundance of the largest cockroaches I have ever seen. My first priority was to make the vicarage fit to live in - it took us fifteen months! But I also couldn’t wait to get the three churches clean. This didn’t take so long as we soon had a band of willing workers and a sacristan to see to all linen and vestments.
But while all this was going on we had the great joy of being joined by my son Andrew and family, two boys only at that time, who came to be vicar of the Cathedral parish. The Bishop actually accepted him on my recommendation, I hope he never regretted having two Neaums among his four priests.
Some time later we had a Synod - the first since 1901, I think, and the best I have ever attended; the priest on Ascension could not attend which left the House of Clergy with three members of which the Neaums were a majority: thus the Bishop could not pass anything we didn’t want him to if we called for a vote by houses, and we could not pass anything he didn’t want as he had the same veto. Great fun!
I went to St. Helena to a job the Bishop said was a “semi-retired priest’s post”. As it happened I found it a task as hard as any I had been called to do except for my work on the Mission Station. The parish of Jamestown had four church centres: St. James, in a beautiful position by the wharf, right at the sea-side of the parish. This had been built to accommodate the military in days gone by. It would seat about five hundred folk and had a delightful but small pipe organ which was Dorothy’s delight. We soon had a worthwhile choir - a bit short on tenors, the total being me, but when joined by the Cathedral choir was something not to be ashamed of. We broadcast Evensong or Mass once a month.
At the top end of the town, about a mile away, was St. John’s Church, a mock gothic building of some charm, seating about one hundred and fifty.
Then, towards the place of Napoleon’s empty grave was a small church - St. Mary’s - at ‘The Briars’ and finally, down the most terrifying hill, a house church in Ruperts Valley - a bare, bleak sun-dried valley with a row of houses and a stream when occasional heavy rains fell.
My chief delight was the fifty bed hospital which I visited daily and an old folks home with fifty beds - hard to get away from there as all the residents expected me to stay for a chat. Then there were four schools in which I was expected to teach as well as the central Secondary School where I prepared and taught the senior class for their religious knowledge exams. Add to all that twenty-four Communions to the aged and sick each month and you have some idea of the pattern of my days. The Bishop had promised me plenty of time for reading and prayer - I have never read (and prayed) less in nearly fifty years!
One thing Dorothy and I did regret was our age, which prevented a real exploration of the island. To see fully its beauty one needed youth and free limbs - not hoary years and stiff knees. But I have no regrets at working there except only its lateness in my ministry.
It was St. Helena that gave us a dislike for tuna fish. We arrived at a time of shortage and drought - meat was always a problem to obtain as the butcher opened only when an islander was killing a beast - and when fishing had been impossible as the sea was too rough. After a couple of weeks of tinned bully beef the old gardener brought us a piece of bloody, dark and lighter ‘meat’ - a hunk of tuna. It turned us off, and since then we have turned pale at the sight of it even when tinned.
Time moved on with astonishing rapidity and our two and a half year contract was near its end. Were we to return for a further period? We both felt not - that is, if the parish were to have the care it needed. So rather reluctantly we told the Bishop we would not be returning. It was our great delight that he found an excellent priest and family to take our place. To make room for him we moved up to the Bishop’s house for our last fortnight so that the vicarage was free. Our great sorrow at leaving was that we had to leave Andrew and family behind as their contract was not ended and at that time we had no idea where they might land.
So came the departure day and off to the ‘R.M.S. St. Helena’ to sail to Cape Town and our daughter’s family and then to England to complete the formalities before journeying to a far continent called Australia.
We had been in correspondence with the authorities for fourteen months before our permission came through, with constant trips up to Manchester - merely to sign a document. At last time wore even them down though and we had our passage booked to come, of all places to Australia. Almost all we knew about it came from long distant school geography lessons and so we knew the whereabouts of Bendigo and Ballarat, Kalgoorlie and Botany Bay and one more important thing - our son Peter and family would be there to greet and house us. And so we came to Australia.