Tuesday, 24 February 2015

St Helena, South Atlantic: a personal voyage of discovery

Many people, until recently including me, might find it difficult to place St Helena on a map. St Helena, South Atlantic? What sort of an address is that? How can people live in the middle of an ocean?

However, St Helena was where my father was born, so it has always hovered on the edge of my consciousness. Every time I fill out a passport application, the address on his birth certificate reminds me of that astonishing fact.

Given the romantic aura surrounding my father's birthplace, you might expect his children to have been brought up with tales of his exotic childhood, but no. My father left the island when he was just a few months old. All we have are his birth certificate, some magic lantern slides made by my grandfather and a few local artefacts dating back to the incarceration of Boer War prisoners on the island in the early years of the twentieth century. My grandparents died when I was a baby, so no stories from them either. To fill in the blanks, to find out what on earth this little family was doing in the 'middle of nowhere', there was no other way than actually going there.

To reach St Helena, you currently have to travel by sea, usually for five days from Cape Town 1500 nautical miles to the southeast, though you could also travel for three days from Ascension Island 740 miles to the north west as the voyage follows a circuit. You reach Ascension Island by plane from RAF Brize Norton. The nearest landfall to St Helena is Angola 1,200 miles to the east. Brazil is a bit further, at 1,800 miles to the west. However, there are no regular passages to either country, just the occasional cruise ship. Tristan da Cunha lies 1,300 miles to the south, and is rarely visited.  St Helena currently has no air link, though that will come, as an airport is being built and the mail ships will be eventually discontinued.

These days, only one ship does the regular journey to St Helena, the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) St Helena, and, like us, most people embark at Cape Town. Once a year, the ship does the full circuit and visits both Tristan da Cunha and England, where it has a regular health check.

In my grandparents' time, travel would have been much the same as today, though not, I imagine, quite as comfortable as on the modern RMS. Their journey would have been significantly longer than ours too, however, for they would have embarked in Southampton and made the full journey by ship south to the small island on which they had decided to make their home. 

So what was this little family of Welsh Baptists doing setting off on a journey to the other end of the world?

Well, excessively farflung though their choice of destination might seem, they both came from families which had moved around a fair bit over the years, though not, it has to be admitted, as far as the South Atlantic. My grandfather Walter Daines Morris, born in Porth, Glamorgan in 1888, came from a family of craftsmen and tradesmen which had lived in various parts of England and Wales during the nineteenth century. In fact my great great grandfather Richard Morris, born in Talybont, Cardiganshire in 1826, had been an itinerant Baptist preacher, spreading the Gospel to benighted souls, or perhaps just lapsed Anglicans, up and down the towns along England's Great North Road. This keenness to travel, perhaps even restlessness, seems to be a characteristic of the family and, indeed, of the families they married into, right through the twentieth century and beyond. 

Walter certainly demonstrated a keen missionary fervour, for within a month of his ordination in July 1916, at the age of twenty nine, he had not only got married to Maud Alma Aldridge but was on his way to St Helena on the Dunvegan Castle. His journey was probably sponsored by Regents Park College London, where he trained. He also met his wife, Maud, a twenty-six-year-old telephone operator, in London. Walter's stipend, however, was paid by the church on St Helena, or so we believe. The financial side matters, as you will see.

Walter and Maud would have arrived on St Helena pretty much as we did, though perhaps after a rather rougher journey for they travelled in August, the southern hemisphere's winter. During the last few miles of their voyage and after days confined to their cabins or staring out over an empty ocean, they would have gazed with fascination at the dolphins and whale sharks swimming alongside as the island gradually came into view. 

As the island got closer and the cliffs loomed higher, they would have seen the pontoons and small boats setting out across James Bay to meet the precious steamer, St Helena's lifeline. 

Then, as now, there was no harbour as such on the island, just a high wharf. They would have climbed down the ship's ladder into a boat and then been rowed into Jamestown itself, the 'capital' nestling in the deep cleft beneath two of the 'spines' of this volcanic island. 

Their trunks would have been offloaded separately, carried up onto the wharf and then transported by donkey cart up the main street to the manse. The view which met their eyes would have differed very little from what we saw on our own visit. Jamestown is a well preserved eighteenth and early nineteenth century settlement.

At the far end of Jamestown, further up the hill, was the Baptist Church and, next to it the Manse seen here painted cream and with a red roof.

Within a few days, they were settling in, though it looks as if either the journey or the unpacking may have taken a bit longer than expected, for their Welcome Tea was delayed by a week.

While the church services were free, it cost the islanders 1/- to partake of the tea!

Walter was in charge of the four Baptist chapels on the island: the main one in Jamestown and three other smaller chapels, Sandy Bay, Knollcombes and, eventually, Head o' Wain. Although he served the congregation at Head o' Wain throughout his time on the island, taking services outside or in a private house, the chapel itself was built during his charge and dedicated by Maud a week before they left. It stands within a lush green landscape, much of it flax introduced for an industry that closed only a decade or so ago.

The simple church furniture probably dates from Walter's time.

Walter and his wife travelled between their home and these tiny rural chapels on horseback as the only roads on the island were donkey tracks. My grandmother, seen below, was, according to my father, 'a fearless rider'.

Sundays must have been hectic as Walter rode between the various places of worship.

While criss-crossing the island, my grandparents would have come across some spectacular scenery. Sandy Bay looks like a desert landscape, the Baptist chapel nestling below rocky crags and stacks.

We get a real sense of the enthusiasm of this young man from the newspaper advertisements of the time. Walter plans his programme of sermons carefully. The church congregation was quite strong in numbers and influence, and Walter seems to have given considerable thought to the content of his ministry, as one would expect of a young man starting a new vocation.

Walter's parents, Richard and Martha Ann Morris, who by this time lived in Southampton, were clearly very proud of their son's enterprise and commitment for the year after his arrival, they donated an impressive pulpit Bible to the church in St Helena. The Bible is now on display in the Jamestown museum.

The Baptist church on St Helena was already well established when Walter arrived. It had been founded during the 1840s, borrowing and then taking over, a 'schoolroom' built in the late seventeenth century.  On the other side of the road was a set of military barracks, now the primary school. This building, now next to the church and manse, is still used as the Baptist church hall, though a year or two ago it suffered badly from a rock fall down Ladder Hill behind it, as you may be able to tell.

The first official Baptist minister was the Reverend James McGregor Bertram, a Scot originally from near Haddington, East Lothian, who had been working in the Cape. Until then St Helena had been served only by the established Church of England. The island had two Anglican priests, one for around 2000 Europeans, one for the substantial British military settlement. The military presence, there since the island had been wrested from the Dutch in the sixteenth century, had been hugely increased when Napoleon was brought to the island in 1815. Although the complement had reduced somewhat thereafter, in the mid-nineteenth century the island took on a new role, as a key element in the British action to eradicate the Atlantic slave trade.

It was on St Helena that the human cargo of the slaving ships impounded by the British navy was off loaded. These desperate people, many dying on arrival, others scarcely surviving, were in urgent need of food,, clothing, support and care. The Baptists supplied that need, working among the poor and marginalised people of the island, the freed slaves with no Christian faith at all and any of the soldiers who were Dissenters. All these souls were both socially excluded and fell outside the Anglican communion. The Baptists had been bitterly opposed by the Established Church for decades. In 1816, the arrival on the island of the first Nonconformists had been described by the East India Company which used to own the island, as 'an evil of incalculable magnitude'.

In 1849 the Bishop made the following statement, 'Unfortunately, for the first time, schism began in this island two or three years ago, by an emissary from the Cape [Bertram], and I find him now in full confidence of success. He has started a church of his own and is an Anabaptist on principle. His success is chiefly with the poor, and he is a thorn in the side of the Church.'

One wonders what Jesus of Nazareth would have made of this statement.

Most of the vulnerable people cared for by the Baptists lived in the outlying areas, for the British navy offloaded the slaves they had freed in those few bays accessible to boats: Sandy Bay, Rupert's Bay and Lemon Valley (see photo below). These valleys offered little shelter or sustenance.

The descendants of those destitute people still formed the backbone of the Baptist congregations of my grandfather's time, hence the building of the two rural chapels of Sandy Bay and Head o' Wain. The freed slaves on the left were photographed in 1903. 

The down-to-earth message of hope and salvation which Walter's predecessors preached may well have held more attraction for the poor and excluded than the High Church Tractarianism of the Anglicans, though in Great Britain the Oxford Movement did a lot of good work among the urban poor. Indeed, in St Helena, the Anglicans also in time started to establish a number of rural parishes.

Only ten years before my grandfather arrived there, the Baptist church again showed its care for the excluded. St Helena was used as a prison for the defeated Boer militia. About 160 of the prisoners died, including many from an outbreak of typhoid. They would, of course, almost all have been of the Dutch Reformed faith. The Anglican graveyards would only take the dead of their own denomination. It was the Baptist church which donated some of its own land for the burial of the Boer dead, next to Knollcombes Chapel and its own cemetery. Incidentally, the only Governor who was a 'Saint' (as those born on St Helena are known as), and a Baptist, Hudson Janisch, is also buried in this graveyard.

So, how did my grandfather get on in this, his first charge?

It was a challenging responsibility given the history of religious tension on the island. Now here was this energetic young pastor, principled, idealistic, inexperienced and, perhaps, somewhat tactless in his dealings with the political establishment. Nevertheless, he was sufficiently accepted by the islanders to be made Chaplain to the St Helena Lodge of the Freemasons. 

Walter and Maud engaged in the usual church activities, for example, the Sunday School Anniversary celebrations. 

They organised the Sunday School picnic. Here you can see members of the congregation paddling in the sea at Rupert's Bay.

Church activities such as these must have given Walter and Maud some satisfaction in the positive impact of the work they were doing. Yet Walter also made a few waves. Whether or not that was a wise move on such a small island is another issue.

One indication we have of the personal characteristics and doctrinal beliefs of Walter Morris emerges in July 1917, about a year after his arrival on the island. The local newspaper, the St Helena Guardian, had written about the lack of proper Sunday observance on the island. The following week, Walter penned an eloquent letter supporting the newspaper's views and pointing out that soldiers had engaged in shooting practice, a ship had been loaded with coal, the Gala Committee had held a meeting and, horror of horrors, a billiard match had been held, all on the Lord's Day. Not content with bewailing 'the secularisation of the Sabbath', as he put it, Walter also by implication, criticised the island's Governor in tolerating these activities.

'In St Helena, authority is concentrated in the hands of one man. What an opportunity for good; what a responsibility before God!'

Well, he was certainly fearless! The following week he was summoned to meet the Acting Governor. As Walter described in a subsequent letter to the paper. '... he informed me that some of the statements in my letter were likely to be misunderstood by some at this time when all are engaged in national service. I should be sorry if it were so.' They seem to have come to some compromise arrangement, however, for it was wartime after all.

Another such incident is recorded in the Log Book of the Baptist Church and recounted again in Rev Wilfrid Edmund's book (see below). A member of Walter's Baptist congregation, Mr Cranford, had been languishing in the local hospital, 'awaiting the Lord's summons'. The local Church of England clergy had been endeavouring to persuade the patient to be christened and confirmed before he died. Walter responds in the following words.

'When will come the day when High Church clergy and workers will realise that a hospital supported by public funds is not a branch of the Anglican Church? Perhaps when the twilight dim of their own faith shall give place to the full orbed glory of the Sun [sic] of Righteousness revealing the emptiness of forms and ceremonies without vitalising faith in the Redeemer! Meanwhile our care and prayer shall be for such that they may be saved for they have zeal but not according to knowledge.'

One can imagine what the clergy of the Established Church thought about being prayed for by the lowly Baptists!

That stubborn confrontational streak of Walter's has, sadly, often been a family characteristic. In church we used to sing that stirring Baptist hymn which goes 'Once to every man and nation/comes the moment to decide...' (See below) Life was seen as a struggle between good and evil. Nowadays, while it is true that real evil seems to stalk our world, most of us tend to believe that much of life is just messy. However, in the Baptist tradition of my childhood, standing up for 'right', for what you believe in was considered one of the greatest duties. Sadly, however, such a stance can come at great cost.

My grandfather did not last long on St Helena. He left in April 1918, less than two years after his arrival, as the newspaper pointed out. The reason for his departure, as recorded in the Church minutes, was 'ill health'. It was the same reason given in the Baptist records for the previous ten or so incumbents whose time in office was similarly brief. 'Ill health' can mean a lot of things. My guess is that in Walter's case it may have included feelings of isolation, depression and frustration. Perhaps Walter would have done better to have started his vocation in England or Wales. There he could have learned his 'trade' and, perhaps, developed some of the necessary social and negotiating skills in a community of like-minded souls and with the guidance of older pastors. Walter might then have learned to deal more effectively with the frustrations of living in a tiny community ruled over by a Governor with all the power of the King and presided over by a religious establishment with little sympathy for a 'schismatic', an upstart Non-conformist pastor.

Walter would probably also have found the tensions and conflicts within his own church community difficult to deal with. Such tensions are present in all denominations; however, they can be particularly prevalent among Nonconformists, the very basis of whose belief is the assertion of independent views, who (in my experience) sometimes find it difficult to accept social conventions and may be disputatious and sometimes intransigent in argument. There are instances in the records of the Baptist church on St Helena over the last century or more of doctrinal differences tearing apart the local congregation.

So, Walter, Maud and their baby son David Richard Christopher (my father) sailed away from the island and settled in Wakkerstrom in the Transvaal. There they stayed for two years, supported by the South African Baptist Union. Another child was born in Durban in 1920, our dear Aunt Dorothy, a kindly presence in our childhood, who (according to my mother) inherited her own mother Maud's gentle temperament. Shortly afterwards, the family left the southern hemisphere forever, settling in England and moving to various churches in towns across the south west. Oddly enough, my grandparents both died in Halifax, my grandfather's final charge. Their graves, however, lie below Salisbury Plain, in the little graveyard attached to the seventeenth century Baptist chapel in the beautiful Wiltshire village of Bratton, where Walter served as a pastor for many years and where his children grew up.

The Baptist Church on St Helena did not have enough money to support another full-time minister after my grandfather left. Instead it was served for decades by devoted lay preachers and, eventually, self-funded pastors, with some support from the church in South Africa. It is quite possible that Walter and Maud were aware of the church's financial difficulties, evident from the closing of the Church Institute (a study centre for working men) while they were on the island. They may have realised that they might have difficulty bringing up their family on the tiny income which was all their poor congregation, numerous though it was, could provide. My own parents faced a similar situation in a church in the north of England many years later. Baptist ministers are fully funded by their local church, unlike Anglicans and Presbyterians whose salaries are paid through centralised administrative systems.

And what legacy did Walter leave behind him? Well, my father for one, also a Baptist minister, also a traveller, also a missionary, also a committed pastor to the poor abroad and at home, also angry, also obstinate, also disappointed. Walter may have bequeathed to the family something of that Morris belief in absolutes, in the duty to speak one's mind, to stand up for one's beliefs, to be awkward and unpopular if necessary. Yes, that principled cast of mind can often be accompanied by tactlessness, stubbornness and righteous fury when other people do not accept the position one has adopted - or not just 'adopted' but believe in passionately, wholeheartedly, even obsessively sometimes. Walter, as my parents remembered him, was an angry man, at times given to terrifying outbursts of temper. Our grandmother, Maud, must have had to deal with many a difficult situation in St Helena and, no doubt, in other places later on.

So, some Morrises are not always easy people to live and work alongside, as my husband will readily confirm! However, like Walter Morris, they may also be idealists. They may want to make the world a better place. Like Walter, they may make a stand for their beliefs, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Perhaps, as a family, we should be proud of Walter Daines Morris and the little bit of the history of St Helena which belongs to him.


Other posts on this blog will describe the wonders of St Helena in terms of its people, its beauty, history, landscape, flora and fauna. Here, for example, is a more general account of the island: St Helena: prison, haven, refuge.

However, this personal account just had to be written first.

I have received considerable help from the following sources:
The Morris Story - A Tale of Two Richards (unpublished) by my cousin Marilyn Rigg

An Isolated Family: Baptist Work on St Helena by Rev Wilfrid Edmunds
St Helena and the Cape of Good Hope or, incidents in the missionary life of the Rev. James McGregor Bertram, of St Helena by Rev Edwin F Hatfield DD
Churches of the South Atlantic islands 1502-1991 by Edward Cannan
St Helena: The Historic Island from its Discovery to the Present Date by EL Jackson
St Helena 1502-1938 by Philip Gosse

I also received invaluable help from Rev Graeme Beckett, the current Baptist minister on St Helena, who gave unstintingly of his time. However, any mistakes or misinterpretations in this account of my grandfather's life on St Helena belong to me alone.

This article from The Mirror gives a very accurate account of what it was like to sail on the ship in recent years: Royal Mail Ship St Helena: saying farewell to the beating heart of a community.

The words of the hymn quoted above go as follows:

1 Once to ev'ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off'ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
'Twixt that darkness and that light. 
2 Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
And 'tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside.
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied. 
3 By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv'ries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
Ancient values test our youth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth. 
4 Tho' the cause of evil prosper,
Yet the truth alone is strong;
Tho' her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own.

Source: Baptist Hymnal 2008 #538


  1. Finally, after meeting you on the RMS going to the island, on the Island St Helena and then going back to Cape Town, it was very interesting to get the FULL story.
    Thank you and hope to meet again, in Malmö or Scotland.

  2. Good day
    My grandfather was also privileged to serve God on St Helena - but with the Salvation Army, not the Baptists, and (I think) a year or two after your grandfather left.
    I was wondering if you have any information about the work of the Salvation Army on the island at that time, and of Richard and Alice Southall in particular?

    Thank you

    1. Thank you for getting in touch, Mike. I'm afraid I don't have the information you require. I would suggest that you approach the staff at the island's library, who are very helpful. We got a lot of information from the island's newspaper archives.