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John Walmsley, Ninth Bishop of Sierra Leone

A Memoir for His Friends

Arranged by E.G. Walmsley, M.A.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1923.

Chapter I. Hereford and Oxford

JOHN WALMSLEY was born at Hereford on the 10th of February, 1867. To the end of his life he retained a strong devotion to his native city.

Both his parents came from Shropshire. His father was George Walmsley, a native of Whitchurch in that county, who had settled in Hereford in the early 'sixties, and carried on business in the High Town in partnership with two younger brothers. He lived in a small house in North Villas, overlooking the railway-station. In 1895 he died somewhat suddenly, soon after his retirement from business. His widow lived until 1912, and had the great joy of being present in Westminster Abbey when her son was consecrated to the episcopate.

John was the eldest of the family, and the only son. Of his three sisters only one now survives. Blanche, a girl of rare promise, died in 1893 at the age of seventeen. Edith, who after the death of her mother was able for a short time to share her brother's home in Africa, died at Derby in 1915.

From his earliest days, railways, and everything that concerned them, had an extraordinary fascination for John Walmsley. His cousin, Major A. T. Walmsley, writes of the holidays which they enjoyed together as boys at Hereford:

"We used to spend whole afternoons at the station, or by the side of a signal-cabin just outside the city, and there was hardly an engine passing regularly through Hereford which we did not know. At last a red-letter day came when a driver noticed us, and began to talk, and finally invited us on to his engine. No journey since quite equalled the two hundred yards or so that we actually travelled on the footplate. On wet days indoors, trains were improvised out of wooden bricks, and pushed with the maximum of puffing from one station to another. The trains were run to time-table; proper connections were made at the junctions, and through-coaches transferred from one company to the other; all the coaches were marked in pencil to show the class of compartments, and every train was carefully made up with a proper proportion of each class. During a hard winter in the 'eighties there was splendid skating on the canal and on the Wye; this afforded a glorious opportunity for the imitation of trains arriving at a station--a rush across the ice at full speed, then a few yards with feet together and steam off, and one heel dug into the ice to represent the brake. John never forsook his early love; and the last time I saw him he ran across the road in episcopal attire to catch a glimpse of one of his favourite Great Western engines."

The home in which John Walmsley spent his early years, and which counted for so much in moulding his character, was a singularly happy one. Life was enjoyed to the full; there was plenty of fun, and there was a simple and deep religion too. Mr. and Mrs. Walmsley were devotedly attached to St. Peter's Church at Hereford, in the days of the Rev. John Venn, who was a member of the family of that name so prominently connected with the Evangelical Revival and with the early days of the Church Missionary Society. Mr. Venn was himself an untiring advocate of the claims of missionary work; and though John was only a young schoolboy at the time of his death, it is evident that he received lasting impressions from this faithful ministry. In view of all that happened afterwards, it is interesting too to learn from one of his neighbours and schoolfellows at Hereford, Rev. Gilbert Davies, that they went together as little boys to hear an address given at a C.M.S. meeting by the negro Bishop Crowther, whose remarkable life was one of the finest results of early missionary work in Sierra Leone.

John was sent first to a preparatory school kept by Miss Watts; and from there he went on to the Hereford Cathedral School. His life at school was uneventful. He soon distinguished himself as a classical scholar, and even in his early days he had a remarkable knowledge of the Bible; but, in spite of the agility which he showed in later life, he does not appear to have taken a prominent part in games. He rowed a little on the Wye, and on one occasion he caused some surprise by winning the high-jump at the school sports. Among his older contemporaries was Eric Bodington, now the Archdeacon of Wiltshire, who has contributed the following recollections:

"My remembrances and affection for John Walmsley go back to our schooldays at Hereford School. It was, I think, in September 1880, though I do not feel certain about the date, but I am pretty sure it was when I was head of the school, that a note came to me from old John Venn of blessed and distinguished memory. I stay for a moment to pay a debt of gratitude to his friendship. This very distinguished old man--scholar, saint, and veteran in service to the cause of overseas missionary work--at that time lived on Aylestone Hill, Hereford. An old friend had introduced me to him when I went to school, and every term came an invitation to a Saturday lunch and afternoon's entertainment. He was a striking and handsome figure, and a great gentleman; and he must have had a love for boys and young men which made to pass away the sort of awe that his presence at first inspired. Besides his evangelical fervour, I remember especially his fine collection of photographs of his travels in Italy and Rome, and his instructive and enthusiastic talks about them; the breadth of his interests and sympathies; his curious fear of over-population; his advice not to marry!--and above all his kindness. That was so great that it overcame all fear when he spiritually searched one's heart like a good physician. Well, one day, as I say, a note arrived from him telling me that a young friend of his, who lived in Hereford, and had been formerly a parishioner of his, was coming to school. He feared he was so innocent of the boy-world that he might have a rough time for a term or two; and he commended him to my protection. The boy was John Walmsley. He arrived in due course. One day I saw in the playground a lad of thirteen, with nothing remarkable about him except his face, which arrested attention immediately, notwithstanding its somewhat sallow complexion, because of its singular purity and innocence of expression. The novelty of this experience to him was plain to see; and I thought he and I were in for a difficult time. Extraordinary to relate, he encountered no real difficulty whatever. Like Arthur Eden, of whom he always reminded me, he impressed his schoolfellows from the first day by his absolute simplicity, his frankness, his pluck and honesty, and at the same time his kind, friendly, trusting disposition. In fact it was his absolute goodness and unswerving consistency that triumphed from the first. No one seemed to want to interfere with him; and in due time he became quite popular, though it was some time before he played any but the modicum of compulsory games. Eventually he took to rowing. His deepest interest even in those early years was in missionary work. The call came to him very early, and it rang with little variation of tone, always clear and loud in his ears. He became a scholar, as we all know; and like his and my old friend, John Venn, his sympathies and interests were wide enough; but deep down in his heart he counted all else but dross in comparison with the service of Christ and 'being found in Him.' Such was John Walmsley at school, and such to my mind was he all his life."

Hereford Cathedral School has a close connection with Brasenose College, Oxford, through the endowment of the Somerset scholarships at that college. It is the custom for the Hereford boys who are competing for these scholarships to sit at Oxford for the same examination as boys from other schools who are trying to win open scholarships. Walmsley's turn came in February 1884, just after he had passed his seventeenth birthday. He was unusually young for the competition, and the following letter to his mother shows that he was surprised at his own success.

"OXFORD, February 15th, 1884.

"I had a wonderful surprise at i o'clock to-day. I told you there were about 50 more fellows doing the same papers as we, trying for open scholarships at Oriel and Brazenose, worth £80 a year. There are about 6 or 7 of these scholarships, I believe. Well, on Friday at i o'clock there is what is called a 'Viva' stuck up at the porch at Oriel, and it contains a list of 16 or 18 fellows who have done best in the exam., and who have to stay on and have two other exams, in the afternoon and evening, while the rest are kicked out. Well, no fellow from Hereford has ever had his name on this list since Gee's older brother went up before I went to school; so I thought, as they had said before I went up that I was hardly up to the usual standard, there would be no possible chance for my name being there. But, lo and behold! when the notice was stuck up, there was my name plain enough! Bodington had invited us to lunch at i, so I went there straight, and he simply went into ecstacies [sic] when he heard the news. He cannot imagine, nor can I, what paper I could have done so well in as to get my name on the list. He thinks history, but I hardly do. Price has gone home to-day by the 4.10 train, so I am very lonely. I hope to be home by the 3.35 at least to-morrow, but Rhys says I might be kept till Monday. At any rate I shah1 find out to-night when I go for the last exam., which lasts from 8 to 10.30. I do hope I get an open, and then Price will perhaps have the Somerset; of course I suppose I am quite certain of that if I fail to get an open. But don't expect me to get one, because such a thing has never been heard of at Hereford. There are tricycles about here worked by hand; I should think it's rather jolly."

Unfortunately the "ecstacies" were not completely justified by the event. Walmsley had to be content with the lesser laurels of a Somerset scholarship; and we do not know the fate of Price.

Walmsley won his scholarship at a remarkably early age, and he was a year or more younger than the average freshman when he matriculated at Brasenose in 1884. This may account for the fact that his record in the Schools was less distinguished than those who knew him well in later life would have supposed. In the ordinary four years' course of a classical scholar, he took a second class in Moderations and a third in "Greats"; he was able to remain in residence for a fifth year, at the end of which he took a second class in Theology. In the year of his ordination he carried off the Senior Greek Testament Prize, open to members of the University of less than seven years' standing. This was a distinction of which he was justly proud; it was a fitting prize to fall to one who was remarkable throughout his life for his accurate knowledge of the sacred text.

Among his tutors at Brasenose was Mr. C. H. Sampson, with whom he kept in frequent touch after going down from Oxford. Mr. Sampson afterwards succeeded Mr. Heberden as Principal of the College, and he has contributed the following reminiscences of his former pupil, which may be inserted in full at this point, although they carry the story to the end of his life:

"John Walmsley entered Brasenose College in October 1884 as a Somerset Scholar from Hereford Cathedral School. Among the Scholars contemporary with him were G. C. Joyce of Harrow, afterwards Principal of Lampeter, and A. M. T. Jackson, a brilliant Sanscrit student, murdered in the prune of life by an Indian revolutionary.

"Walmsley was only seventeen years of age at his matriculation. He looked forward from the first to a five years' course, and he contemplated originally a year at Mathematics, in which he had made considerable progress at school. He had overgrown his strength, and we advised him to concentrate on his Classical work that would lead on more naturally to Theology. His Classical teachers were Mr. Heberden, Mr. Chandler, [Afterwards Bishop of Bloemfontein.] and Mr. Macau. [Afterwards Master of University.] In Theology he worked with Mr. Bebb, [Afterwards Principal of Lampeter.] who had succeeded Dr. Wordsworth [Bishop of Salisbury.] in 1886.

"Throughout these five years (1884-9) the characteristics of his life and work were unchanging. He had strong interests in many lines of study, and a quiet appreciation of and sympathy with many great causes. But he was unambitious and unassuming, never fretting about high honours or aiming at individual distinction. He was not conspicuous in the general life of the College, but his perfect tactfulness and his sincere friendliness made him thoroughly happy. He knew how to see the good in others, and how to keep the secret of his own individual goodness.

"He had always a great love for the country, and a sense of the beauty of natural scenery. He had learned this in his own native Herefordshire. The last time I saw him, in 1921, he spoke of his love for the restfulness of the Devonshire country round Stokenham, the parish of his first curacy. And he went on to tell me of the journey he was planning to Sierra Leone by Gibraltar and the Morocco coast--a journey which he achieved with joy, for the first and last time, a few weeks later.

"For the record of his life's work in the English Midlands and in West Africa, his Oxford friends must look to others. He was always in touch with us, but in his own unobtrusive way. We had to be content with short visits and occasional letters--never dwelling on himself--generally consulting us about some friend whom he wished to help.

"During the War he pleaded for the fullest record of College news, not from personal interest only, but because there was always a chance of some ship with Brasenose men on board calling at Sierra Leone. On one of his journeys to England he had himself to come on a destroyer, and he keenly welcomed the glimpse it gave him of life in the Navy in war-time.

"His visits to Brasenose were frequent but very brief, and it was never easy to attract him on great occasions. We look back with pleasure to his presence at the College Gaudies in 1920 and 1921, and to a quite brilliant after-dinner speech of his at the Gaudy in 1920. In 1921 he had been invalided home after an attack of blackwater fever. He was a little tired after his illness, but we had no reason to feel that his natural force had abated.

"Very gladly would the College have encouraged him to return to work in England, if it had seemed right to call him away from Sierra Leone. We mourn for the loss to ourselves and to the work of the Church at home. But he gave his life in uncomplaining love for the land that had learned to love him for his work's sake and for the sake of his most lovable spirit."

The after-dinner speech to which the Principal refers was evidently characteristic in its combination of humour and earnestness. It is thus described by Dr. A. E. Boycott, who followed Walmsley from the Cathedral School to Brasenose:

"He was put up in a hurry to reply for the guests at the dinner, and did it extraordinarily well; five minutes of funny tales about Craddock (the penultimate Principal), and five minutes about the need of Africa for the best that Oxford could produce."

John Walmsley never wavered in his love for Oxford, and in his conviction of her greatness. The Oxford influence had no small share in making him the man he afterwards became.

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