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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 IX. Illness and Death

BISHOP WALMSLEY had suffered, for the greater part of his life, from periodical attacks of asthma. Otherwise his health in West Africa was remarkably good, until, in the early summer of 1921, he had a severe turn of blackwater fever. He came to England as soon as he could be moved. His friends at home were surprised to find that he had made an apparently complete recovery. Though looking somewhat worn, and considerably older, there was no diminution in his energy or in his powers of endurance. But the danger of a second attack could not be overlooked; and many of those whom he met in England wished that the way might be made clear for him to resign his post before it was too late. A few spoke to him on the subject. The Bishop was quite firm in his determination to remain in Africa for a time longer. There were difficult problems to be settled, specially in regard to the constitution of the Church of Sierra Leone; and he felt that he could grapple with them better than a stranger. He was fully alive to the risk which he ran in returning to his diocese; but he loved his flock very dearly, and he believed that the time had not yet come for him to pass on his charge to another. So in November 1921 he went back, travelling by way of Morocco and the Islands; some account of this journey has already been given. Shortly afterwards the question of resignation was raised again in a definite form by his old Oxford friend the Bishop of Hereford, who urged him to accept an important living in his diocese and to assist him in episcopal work. The invitation to take up work at home in the congenial surroundings of his birthplace must have been attractive. The Bishop of Hereford writes:

"I had a reply of heroic self-sacrifice, owning the inroads which disease had made upon his strength, but declaring that his duty still lay in his diocese. For this he had recently carried through a new constitution, and felt bound, if spared, to get it into working order before resigning."

He did not visit England, as had been hoped, in the following summer. He wrote to his sister in June:

"I don't think I shall come home this year. I don't want to leave, if I can keep well. I do hope I may get a chaplain in the autumn, and then I can go to the Islands about Christmas, and come home, all well, in the early summer. I shall not be very busy for the next two months, which are the worst of the rains."

In October he took the journey of a thousand miles which has been already described. The letters are those of a man in vigorous health; but one suspects that the full tale of what the effort cost him has not been told. He returned to Freetown on November 2nd. Early in the morning of Saturday, the nth, he was found by his devoted friend, Rev. James Denton, in the verandah at Bishopscourt, suffering acute discomfort, which was attributed to asthma. [Chaplain to the Bishop, formerly Principal of Fourah Bay College.] It was Armistice Day, and the Bishop had given great care to the arrangement of a service in the Cathedral at half-past ten, which was to be attended by the Governor (Mr. A. R. Slater) and by the other leading officials in the colony. He was able to struggle through his part in the service without the congregation knowing that he was unwell. He gave an address on the life and work of Elijah, taking for his text the words, "The Lord God before whom I stand." The address was followed by the two minutes' silence, and almost immediately afterwards the Bishop collapsed in the vestry. He was driven home to Bishops-court, and on Sunday he was so much better that the doctor reluctantly gave him permission to conduct the usual service for Europeans. He spoke on this occasion on the subject of "the cloud of witnesses." For a few days his temperature swung backwards and forwards in an alarming way, and on the I5th the doctors diagnosed the case as one of ankylostomiasis, and removed him to the Nursing Home. The disease is a rare one, at any rate among Europeans; and it was characteristic of the patient to take a keen interest in his unusual ailment, and in the treatment that was prescribed for it. He delighted to write the long name in letters to his friends, especially when he could put it in its original Greek. What interested him most of all was that his old Hereford and Oxford friend, Dr. A. E. Boycott, had made elaborate researches into the disease as it affected the Cornish tin-miners. The effectiveness of the treatment given to the Bishop was no doubt due in large measure to Dr. Boycott's investigations.

"FREETOWN, November i$th, 1922.

"I am sorry to say I have been laid up since Saturday. I had to take the service on Saturday morning in a state of awful indigestion; I don't think anyone but Mrs. Slater saw anything wrong, but I left the procession at the end of the service and got into the vestry by a side-door, and just didn't collapse. I had the Europeans' service on Sunday, but my 'chart' from Saturday afternoon has been fairly saw-backed. ... I have had horrid indigestion, but not much else, and they don't think at all seriously of me.

"(November 20th.) I have orders to move as little as possible, so have to write this on my back. Apparently I have ankylostomiasis, which I thought you could only get in Cornwall, or at any rate in mines. I knew something about Teddy Boycott's work in connection with it, and how he got it himself (Blacklock says his researches are quite a classic). But it appears that it is quite common here, though almost exclusively among natives. ... I have been undergoing special treatment to reduce the vagaries of temperature. It is a weird concoction; I know there is eucalyptus, chloroform, and castor oil. Please do not be anxious over me; I am going on very well. Everybody is most kind; not many are allowed in--but Mrs. Slater has been, and the Judge, and of course Miss Ward and Denton."

While he was in the nursing home he wrote to a young cousin at Trent College, who was preparing for Confirmation:

"FREETOWN, November 21st, 1922.


"Forgive this letter written in pencil; but I have just had special treatment for ankylostomiasis. (The Head or Mr. Warner will tell you what it is.) It isn't a very dangerous disease, but you are very weak for a day or two.

"Your mother tells me that you are to be confirmed at the end of this term. I must send you a short message. I remember mine well, long ago in Hereford Cathedral. You will be taught what it means--your part, repentance, faith, obedience (especially the last); and on God's part, the strength of His Holy Spirit as you seek Him.

"The tomb of Edward I in Westminster Abbey is a very plain one, with no beauty of architecture; but it has a very clear inscription in great letters, PACTUM SERVA. . . . 'Keep your word'--which you make before the Lord of Hosts. You will have all sorts of difficulties and temptations in life, but see always that you can be trusted.

"God bless and keep you. I hope you will have a very happy Christmas.

"Ever yours affectionately,


The Bishop was able to leave the nursing home after ten days; and, as his letters show, he thought he had made a complete recovery.

"BISHOPSCOURT, November 26th.

"I am glad to say that I am back here, and well on the way to complete recovery. I am doing nothing to-day, and feel shamefully lazy; but I suppose that, after such temperatures as I had for a week, and after such treatment as I received last Monday, I must lie low for a bit. . . .

"(November 29th.) I am continuing this on Wednesday afternoon. I am going up to Hill Station to stay till Sunday morning, when I have service here. I am very well again, but they say a day or two's complete rest ought to do me good. I am coming down to-morrow morning for a Confirmation Service at the Grammar School. It is rather hard lines that we cannot get full news of the Election for so long. We just get wires of the general results, and of the defeat of people like Winston and Henderson and Boscawen. I should hope it may prove a stable Government. Lloyd George's position must be a very painful one for him; the one thing seemed to be so absolutely necessary that he should no longer be at the-head.

"(November 30th.) I have just had a very nice Confirmation service at the Grammar School, and am going to the Annual Exhibition of School Work, etc., and then back at 12.15 to Hill Station. ... As M. Coue says, 'I am better and better every day.' "

The Bishop's optimism in regard to his health seems to have been unbounded. He even hoped that the treatment which he had undergone would be found to have cured the asthma from which he had suffered with increasing frequency of late. His friends took a different view of his condition, and urged him to run no unnecessary risks; they tried particularly to dissuade him from confirming the seven lads at the Grammar School. He insisted that he had disappointed them once, having at first promised to confirm them on St. Michael and All Angels' Day, which he had been prevented from doing by his journey into the interior; and he would not disappoint them again. He gave two very earnest and affectionate addresses on the life and character of St. Andrew. This proved to be his last piece of work on earth as Bishop of Sierra Leone.

On the following day he was taken seriously ill at Sir Gilbert Purcell's house at Hill Station, where he was staying. He was found to be suffering from blackwater fever, and the doctor arranged for his removal to the Government Nursing Home. On the way down he said to Mr. Denton, who was with him, "How I wish I were going to Bishopscourt!" Those were the only words of anything approaching complaint that were heard from him during his illness. On Sunday, two days later, it seemed that the worst symptoms were passing away, and it was hoped that he would recover. But he had no reserve of strength. The rest of the story may be told best in the words of Sister Ward, the Matron of the Mission Hospital adjoining Bishopscourt:

"On Tuesday morning Mr. Denton got news that the Bishop had asked to see us, and we were allowed to do so, as he seemed to have no rallying power. When I saw him, I thought him dying; however he brightened up, and would have spoken, but was not allowed. To my great joy I was asked to do night duty, as one of the European sisters was ill, and they were short-handed; so I was on duty with him for three nights. He was perfectly free from pain; and when I asked him how he felt, he said, 'Oh, very well indeed, and quite comfortable.' The Sister on duty was wonderfully struck with his perfect courtesy, and how everything pleased him, and how patiently he bore the frequent injections and other treatment; everyone who came to the Hospital was told what a wonderful patient he was. It was very hard for him not to be in his own house, and it was hard for us not to have the entire charge of him; but I believe that great blessing may come to many from the witness he bore by his calm, strong, patient behaviour during his last illness. I was on duty with him on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights; on Friday, his last night, the regular nurse took duty again, but both Mr. Denton and myself were allowed to stay all night, as the end seemed very near. During those days from Tuesday to Saturday his mind wandered a good deal, though one could always recall him by a question. Sometimes he seemed to be talking to his people; and once he evidently thought he was at Holy Communion, and asked where the people were, and then with clasped hands repeated the Lord's Prayer. He asked Mr. Denton on Thursday morning if the people of Freetown knew that he was dying; and Mr. Denton told him what we believed to be true, that the people were praising God because he was somewhat better, and that everywhere in all parts people were praying for him. The improvement did not continue for long; and on Friday morning, though the doctors said he was somewhat better, I knew that he was sinking. He remained conscious nearly to the end."

John Walmsley passed to his eternal rest a little before midday on Saturday, December 9th, 1922. On the evening of the same day his body, clothed in the episcopal robes, was laid in the chancel of Freetown Cathedral. The clergy of the diocese watched in turn through the night, while hundreds of the Freetown citizens came to look for the last time on the face of their beloved Bishop. Early on Sunday morning the funeral service was held. It is said that there has been no such assembly of people in Freetown for half a century. Everyone, both black and white, wanted to come and do honour to the man whom one of the ship's captains had described as "the best-loved man on the West Coast, bar none." Hundreds were unable to gain admittance to the Cathedral, and vast crowds gathered in and around the cemetery. It was a spontaneous and genuine tribute offered to the memory of one whom a large and varied community had learned whole-heartedly to love and trust.

When the Sierra Leone Church Almanac appeared in the New Year, it was found to contain a message from the late Bishop. He gave his people a twofold motto for the year:

"He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for My sake shall find it."

"I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly."

A short letter followed, in which he unfolded the meaning of the motto; and the letter concludes with a prayer, strangely prophetic in its application to the writer's own work and the reward on which he was to enter before the new year began:

"May we all have, this year, something of that more abundant life that comes from sacrifice and service; which we can only have as we learn our Master's standards, and as, in the power of His Spirit, we gladly give ourselves for others, for His sake Who gave Himself for us."

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