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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 X. The Englishman Abroad

WHEN it was announced in the Church papers that this short record of Bishop Walmsley's life was being compiled, a number of letters were received, bearing testimony to the great help which he had given to Englishmen who, through the war and for other reasons, had met him in Sierra Leone. They illustrate very clearly the truth of the words written by Bishop Chavasse about his old friend and pupil:

"His sympathy, which enabled him to understand the point of view of others and to meet their difficulties; his transparent sincerity, which so deeply impressed strangers; his complete unselfishness, which led him never to think of himself but always to be eager to help others; and his bright and sunny disposition which enabled him to commend the doctrine of Christ his Saviour in all things--live on in the memory of those who knew him, and help to illustrate the truth that great as is the power of intellectual ability, the power of character is greater."

The first letter is from an Oxford undergraduate:

"During the summer of 1918 I happened to be stationed in Sierra Leone, serving on the lower deck of H.M.S. Africa. Though it was never my privilege to meet, the late Bishop Walmsley personally, I feel bound to write and let you know how we admired and respected him, I might almost say worshipped him, though at a distance. May I speak more personally? I am sure you must know that the atmosphere of the mess-deck of a battleship was by no means conducive to noble thoughts, and so on. I myself was drifting, but I thank God that the effects of my period of service were not so bad as they might have been. And it was the thought that the Bishop of our Church had spent, I think, ten years on that coast that pulled me up. To put things very crudely, I had reached a stage when I had no use for padres, much less for bishops. . . . You who knew the late Bishop as a friend can speak of his many virtues. I speak only of his influence on my life, an influence, of course, which he was not conscious of having exercised.

"I have a note in my diary under May 19th, 1918: 'Bishop of Sierra Leone came on board and addressed the troops: quite a nice address.' The previous day I had been chaffed by my messmates, 'Go on, Taff, it will about suit you to go and hear him '--and so on. I feel ashamed when I think of my reply; but thanks to Service regulations I was compelled to listen to the address, far more helpful than any I have heard before or since.

"I felt absolutely bound to let you know just something of what I owe to Bishop Walmsley. Am I right in associating the Bishop with a kind of rest-hut ashore: welcome at home, but doubly so on the Coast; spotlessly clean and bright, and cool even in the heat of the day? "

The two letters which follow are from clergy who served as chaplains during the war. The Rev. Wilfred F. P. Ellis, Chaplain of Trinity College, Cambridge, writes:

"Some of Bishop Walmsley's friends might care to know how kind he was to the boys and chaplain of a visiting battleship during the war. H.M.S. Britannia was attached to the 10th Cruiser Squadron based on Sierra Leone. We had been six months with the Italians at Taranto, some weeks at Gibraltar, and a few days at Malta; over to Bermuda and to Ascension Island; and all that time I had been hoping to find a Bishop to confirm eighteen of my boys, who had for nearly a year been ready and desirous to be confirmed. But there was never a Bishop to be found till we reached Freetown, Sierra Leone, where Bishop Walmsley was of course wonderfully willing to help. We had the service on the quarter-deck, and he spoke so well to all the ship's company and then gave the confirmees and many others the Communion in the gunroom. I remember how willingly he wore our vestments and conformed to our 'use' in every way. He insisted on my taking all my boys to tea at his house near the water with a glorious view down the harbour. They bathed and played tennis and ate a lavish tea, and the Bishop was as happy as any member of the party. I have somewhere a photograph of him surrounded by sailor-boys on the rocks below the house. I got to know him better later on, going long walks with him--was there ever such a walker on the West Coast? We went out one Sunday evening to Kissy, about four miles away, had tea with the native priest, and Kissy church was crammed that night, galleries and all, while the Bishop preached in his simple, sincere, strong way. It was St. Patrick's Church, I remember, and all the choirmen in his honour wore cassocks of emerald green. ... I count it an honour to have known the Bishop, I know how all his people loved him. I had always looked forward to seeing him somewhere some day again, and now I pray that he may enjoy the rest which such a faithful servant of God has earned."

The Rev. Maurice E. de B. Griffith, lately Chaplain to the Australian Imperial Forces, writes:

"Freetown was a usual port-of-call for Australian transports coming via the Cape during the war; and fre-. quently the padres on board had the opportunity of presenting candidates for Confirmation, which the late Bishop was always willing to do. I happened to be on a transport when we put in to Freetown on the last Sunday in November 1916. We were there for a week, during which time half a dozen other boats were diverted for the same reason, which, I believe, was the presence of submarines at the Canaries. We left a week later, making a wide detour of the West African coast, and then suddenly turned helter-skelter to port again! 'It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good,' and so on our return I went ashore to see whether the Bishop could arrange to confirm the men I had under instruction. All shore leave for the men had been stopped, and so it would be necessary to have the service on board. The Bishop, I found, had just returned from England, and was leaving for up the coast a day or two later. When I arrived at the Church House, the native Archdeacon informed me that the Bishop was at a meeting, but would soon be free. He came out presently, and after greeting me very warmly invited me to come with him in his 'chair' to Bishopscourt. It was about midday, and we 'breakfasted' on quinine and other light refreshment. We had a long talk; among other things, I remember, he knew of a padre in Melbourne with whom I was acquainted, Rev. A. W. Tonge, who had been at Brasenose with him. He arranged to come out to the transport on Wednesday evening for the Confirmation, provided he could secure a. launch from one of the warships in harbour. He did not think he would have any difficulty in getting such transport, for, I gathered, he was well in with the naval C.O.'s. He had not taken a Confirmation on board before, but under the circumstances he would gladly do so. Previously the troops had gone ashore to St. George's Cathedral.

"So on the Wednesday evening we saw H.M.S. Highflyer's launch come alongside with the Bishop on board. Lieut.-Colonel Hutchinson, C.O. of the transport, had invited him to mess with the officers, and we had a most enjoyable meal, the Bishop regaling us with anecdotes of Sierra Leone and its celebrities, winning the hearts of all by his graciousness. In the meanwhile the A.M.C. sergeant had brought one of the Red Cross hospital screens to the saloon deck to serve as a reredos, and with that and my portable altar, standing on a box draped with the Union Jack, we soon had the atmosphere of a church. It was a gloriously calm and clear night, with utter stillness all around, and the deck was packed with men. The address was a stirring talk on the word 'Sacramentum'--the soldier's pledge--and based on i. Cor. xvi. 13, 'Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong.' The old hymns were sung heartily to the accompaniment of a portable harmonium, played by the Y.M.C.A. man, who was a missionary from Fiji. Thirty-four men were presented, two of whom had been baptised that afternoon in the barber's saloon: and so ended a most impressive and unique service. These confirmees made their first Communion, after further preparation, on Christmas morning with a great number of their fellow-Churchmen; and the next day we sailed for England. The Bishop went up the coast the next day, and unfortunately we did not see him again; but his memory and his work still live on in the hearts of many who were present on that unforgettable occasion. We had no Confirmation Cards available, but the Bishop signed copies of the Oxford Penny Prayer Book on the title-page, and one was presented to each confirmee with his own name inscribed in it as well.

"I learned of the Bishop's death, with deep regret, from The Times, and was sorry to find no mention of the great help he had been to us Australian padres who had the privilege of meeting him, and of securing his ready and joyous dispensation of the Sacrament of Confirmation to men who had come to give their all in the time of the Empire's need. May his soul rest in peace, and light perpetual shine on him! If this information of a page in the self-sacrificing life of a true Apostle of our Blessed Lord be of any use to you, please accept it as a token of appreciation and gratitude from one who will ever have a blessed recollection of a great and good man."

The visit of the Antrim has already been mentioned in one of the Bishop's letters. The story is told here by the chaplain, Rev. W. L. Anderson, R.N.:

"It was in the Captain's cabin of H.M.S. Antrim that I first met Bishop Walmsley. Most of those in authority at Freetown had come off to pay their respects, and with them came the Bishop, who only the day before had been in bed with asthma (a fact which I only learned later). He drew me aside, and began to ask me what he could do for the happiness of the ship's company during our stay. He knew that the officers would be well looked after by the British residents, was there nothing that could be done for the men? Had we any boys on board? If so, why not bring them all out to Bishopscourt to tea? I quote this incident as being typical of the man; his whole outlook on life depended on what he could do for others, especially for those who had least opportunity of finding amusement and recreation--just one momentary incident in a life of absolute self-denial and service.

"I shall never forget his quiet dignity as he stood there, his face terribly sallow and worn and thin, his large body slightly bent, and in his eyes a look of quiet confidence and determination, which enabled him to overcome the many difficulties and dangers of his office.

"I heard much of the Bishop and his work during my brief stay, and the only criticism of him that reached my ears was his utter disregard of his own health. I was lunching with the Governor, I was dining with the Attorney-General at his delightful bungalow at Hill Station, I was talking with the native teachers in the C.M.S. school, and it was always the same story: 'Can't you persuade John Sierra Leone to go a bit slower? He's killing himself fast, and he is a man we can ill afford to lose.' It was the same on every hand. I have seldom, if ever, met such a man who had so completely won the confidence and affection of all classes, denominations, and colours in his diocese.

"The morning following the interview already mentioned, with two others I met the Bishop at Freetown Station at 7 a.m. for an expedition to the top of the Sugar-loaf Mountain. Again let me say, I was still in ignorance of his recent illness, or I should never have countenanced such an undertaking. It was sheer folly for a man in his state of health to attempt it, but again I believe he was actuated by the following motives: firstly, I think he wanted to give us as good an impression of the place as possible; secondly, he had a real love of that beautiful jungle scenery, which he wanted an opportunity of sharing with others; thirdly, he had been away touring his diocese for some months (a diocese which, by the way, extended to Tangier, and took in the Canary Islands), and it gave him an opportunity of visiting the natives in some of the outlying villages whom he had not had an opportunity of seeing for some time.

"We took train to Hill Station, and then handing over our coats to a native servant walked to the picturesque village of Regent. Our journey was something in the nature of a triumphal procession; from every hut the inhabitants poured out to grasp the Bishop by the hand and welcome him home. It was really wonderful, the influence which he exercised upon every one of them. This expression of affection occupied much precious time, and the sun was well up and the heat intense before we started to climb into the forest and begin the actual ascent. At this point our staff work went wrong; the boy who was to follow us with the food misunderstanding his instructions, in consequence of which we suffered much from thirst.

"Our way now led through the thick of the forest, without even a path to guide us, along dry and overgrown watercourses, on the rocks of which we occasionally found a faint trail blazed. Sometimes we would come out of the cover of the trees on to great walls of rock sloping at a very steep angle on which it was extremely difficult to get a foothold. The heat was intense, the going as bad as it was possible to be, and the height of the mountain about 3,000 feet. We had already missed the trail twice and had wandered off into dense patches of scrub, which had been good for neither clothes nor legs, when the Bishop was suddenly seized with a bad attack of asthma, and had to call a halt. It was then for the first time that we learnt he had only left his bed in order to extend the hospitality of the place to us. We pleaded with him to abandon the expedition, which he flatly refused to do; we asked him to sit down and rest while we continued the journey alone, and he pointed out that we should only lose our way, which we assuredly would have done. Nothing would deter him, and so with two pulling and one pushing we continued the ascent. This dogged perseverance was typical of the man. In Sierra Leone they tell stories of how he used to start out alone on a cycle to visit the outlying parts of his diocese. His way would lead him to a swollen stream, into which, with bicycle on his shoulders, he would plunge and wade across the river that he might get to his destination. His endurance was extraordinary, his heart that of a lion; but this lack of thought for himself had already resulted in an attack of blackwater fever, the malady of which he afterwards died.

"To continue the account--after a rest at the top of the mountain, we started to descend, the descent being no less perilous and difficult than the ascent, and again we lost our way on more than one occasion. Finally, the asthma combined with fatigue from want of food forced the Bishop to rest (it was now about i p.m., and he had had no food since a very hasty breakfast at about 6 a.m.). At this point we lost ourselves badly, and had to divide forces before we were successful in regaining the trail. Once back in Regent, there was fortunately no difficulty in providing the Bishop with food, any of the inhabitants would have given him their last bite, but there was no time to lose as he had to chair a diocesan meeting in Freetown at 4 p.m. Despite his adventures, he insisted on taking us home by a longer alternate route; and to crown all his discomforts, when well on our way he was seized with cramp. Nevertheless he was in the chair at the meeting by 4.10 p.m., though I must admit, had one not known who he was, there was nothing much about his dress to proclaim his Episcopal dignity. A much worn and soiled clerical collar, a coat which he put on at the door of the place of meeting, and a pair of grey flannel trousers which had suffered much from thorns during the climb! I have quoted this story in some detail as illustrating the dogged spirit which was so characteristic of the man.

"Of the universal affection in which he was held I had other occasions for study. When I went to tea at Bishopscourt with the ship's boys, we concluded a delightful afternoon with a visit to the hospital which stood in his grounds, and it was a real pleasure to note the joy which showed itself in the faces of the inmates as he entered each ward. The same might be said of a visit we paid together to the C.M.S. school, and it was worthy of note that he so impressed the ship's boys at the tea-party mentioned above that on the return journey more than one suggested that a collection should be taken and sent to the Bishop as a small contribution towards the work of the Church in the Sierra Leone Diocese.

"It is no easy task to win the respect of both black and white people who live in the same community, and it is harder still to gain their genuine affection. Bishop Walmsley gained both. By his quiet, unassuming manner, his thoughtfulness for others, his determination, and his devotion to the cause of God's Kingdom, he completely swept aside every barrier of opposition to the work of the Church in that part of West Africa. By his lack of self-regard he met his death, and has passed on into the realm of fuller service; by that same lack of self-regard he has left behind him a memory and a name which will endure for many generations."

One instance, doubtless typical of many, may be given here to illustrate another aspect of the Bishop's care for his fellow-countrymen abroad. Mrs. Carter, of Altrincham, wrote to ask if he would interest himself in her son, who, at the age of twenty-one, was going out to join one of the trading firms in Freetown. The Bishop replied:

"FREETOWN, May loth, 1914.

"Indeed I will do what I can for your boy, and I know how anxious you must feel. . . .

"I have a special service for Europeans once a month here; we have just had one this afternoon: several come, but the life is hard out here. A man does need special grace, because in a climate such as this, your will, like your body, becomes limp; and twenty-one is too young for this coast. I don't want to alarm you, but pray for him and believe that he will be kept.

"Nearly all my clergy are black, and I fear the trading men are often contemptuous of them, but several go to the Cathedral. I will write to you again when I have seen your boy, but I thought you would be glad to know that I had received the letter, and that he will not land among strangers.

"Yours very truly,


A month later the Bishop wrote again:


"June 18th, 1914.

"I am writing this on ship-board on my way to French Guinea and the Gambia, which are parts of my diocese.

"I saw your boy on Sunday; he came out in the afternoon, when about thirty-five Englishmen were present at a service in our verandah: it is my only chance almost of speaking to the English alone; and so few of them, alas! come to the native services. He said he was coming out to tennis on Wednesday, which is the day when my sister and I are always pleased to see them, but he did not come. . . .

"I say to you what our Lord said to the anxious father, 'Fear not, only believe.'

"Yours very sincerely,


Less than a year after going out to West Africa, George Carter died. The Bishop took the funeral service at Ascension Town Cemetery just before he started for England. He wrote to Mrs. Carter as follows, from Derby:

"I am so terribly sorry for you in your great grief. My sister and I have often thought of you and prayed for you, that you may know God's peace and consolation now.

"I had to leave for home so soon after he died that I had no chance to write from Sierra Leone. It was so sudden; I was so sorry I had no chance of seeing him after he was taken ill. He had been out to Bishopscourt twice in the previous week, once to tennis and on the Sunday afternoon to service. My sister had said that he looked better than when he first came out. He was so bright, and one felt, though he did not say much, that his life was right; and others knew it too, and it was the testimony of many who were at the grave-side.

"I have to go to your Diocesan Festival at Bury on June 23rd and will try to call and see you then. I don't think I am likely to be in Manchester before that."

In sending the letters, Mrs. Carter writes:

"May your memoir bring the appreciation of a good man to many in England who did not know him personally, and also be the means of saving boys from going out there before they are old enough, especially when the Bishop is not there to keep them from harm.

"Often at the altar-rails have the words come into my mind and comforted me--'I say to you, as our Lord said to the anxious father, "Fear not."

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