Project Canterbury

Padre Rowlands of Ceylon

By R. P. Butterfield, M.A., B.D.

London and Edinburgh: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Ltd., no date.

Chapter II. School and University, 1850-1860

THE pleasant early home days passed uneventfully, and at the age of thirteen, William Rowlands' parents decided that he should be sent to continue his education with a tutor. For the elementary part of his education he had attended private schools in Worcester. The preparatory school of the present day did not then exist as such. Instead, boys intended for a public school or university were either taught at home, or attended a dame's school, or private school kept by a clergyman. There were two or three such schools in Worcester, and it was to one of these that the boy had been sent as a day-boy.

Apparently the first one to which he had been sent was not considered satisfactory. It was, in fact, thoroughly bad in tone. This had left a disagreeable impression on the mind of William Rowlands, coming, as he did, from such a home. The influence of his home, and the prayers of his wonderful mother, proved to be his best and only safeguard. Such private schools were not at all uncommon. Boys, at such schools, were either left very much to themselves or to the doubtful charge of some ignorant and badly-paid usher.

The public schools of 1850 were decidedly better than the private schools of the same period, due, in large measure, to the work and example of Arnold of Rugby, but they still left much to be desired. Whether this influenced the decision to send the boy to a private tutor instead of a public school, we do not know. William Rowlands left his home for the first time, bound for a country vicarage in Norfolk, travelling partly by rail, and partly by coach. In the home of his host and tutor, a country clergyman, he continued his education for a further two years. Those years, so important in the formation of a boy's character, are, unfortunately, in large measure, a blank. Letters to his brother, written from his tutor's in Norfolk, have many references to pet plants needing care until he should be home again. We also know that his tutor was very anxious for him to proceed eventually to Cambridge, his own Alma Mater. William Rowlands' father, on the other hand, expressed a preference for the sister university. Whatever ideas of the future there may have been locked up in the heart of the boy, there was no thought, at this stage, of entering the ministry. He was then rather inclined towards a business career and a seat in his father's office.

William Rowlands now came to the great turning-point in his life, as he afterwards described it. The time drew near for his confirmation, and, as a result of home influence and faithful and earnest preparation on the part of his tutor, the boy looked forward to the solemn rite with keen anticipation. At the age of fifteen, in the little country town of Diss, on the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk, he was confirmed by Bishop Hinds of Norwich. That which has happened in countless other lives happened also in his. In the service, with that single-heartedness which always characterised all he did, the boy very definitely and very consciously gave his life to God and His service. The mother's prayers had been, in part, answered.

Shortly afterwards, in accordance with another arrangement made for him by his father, William Rowlands proceeded to Eynsham, a pleasant village near Oxford, with a view to preparing himself still further to entering that University. There, for the next two years, he resided with his tutor, the Vicar of the parish, working hard for his entrance into Oxford, and taking part in the spiritual work of the parish, with all the keenness and zest of his ardent young soul.

Two years passed in this pleasant sphere, studies being varied with fishing excursions by the banks of the Thames, just as in earlier days he had plied the rod on the banks of the Severn. In 1854, at the age of seventeen, William Rowlands began his residence at Wadham College, Oxford, which was then almost the only college considered to be Evangelical, and where parents holding those views thought it "safe "to send their sons.

The University of Oxford was a stimulating place in 1854. Not only was the Tractarian Movement in the flood-tide of its vigour, under Keble and others, but about that time there was just beginning a further intellectual movement, which contained so much possible danger to orthodox religion that it drew together, in a temporary alliance, the two opposing Evangelical and Tractarian schools. This new movement was the Rationalistic or Broad Church Movement, now known as Modernism. It had been represented in varying forms by such men as Arnold of Rugby, Kingsley, F. D. Maurice, and Robertson of Brighton, among others. Much of what was taught would be considered as comparatively orthodox in these days, but, in 1854 and after, it was feared as an undermining of the whole structure of Christianity. The movement came to a head in 1860 when there appeared the famous volume, Essays and Reviews, written by seven prominent men, amongst whom were such men as Temple and Jowett. Among other well-known men of that day at Oxford, Arthur P. Stanley was giving his celebrated lectures on Ecclesiastical History.

In such an atmosphere, William Rowlands began his residence at Oxford. Unaffected by either of the movements described above, and remaining staunch to the Evangelical traditions of his family, the traditions of "those old, despised, mighty Evangelicals," he went his own single-hearted way. The four years spent at Oxford were to him very blessed and happy days. The chief joy of undergraduate days consists greatly in the friendships formed, and William Rowlands had the supreme gift of making friends. His happy, sunny personality had a charm about it which made it irresistible. He quickly found a little group of undergraduates, likeminded with himself, with whom he threw in his lot. We know some of those men. There was William Hooper of Wadham, a "first-class" man and Boden Sanscrit scholar, who afterwards became one of the most learned of North India missionaries. There was also at Wadham a senior student named Wathen, a notable athlete, with the simple faith of a child. At Queen's, there was John Sharp, a Rugby boy, who went out subsequently to the Noble College, Masulipatam. Many others there were of such men who made up the little band of Christian brothers. These friends were lifelong ones, and, half a century after, we find Dr. William Hooper visiting his old college friend at Haputale, in Ceylon. William Rowlands outlived them all, with the exception of one--the Rev. J. Matthews, for many years Vicar of St. Peter's, Derby. On October 7, 1927, a few days after the death of William Rowlands, the Rev. J. Matthews wrote to the daughter of his lifelong friend: "I have just read in the Record the brief notice of the Home-call of my very dear brother--dearest Willie Rowlands. My thoughts travel back over long decades to Oxford days, when I was permitted--for I was utterly unworthy--to call and count Willie Rowlands of Wadham my friend, and that most precious friendship will soon be renewed in the presence and company of our common Lord. That is for you, for all of us, 'the blessed hope.' "

Very inspiring were those early morning communions in the College chapel, and those friendly gatherings in each other's studies, where they met together for Bible study. These little gatherings Rowlands found exceedingly helpful. These men also gave practical expression to their religion, by teaching in Sunday schools, and by holding mission services in the poorer parts of Oxford.

At the same time, the athletic joys of the undergraduate's life were fully shared in. In those days Wadham held a forward place on the river, and Wathen, the future missionary of the Punjab, rowed in the College eights. Rowlands himself, with his old love of the river, took up rowing, and for two or three years rowed regularly in "scratch fours."

Thus did the happy Oxford days pass, and, in 1858, William Rowlands took his degree in Classics at Mods, and in Philosophy at Greats.

William Rowlands had now to make the great decision as to what he should do with his fife. Should he not, he asked himself, return to his father's office and become the head of a prosperous business, for which he had the aptitude, the concentration of purpose which would bring success. On the other hand, should he follow the urging of his heart, and, obeying the impulse born at the time of his confirmation, and fostered by happy years of Christian fellowship at Oxford, give himself to God's service? Pending a decision on this all-important point, he returned to his father's office, where a year was spent, in which he laid the foundation of those methodical and business-like habits which were so conspicuous in after life.

At this time there came certain influences which were to affect his whole life. In Worcester, eager for Christian work, Rowlands came into touch with an excellent man, the Rev. C. Evans, Incumbent of St. Clements' Church.

Evans conceived a great regard and friendship for the young Oxford man, and saw in his keen and earnest zeal one who might become an honoured instrument in God's hands, for the furtherance of His kingdom. Rowlands opened his heart to his friend, who urged him to follow the dictates of his conscience, and to give himself entkely to the service of God. Moreover, he urged him not only to obey the call to work as a clergyman, but to offer for work in the mission field. Accordingly, in 1859, while still in his father's office, William Rowlands made the great decision, which was to prove of such incalculable benefit to Ceylon.

Rowlands always acknowledged that it was from Evans that he received his first inspiration to be a missionary. It was evidently a distinct call from God, for to one of his retiring and (in his own estimation) timid disposition, the idea of going abroad was quite foreign. In those days, too, the Church had very little realised its responsibility to the foreign field, so that his wish to go abroad was not received with any great enthusiasm by friends and relations. This, however, did not deter him.

Another influence was also a happy one. William Rowlands, in almost daily contact with the Evans household, had conceived a fond regard for Miss Mary Blackwall Evans, the daughter of his friend, which was fully returned.

The decision, so gladly made, of undertaking missionary work, led to his unconditional offer to the Church Missionary Society for service abroad in any part of the world. Rowlands' offer was gladly accepted, and the C.M.S., as was its custom with graduates, arranged for him to enter the Society's College at Islington for theological reading preparatory to ordination, and in 1860 he entered the College.

The Church Missionary College in Upper Street, Islington, was founded by the C.M.S. in 1825, at a time when Highbury Fields were real fields, and Islington a pleasant suburb. The College was intended for the preparation of missionaries, especially for such as had not the advantage of a university education. Graduates, however, like Rowlands himself, were admitted for theological reading, and amongst such at Islington, Rowlands found his old Oxford friend, Hooper, who was to give a longer service in the East than Rowlands himself. Among the non-graduates were some who became outstanding men in various parts of the mission field, and were conspicuous for the length of their service. Such were Moule and Wolfe, who both became Archdeacons in China, the latter serving for fifty-four years.

The College was at this time under the Principalship of the Rev. T. Green, with the Rev. J. G. Heisch as Vice-Principal, and the Rev. G. Munby as tutor.

The life at Islington was in many respects very different from that to which Rowlands had been accustomed at Oxford. Men drawn from all ranks of life were represented in the little community; men of varied vocations, and differing in the standard of education. Among the fifty-five students at the time were included university graduates, a solicitor, school teachers, a professor of music, a landscape painter, chemists, a soldier, and seven artisans. Truly a heterogeneous group, but withal animated, as Rowlands himself was, with one supreme passion, the advancement of the kingdom of God.

In addition to theological reading, Islington students were required to engage in evangelistic work outside the College. Amidst other work of this nature, the students carried on mission work in slums near the "Angel," in Upper Street, inhabited mainly by a Roman Catholic Irish population, amongst whom no policeman could venture alone. These courts were regularly visited by the students, and day schools, Sunday schools, and services were held. Such work was naturally resented, and Dr. Stock tells a story of a six-foot student of those days who was confronted by a furious Irish virago waving a red-hot poker in his face!

Such were the methods of training in which William Rowlands shared during the year of his residence at Islington College. On February 24, 1861, having passed the examination for deacons' orders, he was ordained at Lambeth Chapel, by Archbishop Longley of Canterbury, being licensed to his friend the Rev. Charles Evans of Worcester.

During the happy months of his curacy in his native city, Rowlands became formally engaged to Miss Evans, to whom he had already given his heart, and who was to be for many years his loving and devoted helpmeet in Ceylon.

The Church Missionary Society, after some hesitation on account of his youth and inexperience, now decided to locate Rowlands to Ceylon, where he was to act as assistant in English work to the Rev. C. C. Fenn, Incumbent of Christ Church, Galle Face, and, in addition, to take up Tamil work in the city of Colombo. The formal "Dismissal" took place on June 21, 1861, at the Children's Home at Highbury, with the Bishop of Carlisle in the chair. After the Instructions of the Committee had been delivered to the departing missionaries by the Rev. J. Chapman, they were addressed by the Bishop of Victoria and the Bishop-designate of Madras, and finally commended in prayer by the Rev. Joseph Fenn, minister of Blackheath Chapel. It is interesting to note the names of those who were dismissed on this occasion. Besides Rowlands there were Townsend Storrs, Hooper, with his sister, Whitchurch, Sharp, going to South India, Stringer, bound for Hong-Kong, and Wolfe, proceeding to China.

Then came the time for bidding good-bye to the many friends in Worcester. The people of the parish, amongst whom he had worked for several months, and to whom he had greatly endeared himself, gave Rowlands, as a tangible token of their esteem and affection, a silver pocket Communion-set which, to the end of his long service, was still in constant use. What stories of "travels oft" that Communion-set could reveal!

Rowlands sailed for Ceylon in the P. & O. Indus on November 4, 1861. Among the usual complement of passengers, composed of officials, soldiers, merchants, and missionaries, were a number of coffee-planters returning to their estates, many of whom afterwards became the young missionary's esteemed friends. The Suez Canal was then in course of construction. It was necessary for passengers, eastward bound, to disembark at Alexandria, and to cross to Suez by rail. At the latter port, Rowlands continued his journey in the S.S. Colombo, and five weeks after leaving England, on December 6,1861, set foot on Ceylon soil, at the picturesque port of Point de Galle.

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