Project Canterbury

Albert Maclaren
Pioneer Missionary in New Guinea

By Frances M. Synge

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1908

Chapter I. Birth and Early Years

ON a memorial stone in Westminster Abbey it is written, "God buries His workmen but carries on His work". This might be written on many another, and not least on a cross which, far away in the heat and glare of a North Australian cemetery, marks the grave of Albert Alexander Maclaren.

No farther back than the year 1891 this young Anglican clergyman, followed by the watching eyes and the earnest prayers of the Church in England and in Australia, went forth, in the name of God, to plant the banner of the Cross on the north-east coast of British New Guinea. Six months later came the tidings of what proved to be a fatal attack of fever, of a last message (on Christmas Day) to his mother," Don't be anxious, I am in His hands, I shall be better soon," of a brief voyage, the lonely death at sea, and a hasty burial in Cooktown cemetery.

Death and apparent disaster have often been the first steps to the triumphs of the Cross, and the story of this life and death is no new one in the history of the Church. It deserves none the less a place among the annals of her pioneers. His life has borne fruit in the inspiration which it has afforded to many other lives.

Albert Alexander Maclaren, the founder of the New Guinea Mission, was of Scottish descent.

The Maclarens were an old family of Musselburgh, who had suffered reverses. Albert Maclaren's great-grandfather had been a captain in the army, his father, Charles Stewart Maclaren, earned his living as a stone mason. He is remembered by his children as a grave, quiet Presbyterian who told them often that he himself had been very strictly brought up and intended to bring them up in the same way. But it was from a saintly grandmother that Albert Maclaren probably inherited his deeply religious character.

A short time before the birth of his son, Charles Stewart Maclaren was appointed to a post under Government in the Falkland Islands, and sailed from Eng land with his wife and eldest daughter in the brigantine Eliza, but the ship struck upon the Goodwin Sands, and, after floating off again, narrowly escaped total wreck on the Needles off the Isle of Wight, and was forced to put into Cowes for repairs. After this second escape, Mrs. Maclaren refused to continue the voyage, and thereby saved her own life and that of the future missionary, for shortly afterwards, on the 1 February, 1853, her son was born at Queen's Terrace, West Cowes. In the meantime the Elzza had resumed her voyage only to founder at sea. The child was baptised "Albert Alexander" by a Presbyterian minister, and brought up in his very early years under the teaching of the Scottish Kirk.

A story is told that while he was still in long clothes his mother was asked to show her baby to a native missionary, who took the child in his arms, kissed him, and gave him back, saying, "There, your son has been kissed by a black missionary, if he lives he will become a great missionary himself some day".

We may see in these simple words God's vocation for the future pioneer of the New Guinea Mission. Albert Maclaren was ever at heart a missionary--the poor, the suffering, the outcast, the ignorant were sought out and cared for by him, from his early days, when, as a little boy, he carried the flowers he loved to the sick and suffering in his village home, until the summer morning when he laid down his life for the people of far-off New Guinea.

From C owes, Charles Maclaren moved with his family to Newport and thence to Portsmouth. When his son Albert was eight years old, and three other children (two girls and a boy) had been born, he moved to Drayton, a little hamlet near Cosham, in Hampshire. We only get glimpses of Albert Maclaren's early childhood, but enough to indicate the contradictions at all times characteristic of him. Roaming over Ports mouth Down, carrying home primroses, the spoils of country walks, to his youngest sister, working in the cottage garden--always his special care--carrying his beloved flowers and reading to one old woman dying on Portsmouth Down, halving his fourpence a week pocket-money regularly with another in the village, gathering the children together on Sunday evenings, preaching to them, and making them practise psalms and hymns over and over until they had them right, loving and beloved by his brothers and sisters, though always a great tease and certainly far from being a prig--such are some of the memories of those early days. In ordinary boyish sports he seems to have taken but little interest. He went to school first at Portsmouth and then to the village school at Cosham, and he is described as being, until the age of twelve, "a troublesome pickle". He was never very studious and he stood somewhat in awe of his stern father. In after years he told the following story in illustration of the discipline to which he was subjected, contrasting it with the indulgence granted by the parents of the present time. One day, out of school hours, a certain schoolmaster in Australia saw a boy in the act of nailing a duck down to the pavement by its webbed feet. Then and there he thrashed him for his cruelty. The boy's father was indignant, prosecuted the school master and succeeded in having him fined. "It was very different when I was a boy," he said; "one day when I came home from school my father suspected, and rightly, that I had had a thrashing and asked me what it was for. I told him. 'You deserved it too,' he said, 'and I will give you another.' And he did give me another," added Maclaren.

On the 12th of March, 1865, when twelve years of age, he was confirmed by Bishop Gilbert of Chichester, and two years later he left school and went to work at a temporary office in connection with the building of Purbrook Fort.

At the age of seventeen he left home for the first time and was employed with the Ordnance Survey, first at Oxford, and afterwards at Amberley and New bury. During his stay at Oxford in the winter of 1871-72 he attended a night-school held in the parish of S. Ebbs, and there made the acquaintance of one of the clergy--the Rev. Willoughby Bryan Brown--who afterwards befriended him at East Shefford.

In 1875 the Rev. John Adams, Vicar of Stock Cross, near Newbury, discovered that young Maclaren (who sung in the choir at Stock Cross) was interested in missionary work, and, as he seemed to have a vocation, it was eventually decided that he should study with a view to work in the mission field.

About this time a ruridecanal missionary association was formed to support a student at S. Augustine's Missionary Training College, Canterbury, and on the recommendation of Mr. Adams and other clergy of the rural deanery of Newbury, Albert Maclaren was nominated as the first student to be supported throughout his course by the new association with the help of a few friends. After spending a year at Wrexham Grammar School, he entered S. Augustine's College on 28th November, 1874, being then in his twenty-second year.

At college the young student in no way distinguished himself in his studies, but showed a true vocation for mission work among the poor. During the latter part of their course the students at S. Augustine's were attached to certain parishes in Canterbury to teach in Sunday-schools and visit in different districts. The poor district of Knott's Lane, in the parish of North Gate, became Albert Maclaren's sphere of work. He threw himself into it as if the parish were his own. As the vicar was ninety years of age, more work than usual devolved on the enthusiastic young man.

I remember looking in at a school treat one Saint's Day and the comical effect he presented, holding a hymn-book with one hand, and in the other a chair to be placed for me in a post of honour, singing all the time at the top of his voice.

He was an excellent visitor, full of fun, and rather fond of mimicry. The persuasive begging powers for the needs of the Church, which he possessed in a remarkable degree all his life, are illustrated by the following story of those days. He hired a room over a stable and set himself to collect the money needed to furnish it suitably for his mission work. His fellow students dared him to approach the landlord, a Unitarian, for a subscription. Off went Maclaren, but, as was to be expected, met with no success. After trying his powers of persuasion for some time, he left his land lord as he said "to think it over" and he would "call again to-morrow". He was warned that it would be useless, but on the morrow, nothing daunted, he tried again, only to be again refused. He told the man he was afraid he had not left him time enough to think it over and he would call again. The following day he returned triumphantly with five pounds.

"I can still see his earnest face as he addressed his little congregation of costers and their wives and child ren in the old house in the court of Knott's Lane," says one of his fellow Augustinians (the Rev. H. C. H. Johnson); "nothing ever seemed too much for him to do for the poor people down there, and some years after, when I returned to Canterbury, the people still retained affectionate memories of him."

Twenty years after he had left S. Augustine's another student at the college writes of him: "He is still remembered by the older inhabitants of Knott's Lane with affection. Nearly all the people of this district were very poor and many of the children came barefooted to school. These dearly loved Maclaren, and he might frequently be seen walking down the street with some of them clinging to his gown. As their poverty was great, so, too, was their ignorance. One of Maclaren's fellow-workers took a party of Sunday-school boys to the cathedral on one occasion. They had never been in it before though they lived within a stone's-throw of it. One of the boys, when asked what he thought of it, said, 'It would be a good place to dodge a bobby in'. A lady who accompanied Maclaren in 1888 on a visit to his old haunts says: 'All was still and all the inhabitants seemed asleep, but some one saw and recognised "Muster Maclaren". The news of his arrival spread like wildfire, heads in every variety of covering or disarray were thrust out of windows and he was quickly surrounded and warmly greeted.'"

While at S. Augustine's his vacations were spent in mission work, sometimes at S. Peter's, London Docks, where he had the privilege of working under Father Lowder, sometimes at Gravesend, where, through his connection with S. Andrew's Waterside Mission, he first became acquainted with Canon Scarth, to whom he was deeply attached, and with whose family he found, afterwards at Bearsted, in Kent, what he loved to call "his second home."

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