Project Canterbury

Dr. Welchman of Bugotu

By Ellen Wilson

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935.

Chapter I. 1888-90

The Missionary Profession has this in common with the Foreign Legion that its members are drawn from widely separated lands and peoples. There is no inherited learning, no "call in the blood." Just here and there the Call comes and is obeyed.

When Bishop George Augustus Selwyn was appointed to Lichfield, the diocese was brought at once into touch with Melanesia, and among the very few who were conscious of the call to go out and help was a young Lichfield doctor for whom there seemed no prospect of being able to follow that call.

Henry Welchman had found himself, at his father's death, with his mother to support and eleven brothers and sisters, five of whom were quite young, and with heavy debts to pay off. His assets were a practice, which needed working up, an indomitable courage, and an unswerving faith in the Divine plan. The Vision must have been always with him, for he set himself to prepare, so far as was possible, for the work which seemed to lie on the far horizon.

As a medical student in Birmingham he had come under the strong influence of the two brothers Pollock of St. Albans, and saw a good deal of their work. In Lichfield he became a licensed Lay Reader, and was mainly responsible for a small Mission Room in a very poor part of the town. When the Blue Ribbon movement began, he threw himself into it heart and soul, for there was a great amount of drunkenness in Lichfield, and none knew better [1/2] than he the havoc that it wrought in the homes and the lives of its people. How he found time for all his work is a marvel, for at the same time he was the central figure in a singularly happy and united home. No doubt the secret lay in his regular attendance at the early Celebration of Holy Communion; he was never absent unless prevented by his medical duties.

So the years passed, and at last the day came when the youngest of Dr. Welchman's family was fit to go out into the world, and a younger brother qualified to take over the practice and make a home for their mother. At last he was free to go, a man in the prime of life and now of ripened experience.

Dr. Welchman has been described at this time by one who knew him well, as "a man of unswerving devotion to duty and to what was true and straightforward; of readiness to help others, whether they were young men glad of a house to come to as a change from their lonely lodgings, or were poor and destitute, in need of a friend; or whether it was his Parish Priest needing his help in some new scheme. All found him a sterling friend of ready counsel and practical advice. He was unconventional and regardless of appearance, he didn't care what people might say so long as he felt he was doing the right. He was careless about his dress, to the discomfort of his friends and relations, who, rumour says, had to resort to devices in order to induce or compel him to buy new clothes. His work in Lichfield was done quietly and unostentatiously; he disliked intensely to be brought prominently before the public and had no stomach for worldly honour. As in Lichfield, so in Melanesia, he carried on his life's work content to do his Father's will."

When Dr. Welchman landed on Norfolk Island in April, [2/3] 1888, he had merely reached the threshold of Melanesia, and would only meet the boys who had been brought up to Norfolk Island for teaching and training. In those days it was impossible to give them thorough teaching in their own islands of unrest and fear. Like all visitors, he was struck with the exceeding beauty of the little Island; the interior like some English park, but its vegetation semi-tropical with lemon trees, guavas and loquats, and valleys of orange trees and coffee shrubs; its steep rocky coast was lashed by the waves of the South Pacific which have swept away more than one hapless boy venturing too low down to fish.

Of St. Barnabas' Chapel he writes, "I cannot describe my feelings on seeing the Chapel. Beautiful is not the word for it, and by-and-by you shall have a minute description of it, but I could think of nothing but the holy men whose lives were given freely in the service of their Master to whose memory it has been raised, and whose example may God grant that I may follow. Their very lives seem to pervade the place."

Here he was to make a longer stay than he had expected for, Dr. Metcalfe, the resident doctor, being due to take a long furlough in England, it was suggested to Dr. Welchman that he should take his place instead of going down at once to Santa Isabel as he had hoped. It was rather a struggle to consent, but having made up his mind that it was right, he was content.

He took comfort from the thought that he would be able to learn Mota more thoroughly, the lingua franca of the Mission. Nevertheless it must have been with an aching longing that he watched the ship sail away to the islands while he himself turned back with the remaining boys to the now emptier school. At any time it was a sad walk back, for always the best seemed to have gone away to the islands.

[4] But he had not much time to dwell on his disappointment, for the days were very full. Not only was there the usual Mission work, teaching, out-door work with the boys, clearing, weeding, planting, and looking after the sick, but he had the Norfolk Islanders to attend also.

He was amused to find himself teaching the three "R's "in the Mota language within three weeks of his arrival: he found it rather anxious work. "I have to ask questions and very often they can't make out what I mean, and more often I can't understand what they say: but there is nothing like tackling things, and I enjoy the work."

His love for children made him enjoy his medical visits to the married quarters. In one house he spent some time dressing a bad leg, "and two or three children generally creep in and squat on the floor, and as soon as I speak to them and offer them lint to eat, which they think delightfully funny, they all fall down on their faces with their arms above their heads; it reminds me of the card soldiers in Alice in Wonderland; but I can't think what they do with their legs, I think they must put them inside their stomachs." "One day I went in and found Mabel (aged about six) in her bath, and as soon as she saw me she called out, 'Oh, where shall I go?' which was certainly a question of great difficulty seeing that the house is a single room about eight feet square, and contains no furniture except a shelf or two."

He used to go out sometimes to bathe with the boys, and one day they found a beautiful clear pool in a large cleft of the rock, surrounded by trees and fed by a small waterfall. "We were standing some ten feet above, and there was no way down to it except by clambering down some unpleasant-looking rocks. The boys went to the other side and enjoyed themselves by jumping in off a point five or [4/5] six times higher. Then I had a joke with them. I got ready and asked them how I was to get down; whereupon they pointed me out a path down which I was to go very carefully. Three or four came up and patted corners which I was to tread, and politely held out their hands to help the unskilful white man; but it was thrown away, for with a 'whoop' I dived gracefully over the lot and they found they were sold. They did not know I could swim at all and I think I went up a little in their estimation."

There were sadder times when sickness broke out, and in spite of the greatest care day and night, two or three small graves were added to those in the peaceful cemetery.

In addition to his other work, Dr. Welchman went down to the town every Sunday afternoon, and took a class of Norfolk Island boys.

And all the time there must have been a great longing to be away and to start on his real work in Santa Isabel.

The day came, after a year of waiting when, on the 26th April, 1890, he had the joy of seeing Norfolk Island appear once more as a mere smudge on the horizon while the Southern Cross, rolling and pitching, bore her sea-sick passengers on to their desired goal.

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