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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 7
This webpage reproduces part of
Angry Island

by Margaret Mackay

published by Rand McNally & Company,
Chicago • New York • San Francisco

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part II
Chapter 9

Part Two
Sail and Whale

 p77  8 The First Missionary

An event, destined to affect the whole future of the community, doubled the importance of the Augusta Jessie's visit in October, 1848. She was outward bound with the Rev. John Wise on board, en route to take up his appointment as Chaplain to the colony at Ceylon. He was the second ordained clergyman known to have preached on Tristan.

He came ashore several times while the vessel was provisioning. Not  p78 only did he baptize forty‑one children, but he took an anxious interest in the islanders. He wrote a full account home to the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, later called the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts or SPG. He earnestly commended Glass's efforts to instruct his little flock, and begged that books and a teacher should be sent.

The Society responded with a generous grant for the books. The teacher was not so easy to arrange. But they published the Rev. Wise's letter in one of their periodicals.

The plea was seen by a gentleman in England, who sent them £1,000, asking them to procure a missionary teacher, and further promising to provide a stipend. He preferred to remain anonymous.

In London a young ex‑warehouseman named William F. Taylor, who had not yet taken holy orders, with idealistic fervour applied for the post. As soon as he was ordained, he set forth on a rough voyage to the South Atlantic, where he was to stay from 1851 to 1856.

The captain of the Earl of Ripon would not promise to land the fair, boyish little priest at Tristan. It was a case of 'wind and weather permitting'. If not, the vessel would sail on to the Cape.

The skipper did his best, however. For a week the Ripon cruised in the Tristan area, while walls of damp grey fog hid the horizon.

Then — 'I saw one little jagged point through the clouds.'

Above and below decks there was incredulous rejoicing. It was too late to land until morning. But at the first tint of sunrise, on February 9, the new‑comer was out peering at the grassy wall of rock and the 'nine small and substantial stone houses, close together, two or three with bright, whitewashed fronts looking down on the sea'.

A whaleboat bounded out. Old Governor Glass was the first aboard — 'dazed to learn of the missionary', as Father Taylor wrote later.

He was touched by the surprise and joy of this community awaiting him on the beach. The healthy children, dressed in their Sunday best, marvelled at 'how so small a person could be parson, schoolmaster, and doctor, as assured by the captain'.

He met the nine families, with sixty-four children and parents born in England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Denmark, the United States, the Cape, St Helena and Tristan itself.

Now the community had a clergyman, the venerable Thomas Swain  p79 asked to be married to the black wife who had borne him a dozen children.

In a month, the colonists built the chaplain a tiny lean‑to room adjoining the Governor's house. It held a bed, table, stool and lamp; and there he lived in monastic poverty for five years. Often, as conditions worsened, he had not enough food and clothing.

The men were now behind with their work, so they did not offer to build a church. For nearly two years the admirable Glasses had to give up their much-used main room for both church and school.

Father Taylor started teaching the very day after his arrival. He had forty pupils aged between five and twenty. Half a dozen of the young people could read — one or two rather well; but none could write or do arithmetic.

He was assisted in teaching the smaller children by the intelligent Mary Riley, daughter of 'Old Dick', the ex‑cook.

Mr Taylor had brought slates and pencils and a couple of primers, but there were no books. These had been sent by the missionary society more than a year before, but were still awaiting transfer from St Helena. Luckily a whaling captain turned up the next day and promised to bring them on his next call.

They arrived four months later, in mid‑June. It was a crisp bright evening in early winter, and the advent of the box was turned into a celebration. It was so large and heavy that the elders decided to open it on the beach. There followed a procession of 'beaming pupils' carrying armfuls of school-books up the old steep road to the Governor's house, half a mile away.

It was not until the next November — two years after he had left England — that the plucky little missionary received his first news from home, in a vessel from London. After that, a Yankee whaling agent in New London, Connecticut, befriended him, and saw to it that he received home letters every year via whalers calling for refreshment.

Towards the end of 1852, William Daley, the American ex‑castaway, offered to sell his cottage for the dual purpose of church and school. It was one of the best, standing higher than the others with its whitewashed front conspicuous from sea and land. The ship's bell from the Blenden Hall wreckage hung on its east gable. For generations, even after the cottage was no longer used for the purpose, it continued to be known as the Church House.

It was valued at £27, and the nine men, including the owner, each gave £3. By removing the partition they made one long room, thirty feet  p80 by thirteen. They fitted it with altar platforms and crude wooden forms. The building was ready for the first service on Christmas Eve.

It was high time for the patient Governor Glass, now aged 66, to have a little more domestic space and privacy, for at last his hardy health was failing.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20