Chapter 9: My first mission station.

Healdtown was at that time under the direction of the Rev A Arthur Wellington, a man who had come from England some thirty years previously to do mission work in South Africa. The institution was a big one, thought to be the biggest educational institution in Africa. It contained three schools, each a big one; there were two big hostels, one for males and one for females. Most of the latter were girls but a big proportion of the males were men, many being teachers who had returned to school in order to better their qualifications. In one of my classes I had a very fine man who was Principal of a school in Northern Rhodesia, his age being 46, a much higher age than mine at that time! He was a great influence for good among the males.

The High School was the biggest with about 500 pupils, of whom some twenty were day scholars. The teacher Training School had about 400 pupils, all boarders. The “Practising” (i.e. Primary) School had about 360 pupils, all except three being day pupils.,

For the above a very large staff was necessary. The Rev Mr Wellington was officially known as “The governor”, this being his official title in the Methodist church, so we all spoke of him as “The Guv”; but his wife always called him “Duke.” He was a fine man and a fine Christian, a very good organiser and a strong yet sympathetic personality. He was also a wonderful musician, a great help to one working among our very musical black people. He and his family lived in a big old house at the back of the institution. His secretary, Miss Elsie Cooper, was one of the busiest people in Healdtown. He had a chaplain to help in taking services for his big “congregation”, the Rev Mr Mdala. There was also a retired Methodist parson at the institution, the Rev Mr Flowerday, who also helped with the devotional work. His daughter was the Principal of the Practising School.

The Boys’ Hostel was in charge of yet another minister, the Rev Seth Mokitimi, one of the finest men I’ve ever met. Soon after the was he was elected President of the Methodist Conference, the first black man to be so honoured. He had a wonderful wife who was also a great help in the running of the very big hostel.

The Girls’ Hostel was some way from the other buildings and had a very fine dining hall. As there were far too many students to fit into the Church, which dated back to the 1860’s, this hall was used for the Sunday morning church service for the juniors. Incidentally, the Sunday “Church Parade” for the institution was one of the “sights” of Healdtown. Led by the Institution’s Band the boys and girls marched from to the quadrangle formed by the many buildings erected around it art various times, where there were two flagpoles. When all the students were arranged round the square the band led the singing of “God Save the King” and the Union Jack was raised on one flagpole and then the band led the singing of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” and the South African flag was raised. Thereafter the students were marched off to the church or to the Girls’ Dining Hall for their services which were conducted in Xhosa. This parade was well know and almost every Sunday there were visitors who came from Fort Beaufort or even further afield to see it. In the evening there was another service in the Church attended by most of the staff as well as the senior pupils. This was conducted in English. This large institution had a big staff, most of them being whites and most of them South African-born. The principal of the High School was Mr George Caley and that of the Training School was Mr Jack Dugard. To my mind the finest missionary in the institution was Mr Hamish Noble, a Scot and an ex-soldier from the 1st World War. He was a wonderful Christian who was devoted to work among the boys. He was also in charge of the three Pathfinder troops in the institution.

He lived by himself in a small house which was almost always alive with boys who wished to talk to him about their work or their problems, and he was always willing to help them. He had started the Pathfinder troops in Healdtown, there being so many who wished to join that he had organised them into three troops, the Red, the Blue and the Green troops, called after the colour of the scarves worn by each. Hamish acted as Group Leader of the boys and had several young white men as well as blacks to help him. Naturally I volunteered to help and was put in charge of the Blue troop. Thus I entered my fourth type of scouting: first with ordinary Scouts (I’d belonged top the 6th Green and Sea Point Troop from 1919); then to the Sea Scouts (1927 – 1934); then to the Rover Scouts (1934 – 1937) and then on to the Pathfinder Scouts. Within a year Hamish had decided to relinquish his Pathfinder activities and asked me to take over as Group Leader, which I was very happy to do, my place being taken by Lionel Webster, a fellow teacher in the Healdtown High School and a missionary from England.

On the whole we had a very wonderful time in Healdtown, where we soon made friends both black and white, many of whom are still my friends. There was a good deal of talent among the teachers and, in some cases, their wives (very few of us were married at that time), so we were able to form a very good concert party under the direction of Norman Fletcher, another of our missionaries from England. We put on short plays, farces with two or three actors, individual items for singers, guitarists, violinists and so on. We always performed these concerts in the junior dining hall to be entertainment for the students and also as a dress rehearsal. We performed in Fort Beaufort, of course, and in several other places. All our profits were for the local hospital until 1939, when they were directed to the War Fund.

Under Jock Omond we had a tennis club and a hockey club, both of which being much enjoyed.

Unfortunately for Margery our time in Healdtown was tragic. We invited her mother and one of her sisters to spend some time with us and so both of them came. For a week or two all went well but then my mother-in-law caught some kind of virus and, in spite of being in the care of two doctors and a nurse, she died. This was a terrible blow to Margery and all of us. She was buried in the churchyard of the Anglican Church in Fort Beaufort. Probably as a result of this tragedy poor Margery suffered another some time later when what should have been our second son was still born. Thus in spite of all the good friends we had made there we regarded our time at Healdtown as a very tragic experience.

All our activities were broken into by the outbreak of the Second World War (September 1939). When we heard Mr Chamberlain’s address to the people of the British Commonwealth stating that in spite of all his efforts at keeping peace was with Germany had broken out all of us young men on the Healdtown staff (some 12 of us) wanted to volunteer for active service:

I am speaking to you from the cabinet room of 10 Downing St. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more, or anything different, that I could have done, and that would have been more successful. Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland. But Hitler would not have it; he had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland whatever happened. And although he now says he put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement. The proposals were never shown to the Poles, nor to us. And though they were announced in the German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to hear comments on them but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier the next morning.

His action shows convincingly that there is no chance that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force, and we in France are today in fulfillment of our obligations going to the aid of Poland who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack upon her people. We have a clear conscience, we have done all that any country could do to establish peace, but a situation in which no word given by Germany’s ruler could be trusted, and no people or country could feel itself safe, had become intolerable. And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your parts with calmness and courage.

General Smuts

General Smuts

But the Prime Minister, General Smuts, must have been told of this (because staff members from Lovedale, St Matthew’s and many other mission institutions also wanted to join up) for he at once had a circular letter drawn up and sent to all mission institutions, urging the young men to stay at their posts because, if they were all to leave, most of the mission institutions would have had to close and that would mean that thousands of young black students would be thrown onto the streets, to become a restless group who would have to be controlled by hundreds of policemen thus the armed forces would not really gain from our joining up.

So we were all disappointed, but tried to help by joining what was first called the “Police Reserve” and later the National Reserve Volunteers. This meant that we did quite a lot of drill and also shooting practice so that if our land were to be invaded we could help to defend it. Thus we had to stay at home and listen to the war news on the radio, and very bad news it was in 1940!

In 1940 also there was a notice in the Education Gazette for a Principal Teacher in the High School of the Blythswood (Church of Scotland) Institution in Fingoland. This was a post that I dearly wanted, as I had long been interested in the Fingos (AmamFengu) and my B. Ed. Thesis had taken the form of a history of the Fingos. Moreover I knew the most interesting story of how the Fingos had supported the building of the Blythswood Institution. Thus I sent in an application for this post. But I soon discovered that three other members of the Healdtown staff had applied therefore. Soon came the news that one of them had been asked to go to Blythswood for an interview with the Church of Scotland authorities there and Margery, who brought me this news, said that it was obvious that I would not get the post. I felt very sad about this, but soon cheered up when another of our applicants was also invited to an interview; it was obvious that the “canny Scots” wanted to meet us all to see which one they liked best. I was the last of the four to be interviewed. Dr Alexander Kerr, Principal of the black university at Fort Hare and himself a Scots missionary, was the chairman of the interviewing board. I sat with the interrogators for some time, replying as best I could to their questions. What they asked me I can’t remember now, except for the last question by Dr Kerr, who asked me about my favourite English poets. Of course I mentioned several, naturally stressing Robert Burns and Walter Scott! I was told to wait outside for a while, naturally with palpitations as I hoped for the best. Then Dr Kerr came out and walked with me to my car. As I said good bye to him he smiled and said, “Don’t worry, Mr McGregor, the post is yours.”

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