09 December 2021

Praying in Advent 2021:
12, Aeneas Francon Williams

The Revd Aeneas Francon Williams (right) on the steps of Wolseley House at Saint Andrew’s mission in Kalimpong in 1914 (Photograph: Iain Cameron William / Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

At first this looked like being a busy and stormy day, with a meeting of the Diocesan Council later this evening.

Before a busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning (9 December 2021) for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in the Advent, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Advent;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

As I as discussing the great missionary from Ireland to Scotland, Saint Columba, I thought it appropriate this morning to reflect on a great Scottish missionary of the last century, who is not in any church calendars but who died 50 years ago on this day.

The Revd Aeneas Francon Williams (1886-1971) was a Church of Scotland minister, a missionary in India and China, a chaplain, writer and a poet. He was born in the Wirral, Cheshire, on 17 February 1886, a son of John Francon Williams (1854-1911), a Welsh-born journalist and editor. He was baptised in Saint Peter’s Church, Liverpool, and was brought up on the edges of London and Essex, in Walthamstow and Chingford. Later, he attended the University of Edinburgh and Moray House Training College.

When he was 24, Aeneas Williams attended the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. The conference marks the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement, and its slogan was ‘The Evangelisation of the World in this Generation.’

A famed Church of Scotland missionary, the Revd Dr John Anderson Graham, spoke at the conference about the work of his mission at Saint Andrew’s Colonial Home in Kalimpong, West Bengal. Aeneas arrived in India later in 1910 to work at Saint Andrew’s, first teaching Geography and Science and then as Bursar.

Wolseley House, where he lived on the school grounds, was named after Sir Capel Charles Wolseley (1870-1923), grandson of Archdeacon Cadwallader Wolseley of Glendalough and a descendant of the Wolseley family of Wolseley in Staffordshire and Mount Wolseley in Co Carlow. Wolseley was the secretary of the home’s fundraising delegation in London, and he visited Saint Andrew’s with the Revd John Breeden, a Methodist missionary, in 1914.

Aeneas had several other roles at Saint Andrew’s, including financial adviser to Dr Graham and fundraiser for the children’s home. On 2 December 1914, Aeneas and Clara Anne Rendall, a missionary teacher from Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, were married at Macfarlane Memorial Church in Kalimpong, and Dr Graham was the best man. When Clara gave birth to twins, Alfred Francon and Beatrice Clara, in 1916, they were baptised by Dr Graham.

Williams’s first book,A Pronouncement of the Public Conscience, was published in 1921, and after a fundraising and speaking tour of Scotland, Aeneas and his family returned to Saint Andrew’s in 1922.

In late March and early April 1922, Saint Andreew’s was host to the first Mount Everest expedition. The main team members were General Charles Granville Bruce, Edward Lisle Strutt, George Mallory, George Ingle Finch, Edward Felix Norton, Henry Treise Morshead, Howard Somervell, Arthur Wakefield, and the photographer and movie maker John Noel. The team also included was a large group of Tibetan and Nepalese Sherpas and porters.

Aeneas, Clara and their children were at the centre of the hospitality, with Wolseley House providing temporary accommodation for the lead mountaineers. The attempt to ascend Mount Everest was not successful but it established a new world record climbing height of 8,326 metres (27,320 ft). George Mallory and Andrew Irvine died in a fall In next attempt to conquer Everest in 1924.

Aeneas Williams’s book Everyone’s Book of the Weather was published in 1923, and was followed two years later by his Surveying for Everyone.

Meanwhile, Aeneas, Clara and their children left India for China in 1924. From Shanghai, they took a steamer 1,000 miles up the River Yangtze to Ichang, one of four ports open to foreign trade, where Aeneas was Principal at the Anglo-Chinese College Mission from 1924 to 1927. During his time there, Aeneas wrote the poem ‘Voice of an Oracle (in Old China)’.

The Church of Scotland became increasingly anxious about violence in Hankow and a possible general strike in China, and the Foreign Secretary, Austen Chamberlain, spoke in the Commons of taking immediate steps to protect British nationals in China.

Clara left China for Britain with their two children, and they lived for a while with Clara’s brother in Leith. By March 1927, Aeneas was advised to leave China for his own safety, and he left Shanghai on 4 April 1927, a week before the Shanghai massacre on 12 April 1927. Back in Edinburgh, he was reunited with his family. When Aeneas and Clara returned to India in late 1927, they were stationed at Mahakalguri, but their children remained in Edinburgh.

Aeneas was ordained by the Presbytery at Siliguri in North Bengal in 1928, and the Presbytery of Edinburgh admitted him to the Church of Scotland in 1932, and he studied at the New College in the University of Edinburgh for two years.

Aeneas was then stationed at the Church of Scotland mission in Matelli in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, where he was the Minister of the Jalpaiguri Parish, and Clara and Aeneas ran schools from kindergarten to university level.

When India gained independence in 1947, Clara returned to Edinburgh, while Aeneas remained in India for the handover of the mission, where staffing levels at the mission and the college had fallen.

Aeneas left India in 1948, and was reunited with Clara in Edinburgh, where he was a prison chaplain, chaplain of Edinburgh Social Services Department and affiliated with several churches, including Saint Giles Cathedral. After Clara died in Edinburgh in 1959, Aeneas spent time travelling the world, circumnavigating it several times. Later, he lived in Stockbridge, Edinburgh, before moving to Sheffield. He died in hospital in Sheffield on 9 December 1971 and is buried with Clara in Edinburgh.

Matthew 11: 11-15 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 Let anyone with ears listen!’

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (9 December 2021, Day of Commemoration of the Victims of Genocide) invites us to pray:

Today we remember those who lost their lives as a result of discrimination and persecution. We pray for a world in which no one is victimised because of their creed or colour.

Yesterday: The Virgin Mary

Tomorrow: Thomas Merton

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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