Loyal Royalist Follows Visit of Queen Elizabeth II, January 1954.

Image Reproduced courtesy of Upper Hutt City Library

I have just finished reading a series of letters Molly Whitelaw wrote to her family enthusiastically describing her impressions of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Wellington in January 1954. The letters brought back my ten-year-old memories of standing outside Taita South School, in the Hutt Valley, waving my flag (Union Jack) as she passed by in an open car. Then, opening my Facebook that evening, there was a 35 mm movie of the Queen’s Coronation Royal visit to Dunedin in January 1954, produced by members of the Otago Cine Club. With this serendipitous happening I can’t but help share some of Molly’s impressions of the young Queen as she followed her around Wellington.

On a ‘superlatively beautiful afternoon’, dressed to the nines in her grey-green shantung outfit made my Madame Baraldi of Jacqmars, London, Molly and husband Alan, in his attire and top hat, and son Alastair in ‘suitably-aged double-breasted blue jacket and grey tie’ attended the Royal Garden Party at Government House. Wandering the ‘beautifully cultured lawn’ she delighted in meeting many friends and admiring the colourful dresses and ‘the pretty hats large and small, such as the Queen favours’. The appearance of the royal couple sent ripples through the crowd as they slowly moved around. Molly, disappointed that she had only a back view of the Queen, described her in great detail anyway, down to her ‘softly-tanned creamy skin, her ‘bamboo-cream pure shantung outfit and cap of ostrich feathers’. But, ‘by a marvellous stroke of good fortune,’ the Queen turned towards them, stopping to speak to a uniformed group. With a perfect view, she shared an exuberant description to the family of the Queen’s poise and bearing, graceful half-bows and ‘sweet gravity, which characterises her in most of her portraits and photographs’.

Added to all this excitement was watching son Alastair, recently returned from his compulsory military training, participating in a 100 strong Royal Guard of Honour marching in from the Wellington Cenotaph and later at the opening of Parliament.Molly’s pride evident as she wrote, ‘I must say they marched well; and their bayonets flashed as they presented arms in one shining, simultaneous row of steel’.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on Parliament Building steps. Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref: 1/4-106770-F

Molly the royalist, took every opportunity to view her new Monarch. The Queen, wearing her magnificent Coronation Gown, when standing on the steps of Parliament was ‘a resplendent and beautiful figure’. Through her binoculars at Athletic Park she followed the open car as it travelled among the children, but she noted that the Queen smiled very little. Then, there was the return from the Races, and from Masterton when she wore ‘a most becoming red hat’ and on this occasion Molly noted her ‘smiling gaily’. Making it to Paraparaumu Airport, on their way to Napier, Molly’s last view ‘of the beloved Royal pair was a white plane, flying off into a blue sky, with that precious burden en route to Blenheim’.

Duke of Edinburgh talking to attendees at State Funeral. Alexander Turnbull Library, Date: 31 Dec 1953 From: Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/4-106733-F

Molly and her husband Alan had the occasion to observe the Duke more closely than most New Zealanders. The worst train accident in New Zealand occurred at 10.20pm on Christmas Eve, 1953, when the Wellington to Auckland Express plunged into the flooded Whangaehu River at Tangiwai, in the central North Island. Of the 285 passengers and crew, 151 lost their lives with 21 unidentified at the time. The Duke attended the State Funeral at the Wellington, Karori Cemetery, and laid a wreath where the mass burial took place. Molly was greatly moved by the Duke’s ‘natural and compassionate manner and gentle, sympathetic words’. Alan Whitelaw in his capacity as a local minister had spent a week supporting the families who had lost their loved ones and were unable to return home with the bodies. It was therefore, appropriate for Molly and Alan to attend the Funeral Service. The accident left a shadow over Christmas 1953, for many across New Zealand. ‘Tangiwai’ takes its name from ‘the tears that come from great sorrow’ – ‘Weeping Waters’.

 

 

Agnes Renton ‘A Woman of Character’

The previous blog opens a small window into the benevolent pursuits Agnes Renton carried out in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Memorial informs us her benevolence ‘was nourished, purified and strengthened by love to Christ. It pervaded all her plans, all her undertakings and all her activities.’ This God-given gift, of ‘benevolence’, led to her life-long ministry of commitment to others. Benevolence, accompanied with a spirit of selflessness and faith, was a ‘fundamental virtue’ of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Evangelical Calvinism. Since each person was a sinner the proof of whether a conversion was sincere rose or fell on how each person conveyed God’s gift of true benevolence. Agnes steadfastly stood by her commitment, surrounding all her work with a confidence in God’s promise of hope for the future.

Ministers of Bristo United Presbyterian Church. Rev.Dr. Peddie top right. His son William in centre. 1879.

A young minister, Rev. James Peddie, a loyal Associate Seceder, began a new ministry at the Bristo Street congregation in 1783, when Agnes was two years old. His support of the newly formed Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick and the Bible and Missionary Tract Societies and his strong advocacy for the voluntary efforts of the Associate Secession Synod appealed to Agnes’ parents. As regular attenders, Agnes sat through sermons, sang the hymns, learnt the Catechism, and slowly grew to understand the Westminster Confession, but it was the Bible where she found her inspiration. During the years of Peddie’s ministry Agnes developed an open, independent and enthusiastic understanding of her faith. By 1797, ‘after serious and lively impressions of the truth’, she was ‘received into the fellowship of the Church’.

The years until her marriage Agnes worked alongside her mother offering benevolent support. An avenue which provided her with ‘festivals of enjoyment’ during these years, and no doubt those that followed, were the sermons given at annual Missionary Societies gatherings, and talks by visiting Foreign and Anti-Slavery missionaries, no matter what ‘sect or party’. Generally held in the Assembly Room, these opportunities provided her with a network of people who held similar interests. The Memoir, when describing these gatherings highlights her middle-class and economic status.

Delightful is the remembrance of these gatherings the imposing throng of refined, intelligent, pious, people; the speakers sincere and eloquent, without claptrap, coarseness, or straining at effect; the sentiments and emotions elevating, stimulating, and purifying to the soul.

By the 1830s, the Renton children had mostly reached adulthood. Her daughters now able to undertake the management of the household freed Agnes to extend her benevolent activity among the increasing numbers of Edinburgh poor she confronted daily. By all accounts Agnes had a forceful personality. She had become known for her independence, the ability to make decisions fearlessly and to confidently put into action new projects. A friend noted that her ‘one passport’ to a project was ‘human misery’. Any criticism of her efforts brought the retort that ‘the beggar’s position demands for him all the countenance I can give him; the prince’s will secure for him plenty of parasites and flatterers to sound his praise, and win attention for his project, even were it less worthy than it is.’ Therefore, a priority for Agnes was to ensure the material needs of the poor were dealt with first, and then she concentrated on their spiritual needs.

Rev. Henry Renton, Kelso, writer of the Memoir of Agnes Renton

The author of the Memorial makes the observation however, that although Agnes recognised the need for some social reform to improve the living conditions of the poor, her focus was ‘identified with the advancement of its [Society’s] moral interests’. How accurate this observation is cannot be gleaned from the limited resource available, but hints throughout the Memorial do indicate her interests were beginning to recognise the necessity for some reforms. Her support of the Anti-Slavery Campaign, restricted alcohol use, and the education programme for Greek women are closely connected to reform, albeit with moral overtones.

Of interest is the strong views Agnes held against Malthus’ popular economic theory on population growth, which came to dominate religious and social theory. The removal of the Old Poor Law in particular, Agnes believed would unfairly affect children of the poor. When it was altered, Agnes saw the Bible as having a higher authority than anything found in State law and therefore should be ignored.

Neither is the ‘zealous’ support Agnes gave to the Voluntary campaign in 1830, a surprise. She had already voiced her preference that no one should be subjected to state control over religious or political beliefs. She ‘heartily concurred in Roman Catholic Emancipation’ and she took ‘a lively interest’ in the agitation for Political Reform and ‘felt the highest satisfaction at its triumph’. However, in the first decades of the nineteenth century a very fine line existed between what were considered ‘moral interests’ and how reform would take place. As writers such as A.C. Cheyne suggest, it was easy to reduce the cause for social and economic problems to a matter of Divine Natural Law. The problems and upheavals taking place among the destitute and homeless boiled down to a lack of personal faith and therefore lack of personal morality and behaviour.

Within her congregations Agnes obviously stood her ground and was a force to be reckoned with. She left Broughton Place congregation, where she had been a member for a number of decades, over a decision made by the Kirk Session, much to the chagrin of of her husband, family, and the Session. Frustratingly, no detail is given as to the reason of her departure. The Memorial notes she believed she had made a reasoned and genuine decision. ‘It only remained for those connected with her to lament her decision and to respect herself’.

The Rev. Dr. Peter Davidson, her minister at the time of her death, made comment in his memorial address, of ‘the natural intensity of force of Mrs Renton’s character’, and ‘the power which she was able to exercise over others’. Davidson believed there was no better way to describe her enthusiasm and passion for ‘the Lord’s work’ then that ‘she was truly … “a Mother of Israel”.’ He continued:

We have all need, my friends, to learn to pray more abundantly and perseveringly for the success of the gospel among ourselves, seeing we have undoubtedly lost one of the Lord’s remembrancers in this matter, one who obeyed from the heart the Divine charge, ” Ye that make mention of the Lord, keep not silence, and give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth”.

The occasion in which Davidson gave this ‘honourable address’ was at the conclusion of Communion, the Sunday following her funeral, 26 December 1863. Not only was it rare to follow Communion with such a presentation, it was extremely rare for woman to receive it.

How Molly Whitelaw would have loved to know her great-grandmother’s story. In 1933 she wrote asking her mother for further information. The bemused response suggests the Memorial had been lost to the family. Her mother’s knowledge was limited to the family story of her philanthropic activity. Molly’s Mother, also Agnes, was only three years old when her father, Alexander and her grandmother Agnes Renton died in 1863.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Handmaid of the Lord’; the Public Life of Agnes Renton

Who was the infamous great-grandmother? Hints of philanthropic activity, radical politics and dissenting Presbyterianism, what more could there possibly be to arouse my curiosity? So I set out on my own journey of Who do you think you are? to discover Molly Whitelaw’s antecedents. Heritage sites and Scottish censuses, bar several wrong paths, revealed three generations of both sides of Molly’s family. So which great-grandmother was she referring to? Imagine my delight when the Internet threw up a digitised copy of a Memorial for Mrs Agnes Renton, the great-grandmother Molly so admired.

Not lacking in detail the 147-odd pages took some reading, how verbose writing could be in 1866! Written by her son, Rev. Henry Renton, it reflects much about late eighteen and early nineteenth century Scottish society, a study in itself, but for another time.

Agnes was born on 16 February 1781 to Henry Duncan and Rachel (nee Anderson), a second-generation cloth merchant. Agnes was the fifth of ten children and the fourth daughter. They lived in a grand house, which stood back from the surrounding ‘gloomy tenement buildings’ and overlooked open fields that in time would become the New Town area of Edinburgh. Henry, her father, was a Seceder, a member of the Associate Presbytery formed in 1737 by Revs. Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine. This is another fascinating tale to tell sometime.

Rachel, Agnes’ mother, also a member of the Bristo Street Congregation, was attracted to the Society of Friends whose practical philanthropy she admired and whose beliefs against state imposition over the Church she agreed with. Her fondness at attending Quaker lectures added to her already strong motivation to be active in improving the lives of others. Rachel has the honour of being the only woman noted in the History of the Broughton Place United Presbyterian Church (1872) for her spiritual and practical outreach as a Bible-woman to the Canongate Mission. Both Henry and Rachel had radical political leanings, members of the short-lived Scottish ‘Friends of the People Society’ during 1792-1794. It advocated Parliamentary reform, male suffrage and peace with France. No doubt, they viewed their dissenting church beliefs and its demands for ecclesiastical reforms as linking closely with the political reforms the ‘Friends of the People’ were seeking.

Agnes at a young age experienced a strong reaction to the injustices she saw around her and developed a deep interest in politics; an interest fed by the imprisonment of Thomas Muir the leader of ‘Friends of the People’. He was imprisoned for sedition and treason in 1793 by ‘a panicky Government’ concerned at a possible revolution. He was tried and sentenced to penal transportation and sent to New South Wales. While awaiting deportation Agnes, accompanied by a servant, regularly visited him with a daily meal. Her visits to Muir formed the belief that all people had a right to voice their political principles and opinions without punishment. Her support for political prisoners, especially those connected with anti-slavery often became a contentious issue among her friends.

In 1801 Agnes received a proposal of marriage from William Renton, a dissenter and member of the Broughton Place Congregation. She informed him that she would never marry another man’s servant, ‘you must be your own master before you can be my husband’. Her somewhat spirited response forced him to develop a drapery business. Obviously, the drapery store proved satisfactory and Agnes and William married in July 1802, had twelve children, eight sons and four daughters, all but two living into adulthood. Described as a ‘woman of marvellous activity, energy, and goodness’ Agnes had ‘a light, well-knit, elegant person, a great agility and nerve, …and a constitution of remarkable health and vigour’. A good manager of the household with sufficient capital to employ servants and nursemaids, Agnes offered an open home in Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh and it become a centre of political and ecclesiastical activity. The burgeoning numbers of ladies philanthropic and moral reform societies evident in Edinburgh from the beginning of the nineteenth century were a godsend in satisfying her desire to see justice carried out for all people.

The Memorial suggests that her membership of these groups were too many to detail, but some stand out.  Her long association with the anti-slavery cause began in the late 1790s when she joined her mother in supporting the Quaker’s efforts to raise the public’s awareness to the horrors of the ‘Trade’. Although a law in 1807, outlawed British ships from carrying slaves, Scotland’s deep association with the slave economies did not end. The campaign needed to continue and by 1830 the Edinburgh Female Anti-Slavery Association was formed. The main focus was to support American women in their efforts to see the abolition of slavery and also to pressure Scottish merchants to boycott these economies. Later, in 1856, on the loss of a motion in protest against an offensive journal article, Agnes along with two others walked out of the meeting and formed a new society, which she presided over until her death in 1863.

Her international interests evolved further with the establishment in 1825, of the Scottish Ladies Society for Promoting Education of Greek Females. Agnes considered the best way to raise the standard of a nation seeking independence was by educating the women. She formed a Committee of which Lady Carnegie was president and she, secretary. By enlisting the support of Rev. Dr. M’Crie and Rev. Dr. Andrew Thomson, dissenting ministers, the Society gained popular support and worked towards supporting two educational agents. The scheme eventually failed.

Support for the abolition of the Corn Laws campaign held high appeal for Agnes. The injustice of taxes placed on corn forcing up the price of bread and causing people to go hungry, horrified her. This was a political battle lasting 40-odd years and with other members she diligently delivered pamphlets, attended meetings and wrote letters of protest to Government ministers and officials. Temperance and prohibition movements were also life concerns and she was a dedicated visitor to the women prisoners at Bridewell Prison. The Ladies Peace Society met regularly at Buccleuch Place for many years. She attended the Second Peace Congress held in Paris, 1849. War, like slavery, she considered, were evils ‘hostile to the will of God, contrary to all the interests of man, and repugnant to the spirit of Christ … holiness and peace were the bright attributes of the Redeemer’s kingdom’.

This feisty woman cared little for conventionalities, spoke her mind and took action where she believed it was required. In the next blog we will join her on her journey of faith.

References: Memorial of  Mrs Agnes Renton by Rev. Henry Renton; History of the Broughton Place United Presbyterian Church with Sketches of its Mission 1872; Two Centuries of Border Church Life V0l. 1, by James Tait, 1889. ‘Benthamite Radicalism and its Scots Presbyterian Contexts, by Valerie Wallace, downloaded 5/4/2017  https:/www.cambridge.org/core; ‘Scottish Friends of the People’ from Blog On this day in Scotland

 

 

 

 

Do I write a Biography? – that is the Question.

Why have I this urge to write a biography, I ask myself? I have never been a great reader of biography or autobiographies. In fact, I can count on one hand those I remember reading in my younger years. As a schoolgirl I chuckled over Doris Gordon’s life as backblocks Doctor, and was only partially moved by the story of Mary Slessor, which my Bible Class leader encouraged all her girls to read. Whether it’s because I was drawn to the world of medicine or whether biographies of women only focussed on women who achieved the ‘unexpected’, I read the biography of Agnes Bennett, by Cecil & Celia Manson and the autobiography Lady Doctor, by Frances L. Preston. My mother gave me Somers Cooks’, A Friend in Need: Nurse Maud her Life and Work, but its almost immaculate condition raises some doubts. Did I ever read it? Family tales of the years of the great depression my father told encouraged me to search out other stories. Mary Findlay’s Tooth and Nail and Robyn Hyde’s Godwits Fly are two that I vividly recall. These auto/biographies still sit on my bookshelves.

Attending University in my late 30s opened a new world. Those long and daunting subject ‘recommended readings’ that were distributed at the beginning of each course included auto/biographies. Some I read with enthusiasm, such as the two volumes of Harriet Martineau’s autobiography, Raewyn Dalziel’s biography of Julius Vogel and Frances Porter’s detailed and exciting biography of Jane Maria Atkinson, Born to New Zealand. Pressure of time meant I only dipped into others, now long forgotten. At the time I was hopeful they just might contribute towards a respectable exam pass rate. So in many ways it was surprising that I chose as my Post Graduate Diploma thesis, the life of the Dunedin woman Mary Downie Stewart. Reflecting on the reasons why I chose this direction may explain my present urge to write a biography on Mary (Molly) Dorothea Whitelaw (nee Shannon).

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A Christian Pacifist Reflects on World War One – A Message of Universal Love

April 25, 1926, a young Scottish woman, Molly Shannon, led the ANZAC service that year, at Matawhero, Gisborne, an unusual occurrence in itself. The community knew Molly as the daughter of the Presbyterian manse. On the sudden death of her father, the Rev. James Wigston Shannon earlier that year, she stepped into his shoes to lead Sunday worship over a number of months. Described as vivacious with a generous and friendly personality, she had the ability to capture the attention of her listeners. Acknowledging her lack of a personal connection with ‘that strip of beach, of those sharp, scrub-covered hill spurs,’ of Gallipoli, did not hinder in any way the message she aimed for that ANZAC day. Molly Shannon chose to take her listeners on a personal journey into war-time France. Her international sympathies no doubt surprised many as she focussed on two powerful truths she gained over the war years: ‘The Truth of the Brotherhood of Mankind” as she expressed it, and the need for world peace in Jesus Christ.

Her sojourn into East Prussia while attending the University at Konigsberg during 1914, was where she first recognised how a common fear between nations could both unite and divide. Her friends and their families in Konigsberg, including many church members, likewise ‘feared the consequences of the rise of the many material gods around them, the sad loss of the country’s focus on the love of God’ and the blackening war-clouds they ‘prayed would never come’. These concerns similarly expressed in her own home country and frequently debated in her United Free Church of Scotland meetings, along with the disturbing media reports, reinforced the Shannon family’s long held pacifist views. ‘We want to remember,’ she told the Matawhero gathering, ‘that there were those in Germany who thought this way. It helps us to realise more deeply the senseless tragedy of the War.’

The family were deeply challenged, however, when Alastair, Molly’s brother volunteered immediately; first joining the 9th Royal Scots and later as 2nd Lieutenant of the 1st Highlight Light Infantry. He was captured by the Turks at the Seige of Kut in April 1916, was reported missing, but survived a nightmarish two years as a POW, including a ‘death-march’ across 1100 kilometres of desert and mountains. Eventually learning of her brother’s captivity Molly struggled with how best to support the British soldiers in war-torn Europe. An opening came in early 1917. She offered to assist at the Scottish Churches War Huts at the Labour Camp in Audrinsg and later at the engineering camp in Beaurainville, Northern France. This, a significant roll of support for the young soldiers away from home, where solace and comfort could be found, provided Molly with a means to contribute to the war effort without affecting her pacifist stance. At the same time Molly fulfilled a sense of ‘Call’ to bring a gospel message that could meet the soldiers ideals in supporting ‘a new world’ post-war. ‘The huts’, Molly explained, ‘radiate[d] a spirit of brotherly love and good cheer’. They were a symbol of ‘God’s enduring love and care… to make [the soldiers] rough places smooth.’ Near by the Beaurainville Camp was a German POW Camp. Compassion filled Molly daily as the German POW’s walked past their Hut, their eyes and bodies carried the same desperation, loss, and an inner hunger she was aware of among many soldiers at the Huts. ‘Where friends and enemies are bound together in the one bundle of life, she told the ANZAC congregation, ‘East and West suffer together’.

Prayer became more difficult, Molly confessed, as the war became more personal. ‘I could not pray for the safety of those whom I loved, apart from the safety of all the men who were fighting in great danger… yes even the enemy, they were as precious to their women as mine were to us…’. The struggle for Molly was to ensure her prayer life reflected an equal ‘earnestness for all men engaged in that awful conflict…’ As a Christian pacifist she reinforced the message to her listeners that all men and women owed it to each other to carry the burden of the consequences of ‘the sin of war’ and to bravely recognise and accept the universality of all peoples, or to use her expression, ‘The Brotherhood of Mankind’.

In concluding her address Molly’s words reflect the consequences of international conflicts continuing into the twenty-first century.

An injustice done even to a small nation will bear evil fruit in the life of all nations; one nation cannot be degraded & damaged or deal degradation & damage without world-wide results which all [people] must bear; on the other hand no nation can set itself to deal justly, to love mercy & to walk humbly with God without uplifting all the peoples of the earth…It is righteousness alone that exalteth the nations…and let us remember that Jesus Christ is our righteousness.

Molly Shannon married the Rev. Alan Whitelaw in 1930. She carried on her ministry in New Zealand at Te Awamutu, Blenheim and Johnsonville, and among the women of the Church both in New Zealand and overseas. Her war experiences saw her offer extensive assistance to the American soldiers, based at Woodbourne during World War Two, opening their home at all hours of the day, during their ministry in Blenheim. Towards the end of the World War 2 she compiled a popular booklet, When the Boys Come Home? on the care of the returning soldier and his family, which received wide acclaim within New Zealand.

RoslynWindow

Memorial Window Roslyn Presbyterian Church Dunedin

The theme of this window is that of a young helmeted soldier in uniform offering himself at the feet of the Master, the inscription reading, “On holy mountains out of the lap of the dawn, the dew of Thy young soldiery offers itself to Thee“.

Of the 119 Church members on the Roslyn Presbyterian Church “Great War” Roll of Honour, 19 made the supreme sacrifice for King and Country, being commemorated by an attractive marble slab placed beneath the window. (See http://www.archives.presbyterian.org.nz/photogallery14/page1.htm)