I was in the Presbyterian Research Centre today looking at papers in another of Molly Whitelaw’s boxes. A paragraph from a talk she gave to the Glasgow Rotary Club in October 1947, caught my eye and I realised that ANZAC Day was almost upon us. It is another of those occasions when gems can be located in archives collections.

For many New Zealanders, 1942 marked a time of ‘national peril’. The surprise and devastating attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, by the Japanese new dive bombers sent ripples of fear through the Pacific. With Australia facing a possible  direct threat from the Japanese, New Zealand authorities feared that its shores could also be in jeopardy and prepared coastal residents for the worst outcome, many experiencing genuine fear.

Molly tells her story: “In 1942 we spent a holiday, down the Marlborough Sounds. As the children played on the beach the Japanese swarmed further and further south. Had they come to N.Z. those glorious deep Sounds would have made a wonderful anchorage for their ships. Fourteen miles inland the town of Blenheim, where lies the finest airfield in NZ and the sunlit plains of Wairau, from where a would-be attack could take place on Wellington, 70 miles away, we were told. Trenches were dug, all plans made in the event of an invasion. Mothers with children were to be evacuated to the hills. We had suitcases packed in readiness. I had been ill, [Molly had had whooping cough]. It was on my mind, going alone with young children, only two and three years old. For, of course, my husband would have stayed with his ‘people’. One day in March I went out on the verandah to think things out. As I looked up to the blue sky I suddenly, “out of the blue” got the assurance that the Japanese would never get to N.Z. I never had any fear again, although the news continued for some weeks to be precarious. Later we learned that about the very time I received this assurance that gave me such peace of mind the Japanese had unaccountably ceased their southern push. It was settled later by the Battle of the Coral Sea.”

When the American air force arrived in Blenheim towards the end of 1942, Molly and Alan Whitelaw  had a constant stream of young men through the manse. With a shortage of ministers in Blenheim and its surrounding areas, the arrival of the large numbers of soldiers at Woodbourne kept them and the Blenheim congregations on their toes.  It was an exhausting time dealing with every stress from homesickness to panic attacks. They resigned from the parish at the end of 1945, to return the two children they cared for to the London.  The Government could not guarantee them a return trip for two years, so they took the opportunity for a long sabbatical.

Woodbourne Air Base 1943

For me ANZAC becomes a day to reflect on our inability to reach our greatest ideal, that of peace. The horrors of war, and the tragic loss of thousands or should I say millions and millions of lives, the break up of families, the immense fear one sees in the eyes of children, the deep sadness in the body language of adults, the devastation of food and shelter and the breakdown of communities and countries, confront us daily through our channels of news. ‘Lest we Forget’ is what ANZAC suggests. Forget what? I ask. Reputedly, Rudyard Kipling was inspired by Deuteronomy 6,12: ‘Then beware lest you forget the Lord which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage’, in his poem ‘Recessional’, for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897.

“God of our fathers, known of old
Lord of our far flung battle line
Beneath Whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!”






A Feast of Music – Mozart Festival – Glyndebourne 1935

Writing back to the Te Awamutu Congregation in June 1935 Molly Whitelaw delighted them with her description of the Mozart Festival held at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera Garden in Lewes, Sussex. Her excitement oozes through every line. Music on this scale she missed hugely since her arrival in New Zealand in 1921. First introduced to Mozart opera while she was attending school in Konigsberg, a welcome change from the regular diet of Wagnerian opera, she became a lover of Mozart’s music; ‘so calming, so melodious, so ‘entūzken’ [full of delight]. Under what she describes as ‘the most superb conditions’, Glyndebourne fulfilled Molly’s ‘feeling-good’ middle-class desires and aspirations in every way.

Besides the sight of the enchanting Sussex village of Glyndebourne, the grand old Tudor Manor house, which carried the name of the village, the gardens were exquisite. Molly had inherited her love of gardening from her father in particular. In each parish they served, Molly left a well developed garden, so the lily pond, the flagged paths with borders of blue and yellow irises, hedged gardens with flowers of numerous colour, large yew trees, velvety lawns, the roses and shrubbery bordering the river at the rear of Glyndebourne Manor filled her heart with great admiration. ‘Wherever you walk’, she wrote, ‘it is beautiful with that rich, tranquil, luscious beauty that one associates with the very name of England.’

As is normal with Molly, she is very aware of those she mingles with; the people attending were ‘in keeping with their surroundings’ she notes.   Good looking, well groomed men in evening dress with ‘white coats and ties’ and women, taller then she remembered from the past, in ‘backless dresses’, beautifully groomed hair something ‘most regal to observe’. She had never entertained such a standard in New Zealand. ‘There is something so distinguished about the appearance a certain type of well-born, well-breed men and women, which nothing but birth and breeding can give’… There is something indescribable which as long as the world will last money will never be able to buy’, she informed her rural church parishioners, many who may well not fully comprehend her enthusiastic observation of a class of people rarely found in New Zealand.

Although the tickets were expensive, Molly was prepared to squander her ‘last shilling on such a feast’. Words failed her when attempting to describe Cosi Fan Tutte and the conducting of Dr Fritz Busch, which was ‘par excellence’. She adored the character portrayal of the fascinating ‘Despina’ sung by the Czechoslovakian, Irene Eisinger, and the beauty of the Austrian, Luise Helletsgruber, who played Dorabella, she described as a ‘daughter of the gods’. Never she believed would she be satisfied with future productions. The production, staging, music, singing, and performance ‘combined [an] effort of unsurpassable completeness and beauty’.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera began in 1934, so Molly was attending its second season. The festival continues to be held annually to this day. Mr John Christie, an English businessman, contributed thousands of pounds to create his home into the beauty of ‘something of that “fellowship of all artists” which Wagner foresaw’. Besides the large garden, he built an Opera House that seated 300, and ‘barn like dining rooms paved with brick, and as Molly describes them ‘delightful in their combination of comfort, good service and rural simplicity.’ Food was served between the second and third acts where you could either have ‘a ‘table d’hôtel’ dinner, a cold supper or even take your own ‘provender’ and have your own servants wait upon you.’

The renowned Music Director Dr. Fritz Busch was appointed in 1934 after his politically motivated dismissal from his position at the Dresden State Opera in 1933. He remained with the Glyndebourne Opera until the outbreak of World War II; there were no performances through those years and he returned to Buenos Aires. After the war he conducted the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Symphony. Busch returned to Glyndebourne for two further seasons in 1950. He died September 1951.

The Trout Fishing Holiday that Didn’t Happen – Dr James and Mrs Moffatt in New Zealand.

Rev Dr. Ian Fraser

’I did work hard on the Saturday & Monday & just got everything perfect, silver, flowers, bedrooms, table,’ wrote Molly Whitelaw to her mother in November 1934. Her preparations were in honour of the visit of Dr. James Moffatt and his wife and the Rev. Dr. Ian Fraser. The young Ian Fraser fell under this great theologian’s scholarly spell during his post-graduate studies at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, during 1931 and 1932. It was not only James Moffatt’s scholarship that won the hearts of overseas theology students, however, but the couple’s amazing hospitality, friendship, and support they willingly extended. Mrs Moffatt, Ian Fraser noted, was their ‘mother away from home’. On completion of his time in New York, Fraser managed to extract a promise from Moffatt to visit New Zealand, during his forthcoming sabbatical in 1934.

Their arrival in Auckland was greeted with enthusiasm across the religious community. Auckland city honoured him with a civic reception where the deputy-mayor, acknowledged his theological scholarship and that the people of Auckland ‘were deeply interested in his visit and they still considered the Bible as the greatest Book in the world.’ Three of Moffatt’s past students contributed to the welcome: the Revs James A Thomson and James McKenzie studied with Moffatt in Glasgow 1918-1919, and Dr Ian Fraser with him in New York.

James Moffat commented that he preferred a scarlet covered Bible (1919). He never understood why Bibles had black covers.

The name of James Moffatt was possibly best known among church-going New Zealanders through his translation of the New Testament in Modern Speech, which ‘placed English-speaking people in his debt’, according to James Thomson. The translation, however, touched a number of ‘nerves’ of those lovers of the poetic Authorised Version. His greater ‘colloquial approach and undue freedom’ was not to everyone’s liking. In 1924 he completed the Old Testament translation; his critics were no more impressed then, than they were a decade earlier with the publication of his New Testament translation. By the time of his visit in 1934, Dr James Moffatt’s prolific writings continued to be regularly reviewed in Church and local papers and were no doubt added to many ministers’ theological libraries.

Ian Fraser accompanied the Moffatt’s on the Express train south for a short stay with the Whitelaw’s at the Te Awamutu Manse. Molly in her typical gossipy-style letter to her mother gave the pertinent details of interest. ‘Dinner was perfect,’ she wrote, ‘our well practiced menu of clear soup, turkey with cauliflower, green peas, new potatoes, fruit salad & cream in individual glasses, lemon drink & ginger beer to imbibe & coffee.’

She noted the stress of the Auckland programme over the three previous days had tired Moffatt who retired to husband ‘Alan’s study to smoke & write letters to his children’ while Molly and Mrs Moffatt shared their common Scottish memories. These conversations, along with the evening discussions, including Rev Julian Blanchard, who had joined them for the evening buoyed Molly no end. As she reflected on the visit Molly realised that living in the small rural community of Te Awamutu and since the birth of her son Alastair, she had been starved of the familiar stimulating, intellectual conversation of a past life.   ‘It was like a visit from very old friends bringing back the atmosphere of the Edinburgh days, & all the intellectual as well as spiritual satisfaction of friendship with people … who combined scholarly minds and strong intellects with a simple faith,’ she commented to her mother.

Adding to the delight of their visit was the jaunt to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves the following day. A system of underground limestone caves with waterfalls as well as thousands of glow-worms left the Moffatts’ in awe.   Mrs Moffatt’s appreciation would have been music to the ears of those who accompanied them. ‘It was so marvellously beautiful’, she told the New Zealand Herald. ‘We have never seen anything like it elsewhere’.

James Moffatt and his wife continued their travels to Rotorua for the promised stint of trout fishing. Attractions at the popular tourist centre, where scores of visitors sought ‘cures in its medicinal waters’, included natural hot springs, bubbling mud pools, geysers and the famous model Maori pa at Whakarewarewa, appeared to take priority – no trout were fished for. A visit was also undertaken to the Presbyterian Maori Mission in Whakatane. They then headed south with  two further civic welcomes planned at Levin, where Ian Fraser was the Presbyterian minister, and in the capital city, Wellington. Both were well patronised and in Wellington many people outside strained to hear the speeches through doors and open windows, fortunately on a ‘glorious summer’s day’.

In all centres Moffatt gave a similar message peppered with frank comment and humour. Bearing in mind the sense of unrest emerging out of Germany at the time, he emphasised the need to move beyond the superficiality of language and seek greater understanding, mutual respect and co-operation within countries and between nations in their aims for welfare and peace. With regard to Church and State, he suggested, ‘they should be like strawberries and cream – they should be taken together’. The church he reasoned was ‘the creation of character, which was what the civic authorities relied upon.’

To ministers present at various gatherings he stressed, ‘Preach about God and preach about 20 minutes’, and warned them against becoming ‘maids of all work’. ‘You cannot expect your ministers’, he stated, ‘to do their proper work if they are serving tables’; an interesting turn of phrase considering today’s perspective with its greater focus on a ‘servant’ ministry. Congregations, he continued, needed to be more considerate to their ministers and if they were, ‘would get more out of them in realities’.

It was only in Wellington that acknowledgement of Mrs Moffatt presence was reported. Rev Julian Blanchard emphasised they were also welcoming Mrs Moffatt, as well as her husband, stressing her role as a helpmeet. ‘She had watched over the doctor’s studies, and those who profited by his writings owed her a debt of gratitude because her personal safeguard had enabled him to pursue the studies that had placed the world in his debt’.

In his final interview he side-tracked that importunate question visitors are so often confronted on his impressions of New Zealand. Not interested in voicing these, he responded that ‘it was a wonderful country and that he and Mrs Moffatt had been overwhelmed with kindness’. No, he had not fulfilled his wish to go trout fishing but smiling broadly, instead he noted, ‘I gave six sermons and 23 addresses’. He assured his interviewer, ‘I am coming back again for the trout.’ They left Auckland on 11 December for Vancouver.


1960: ‘A Thrilling General Election’

Keith Holyoake and Walter Nash are both trying to enter the House of Representatives at the same time, Nash trying to push the revolving door to the left and Holyoake trying to push it to the right. Arnold Nordmeyer and Jack Marshall are amongst the bystanders. Reference Number: B-056-104, Minhinnick, Gordon (Sir), 1902-1992. New Zealand Herald, 25 November 1960.

Being a somewhat ‘political animal’ my curiosity as to where Molly Whitelaw sat on the political fence has been at the forefront of my mind as I research her life. Finally, all has been revealed! A letter written to her son, Alastair, 22 November 1960, gave me further insight into her values and beliefs as they have formulated from the outset of my research.

Molly heads this letter:

‘WELL! NATIONAL IS IN, with 39 certain, 2 probable.

LABOUR IS OUT, with 31 certain, 2 probable.

In doubt 6.’

She continues, ‘A very thrilling election. Daddy in the Middle Room with his big wireless; and mother in kitchen, Election spread, out on table so she could mark in Progressive Reports, with her little wireless … The result was a wonderful relief, although rejoicing was tempered by sympathy with Mr. Nash [the Labour Prime Minister 1957-1960]… Such a valiant protagonist for the old ideals of Michael Joseph Savage [a founder of the Labour Party in New Zealand]… Socialism is, fortunately, not to be the ruling power in NZ. I think the day of fighting for the “under-dog” is over in NZ. The Welfare State is well established and the danger of increasing slackness in all personal effort and initiative was apparent. Freedom in individual enterprise is absolutely essential if NZ is to be encouraged to work hard as other countries especially near-by Australia. Paternalism was sapping strength.’

Molly acknowledges that she can’t ignore the personal element in their vote and their pleasure at National’s success. Is the crux of her pleasure a long-seated belief based on her Scottish Presbyterian understanding of the deserving and undeserving poor? Her concluding sentence points in that direction.  ‘Mr Holyoake’, the new Prime Minister, ‘will be at least more understanding of the rights of the hardworking “haves” as well as the laziness of many of the “have-nots … they act like spoilt children.’

Whether her son agreed with his mother’s sentiments is another matter. A letter earlier in 1960 from her brother Alastair suggests otherwise. ‘ He [son Alastair] seems to belong to the Liberal leftish persuasion.’ The two Alastair’s apparently ‘always had tremendous arguments’. Son Alastair ‘implicitly believes in the power of ‘Democracy’ to solve all ills on the political plane’, writes Molly’s brother, who considered Democracy was in decline, dying in ‘seeds of its own defeat.’ What was lacking, he considered was ‘True leadership, GOD-inspired Rulership…’ in fact, along with a ‘united Christendom’, and ‘a stability of character in the people’, which was dissipating he concluded.

I have found myself pondering on both Molly and her brother’s comments in light of New Zealand’s most recent General Election and the possible outcomes from the MMP process of electoral parties negotiations and compromises. For most who participated in the democratic process, these negotiations create tension. There will be many who will be delighted with the final decision – if it agrees with how they voted; there will be those who will express apprehensive as to whether the compromise reached are to their satisfaction;  and those who feel let down even angry, and many emotions in between. We cannot avoid acknowledging that political decisions influence us whether we want to recognise it or not and these decisions and the results will have some affect on our view of the world around us.

But what is it that influences our personal political decisions? They are, of course, many and varied and generally founded on a multitude of influences that impinge on our everyday personal and public lives. Our innate ‘tribal’ instincts come into play; where and what we have taken on board from our parents and their parents; how well we have prospered or not prospered in our daily life and when, where, why and how this occurred; how we perceive our own place within our families, communities, society, the nation and the world. Our responses will also reflect the values we hold about the ‘other’ in relation to ourselves.

As I delve further into ‘finding’ Molly, these avenues of influence will require considerable exploration, further reading and analysis. But what a lot of fun!

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