Grace Triumphant - Chapter 2 - Boyhood Days

Boyhood Days

“A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows, is God in his holy habitation.” (Psa. 68:5)

What is a widow with four children to do when, the day after she has buried her husband, she receives notice to vacate the house they had lived in for years?  Of course, free rental of the house was one of the perquisites that went with her husband’s work on the estate.  So the owner was within his rights.  Nevertheless it was a situation in which the widow proved the truth of the above verse.

The two girls, Ethel and Florrie, were away in domestic service.  Ethel was working for Mr. Scott in Dorking, a partner in the Christian publishing company of Morgan and Scott.  Florrie was working in a house where her cousin was cook.  George had received a scholarship and was boarding at Reigate Grammar School.  So at the age of seven, I was the only one left with my Mother.  Because of these circumstances I was not only without a father but was also deprived of the usual companionship of my sisters and brother.  It was almost the same as being the only son of a widowed mother.  Apart from schoolmates, I had few playmates.  No doubt, life would have been different, if my Father had lived, but God makes no mistakes.

I was shy and rather timid and not too robust in health.  One day coming home from school, a rough boy from the slums knocked me down.  He got some fun out of it, but I didn’t!  He also took my cap.  I was scared of him, but I was more scared to go home without my cap.  So I followed him at a discreet distance until he left my cap on a gatepost and ran off.

Mother was in her early forties and needed to find a way of supporting herself and providing for me.  God again proved to be a “defender of widows.” In a short time she obtained a position as a housekeeper for a gentleman bachelor.  Mr. A. C. Knight was a director in a large soap manufacturing company.  As a Christian who attended the Congregational Church, he was interested in boys and an active leader in the Boy’s Brigade.  Thus, it was possible for me to remain with my mother in his home.  In World War I Mr. Knight served as an officer and was killed in the ill-fated Gallipoli landing.  By that time we had moved to Canada.

Early in 1906 we moved to Blackheath, a suburb in southeast London.  A large heath or open space for sports activities lay between Blackheath and Greenwich Park.  I became well acquainted with that park in which was the Greenwich Observatory, the place of zero longitude and source of Greenwich Mean Time.  Nearby was a Naval museum and the Thames River.

About the time of my eighth birthday there was a fall of snow.  As my Sunday school teacher escorted me home, she asked, “What is whiter than snow?”  That really puzzled me!  I thought of white things – writing paper, sugar, salt, mother’s laundry (no tattle-tale gray for her!)  – but snow was whiter than all these.  Mother dropped a hint that I should think in another direction.  So I finally learned what the hymn said, “Wash me in the blood of the Lamb and I shall be whiter than snow.”  I could rely on the word of God, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isa. 1:18).  I am sure that I was saved then for I cannot remember a time when I didn’t believe that Jesus died for me.  However, I didn’t have complete assurance.

There was a lot of emphasis those days on the second coming of Christ and I had learned about the Rapture.  Sometimes I would look out of my bedroom window at a gorgeous sunset and wonder if Christ would come before morning!  But sometimes I was not so sure.  One afternoon I came home from school to find the door locked.  Mother was out shopping, no doubt.  No problem!  Just sit on the doorstep and wait.  But it seemed to be an awfully long wait.  Then the thought – maybe the Lord has come and I am left behind!  How can I find out?  I know!  I’ll watch the people walking down our street.  If I see one person I believe to be a Christian (that, of course, would have to be someone from our chapel!) then I’ll know the Lord hasn’t come yet.  Even then I was well-indoctrinated – no partial rapture theories had come my way.  To my great relief the first Christian I saw was Mother entering our gate.

From time to time I was bothered by this lack of assurance.  One Sunday evening (I can’t remember when it was) I determined to do something about it.  It may have been something the preacher said in the service, I really don’t recall.  Anyhow, as I kneeled to say my usual bedtime prayer, I added something.  “Lord, if I never really trusted in you before,  I do now believe and accept you as my Savior.”  Immediately I was assured that I was really saved and the assurance has never left me.  No doubt I was truly saved before but it needed that definite act to assure me.  Later on I learned that assurance of salvation is not based on our experience but upon the promises of God’s Word.

About a quarter of a mile from where we lived in Blackheath was Alexandra Hall.  In some ways the assembly there was different from others.  Most of the members were upper-class people and only a few of the poorer class.  There was one woman who was a charwoman but rather outspoken and uncouth when she poured out her scorn on the snobbery of some ladies there.  Mother’s ministry was to befriend some of the old ladies and I was not enraptured over such guests!  She also took an interest in young women in domestic service who were away from home.

When we first moved there, the congregation at Alexandra Hall was quite large.  Some two to three hundred would meet each Sunday morning to observe the Lord’s Supper.  Without fail one brother, Mr. Luck, would read a chapter from the Bible without comment and Easter Sunday it would surely be Luke 24.  There would be some five hundred at the evening service.  Dr. Robert McKilliam was the recognized leader in the assembly and always preached when he was home.  Though a medical man, he was a great Bible student and also editor of a monthly magazine, “The Morning Star,” which emphasized the Second Coming.  The choir, mostly of older persons, sat on the platform.  One gentleman had his favorite seat by the railing and during the sermon he would lean on this railing and enjoy a little sleep.

The assembly regularly held a brief 15-minute open-air service on the steps before the evening service, summer and winter.  Then in the summer there was an open-air meeting in the center of the town after the service.  Later when numbers were dwindling they held an evangelistic campaign.  The invited preacher was an eccentric man by the name of Hodson.  His zeal for the Lord was accompanied by a sense of humor and a quick repartee.  On one occasion, so I am told, he carried on a tent campaign in an English village.  Sunday morning he went to the Anglican Church to hear the parson.  Being sadly disappointed by the sermon he asked the parson, “Do you call that preaching the Gospel?”  It seems that in retaliation the reverend gentleman persuaded two village thugs to beat up Mr. Hodson and burn down his tent.  When they accosted Mr. Hodson in front of his tent and stated their intention, he, being a big husky man, picked them up one by one and tossed them over the hedge.  The parson who had been standing at a distance, approached and haughtily asked, “Mr. Hodson, do you call that preaching the Gospel?”  To which Mr. Hodson replied, “No, I call that casting out demons!”

Perhaps the dwindling attendance was in part due to the fact that there was no Sunday school and very few young people at Alexandra Hall.  After we left there Dr. McKilliam passed away which further contributed to the decline.  During my war service in World War I, visiting Blackheath one evening I found about twenty believers meeting in a much smaller hall.

As there was no Sunday school there, I went on Sunday afternoons to a Sunday school in a rough area of Lewisham.  My chum, Willie Peacock, went with me and our teacher was a fine man, Mr. Bernau.  In that slum neighborhood the windows were protected by heavy wire screens.  Almost every week some boisterous boy was forcibly evicted for making trouble, but they would invariably return the following week.

My schooling started in Lingfield with a year or so in Primary School before Father died.  When we moved to Blackheath I went to Northbrook School at Lea Green, a 20 minute walk each way.  There was no such thing as school buses in those days.  I enjoyed the teachers there but very much disliked the principal.  For me, Mr. Fluke had an appropriate name: For one thing he smoked!  One day in class he misunderstood an answer I gave (deliberately I suspect) and made fun of me before the class.  It seemed to have been due to my stand as a Christian, even though that was a weak one.  During one vacation I was waiting to get a haircut.  Mr. Fluke came in and took his place in the barber’s chair ahead of me, with some snide remark to the barber.

Coming home from school one afternoon, one of my two companions found a shriveled up potato in the gutter.  It looked quite rubbery and my chum said, “wonder if it could bounce!”  No time was wasted speculating on the “bounceability” of an old potato regardless of surroundings.  At a busy crosswalk where three streets met, my chum flung the potato to the ground.  Oh, did it bounce?  On the rebound it struck the bonnet of an old lady who was approaching and would have completely dislodged it but for the ribbons by which it was tied.  (In those days little old ladies wore bonnets, which were high in front above the forehead and were fastened with ribbons tied under the chin.)  I caught a glimpse of hands raised to retrieve the bonnet and heard a scream.  We did not linger to hear the tirade about juvenile delinquency in that “modern age.”  Three boys decamped in three different directions with speed that surely could be in the Guinness Book of Records had they been recorded.

Later I was transferred to Greenwich Central School, the equivalent of High School.  It was a 45 minute walk from home but we didn’t think anything of that in those days.  The headmaster there, Mr. Wood, was strict but considerate and well respected.  Monday morning assembly was devoted to Scripture reading and prayer.  These schools were for boys; none were co-educational then.  Each Monday morning the two class monitors had to arrive early and fill all the inkwells on the desks (no such things as fountain pens or ballpoints!).  One morning my classmate and I were carrying a tray of inkwells down the stairs when a latecomer dashing up the stairs collided with us.  At the next assembly there were some caustic remarks from the headmaster about the carelessness of boys who spattered ink on the stairs!

Somehow I managed to stay out of trouble so was never sent up to the headmaster’s office for misbehavior.  A notation in his black book meant no recommendation when leaving school.  I doubt that I deserved what he wrote on April 25, 1912 – “that progress has been very satisfactory and that he leaves the school after having gained the esteem of his fellow pupils and of his masters.”  This recommendation was given shortly before I left that school to go to Canada.  The teacher and the class kindly gave me a monetary gift as I was leaving.

Vivid in the memory of my boyhood days are the summer holidays.  Mother and I usually visited her relatives and since there were many of them it meant going to different places each summer.  Mother’s family was so large that her youngest sister was an aunt already when she was born.

Cromer is a seaside resort on the east coast of England.  A Japanese Lantern was thrust into my hand so I could participate in a lantern procession and I won third prize.  Any inflation of my ego was dissipated a few days later.  While digging in the sand, one of my shoes was buried and lost. Scolded by Mother I was mortified to have to walk home barefoot.

One of Mother’s brothers lived in Cardiff in South Wales where he worked in the drydocks.  I was fascinated to see a ship in drydock.  One of my cousins also worked there and later was killed by a fall into a drydock.  One day we went on an excursion steamer across the Bristol Channel to visit picturesque spots like Clovelly.  This small place in Devon was then only reached by boat and the houses were perched on the steep hillside beside the sea.  A stop at Ilfracombe for a lunch that for a boy was memorable – roast lamb with young potatoes (cooked with a sprig of mint) and fresh green peas.  The dessert was a dish of raspberries topped with Devonshire cream, a very thick, rich cream.

Littlemore was a village a few miles from Oxford where Mother had been born and where her oldest brother had a blacksmith and carriage building shop.  It was interesting to see how they fitted an iron rim on a wooden cartwheel.  A trip on a small boat through some locks on the upper Thames River took us to a garden party for residents of the area on the large estate of the Earl of Harcourt.  Another day we went through Oxford University without absorbing any knowledge from that noted place of learning.

One summer Mother and I went different ways and I stayed with the family of Ethel’s fiancé, the Wellers.  Dentures were new to me then.  I was amazed that Richard, who was to become my brother-in-law, took his teeth out at night.  It was impossible to remove mine, I found. Sixty years later in 1969 Anna and I visited Rich’s two surviving sisters living in the same house.  Naturally they had aged but the house seemed to be just the same.

Mother’s youngest sister, Aunt Millie, lived in Folkestone on the south coast facing the English Channel.  Her husband was a retired army man and they had two daughters about my age.  On one of our visits there the Red Cross and Ambulance Corps were holding some sort of maneuvers.  They called for some boys to volunteer with a promise of sixpence.  We were taken out of town on a truck and told to lie down scattered over a grassy field.  Tags were placed on us to describe the kind of wounds we had supposedly suffered.  Then the nurses came to bandage us and take us back to school, which was to be the hospital.  Many of the boys were “ambulatory patients.”  With bandaged heads or arms in slings they had to walk back to the school.  As one of the more seriously wounded I had the good fortune to be trundled back on a stretcher.  Housewives seeing the procession of wounded and not knowing it was a maneuver came out to commiserate with the unfortunate victims of an accident.  For their benefit I tried to look as miserable as possible under the circumstance.  At the “hospital” a treatment of lemonade and cookies effected some “miraculous cures” so our bandages were removed and we were sent off home.

Mother thought there would be better opportunities for me in a young country like Canada.  World events didn’t concern me then but there was already talk of war with Germany.  My sister Ethel left for Edmonton, Alberta the day after her marriage on June 1, 1911.  A year later, Mother, Florrie, and I were to follow.  George had obtained a second scholarship to the College of the Royal Horticultural Society and so decided to remain in England.

At the age of thirteen the matter of baptism arose.  There was no baptistry at Alexandra Hall and I don’t know what position the assembly there took on baptism.  However, with considerable trepidation I went to Dr. McKilliam for an interview.  He was very gracious as he talked with me about my faith in Christ.  So I was received into fellowship at Alexandra Hall shortly before leaving.  It was arranged that I should be baptized at Lingfield in the baptistry, which my Father had helped to construct.  That was on the 7th of May 1912, and was for me a very happy occasion.  The Lord impressed upon my heart, John 13:17, “If you know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”  So, though I was very nervous, I was also very happy.  There was much about baptism that I didn’t understand, but I knew it was something the Lord wanted me to do.

Even in those days I was keenly interested in missionary stories.  I don’t recall a great deal of missionary interest at Alexandra Hall but more than once I would walk to King George St. Hall in Greenwich to hear some missionary, especially if he was from Africa.  One of the thrills was to be allowed to go to the annual missionary meetings in London in October 1911.  They were held then at Devonshire House, which was packed for the evening meeting.  I sat on a step up in the gallery and listened to Dan Crawford, then home on his first furlough in over twenty years.

A few days after my baptism on May 16th we left Southampton on a Cunard ship, S.S. Ausonia, definitely not one of their best.  We were traveling with an emigrant party arranged by the Salvation Army, mostly of women.  First morning out I was one of the few brave souls that showed up for breakfast.  The menu in steerage class was Irish stew or boiled eggs.  Irish stew for breakfast – perish the thought! And the stew too! So I had two hard-boiled eggs which I soon regretted eating!  I was seasick for a week and for years wouldn’t touch a hard-boiled egg.  Years later we learned from our good friend, George Maslen that he traveled on the Ausonia on the previous voyage.  The food was so terrible, the steerage passengers almost rioted!

Out in the middle of the Atlantic we were surrounded by icebergs and moved forward very cautiously, with good reason for just a month before that the Titanic had been sunk.  I remember the news headlines, “The unsinkable ship sunk.”  This ship had been built with watertight compartments to make it unsinkable in theory.  On its maiden voyage with many celebrities aboard it struck an iceberg with a loss of hundreds of lives.  We thanked God for a safe trip.

Landing at Quebec on Sunday evening, bells were tolling.  I thought they were church bells until I discovered that every train engine had a bell and also a cow-catcher in front.  For some days we journeyed by train to Calgary.  The train would stop at intervals to change engines and crew, while the passengers made a wild dash to the station restaurant for a quick snack.  Trains there were quite different from English trains and different too from present day train travel.

In Calgary we stayed overnight before proceeding north to Edmonton the next morning.  The Salvation Army took us to their citadel where a testimony meeting was in progress.  Various members there took us home for the night, which was very kind of them.  I was rather amused by the testimony of one man as he told of his new joy in salvation.  In his elation he was jumping up and down on the platform, and rubbing his stomach exclaimed, “I have such a good feeling down here!”  Remembering the misery of our seasickness a week before, I rather disrespectfully whispered to my sister, “If he had been where we were last week, he wouldn’t have such a good feeling down there.”  It is to be hoped his assurance of salvation was not resting merely on his physical feeling.

A train ride the next day brought us to Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, then more like a growing frontier town.  There we were welcomed by my sister and her husband.