BUILDING A CHURCH
PEOPLE in England have often said to me that they thought Tristan men must be an idle lot, but we always replied: "No, indeed, they have to work hard enough in order to be able to live at all." "What do they do, then?" is often asked. "Well, they like to be considered farmers." This was the description or occupation they liked my husband to put down in his registers. They nearly all run a few head of sheep or cattle, a few geese and chickens, and a pair of drawing bullocks. Those who have none are spoken of a bit contemptuously as "poor," but two men—Henry Green, who has the best cows, and Gaetano Lavarello, who has the most sheep—may be considered as fairly well-to-do Tristanites. Their position may be owing to luck or better management of their flocks.
Every season has its special work, and much is required in connection with the potato patches, of which there are some three hundred, of different sizes and shapes, all walled round with stone to keep out animals. The soil is poor, though deep in places, but as there is no rotation of crops, or fallow, and a very trying climate, one cannot wonder at the failures. The ground is manured largely with kelp and a mixture of sheep and cow manure. Work on a potato patch entails the processes of spading, harrowing, weeding, sowing, ridging and harvesting, besides the manuring. The Patches are a stiff walk of two or three miles from the Settlement, over a very rough road, ill-kept, more a track than a road, and the kelp has to be fetched in small loads in the bullock wagons from Little Beach or Runaway Beach and carted right out to the Patches. To get the sheep manure, the sheep are driven in each night and penned up on a mixture of grass and moss, and other manure is collected in a very painstaking fashion chiefly by the bigger boys.
The men go fishing when the weather permits, but on many days at all seasons of the year fishing is not possible, and in the winter for two or three months quite out of the question. The fish are coarse and oily, and not very healthy as food. Often they will not bite, and I have seen the little children waiting hungry all day "until daddy came home with the fish." The fish had then to be cleaned and scaled, a dirty and laborious process, and very often the meal was just plain boiled fish with no vegetable. They liked it fried better, but often fat was so scarce that to fry was not possible. I think, anyhow, fish was considered "poor eating," and sea-birds, or even the eggs of sea-birds, were thought nicer. Meat is, of course, a luxury at Tristan, and only partaken of now and then. We thought it was the bad food and poor milk that gave so many worms. The meat is often eaten from very poor animals, and fish and birds are eaten when scarcely fit for consumption. They do not keep good long in the climate, but the people are loath to throw them away when they begin to go off.
A great deal of time is given by the men and boys to hunting for sea-birds and their eggs for food. Bob Glass used to collect the figures and give them to my husband. Penguin eggs are hunted for and used in immense quantities in September and October. 25,200 eggs were said to be used in one year, and 7,400 eggs have been collected in one day by boats at Stony Beach, Trypot, Seal Bay, and Sandy Point rookeries. Black eaglets are got in June and July, and we found these good eating, but molly mawks, which are hunted from January to March, were very strong and unpleasant. 2,139 mollies were taken in one January and 4,800 in March. From these figures it is evident that the people would be starved if they had not sea-birds and their eggs to fall back upon as articles of diet. The people eat every conceivable kind of sea-bird except penguins and sea-hens, but petrels, molly mawks, and black eaglets are most liked. Night birds are getting scarce, and albatross have left the island entirely. All varieties of eggs are eaten, but most are fishy and indigestible. I tasted six varieties of sea-birds' eggs, but black eaglets, penguins, and night birds are the best, and molly mawks the worst; petrel eggs are not bad eating. They are all best fried hard on both sides, and eaten with plenty of salt and pepper.
From January 1, 1924, to March 21st the islanders fetched fifty boat-loads of wood from the other side of the island, and in the process this is handled three times over and a journey of ten miles is involved. Potatoes are planted generally in September and October, and from January to March they are harvested. Then, too, is the time for visits to Inaccessible and Nightingale Islands in search of petrels for food and to get driftwood. A trip to other islands is more often made in November. April and May are the months for drawing kelp, while July is the month for spading. In June the bullocks are killed and salted with salt made from sea-water boiled down previously, and the hide is hung up in the wind and sun to dry so that leather may be had for moccasins for the family throughout the winter. June to September is the hardest time for the islanders, as these are the scarce-food months and the weather is at its worst.
When we were on the island the men built or enlarged ten houses, and also built the church and walled in the old and new cemetery grounds. They dug many new potato patches, and thirteen new boats were built. They worked, too, at the roads, made new wagons, constructed benches for the church, a pulpit and Communion rails.
THE POTATO PATCHES WITH THE "PYRAMIDS" IN THE DISTANCE
Whatever the men at Tristan da Cunha are, it cannot justly be said that they were idle when we were there. The circumstances of their life are all against idleness. They cannot get their sheep without going about eight miles over hill and dale to seek for them; they must spend days upon the mountain to catch birds that their children may be fed, and make long boat journeys for wood that their wives may cook the food. I have seen as many as nine little dinghies sailing at once round Big Beach at early dawn looking like the start of a tiny yacht race, but it would be hours before the boats return. Often, indeed, they may have hard and dangerous work to get back at all, for one of the sudden changes which characterize Tristan weather may take place and they may have to make a forced landing on the way home, abandon the boats on some tiny beach, and, after dragging them high up to safety, be compelled to return over the hills on foot. A great deal of energy and time is spent simply in the effort to live at all. The children, perhaps, though one seldom hears them complain, have the hardest time. One little child of a neighbour would come sometimes and beg us not to scrape all the dripping out of our frying-pan, but leave it until she could come and get it for herself, as she was often hungry. We would turn to and fry a couple of eggs and some potatoes lest she should be going dinnerless till late at night. When we had flour of our own I would bake a potful of little cakes for them when they came to bid us good-night.
They had a pretty custom of all the little ones coming by themselves each evening to bid us rather a shy good-night, but each one expected a kiss, and would have been terribly hurt if we had not welcomed the advance, and they generally fled after the effort delightedly munching a cake; but I will not fail to record it was not just cupboard love, for when we had no cakes to give the dear little mites came just the same.
On June 18, 1922, during his sermon, or rather talk, at Evensong, my husband spoke of the necessity of a larger room in which to hold services, and urged that an effort should be made to build a permanent church, saying it should not seem impossible with so many able-bodied men and big lads. He put it so kindly and persuasively I could see from their faces that it was regarded as a good suggestion by the congregation. After church was over we had a number of visitors to the Parsonage, some saying that they would be willing to work at the new building whenever it was decided to begin it. Mr. Andrew Hagan came in and said that, until the new church was ready, we could have the whole top floor of his house, and the men could move away the partition between the front-room and bedroom and this would give us six feet more of space, and he and his wife and son would live downstairs. We accepted his offer very thankfully, for we now had the biggest possible room on the island at our disposal for church services, but even so, since at Tristan every man, woman, and child attends church regularly, it was overcrowded and many had to stand up all the time, and the parents had to hold the children on their laps, even quite big children of ten or eleven.
It was decided to hold a meeting of all the men in the schoolroom on June 21, 1922, at eight o'clock to discuss the idea of the new church. I was not present, but my husband presided, and there was a big muster of the men in spite of pouring rain. Everyone seemed to regard it as a special occasion, and came in their best clothes. It was quite a smart assemblage. My husband shook hands with everyone. A quick discussion of ways and means took place, and it was decided that, as soon as the winter was over and the oxen were thought strong enough to draw stone, the building work should commence. There were a few dubious ones at the meeting who seemed to think a church could never be built, as at that time there was a lack of so many necessary materials like wood, paint, and window glass, but these were swept aside by the more zealous.
My husband and the men soon selected a site for the new church on the ground between Mrs. Repetto's and Tom Rogers's houses. Both agreed to waive any claim to the ground, and a space was allowed to enlarge the church if ever it became necessary. The ground chosen was well in the midst of the Settlement, but quite near to our house. There was room to have built a parsonage near the church. The foundations of a church 50 feet long and 14 feet wide were marked out. Digging was begun in June and almost completed by the end of October. Each family undertook that their men should dig so many feet of foundations as they had leisure. One or two men usually worked at a time, and now and then a good big gang would be at work. It only meant a few hours' labour for each man. I always used to make them tea and give it to them when at work. Early one morning about five o'clock, when the last foot of land only remained to be dug, I noticed two men at work, and just as I was carrying their drink across to them we saw smoke far out at sea, and it proved to be three Norwegian whalers which were bringing us our mail. This was on November 2, 1922, and we got no more letters until March 1923, when the Dublin came and we had our last mails on the island. The island got no news of the outside world at all after that for nearly two years.
The laying of the foundation-stone of the new Church of St. Mary's was quite an imposing ceremony. The men buried some small silver coins in a little tin box under the big stone as it was placed in position. The stone itself was given by Mrs. Repetto. It was one of the Rev. E. Dodgson's original church stones. It had to be hauled into place with chains and ropes, and my husband and his Scouts tugged away with might and main helping the men.
There was a foundation laying service. My husband came in his cassock and surplice, and we had all the choir boys and girls, and the Scouts paraded with their flag, and the congregation was grouped round. John Glass and Tom Rogers brought along the harmonium for me to play the hymns and chants. We had special prayers for the dedication of the stone, and thanksgiving that a church seemed possible after fifty years' hopes and disappointments. It was a nice fine day and quite an impressive little service. My husband believed in outdoor services when possible, and he gave a stirring address urging the people to spare no effort to complete what had been so well begun, and the people seemed much moved.
The building of the church was really wonderful for Tristan da Cunha. It was a true monument of faith overcoming mountains of difficulty. All the previous missionaries had tried to get a church built, and there had been several church houses used for worship for a time, but afterwards always returned to secular uses when that Minister left the island. None of these was really a dedicated church. The Rev. E. Dodgson made the most determined effort to build a church. He hewed a number of good stones and began a building, but progress was so slow that he lost hope of getting it completed, and is reported to have said "at this rate it will take forty years to build," and ordered the stones to be removed and placed for a wall round the cemetery. Mr. Barrow chose a site for a church, but it was not proceeded with as the difficulties were so great. My husband found the population so much increased, and the biggest room on the island so much too small, that from the first he pressed the men to try and build a church big enough to hold everyone.
There had been discussion as to "ways and means," for getting anything done at Tristan seemed nearly hopeless. Stones were plentiful, but there were no stone-cutting implements. Foundations must be dug, but again tools were insufficient. Spades, shovels, picks, barrows, crow-bars were hopelessly few. Most had to be lookers-on while others worked. Then we had neither woodwork, glass, paint, nails, nor roofing material. But we started as a venture of faith indeed. Letters of appeal for help were sent on the Quest mail, and for twelve months we waited in alternate hope and despair. Yet we worked steadily at the building.
My husband persuaded the men to make use of the stones prepared in Mr. Dodgson's time, and they were fetched from the cemetery and placed in the new church walls, while the cemetery wall was rebuilt with ordinary stones, and so a substantial beginning was made, for the old stones were better than those it is possible to procure now. Considerable time was required to prepare the site, and actual building operations were only begun in October 1922. Yet we finished the church on July 5, 1923, and the first Sunday service in the new church was held on July 8th, at eight o'clock. So we were only nine months over the building—really wonderfully quick, as houses which are much smaller often take over a year to build, or even two years.
My husband and the islanders were deservedly proud of St. Mary's Church. It was 50 feet long and 13 1/2 feet broad, giving the appearance of being rather long and narrow, but it had to be so as we had only short beams available. The zinc roof, being unlined, proved too hot in summer, and very noisy if it rained heavily. In hot weather we were often compelled to remove the windows to secure coolness as people were liable to be overcome by the heat of the building. On the roof over the porch was a little white cross and a larger one on the gable end, to mark the sacred character of the building. The interior was divided into nave and chancel, with a small sanctuary railed off by Communion rails. There was a nice big altar, a credence table, a pulpit and reading desk, all save the altar made on the island; also a lectern and font. The font, which was brought to the island by the Rev. E. Dodgson, shipwrecked and saved from the sea, stood at the bottom of the church. There was a big Bible given by Mr. Barrow. The chancel was raised a step and the altar another step. The altar had nice coloured frontals changed for the seasons of the Christian year, also candlesticks, flower vases, and a beautiful Oberammergau crucifix given by a lady in England. There was also a processional cross and a rood beam, surmounted by a large plain whitewood cross. On the church walls hung the series of pictures known as the Stations of the Cross, framed by the islanders, and a few other sacred pictures. In addition there was a tiny vestry. The church had six windows, but no east window. We had a harmonium, which I played, and special seats were reserved for the choir. Men sat on one side and women on the other.
Dedication Sunday, July 8, 1923, was a red-letter day for Tristan da Cunha, and it was kept with enthusiasm. There were over seventy persons at early church, only three communicants, who were sick, being absent. The morning service at eleven o'clock was crowded, all the school children being present.
The Boy Scouts in full uniform, very spruce, with their flag, headed the procession round the church and churchyard; then came the choir girls and myself; then a big boy with our processional cross; and lastly my husband in surplice and cassock followed by the congregation. "Onward, Christian Soldiers " was our processional hymn. Special prayers of consecration and dedication were said inside and out. We sang "The Church's One Foundation," and the church was solemnly dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin.
The church was prettily decorated with flowers. The people had endeavoured to get new clothes for the occasion, and the men wore medals or ribbons in their butt on-holes. Everyone felt a personal pride in the new church because everyone had done his share to get it complete. All the time the new church was being built we used a special prayer composed by my husband daily at services and in the school. It was as follows:
PRAYER FOR THE NEW CHURCH BUILDING AT TRISTAN DA CUNHA.
O God and our Heavenly Father, who hast put it into the hearts of these Thy servants at Tristan da Cunha to desire to build a church for Thy glory and the welfare of their own souls, grant to them wisdom, strength, means, and opportunity for the work. All we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Church services were always remarkably well attended; even on weekdays we would have a congregation of as many as fifty, while on Sunday afternoons the church was crowded out. Before we began there would be a long line of waiting people. Once old Sam Swain, the island patriarch, came late, could not find a seat, and had to return home; but Bob Glass, more thoughtful, came provided with a chair, which he planted in the aisle and sat down in state, to the amusement of the young folk. John Glass, the clerk, always rang the bell as long as he could see anyone in sight who seemed to be coming towards the church, so there should be no late-comers. Old Mrs. Swain, who is a little queer at times, would sometimes come up to church when there was no service, and, after sitting patiently for a long while in expectation, get up and go home rather puzzled. The waiting congregation were apt to the last to make a dash for seats, though my husband assured them there was no need as there was room for everybody.
On Sundays everyone liked to come in his best clothes, and a few stayed away if they had not got moccasins, or did not think their clothes good enough to come in. A few children would be carried in, having nothing on their feet but clean, new socks. Sheepskin mocassins were much despised—only bullock or donkey hide would do. On wet days the girls would come flying along in white frocks with old coats or jackets held over their heads and shoulders. Squalls usually seemed to come on just at church time.
We used the Cathedral Psalter and Hymns A. and M., but there was sometimes a controversy over the best tunes, as the old people liked Mr. Dodgson's tunes best, the young married folk Mrs. Barrow's, and our choir were eager for my tunes, as they said the others were "too old-fashioned for nowadays." I think they were quite up to or above the level of the average village choir in England.
The children were catechised in church after the old fashion at home, and generally behaved and answered very well. Baptisms usually took place during Evensong, and when it was known that there would be a baptism there was an extra big congregation. Wilson'Glass, who is one of my Tristan god-children, was the first baby to be baptized in the new church, and his elder sisters, Violet and Dorothy Glass, the first couples to be married in it, their husbands being Willy Lavarello and Ned Green. Ned is the tallest man on the island, being well over six feet.
The men laid out the churchyard as a flower-garden, made two small wooden gates, and built a stone wall round it. The Scouts used to weed the paths and whitewash the walls with island lime, which comes off when it rains hard and has to be done again.
We had to make shutters to save the windows from being broken by the wind and protect the back windows, which were very low down, from pigs and dogs. Sometimes much amusement was caused by some animal climbing up on to the roof, making weird noises above the heads of the worshippers, and John Glass had to go out and drive the adventurer off.
We had special prayers daily for "those who go down to sea in ships," and that some of these might visit our island with mails and supplies. One is terribly dependent on the visits of chance ships.