It is difficult for me, his eldest son, to pay any adequate tribute to the
life and work of my Father. Not only is it more than 60 years since his
death, when I was a boy of 12, but also we saw nothing of him during the
latter years of World War I, when he served with the Allied Forces in
France, Egypt and Palestine as a Padre with the Y.M.C.A. So, most of what I
am able to relate comes from what was told me by my Mother and by friends
who knew him well.
James was born, the second surviving son, of William Orr Wilson and his wife Jemima ("Mima"). His home was the spacious and attractive Victorian house - Knowehead, situated on a Knoll to the north of the village of Broughshane in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The dwelling house backed on to a typical cobbled farmyard with its stables, cow byre, pig shed, bay barn, which served a small farm of some 70 or so acres. There was also a walled garden of some 4 acres where vegetables and fruit were grown. Quite a long tree-lined drive led up to the house. The carriageway consisted of small white rounded pebbles. I can still hear the sound of the pony's hooves and the wheels of the trap as it ascended the hill and shingle drive up to the front door of Knowehead. The principal rooms of the house faced south with a wonderful view of the Braid Valley with its small farms and fields, divided by stone walls or hedges. In the distance, dominating the entire landscape, lay Slemish Mountain where legend has it St. Patrick herded sheep as a boy. The River Braid and its tributary, the Artoges, lay just one field below the house to the south and east, forming the boundary of the farm.
William Orr owned a prosperous outfitter's business in the main street of Ballymena and he made the 4-mile journey daily from Knowehead by trap. Cousins of the family had established the Raceview Woollen Mill at the western end of the village of Broughshane. This enterprise, which produced high quality cloth and tweeds, provided employment for the majority of the local working population. At that time "the Wilsons" were held in high regard by the local community. I have been told that William Orr was regarded with great affection, not only by those who worked for him, but also the other people of Broughshane. The initial cut of hay always went to those who served on the farm, (each of whom had his own cow and pig), and the same was the practice when the potato crop was harvested.
Thus my father was born and grew up in a harmonious family and close knit community and I believe that this, combined with a great love of the countryside and country people must have exerted a strong influence over his character and subsequent life of service. His mother, Mima, was a woman ahead of her time, unconvential, with cropped hair, and a tremendous interest in people and events, which she recorded daily with meticulous care in her diary. I imagine that James had his early schooling at the Ballymena Academy. Thereafter, he followed his elder brother, Barnett into Campbell College, Belfast. In addition to his academic studies he was very keen on games, particularly football and tennis (there was a grass tennis court at Knowehead). It was only many years later that I was told by Tom Logan and Jimmy Shields how he fitted out the local football team with Jerseys, coached it, and organised matches with teams from other villages in the neighbourhood.
The Knowehead Wilson family, like so many others of Scottish Covenanter stock, was deeply religious. Every morning, after breakfast and before commencing the day's work, there were family prayers for all members of the household. A passage from the bible would be read, everyone then knelt down by their chairs, prayers were read from a book by the head of the house, and finally all joined together in the Lord's Prayer. For Sunday worship the family drove over to First Broughshane Presbyterian Church at the west end of the village. They occupied a complete box pew in the north transept of the church. The service commenced at 11.00 a.m. so as to allow farmers and their families time to come in from the surrounding countryside. The psalm books were divided in half horizontally with the tunes in the upper half and the verses in the lower. Thus it was necessary for the minister not only to announce the psalm and verses but also the tune to which these would be sung. There were no hymnals such as we know today. The paraphrased verses were more akin to ancient plainsong than our hymns. In fact, unlike the Episcopal church, music played only a rather minor role in worship. The voluntary, prior to the commencement of the service would often consist of a version of Handel's Largo or other very simple tune played on a harmonium beneath the central pulpit. It was not unusual for the sermon to occupy the best part of one hour. Whatever the season of the year no work was undertaken on farms except caring for livestock. Likewise it was an unwritten tradition that no one fished for trout or salmon on the sabbath. The minister of the church was regarded by the local community with both respect and affection for he was, in many instances, a devoted 'father' to his flock. It was an ambition of many families that one son should be enabled to obtain the necessary education to enter the Christian ministry.
Thus my father grew up in a rather typical Victorian family but essentially one in which there was considerable harmony both between parents and children and the regard the latter had for their parents. As evidence of this I quote but one or two examples. At the end of his lengthy training as a doctor and on receiving a commission in the R.A.M.C., Barnett devoted his initial savings to sending his parents on a holiday. My mother often spoke of the warmth and affection shown to her by my father's parents when he took her as his bride to be to Knowehead. It was also, I think, typical of my father and mother that when, for the first time, they were able to afford a trip to Switzerland they took Guy, the youngest member of the family with them. He was thrilled, never having been out of his native Ulster before. Indeed, he and my parents were closer together than any other members of the family.
It seems clear that on completion of his education in Belfast, James was intended to enter the very flourishing wool manufacturing industry, already established at Raceview by his cousins. In fact, a subsidiary woollen mill had already been set up on the Knowehead land and James was sent to London to the lmperial College of Science to study wool technology.
An uncle of my father's, the Rev. George Wilson, F.L.S., had earlier moved to London from Coleraine because of the tragic death of his son, William, in 1877 and the effect that this had had upon his wife's health. He was a man of considerable ability; he not only became Secretary of the Bible Society but was also a keen and knowledgeable botanist. There is no doubt that George had a great influence on his nephew during the latter's period of study in London. For not only did he give up a career in the woollen industry in order to enter the Christian ministry but he also became engaged to Madeline, one of George's daughters. This decision to enter the ministry was to involve him in a lengthy period of university study followed by three years of theological training. He must, at some point, have decided that he wished to serve in the Presbyterian Church of England rather than that of his native Ulster. He entered the University of Liverpool as a History Scholar and completed his M.A. degree there before going on to Westminster College, Cambridge. At some point during his studies in Liverpool Madeline broke off their engagement. Oddly enough she did this in order to become engaged to another James Wilson who was training to become a doctor. Whatever the circumstances, my father was very greatly distressed by this traumatic experience. However, he managed to continue with his studies at Liverpool and became very interested in photography. He joined the Aintree Photographic Club and won various awards at their periodic exhibitions. I think he must also have worshipped at the Presbyterian Church serving the Waterloo district of Liverpool where my maternal grandfather, A.R. Bingham, was Superintendent of the Sunday School and where his family of four daughters and one son attended. It must have been either through the church or the photographic club that James became acquainted with the Bingham family. He became engaged to the youngest daughter, Kathleen, who had trained as a teacher at Cheltenham Ladies College and was employed as a governess to a family of flour mill owners in Chesbire. He confided to a close friend (I think the Rev. "Paddy" Morton, who was subsequently the Best Man at his wedding): "I have found a pearl of great price". Those who knew my mother in later life would undoubtedly have endorsed this sentiment.
I believe my father served a brief apprenticeship at a church in Manchester before receiving a call to Brunswick Square Presbyterian Church at Camberwell, in South East London. He spent four very happy years there and it was there that I was born. So greatly did he and my mother value the warmth and friendship of the congregation that when I was baptised, the name Brunswick was given to me in addition to Fergus. My only record of this period in London is a beautiful leather bound Bible inscribed with my name and the date October 4th 1908 from a Grace E. Piggott. My father possessed a great and unusual capacity for friendship especially towards those in need through various circumstances. It is possible that she was such a person who wished to express her gratitude in this manner.
Not very long after my birth, my father received a call to one of the Presbyterian churches in Sunderland, where we spent the next four years. My brothers, Bingham and Connor, were both born there. The only incident which I can recall from this period relates to the occasion - a Saturday afternoon - when my mother was in labour. The doctor, along with most of the male population of Sunderland, was at the local football match. The only manner in which he could be contacted was to write an urgent message on a blackboard which was then carried round the grounds until the doctor was contacted and could be summoned to our home.
Two members of the Sunderland congregation, Robert and Amy Chalmers, became lifelong friends of my parents. Robert was an optician with a business on Fawcett Street. Frequently on his "day off" he and my father would go on photographic expeditions to the beautiful city of Durham and elsewhere. They both took a keen interest in the local photographic club and began to give slide talks at its meetings. These led on to invitations to lecture at other local clubs as well as to contacts with the Royal Photographic Society in London, to which they later began to submit prints for inclusion in its Annual Exhibition. Years later Robert was elected President of the R.P.S. On a visit to our home in Hertfordshire, after the death of my father, he showed us a postcard on which my father had summarised the key points of a lecture - the first that he'd encouraged Robert to give at the Sunderland club. Drawing upon his experience in the preparation and delivery of sermons Father had patiently introduced Robert to the art of public speaking without the use of copious notes.
In 1912/13 we moved back to London where my father had received a call to the ministry of St. Andrew's Church, Hammersmith. Here he lived a very busy life, not only in connection with the Church and its social functions, but also as Secretary of the local Council for Social Services, then a voluntary Organisation. My mother later spoke of the way in which he would often work in his study until after midnight. A bowl of lump sugar in the kitchen would be found empty when she came down to prepare breakfast in the morning. A pipe was also his companion when working in his study. He wrote out his sermons in full and then committed them to memory. As a tremendous reader, his study was filled with books from floor to ceiling. One of his great enjoyments on his free day was to browse in the bookshops of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street where he would purchase second-hand books or prints, on which he was also very keen. His great literary interests included copious letter writing. He and his elder brother Barnett carried on a regular and highly entertaining correspondence on events and people. At one time he also corresponded with George Bernard Shaw and I recall seeing the beautiful neat script of the latter's arguments which my father's challenges had evinced. He also won a nationwide competition for an essay on the concept of a League of Nations long before this Organisation came into being.
We had not been very long in London before the clouds of war in Europe began to gather and by August 4th 1914 Britain was at war with Germany. At first there were optimistic hopes that the war would be over in a matter of months. But, as time passed and the horrific lists of casualties were published, the supply ships were being sunk by the German U-Boats, and food supplies in Britain were threatened, the gravity of the Nation's situation became ever more apparent. My father's work now included endeavouring to bring comfort to the bereaved and hope to those whose loved ones had left homes and children to serve in the forces. By early 1917 my father felt that he must follow the example of others and he volunteered to serve as an Army Padre working with the Y.M.C.A. I am not certain exactly when he left home but I still have in my possession a pocket size New Testament in the fly leaf of which is inscribed "Rev. J.A. Wilson - with every good wish from A.A.Yapp 8/5/17" Sir Arthur Yapp was, at that time, Director-General of the Y.M.C.A. It may be that this was the date when my father went over to France where he was originally stationed at Arras. He subsequently served with the forces elsewhere in France and later in Egypt and Palestine. He had the great privilege of being with General Allenby when the latter entered Jerusalem.
Whilst he was absent from our London home my mother took us over to Ireland to live in the old family home, Knowehead, where our uncle Guy was in residence. We spent at least two years in this beautiful place. The Braid River, just at the bottom of the field below the front lawn, was a constant source of interest and pleasure to us boys. It was there that I attached myself to a man from the village, Jimmy Shields, who had been invalided home from the forces and fished regularly through the season, since he had been advised by the doctor to get plenty of fresh air. Jimmy took me under his wing and gave me my first lessons in fly fishing and fly tying. He told me how good my father had been to him, a Roman Catholic, as a young man. We became lifelong friends and I owe an incalculable debt to him.
I remember, as if it were yesterday, the Armistice of November llth 1918. There had been talk of the approaching victory of the Allied Forces. Shortly after 11.00 a.m. that morning, I was in the cloak room of the hall near the front door. It was here that my uncle Barnet's fishing rods, creel, waders, etc. were stored a place of fascination for a small boy. I suddenly became aware that the church bells were ringing and I realised that war was over. I knelt down by the sill of the windows to thank God that hostilities had ceased and my Dad would return.
It was not until well on in 1919 that he was able to return home again. I am just able to remember the reception at St. Andrew's Church hall to welcome him back. We three boys were each given a small present and I was completely overcome when it was suggested that I should make a speech! All I could summon the courage to say was "thank you very much" repeated three times. My father looked thin and gaunt. It was not very long before it was confirmed that he had contracted tuberculosis of the lungs for which at that time there was no known cure. However, he resumed his duties with enthusiasm and we children were quite unaware of the gravity of his condition. We resumed our studies at the local council school and my father was very pleased when I succeeded, at the second attempt, to pass the entrance exam for the Latimer School.
I do not know when it became clear that his deteriorating health was making it ever more difficult to continue his ministry at St. Andrew's. I do, however, vividly recall an incident which, upon later reflection, must have been when he called two of the senior church elders to our home to discuss his resignation. This was one evening, when all three went into his study on the first floor landing. I must have been on my way upstairs to go to bed when all three emerged onto the landing. I noticed that my father had been weeping - an occurence I had never previously witnessed. I said nothing at the time, but shortly afterwards, instead of going to St. Andrew's Church on Sunday morning he took me with him to the City Temple where the celebrated Dr. Jowitt was preaching. Again, I asked no questions but years later I realised that this must have been the occasion when the session clerk announced his resignation, on the grounds of illness, to the congregation of the church which he so dearly loved.
By what I can only regard as a kind of miracle, my father having been left the shop in Ballymena in W.O. Wilson's will, had invested the proceeds in a row of labourer's cottages in a remote village in West Hertfordshire. He had seen these advertised in a local paper. There were 8 cottages and at the time of purchase the bottom two, farthest from the road, were vacant. His idea was to combine these two into one, furnish it very simply and use it for holidays away from London. In the event this simple cottage proved to be a god-send when the move had to be made from the house in Bedford Park. My father was sent to a sanitorium at Davos in Switzerland in '- the hope that this would improve his health. So, clearing up the London home and moving to our new one near Berkhampsted fell upon the shoulders of my mother. The furnishing of our cottage was of the very simplest. Our beds, for example, consisted of strong canvas stretched between ash poles supported by--18 inch wooden uprights attached to the floor. The row of cottages was at right angles to the winding country road. They were constructed of flint, brick and rubble with a long slate roof from which rainwater was led into a well directly outside our cottage, serving the needs of all the residents. Each cottage had a single tap above the sink. There was, of course, no indoor sanitation and all the residents shared a "copper", just below us, for the weekly wash. Mrs. Potton on Mondays, Mrs. Waterton on Tuesdays, my mother on Wednesdays, etc. The stairs to the very small bedrooms were very steep and occasionally I used to get stuck half way up when a severe attack of asthma occurred. Nevertheless, these small cottages could be kept warm in winter and there is no doubt at all that we, as boys, were very happy there.
We started our schooling at the Church of England Primary School in the village of Potten End (we resided at Little Potten End some I mile away). In September 1920 Bingham and I were admitted to the Junior section of Berkhamsted School some 3 miles distant. We became the proud owner of our first bicycles. In addition to the small cottage gardens a strip of land from an adjacent field had been turned into allotments during the 1914-18 war, so we had fully adequate land from which to produce all the vegetables we required. In addition to keeping poultry and ducks, we also had two Swiss goats which I milked morning and evening. We used oil lamps and candles and later the arrival of the Aladdin gas mantle made a very great difference to evening meals and homework. On Sundays we attended the strict Baptist chapel in the morning and the Parish church in the evening. We very soon made friends amongst the boys of the village and formed a Natural History Society which met in our sitting room on Saturday evenings and went on marvellous expeditions to the beech woods on the 7-mile- long Berkhamsted common in the school holidays.
My father returned from Switzerland and spent the winter of 1920/21 with us. He was, however, far from well. At the end of March he was taken to the West Herts Hospital at Hemel Hempstead to undergo an operation. My mother used to cycle over there to see him and I recall how cheered he was when she took our encouraging Easter term school reports for him to see. We three boys also walked down the lanes to Hemel Hempstead to see him lying in bed shortly before our summer term commenced. Early on the morning of 28th April the doctor from Berkhamstead arrived at our cottage and took my mother with him to the hospital. Although nothing was said, we boys intuitively felt that the situation was grave. Mother returned in the late evening, completely calm, telling us that our father was no longer suffering; he had entered into a new life and was at peace. The word death was never mentioned. Neighbours, the vicar and his wife, and friends from St. Andrew's were wonderfully kind. A.R. Bingham, Guy Wilson, Robert Chalmers, and others came for the funeral at Potten End Church. Several left with bunches of forgetmenots from our cottage garden. I had never before seen them looking so glorious in the spring sunshine.
It was not until some time later that I asked my mother about her final visit to see my father. She told me that he was sad to leave her but otherwise very peaceful and composed. He had but one request to make "teach the children to love Jesus Christ". I am sure that he passed away peacefully in the knowledge that his wish would be fulfilled. My mother was to receive a minister's widow's pension of E80 a year to bring up her three sons. I cannot recall a single occasion upon which she complained that times were difficult, and this makes me feel very humble.
I fear that these scattered recollections of fragments of my father's life give a very inadequate picture of what he was really like. Both from my mother and friends of his, I have the impression of a man of great generosity of spirit with an unusual capacity for gaining the confidence and friendship of all kinds of people. Besides his literary skills he was a real artist in the realm of pictorial photography. That he was highly regarded by his fellow ministers in the Presbyterian Church of England there is no doubt. My mother was told by Chalmers Lyon, a senior minister, that her husband would surely have been made Moderator, had he lived.
Ever since his boyhood in Ulster he had been saddened and dismayed by the antagonism between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. He abhorred the Orange Order and the fact that many of its leading personalities were ministers of the Presbyterian Church. So strongly did he feel over the latter that he requested my mother, the gardener of the family, never to grow orange lillies!
He had been so impressed as a young man by the evils of alcohol, taken to excess, that our home was teetotal. When, on a holiday walk in the North of Ireland he had got soaked to the skin, he even refused my mother's plea that he should have some brandy. His great sense of humour remained with him0 throughout his life and, like so many Irishmen, he had a fund of stories. He liked nothing better than an argument on some matter of principle and hence his correspondence with G.B.S. My mother had but one expressed regret, that someone possessed of such great gifts and such a capacity for friendship should have been taken from us at so young an age - just 48 years.
I conclude this account by quoting the opening verse of his favourite hymn because I believe it reveals something of the spiritual strength which underlay his life of service.
BREATHE ON ME, BREATH OF GOD,
FILL ME WITH LIFE ANEW,
THAT I MAY LOVE WHAT THOU DOST LOVE,
AND DO WHAT THOU WOULDST DO.
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