Saturday 28 January 2017

Two wars: one religious, one military. Which was the most important?

     While sorting out my files today I came across this item discovered when I was researching my non-fiction book God's Triangle. It's a letter written by an Australian Baptist missionary, Miss Edith King, to the missionary magazine Our Indian Field. It recounts what she saw and thought when her steamer was returning her to India, and came across a huge convoy taking Australian Imperial Force volunteers to the Middle East in the early stage of The Great War, later to become known as World War 1. 
    The letter, although passionately patriotic, also displays a fascinating ambivalence towards the relative merits of defeating the Germans and their Turkish allies and converting India to Christianity. Read on...

     On board the SS Osterley five of us [missionaries] were literally on our way to the front to fight for our King [our Lord] and for the extension of His kingdom. On board the forty odd vessels we passed just after leaving Fremantle, were the thousands and thousands of Australia’s young men, on their way to fight for King and country.
      It was just about evening time when we reached these troopships. What a sight they were -- travelling almost in even lines one behind the other, we counted 41 in view at once -- there were others, too, for we could see the smoke. At the four points were the warships on guard. We saw the [cruiser] HMAS Sydney very distinctly; if we could see her now she would have even more cheers than we gave her that day.
      How we cheered -- as we passed six ships one after the other; we were so close that we could see and hear the soldiers distinctly. We cheered, sang the National Anthem, “Rule Britannia,” etc., as we passed each ship, and they responded right royally. The bands played, the soldiers cheered, and waved their towels and coats, etc., and joined us in singing, “God save the King.” It was a sight we shall never forget. Many of our fellow passengers had Union Jacks, and every handkerchief was in evidence, so we did our best to give our soldiers an enthusiastic reception.
     We were travelling much faster than they, so before morning had left them far behind. Among the vessels we passed very close to were the Ophir, the Omrah, Star of Victoria, Beltana, containing WA. troops, and two others whose names I do not remember.
 One of our passengers saw her son standing on a tin waving his coat; they recognised each other at once and great was the excitement. On the way to the front  -- strong, brave, light hearted men, some of our best, prepared to give their all even to life itself, for their country.

     Twenty thousand volunteers, to fight for the honor of their King and country on their way to the front. Four thousand to fight for Christ and India’s emancipation. For this in round numbers is the total of missionaries in India.
     Is this our best response? Is this all we can spare? Where are the volunteers for India? Great the need for our soldiers to proceed to the front, but greater, infinitely greater, the need for more men to proceed to the mission field.
     Great the honor to fight for King George, but greater, infinitely greater, the honor of fighting for Christ in India. On their way to the front -- God grant that speedily many more of our best young people may hear the call of our King, so that the four may be multiplied into many on their way to the front, to win victory for Christ and His Gospel.
The story of God's Triangle 

Tuesday 17 January 2017

How a missionary scandal in Australia and India was covered-up

About God's Triangle by the author, Ian D. Richardson 

This is the true story of Florence M. Cox. "Florrie", as she was widely known, was my great aunt. She died in Melbourne, Australia, in 1950, understanding little of the circumstances that destroyed her marriage and her life as a Baptist missionary in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). It is also an account of an establishment cover-up of the scandal surrounding her failed marriage, and of how her husband, the Rev. Frank E. Paice, and his mistress and second wife, A. Olga Johnston, erased a whole chunk of their past to become pillars of society in Australia.

      The story reveals much about the social constraints of an age when strict Christian virtues and rigid social taboos reigned supreme over intelligent open discussion and a realisation that life's problems must not be viewed simply as black or white, or Christian good versus evil.
      God's Triangle is about my search for the truth surrounding my great aunt. The story would have remained a secret, had it not been for my mother casually showing me a photograph that excited my incurable journalistic curiosity.
      I was brought up in a staunchly-Protestant environment, but I am no longer a believer, nor have I been since my late teenage years. Hence, this story is viewed through the prism of an atheist, but I hope believers will accept that I have done my best to tell the story with honesty and fairness.
      My great aunt and her fellow Christian missionaries in India were mostly kind souls who genuinely believed that they had a God-given mission to link "doing good" with spreading the word of the Lord and obtaining conversions, heedless of the cost to themselves or the converts.
      As part of the cover-up some years later, most of the related official documents were lost or destroyed by the Baptist Church. All that remains in the church records are a few cryptic minutes from board meetings of the Baptist Foreign Mission Board in 1918 and 1919.
      The families involved in events that I will recount also destroyed their records, or at least hid them where they hoped they wouldn't be found. Had it not been for old copies of the missionary magazines, The Southern Baptist, Our Indian Field and Our Bond, held in Baptist archives in Melbourne and in Oxford, England, it would have been impossible to get to the truth. The magazines themselves did not refer to any scandal, of course, but they did provide vital dates and other clues that helped my wife and me assemble a jigsaw.
      A jigsaw is a perfect analogy for how our research progressed. Not all the pieces could be found, but we were able over the years to put together a reasonably complete picture. Sometimes, we would go weeks or months without finding a piece of the jigsaw and even when one was located, it wasn't always possible to know where it fitted. However, since the first edition was published, further information has emerged, requiring an additional chapter in this edition.
      It would have been nice to assemble the God's Triangle jigsaw in an orderly manner, say, bottom up or top down, but it was never going to be like that. Sometimes we would find a big chunk of the picture but not fully understand what it portrayed. And sometimes we would fail to spot the obvious, or would be led off on a false trail.
      A vital part of the jigsaw was provided by the divorce file for Great Aunt Florrie and Frank Paice. But as you will learn, the divorce papers were part of the cover-up and far from easy to obtain.
      The depth of the embarrassment and anxiety that erupted around Florrie Cox, Frank Paice and Olga Johnston cannot be overstated. Worst of all, it tore apart the Paice family and spilled over into my own branch of the Cox family, even though Great Aunt Florrie was arguably an entirely innocent party.
       © Copyright Preddon Lee Limited, London W5 5QB, United Kingdom. All Rights Reserved

Sunday 8 January 2017

Reba Rangan, the forgotten Australian opera star

Back in the first half of the 20th century, Melbourne-born Reba Rangan was one of Australia's most famous opera singers. She was a frequent performer in the United Kingdom and Australia, sometimes appearing with Dame Nellie Melba. But her hopes of international stardom were hampered when she needed to return to Australia to become her elderly mother's carer. And there are questions about the circumstances of her death, with an assertion that she was effectively murdered by a surgeon. 

Few Australians - even opera lovers - now remember the name Reba Rangan. Learn more about her life in this biographical summary. The web version is HERE and the 20MB printable copy can be downloaded HERE.

Friday 6 January 2017

The cost to history of digital photography

How an old photo led to my writing a book, but how many  family photographs will survive our digital age?

Some years ago, during a visit I made to my mother in Melbourne, Australia, we found a box of old photographs on top of a wardrobe. It was a goldmine of family memories, but not without its problems. The colour prints were mostly faded, and while the black-and-white and sepia photos were generally in good condition, almost none bore any identification.

We spent hours working our way through the photographs, using a soft pencil to write names, and where possible, locations and approximate dates on the back of each one.

As we worked our way through the collection, my eye was caught by a family group photograph taken in a studio in Melbourne in 1914 around the time the First World War was getting underway. The group included a woman I had never seen before.

My mother, who has since died, identified the woman as my Great Aunt Florence “Florrie” Cox, and under my cross-examination, she very reluctantly revealed that Florrie had been a Baptist missionary in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and had innocently been caught up in a terrible scandal that had shamed the family in Melbourne.

I had originally thought this would be a marginal family history episode, but the more I learned the more I realised that I had a book in the making. This was published as God’s Triangle. Had my mother not had such a clear long-term memory, that old photograph would not have been identified and the fascinating and touching story of God’s Triangle would have remained untold.

There was a time, not that many decades ago, when taking a photograph was an event from which the results were treasured. Families would have a Kodak Box Brownie or maybe, as I did, a clunky East German Praktica 35mm. Most of the photos would be in black-and-white or sepia, although with the growth of 35mm cameras, a treat would be to buy a roll of Kodachrome colour transparency film.

Special events, such as weddings and the birth of a child in the family, would occasion the services of a professional photographer or perhaps a visit to a photographic studio with its massive lights and camera. The photographs from these sessions were archival quality and became proud possessions to be passed on from generation to generation.

The rot began to set in when cheap cameras, 35mm colour print film and one-hour processing began to dominate the market in the 1970s and 1980s. Colour photographs became the norm and began to lose their value as a means of permanently recording our lives pictorially.

Extra prints were sometimes ordered for friends, then the negatives would probably be binned. Worse – and this is something few people realised – these colour prints were prone to discolouring and fading and had little or no long-term archival quality.

It is safe to estimate that billions of digital photographs are now taken around the world each day, the majority of them on smart phones, but how many will survive to take their place in a family’s historical record? Almost none.

Some of these photographic efforts end up being emailed to friends and family, or are posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and other social media outlets, but are very rarely turned into prints that can be held in the hand and admired, or put in a frame or even a photographic album.

The irony is that the technical quality of the pictures taken on digital cameras and smart phones is exceptionally high, but not by the time they are transferred to the social media. They may look good on a computer screen, but they can’t be printed in good quality.

From time to time, I get interesting family photographs emailed to me, or they are posted on Facebook, and I ask for high-definition copies so that I can produce good quality prints and add them to my family history archive. I rarely get them, either because they have been deleted, or the photographers can’t figure out how to process them in top quality.

A friend of mine fires off the camera in his iPhone at every opportunity, but when I ask him what happens to all the pictures, the short answer is that they are mostly lost whenever he upgrades his mobile phone or computer, something that he does quite frequently.

This takes me onto another bugbear: identification of photographs. Almost since photography was popularised by the likes of Fox Talbot and George Eastman, there has been a failure to identify the who, the where and the when on a photograph.

It is sometimes a tedious task, but all my saved photographs are identified, usually with a caption added when I process them through my Photoshop, or similar, software. This often prompted ridicule on the part of my family and friends, but I am delighted to report that I am gradually winning them over. 

Initially, when I showed a photo with a name, location and date on it, I would be told “But we know all that!” My answer is “Well, you know that now, but I bet you won’t remember the date in a matter of months. You will be a bit hazy about the location in a few years, and a few years after that you won’t be entirely sure who all the people are. This has proved to be true in many cases.

While I fear for the future of our family photographic history, new and cheap printing opportunities have emerged in recent years as a benefit of digitisation. It is now possible with fairly basic computer skills to design a photobook that can be printed by a commercial company for as little as £10, although £40 is a reasonable expectation for larger books with hard covers.

Photobooks have an advantage over the old photographic albums in that the photos do not become unstuck and fall out over time. So, while I fret that so much of our pictorial history is being lost, never to be recovered, it is not all depressing news.

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Writing a family history

From time to time I am asked to address genealogical groups about how to preserve their family history. These are my notes, which some of my readers may find useful:
  1. Be truthful, accurate and fair, even if some elements can’t be made public until after the death of a person, or at some other time in the future. Check your facts, as best you can. If you can’t be sure of something, say so. Do not present guesswork as fact.
  2. Avoid sweeping statements that give no details. Don’t say he was an amusing/ill tempered/nice/intelligent person without saying why and giving examples. Avoid making statements like “she went to Smithville and hated it” without revealing why. Also explain what you mean if you say something like “he was good at golf/liked reading books/was keen on art”.
  3. Try to think ahead and ask yourself if following generations will understand what you have written? Make sure that acronyms and initials are spelt out at least once, in case they mean nothing a century or two from now. Be careful of slang that won’t mean anything in the future.
  4. Brackets. Understand the difference. These ( ) are mostly for asides in your own writing, such as “I went to Walpole Park (that’s the park alongside Mattock Lane) and…”  These [ ] are for inserting information in documents prepared by someone else. Example: “Jane worked for Goodwin’s [a shop in Smithtown owned by her brother Frederick] before going on…”
  5. Digitise documents where possible and make sure they are backed up.
  6. Use acid free paper for very important archive documents. More importantly, keep records away from bright light, damp, or hot and humid storage places.
  7. Scan and digitise favourite photographs in high-resolution (at least 300dpi) and always write a caption on them. Use Photoshop or cheaper alternatives for this.  Always back up family history documents and photographs in more than one location.
  8. Photobooks are a good and reasonably cheap way to make a permanent record of a person or family.
  9. You may want to write a book about the person or the family, but if you want it to go into libraries or bookshops, apply for an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) from Nielsen. Here is a link to my book God's Triangle that is the result of my family history research into the life of a missionary great aunt.
  10. If authoring a book seems too daunting, write brief stories or anecdotes as they occur to you. My mother did this and called her wonderful collection Triggers.
  11. Another option: write an obituary/profile/biography and post it on the Internet. I was unhappy about the obituary written about my father at the time of his death because it didn’t really say anything significant about the man. I wrote to a number of the people who knew him and asked for their honest opinions of his character. This is what I wrote about my father, John S. Richardson, as a result of the contributions.  Here are the obituaries published about my mother, Rena M. Wood.
  12. Finally, a warning: Do not post private information about living persons on the Internet if this information could be used by hackers or by people trying to steal identities.
(c) Ian D. Richardson