Thursday 27 August 2020

The little-known side of a prominent Australian missionary and teacher

Extract from Ian D. Richardson’s non-fiction book, God’sTriangleabout the church scandal 
and cover-up revolving around Florence Martha “Florrie” Cox, her husband 
Frank E. Paice, and A. Olga Johnston

Rev. Hedley John Sutton 1876-1946 

Much is known about my missionary great uncle, Hedley Sutton, for reasons that I will explain shortly. He was a man of exceptional intellect and from a large and fairly ordinary family. In some respects he could be seen as a marginal player in the story of God’s Triangle, but in truth his involvement was significant.

There were two chief reasons for this: 1) he was the most senior Baptist missionary in East Bengal at the time Frank, Florrie and Olga were there, and 2) Hedley and Florrie were members of the same extended family. (Hedley’s sister, Ethel, was married to Florrie’s brother, Arthur junior.)

Hedley’s parents, John and Lucy Sutton, emigrated to Melbourne from Lincolnshire, England, where John was an agricultural labourer. He worked for many years for the Hawthorn City Council, doing labouring jobs, including sweeping the streets. He was hard working and financially astute and at one point owned three houses.

John was, by all accounts, a severe, very religious and daunting man, with little understanding of the many children he had fathered. By contrast, Lucy was considered warm and affectionate. Nonetheless, Hedley felt aggrieved that his mother was much less keen than his father on his pursuing academic studies. 

Hedley was the seventh of 12 children born to John and Lucy. His education began at the Auburn State School before he became a student of Wesley College then Melbourne University’s Trinity College by virtue of hard-won scholarships.

Hedley grew up to be austere, hard-working, hugely-competitive and rather self-centred. His competitive spirit was obvious not just from his academic studies but also as a keen amateur footballer.

As a college and university student, Hedley was forever conscious that he was a labourer’s son mixing with the privileged children of the prominent and wealthy. This rankled, especially as the scholarship money had to be supplemented by part-time jobs, tutoring fees, loans from his father and prizes from educational competitions.

Hedley’s main interests, aside from his faith, were the classics and languages. Immediately after graduation from Melbourne University with an honours degree in his early twenties, he was appointed classics master at Brighton Grammar in Melbourne, a post he held for five years.

Hedley was brought up as a Methodist, but in his matriculation year at Wesley College, he transferred his religious commitment to the Baptists and remained with them for the rest of his life.

This conversion to the Baptist faith led to his training as a missionary at Ormond College in Melbourne. He was ordained in November 1903 and sailed later that month for a missionary life in East Bengal. Apart from two periods of furlough, he remained there until 1927.

Hedley’s second furlough was primarily to marry Miss Elsie Luke, a daughter of a respected and financially-comfortable Australian family. She was a niece of Aeneas Gunn who wrote the Australian classic We of the Never Never and a cousin of Sir Hudson Fysh, a co-founder of the Australian airline, Qantas.

Hedley and Elsie became friends through her role as secretary of the Baptist Women’s Missionary Union. By the time they married in Melbourne in June 1920, Hedley was about to turn 44 and Elsie was

49. Elsie accompanied Hedley back to Mymensingh in East Bengal in November the following year, but could not adapt to the hardships and health hazards routinely faced by a missionary wife. She returned to Australia in poor health early in 1927, to be followed late that year by Hedley, who then resigned as a missionary.

Hedley had been heavily involved during his 1920/21 furlough in plans to set up a Baptist school in Melbourne to honour the memory of the missionary William Carey. Carey Grammar was established in 1923 and on Hedley’s resignation from the missionary service, he was appointed Vice-Principal. He held that post until retiring in 1941.

Hedley was rather unworldly and did not seem to be a man in danger of being overwhelmed by lustful thoughts about the opposite sex. In his youth, he did have a friendship with an Emily Winstone who lived in the  Melbourne area. This did not appear to be an intimate affair and Emily went on to marry someone else.

When Hedley was in his early forties, still single and working in Mymensingh, he produced Hedley–His Story, a lengthy part-work about his life before becoming a missionary.

It was hand-written for Elsie’s private consumption, but found its way into the archives at Carey Grammar. Hedley would sign off each chapter in this private autobiography with “Elsie’s loving lover, Hedley” or “Hedley Dah”. There was no indication, otherwise, that he was writing to the woman who was to become his wife, though to be fair, I did find one rather obtuse love poem that he once sent to Elsie.

Hedley’s siblings were barely mentioned in his life story—the first reference, half way through, was a passing one to a sister, Lydia—and at no time did he mention that another sister, Ethel, was married to Florrie Cox’s brother, Arthur. But there were a number of affectionate references to his friendship with Emily Winstone. There was no indication that he thought Elsie might regard this as a little insensitive.

The structure and content of his autobiography was curious and revealed unintended sides to Hedley’s character. He wrote almost entirely in the third person. In other words, “Hedley did this”, “Hedley did that”, rather than use the word “I” or “me”.

It could be argued that this was from a sense of modesty, but there is little modesty on display in his life story. Indeed, he seemed rather pleased with himself. At the same time, there was an underlying sense of grievance about the attitude of his parents towards him and his achievements and the snobbery he encountered as a student.

There was the revealing entry he made in my mother’s autograph book in 1929: “To learn what to love and what to hate, what to honour and what to despise, is the purpose of education.” A truly astonishing thing to claim, not least for a teacher and devout Christian. Thus the cumulative effect of Hedley’s austere, rather self-centred character suggests to me that he was not emotionally well equipped to deal with the events of God’s Triangle. 

Hedley, who died in Melbourne in February 1946, had an impressive impact on Carey Grammar, particularly in its early days, and a whole section of the school’s archive has been devoted to his life and his works. His contribution to society is further commemorated by having the Baptist Hedley Sutton Community Aged Care home in Camberwell, Melbourne, named after him. Unfortunately, his writings—at least the ones that have survived—contained no references to Florrie Cox or the cover-up.