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Having lived in Tottenham all of my life and heard many stories about the area and the people who have lived in Tottenham, I am surprised how little I really knew about Tottenham's History. It is only since I started looking through the archives at Bruce Castle Museum, that I have discovered some most interesting topics and stories on Tottenham.

I am fortunate because I have not been researching any specific subject, which has allowed me to select randomly items of general interest other than already well researched subjects. This helps give a wider perspective to our local history.

I know that as children we learned our history at school. We also had our comics and Saturday morning pictures that influenced both our thinking and knowledge of stories from our past. With this in mind, when I see the word 'Missionary' it conjures up a picture of a boiling pot and a man inside looking as if he is taking a bath, surrounded by natives with bones through their noses. Without doubt this image originates from the comics and films from childhood ,and probably suggests to many that I gained much of my education through comics.

So it came as a surprise to me when I discovered that a Tottenham man was in fact eaten by cannibals. This story featured in the Tottenham Herald dated 8/2/1974, which was once our local weekly newspaper. Perhaps all those years ago I may have glimpsed at this very same headline and dismissed it as a joke. I have now mentioned this story to many older residents of Tottenham and, like me, they had no previous knowledge of this incident, which makes it yet another unheard snippet of history from Tottenham's past.

John Williams was born at Rupert House, High Cross Green, Tottenham on the 29th June 1796. This house is said to have been built further back from the other houses on Tottenham Green. (Behind the existing Post Office and near to where the United Reformed Church stands on the corner of the old Colsterworth Road. This location was also close to the home of Priscilla Wakefield another former resident of Tottenham who was a well known Quaker Author and philanthropist). 

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So it would appear that the Williams and Wakefield families were neighbours and probably would have known each other.  John Williams could have known Priscilla Wakefield grandsons, who themselves achieved fame and fortune in New Zealand and the south seas.

We have discovered that Arthur Wakefield (who was 3 years younger that John Williams) was himself killed while working as an agent for the New Zealand Land Company at the settlement of Nelson. ( Yet another Tottenham link here because William Robinson the Historian and resident of Tottenham was apparently the illegitimate son of Lord Nelson). Arthur Wakefield was surveying the neighbourhood when he was killed by the natives at Wairau on the 17th June 1843, which is referred to in history as the 'Wairau Massacre'. To continue the New Zealand connection, Emily Charlotte Wakefield (Great, Granddaughter of Priscilla Wakefield) married Edward William Stafford who was later to become Prime Minister of New Zealand on several occasions between 1856-1873.

When John Williams was born Holy Trinity Church and High Cross Reformed Church had not been built so he attended the Fore Street Chapel in Edmonton for his religious education. When reaching the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a furnishing ironmonger in the City Road and the family lived in Spencer Street ( Close by to the Public Record Office in Myddleton Street) where his interest in religion waned. However, when he was 19, he was inspired again by a sermon he heard at the Tabernacle Chapel in the City Road, London and he decided that he should dedicate his life to that of a missionary.

It was in 1816 that he was accepted by the London Missionary Society and one year later, newly married to Mary Chawner (d 1852), he set sail with his new wife for Tahiti in the South Pacific, a journey that in those early days took 12 months to complete. In the following 18 years is is estimated that he travelled 100,000 miles across the southern seas to teach and preach the gospel of God. To achieve this he built a boat, perhaps using the skills he had learnt as an apprentice in the City Road, and the vessel was named the ' Messenger of Peace'.  

He was later to build another ship named 'Olive Branch', which was soon sunk upon a reef and he had now lost both ships. By now he was working in the Society Islands of Huahine and Raiatea, where he had learned the native language and had helped the islanders to build strong new houses and also to set up a school where he could teach the locals to read and write. He also introduced printing, cultivation, boatbuilding and a semblance of law and order.

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John Williams

He discovered the island of Raratonga in the Cook Islands in 1823 and founded missions there and it was here that he also began translating the bible. His travels then took him to Samoa in the Friendly Islands and Tahiti in the Society Islands, his original base, where he was to spread the word of the bible. He found it very frustrating waiting for passing ships to travel between the islands to continue his work. He had many natives who wanted to help him spread the Christian message but he really needed a good ship if he was to continue his work.

So it was in 1834 that he returned to England and wrote his 'Narrative of Missionary Enterprise in the South Sea islands'(1837) and a manuscript for the British and Foreign Bible Society. He also lectured in all parts of the British Isles, which helped arouse a great deal of public interest in his work, so much so that he was able to collect 4,000. This proved enough for him to purchase a new ship named the 'Camden', which he so desperately needed to continue his work.

It was in 1838 that he set sail again bound for the Pacific, where he set about building a new college for his Island pastors funded from the balance of the money he raised in Britain. His new ship the 'Camden' allowed him to travel further from his base to teach the Christian message to islands where no missionary had ever set foot. When in the New Hebrides, which were inhabited by cannibals, he visited the island of Erromango on the 20th November 1839, and it was here that he was clubbed to death and eaten by the cannibals. It was reported at the time 'As the news spread through all the Pacific Islands from Samoa to Raratonga, from Tahiti to Raiatea on which John Williams had preached, the brown island folk mourned as they had never mourned before or since'.

It was also reported that he had written, prior to his return to the British Isles, that 'A missionary was never designed by Jesus Christ to gather a congregation of a hundred or two natives and sit down at his ease as if every sinner were converted, for my own part I cannot content myself within the limits of a narrow single reef'          Thus the last journey of his ship the 'Camden', following the death of John Williams, was to return to England and to appeal for help to carry on his calling.

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'SS John Williams' 1844

The London Missionary Society, with John's words in mind, sent out a new ship to continue his work. She was purchased from a fund raised by the juvenile friends of the society and at her dedication it was announced that she be entirely devoted to the service of Christ among the heathen. The new ship was named the 'John Williams' in his honour and was to be the forerunner of seven ships bearing his name for missionary work in the south seas. The picture to the left is an illustration of the first of these vessels which was launched in Harwich in March 1844 and sailed from Gravesend on 12th June the same year..

Please refer to the following copy of the share certificate.....

Children continued to save money and to collect from church members and over the years a total of seven ships were bought and named after John Williams. One interesting fact about the children's collection was that in 1936,recognising the fascination that the nautical theme had for young people, they launched the 'ship-halfpenny', which many people will recall from the days of pre-decimal coinage. These were collected at Sunday Schools across the nation to purchase new ships. This was an international appeal as children from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, China, India, Madagascar, Jamaica and the South Sea islands contributed their savings also. 

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A 'share certificate' in one of the John Williams ships

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Pictured left is a photograph of Princess Margaret at the launch of 'John Williams VI' at the naming ceremony in London in 1948. She was to be based on the island of Suva. She sailed between the Gilbert, Cook, Ellice Islands and Samoa. The last of seven ships to bear the name, 'John Williams VII', was launched in 1962 and sailed until 1968 when she was de-commissioned..


(Pictured Left a 'John Williams' missionary ship medal)

However the memory of John Williams was not lost to the people of Tottenham, as the members of the Tottenham Rotary Club presented a memorial plaque to the Mayor of Tottenham and it's people on the 29th June 1949 (The 153rd anniversary of John Williams ). The inscription reads as follows:

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The Plaque placed on the High Cross post office (Now Cookes Estate Agents) and was dedicated by the RT. Hon W.J Jordan High Commissioner for New Zealand to the music of the Bruce Grove Salvation Army Band. So in the relatively short time of 153 years, the islands of the South Seas have passed from Fetishism, Humans sacrifice, Cannibalism and other barbarous practices to a Christian way of life. This was largely due to the the efforts and sacrifice of John Williams a 'Tottenham Son'. It's true to say that his name will live on in the South Seas as a great man and in Tottenham as a martyr and much respected man who inspired many people throughout the world.

One such inspired person was the Rev. Dr Frank Balchin. Frank Balchin was educated at the Tottenham County School on the opposite side of Tottenham Green. He also attended the High Cross United Reformed Church close to John Williams birthplace. Dr Balchin and his wife Ivy Balchin carried on the missionary's work in China from 1937 to 1951 and then in Singapore and Malaysia until the late 1980's. They were both very well known for their missionary work carrying on in John Williams tradition.

This is a fitting tribute to John Williams martyred at Erromanga in 1839. and still remembered as recently as the 23rd March 2000 when the Daily Mail (page 77) had a feature on his achievements.

I think he has accomplished his MISSION !

Written by Ray Swain - Nov 2004

Updated December 2009

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In December 2009 there was a historic reconciliation ceremony held on the island of Erromango to commemorate the 170th Anniversary of his death. Click button to read the article

Updated December 2014:  The following is a photograph sent to us by Mark Fynn that shows the 'JOHN WILLIAMS V' berthed at Salford Docks Manchester post-war. This ship was probably out-of-service following the launch of 'JOHN WILLIAMS VI' by Princess Margaret in 1948.

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