Heaven and hell in the life of a Romford missionary
12:00 04 May 2014
In 1871 Henry Adams, 22, was living in Western Road, Romford, and working at the nearby Ind Coope brewery. Not surprising really – his father and two brothers already worked at Romford’s biggest employer.
Soon, though, life had taken a very different turn.
He was a missionary with the Methodist Church, pledged never to touch alcohol and called to spread the gospel in the West Indies.
It sounds exotic and glamorous, and very different from life in Romford – think sun-soaked beaches, swaying palm trees, endless sunshine.
But in the 1870s it meant something quite different. For the tropical climate and the diseases that went with it made this the white man’s grave.
After his first posting, in the Bahamas, he returned to Romford and married a local girl, Phoebe Davey. A year later, in 1878, she was expecting their first child in Nassau, Bahamas.
Perhaps she and Henry were a bit apprehensive. His sister Millie had died in childbirth aged 27, a common enough event in those days. All went well for Phoebe with the birth of Reginald Henry, but more sad news came from Romford. Ann, the wife of Henry’s brother, had died in childbirth, aged 26.
Phoebe was soon expecting again, but then tragedy struck. Little Reginald died of meningitis. Exactly one month later, Phoebe gave birth to another son.
Mother, 27, and baby died that same day of yellow fever. The family of four was not to be: Henry was the sole survivor.
He returned home to Romford but was soon back, this time to Georgetown, Guyana, with his sister Eliza to keep house for him. She lasted just nine months. Then she too died of yellow fever, aged 23.
Fourteen months later, Henry was married again, in Port of Spain, Trinidad, to Mary Sykes, daughter of another missionary.
Four children followed in five years. All were to live into old age. Mary, however, was not. Two weeks after giving birth to her youngest, she died of heart disease, aged 25.
Henry was left with the care of four children, the eldest only four, the youngest just two weeks old.
He stuck to his calling. All through adulthood he kept a daily diary. In it he made clear that his religious faith was undented by his terrible experiences.
His only concession was to ask his church to bring him home. In 1889 he returned to Romford, and then to a series of postings around England, with Alma, another unmarried sister, keeping house for him and his children.
In 1913 he was sent to France, to minister to the English community in Boulogne. In August 1914 their numbers suddenly swelled, as thousands of khaki uniforms poured across the Channel. As the war bogged down into the trenches, he found himself caring for the souls of the wounded and traumatised.
He must truly have been able to say that he understood about dedication, suffering and death.
Happily he was able to enjoy a peaceful retirement until he died in 1923, aged 74.