Lizzie Chalmers’ ‘normal’ life in Victorian Retford turned into an epic adventure of love, mission and cannibals. Mrs. ‘Lizzie’ CHALMERS, (d. 1900) nee Large was from Leeds and married a Mr. Harrison; they lived at Alma Road, Retford until Harrison died after nearly twenty years. Then began an extraordinary story of love, mission and cannibals.
Lizzie’s friend in her youth was Jane Hercus, a teacher in Leeds from a scholarly Scottish Presbyterian family. Jane Hercus lodged with Lizzie’s mother in Leeds. When Lizzie was 17 her friend married James Chalmers, a Scottish missionary.
The ‘flamboyant’ Rev. James Chalmers (1841-1901) was sent in 1865 by the London Missionary Society to the ‘South Seas’ with Jane, surviving shipwreck on the way. His approach to mission was quite radical – he believed in living and eating in the native lifestyle and that the success of the Church depended on developing an indigenous leadership. One history described him as ‘a bearded frontier evangelist.’ After some years’ service was transferred to New Guinea in 1871 where he displayed phenomenal energy, but where his wife Jane, after much service and suffering, died in 1879. The original plan had been for Lizzie to join them as an assistant but instead she married Harrison of Retford, ‘a very excellent Christian gentleman.’ She appeared in the Census for 1881 as ‘house keeper’ suggesting that the Harrisons provided some form of board and lodging.
Chalmers was in Papua New Guinea in 1881 when ten teachers, mostly native to the region, were killed and eaten by cannibals. The British sent a flotilla of gunboats to catch the perpetrators and kill them; Chalmers told a correspondent from The Times that he had not, ‘after years of work, ever made a single convert to Christianity in New Guinea. All he hopes is that the germs of civilisation planted in the present generation may someday render future ones capable of receiving the teaching of the Gospel.’ After Jane’s death, Lizzie and Chalmers lost touch until the missionary published his first book, and she wrote to him. Like many missionaries, Chalmers had to try to work out how to pursue his Christian calling at a time when imperialist politics kept intruding.
Several years later (1886) he revisited the old country, and stayed with the Harrisons at Retford to break his journey between London and Inverary. Lizzie had had only one surviving child, Bert. Harrison was ill with flu and, while Chalmers was in Scotland, he died . Chalmers – who was a substantial celebrity – came back to help and a romance developed. Before Chalmers returned to his work in New Guinea an engagement had been made between himself and Mrs. Lizzie Harrison. Lizzie agreed to share his work and its dangers and a year later sailed for Australia, where he met her, and they were married in October 1888 at Cooktown. They travelled on a steamer to New Guinea with the famous author of ‘Treasure Island’, Robert Louis Stevenson.
Lizzie entered fully into the duties, privileges, and privations of missionary life at Toaripi in the New Guinea climate but found the hard life and loneliness – Chalmers was often away – difficult. She had been ‘used to all the comforts of a lovely English home’ but had to endure Saguane, which even another missionary thought ‘a dreadful place.’ There she faced loneliness, fever and ‘watched the destruction of all that she treasured from an English home’ by insects.
Lizzie’s letters tell us what it was like: “At night bats fly in between the walls and roof. Ants and mosquitos also abound. If you look down on the mats and floors you perceive they are covered with life; even this paper is continually covered with tiny, moving things, which I blow off……There are about 3000 wild savages here, fine, handsome men, got up in truly savage style. I do believe I would rather face a crowd of them than the insects in the house.” This was her experience of the life of love, mission and cannibals that she had discovered in her middle age.
As a white woman and with a husband away for long periods, Lizzie spent much time on her own. ‘If I ever stop to think, I feel as if I can’t live another day in this loneliness,’ she told a visitor. In 1891 Lizzie was nearly killed by recurring malaria and her husband decided she should have a break in England, which she did in March 1892.
When Chalmers went long voyages and journeys into the jungle, Lizzie carried on the work at the home stations, directing the native teachers. In 1894-5 they paid a visit to England to restore their health. Chalmers preached a ‘farewell sermon’ at the Congregational Church in Retford in 1895 (now the site of Aldi), saying ‘I say goodbye to you, Christian friends….we shall never meet again… ’
They returned to their work, and she in 1900 succumbed to the treacherous climate, and died on board the mission ship. Chalmers wrote, ‘She was a good, true, loving wife, a faithful, earnest follower of Christ, ay blithe and hearty, and seldom looked on life’s dark side … She had a wonderful knack of making herself at home and of making friends…..For fourteen weeks she was ill, but steadily growing in Christ … She was thankful for her long illness, notwithstanding the great suffering, as it gave her time to understand better, to get a clearer view and a stronger faith. Often, she could be heard in praise, saying, “Peace, perfect peace!” “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” “Jesus is near, very near. ’’
Finally, on 8 April 1901 – Easter Sunday – on an expedition to Goaribari Island with the Revd Oliver Tompkins, Chalmers and his party were captured, clubbed, and killed. With twelve others they were all massacred, their heads cut off, and their bodies eaten by the cannibals. Thus love, mission and cannibals became the components of their epic story.
The Chalmers name is still commemorated in Papua New Guinea today.
Read more about James Chalmers here.
Another feature on Chalmers here.