My father was Thomas Nevison Simpson. I grew up knowing superficial details of his life. However, when my mother died in 1992 I found a cache of letters and old photographs in a dusty suitcase on top of a wardrobe. This was the clue which enabled me to piece together the story of the father I never knew and to better understand my mother who had always been an enigma.
I discovered that his life had been a series of setbacks which would have destroyed most people but which he surmounted, only to be cruelly cut down by the inhumanity of World War II.
Tom was born in London March 1909. His father was an ex-soldier of the Highland Light Infantry described in the birth certificate as a 'journeyman pastry cook'. His mother was Maria Theresa Nevison. When Tom was five, his father William died of consumption leaving Maria with three children (two young daughters and a son) and a fourth child expected in a few months. Maria struggled on to support her young family by working in the Osram factory making light bulbs. Eventually, she was able to get Tom accepted by the Royal Caledonian Asylum (a boarding school) when he was six and a half years old. The Royal Caledonian School was a charity which catered for the children of soldiers who had served in Scottish Regiments. Maria died of influenza and consumption in 1918 and Tom was an orphan at eight years of age. A younger sister (Molly) was also accepted by the Royal Caledonian Asylum.
The 'Cally' prepared boys for a trade or for domestic service until they were fourteen and prepared girls for domestic service until they were sixteen years old. As the end of Tom's time at the 'Cally' drew near he became aware of the 'Barwell Boys Scheme' under which young British boys were sent to South Australia to become 'farm apprentices'. With the support of 'Cally', Tom applied along with 14 000 other young men. Aided by good references from the 'Cally' he was among the relatively few accepted and in May 1924, when he was fifteen, he sailed on the Benalla for South Australia.
He became a farm apprentice in the harsh environment of the Murray Mallee. His first assignment was with a German speaking family at Jabuk. He was unhappy and was soon moved to Lameroo where he became a farm apprentice to the Billing family. This assignment started badly as the Billings did not treat him well. Eventually this was sorted out and Tom completed his apprenticeship with Horace and Rene Billing. Tom then stayed as a 'paid' farm labourer but the Billings were incompetent farmers and financial managers and Tom was not paid.
During his years in the Mallee Tom sought companionship, first at the Baptist Church in Jabuk and then at the Methodist Church in Lameroo. In these Christian communities he found companionship and support. The arrival of the Rev. Alvey in Lameroo stimulated his interest in the Church and eventually he decided that he would like to join the Methodist Ministry. He met the requisite entry standards for theological college but decided to spend a year doing Home mission work in the Mallee before starting his theological studies at Wesley College in Adelaide. At Wesley under the tutelage of Principal Lade he did very well, becoming Head Prefect and eventually completed a LTh.
Apart from his scholastic successes, the period at Wesley was enlivened by his friendship with Nellie Sudlow whom he met while on a preaching assignment at a suburban church. She was an extroverted, ebullient young woman and Tom was swept off his feet by his dark haired, talented companion.
At the time he was courting Nellie, Tom decided that his ministry would be in the 'foreign service'. He would be a missionary. Tom persuaded Nellie that together they could make a contribution. They applied and were accepted. The rules of the Church did not allow ministers to marry until after their ordination so Tom went off to George Brown College in Sydney to prepare for his mission work in New Guinea and Nellie stayed in Adelaide. After a brief trip to Adelaide to say farewells to Nellie and others, Tom sailed for New Guinea on the Macdhui in August 1936.
After calls at Port Moresby and Samaria the Macdhui eventually arrived in Rabaul. Tom boarded with the Rev Lewis (paying rent) in Rabaul while his future was organised. Eventually he went to Kavieng then on to Ranmalek in New Hanover where he would start a mission from scratch.
During the early days in Rabaul, Kavieng and Ranmalek, Tom regularly wrote to Nellie describing his experiences and difficulties. Nellie was becoming less and less enthusiastic about leaving civilisation to live in the steamy tropics and face the hardships which Tom so vividly described. The correspondence from Tom became increasingly anxious as Nellie's letters became less frequent and more non-committal. The new circuit promised no home comforts and Tom had to build or supervise construction. The proposed Mission house was lost during the eruption in Rabaul in 1937. The temporary house was adequate for Tom but offered little for Tom and Nellie.
On a visit to Sydney, Nellie called on Rev J.W. Burton, the Director of Overseas Missions for the Methodist Church. What happened is unclear, but the result was that Tom and Nellie were given permission to marry before his ordination. Tom's increasingly desperate letters to his reluctant fiance eventually paid off and Nellie decided to come. In August 1937, Nellie sailed on the Macdhui and Tom and Nellie were married in Rabaul on 7 September 1937. It was a grand occasion! After a brief honeymoon cruise on the Macdhui, the young couple (he was 28) arrived at Kavieng and made the trip to Ranmalek in the mission pinnace Kanai. In October, 1938 Tom was ordained in the Rabaul Methodist Church.
Life at Ranmalek for Tom and Nellie settled into a routine. 'Patrols' to distant corners of their isolated circuit of many islands; visits to the Leper Island which was part of their responsibility; conferences; visits to Kavieng in the Kanai; school for children and the provision of health services. Tom and Nellie were 'naturals'. They both loved their work and enjoyed good relations with their people, other missionaries in the area and local planters. In May, 1941, I was born in Kavieng to Tom and Nellie's great joy.
The Tragedy of War
But the clouds of war were forming on the horizon, and in December, 1941 my mother and I were evacuated on the Macdhui leaving Tom behind. We received a couple of letters from him after we left but they stopped at Christmas 1941.
The official version is that Tom was captured by the Japanese and in June 1942 he was put on the Japanese ship Montevideo Maru along with more than 1000 other Australians. The ship was sunk by a United States submarine off Luzon on 1 July 1942 and all the prisoners died. Rumours abound, but we have heard from several different reliable sources that Tom was not on the ship. These sources all assert that he was beheaded on the beach in Kavieng.
Nellie had a boy - my brother, John - some months after her return to Australia. Tom never knew that he had a son.
In November 1996 I visited Kavieng and Ranmalek. I was overjoyed to find that my parents had not been forgotten. Wherever I went on that pilgrimage, people talked of 'Simpson of Ranmalek'; 'our first missionary'; 'he gave his life for us'. One Sunday morning I meandered among the islands in a 'banana boat' and heard the old Wesleyan hymns sung with beautiful harmony in the small churches where Tom and Nellie had worked more than 50 years earlier. I met a man who had been my companion when I was born. I met a man who sobbed uncontrollably when he found out who I was.
I returned to Kavieng in July 2002 to participate in the unveiling of a plaque in memory of civilians who were killed in the war. I was very proud that my father's name was there.
It is now politically correct to criticise Christian missionaries and to blame them for the ills that beset PNG. In my visits to Kavieng and Ranmalek I found no evidence to support such a view. I was overwhelmed by the obvious love and affection for Tom and Nellie even though few knew them personally. It was clear to me that they had achieved legend status.
An academic from the University of Papua New Guinea told me that:
Our debt to the missionaries and their wives in incalculable. Not only did they introduce us to a loving God, but they also taught us the value of education, public and personal health and a duty of care to others. Those influences remain and have been adopted as Government Policy. They will eventually secure our position as an important influence in the world.
Reference: Margaret L Henderson, Yours Sincerely Tom, A Lost Child of the Empire, 2000, ML Henderson, PO Box 1217, North Haven, SA 5018, Reprinted 2002.
© Margaret Henderson, 2003