In the early days of my research for this series, Martha Baird told me about her dear friend Ethel Thamer, who had served with SIM in Nigeria with her husband, Orville. Several of the Thamer children lived at Gowans Home while Martha was there, and she had a special place in her memory for the Thamer family.
I was exceedingly lucky to find Ethel’s beautifully written memoir (on-line, of course—the internet has everything) and it became my go-to reference whenever I needed to know the specifics of SIM service in the 1930s.
Ethel and Orville were an engaged couple when they made their first trip to Africa in December 1931, arriving on African soil just after the New Year. They were married at Egbe Mission Station later that year.
I have read Ethel’s accounts so often—and still find them fascinating. It’s always amazing to me that her writing is so fresh and natural you can hear her voice, clear and brilliant. Ethel passed away long before I ever knew of her, but her life story is a historical and philosophical treasure that has inspired me, many times, to carry on when it seemed the story just did not want to come along. Reading through Ethel’s exquisite memoir, it was easy to see why Martha Baird so loved the Thamers.
With so much gratitude to Ethel, and her children, for their kind interest and generous contributions to my Thamer collection, here are excerpts from Ethel’s account. You’ll easily see Marjory’s latest adventures mirrored in Ethel’s real-life experiences.
Incidentally, Ethel and Orville are two of the real-life characters who appear as themselves in All the Day Allows, the novel that follows Marjory beyond this novella.
And now, I take great pleasure in introducing Ethel Eaton Neale Thamer.
LITTLE IS MUCH – WHEN GOD IS IN IT
The Autobiography of Ethel Eaton Neale Thamer
[Excerpts from Sections 12 & 13]
A Time to Prepare
The summer went quickly, and I gathered up my treasures, fungi that I had hand painted, the remainder of my $1.00 a day wages, and my share of the tips, and left to be the guest of a dear lady and her widowed mother in Hamilton where I was to prepare my outfit to live for four years in the tropics. Tommy Titcombe and his wife had retired from Africa, but not from deputation work, and they went to my church—the Tabernacle—and were within walking distance of my house. They were a great help to me. Mrs. T. stroked off my outfit list such things as red flannel petticoats and woolen vests, but she added a number of things she knew I would need to keep house with—among them, two long table cloths. This amazed Mrs. Flatt, my Sunday school teacher very much, but giving me the benefit of the doubt, she pulled out her buffet drawer and gave me two three-yard, very beautiful, Irish linen table cloths. I treasured them and used them at conference times for many years.
Mrs. Phillips, with whom I stayed, spent much of her days sewing for me, and her daughter Mabel could always find something useful for my outfit on the way home from work. Pastor Louis Talbot found numerous opportunities to put me before the people and to tell them that in addition to my outfit I would need $500 for passage money and $420 a year for support. These funds would be pooled and all the SIM family would share and share alike. The wedding showers that were more than a year early provided extra lovely things in the way of the Coleman table lamp, pink and white wool blankets, the white Whitney blanket…still in use 56 years later.
…And, would you believe it, one young lady provided my wedding dress and my three-yard wedding veil. That lady and her son come to visit us at Cloyne each summer. Another friend made sure I had a beautiful silk nightie and matching balero. How well I was provided for!
The day before my birthday of 1931 (Nov. 18), we candidates were invited to come to the SIM home for Bible study and prayer…With ten candidates from Canada hoping to leave before the end of the year for Africa, it was a busy time giving testimony in the churches. Usually Dr. Bingham led the group and frequently all ten of us were on the platform. It was a tiring time, but we all got to know each other and were fused into a very special family relationship. The mail that came into the office was of special interest too.
One day, Orville was scrubbing the basement floor and a knock came on the door, and the gentleman asked for Orville Thamer. It was Roy Bauer from Orville’s church, Benton St. Baptist, in Kitchener. What a nice surprise! Roy was always a man of few words and he quickly came to the point. “I hear that Miss Neale does not have her passage money yet.” And with that, he pulled out a roll of bills and pealed them off: $500. Wow! What rejoicing! Then the treasurer came home from the office and announced that Philpott Tabernacle had sent in $500 for Miss Neale’s passage money. The total to my account was $1010. I had put in $10 as an earnest of my expectations. This is going to help the whole party.
In between meetings, prayer meetings, and household chores, there was my outfit to pack. SIM had uniform boxes of tongue and groove pinewood made and painted battleship grey. This identified SIM freight in any port in the world and they were made to carry approximately a head load. With a set of handles and hinges tucked inside, they became invaluable storage chests or furniture on bush stations. We simply called them grey boxes, and SIM could get them for $2.50 each at that time. Orville packed all his goods into two grey boxes and a suitcase and a steamer trunk that had already been to Africa once on Tommy Titcombe’s last trip. That was my most special trunk, and I used it through the years for each baby’s layette.
Dr. Bingham was by no stretch of the imagination a handsome man, and he sometimes joked about his looks. There was, however, great strength of character in the lines of his face, and those piercing pale blue eyes seemed to penetrate one’s very soul. His rare and gracious though fleeting smile was a treasure to remember, and his voice, if the remarks were made directly to one, seemed to have the authority and the desired result of Moses the Lawgiver. I knew Dr. Bingham better than most of the candidates because, as I said earlier, he often came to preach at the Tabernacle, and Orville knew him because he drove his car and motorboat.
One very cold wintry night, Mrs. Bingham and her shadow Miss Debbitt were driving us to a meeting in Hamilton. I was sitting in the centre of the back seat with Dr. B. on my right and Orville on my left, when suddenly, like a rough, gruff voice from heaven, the silence was shattered when Dr. B. said, “Do-ooo you-ou-ou think that you two could be circumspect if we let you travel together?’ The voice was directed at us. Now either Orville was asleep or he froze right there. I found my voice first, and I said, “I think so, Dr. Bingham.” I was terrified. I felt sure the motor robe would lift at that moment and expose the fact that we were holding hands. Another engaged couple, Eddie Cook and Dorothy Wandland, were also allowed to travel together in our party…We made the SIM family up to 318. We were to see it years later become 1318.
Nine a.m., December 5, 1931. A great crowd of witnesses stood on the platform of Union Station in Toronto. Orville’s mom and dad and sisters Mabel and Violet were with a couple of car loads that came from Kitchener; his brothers Frank and Roll were there, and crowds of others from the Baptist churches in Toronto and from Bible college. They sang us onto the train and prayed and blessed us on our way. At last, we were moving; ten Canadian young people on our way into the unknown, not knowing what lay ahead of us, and with no guarantee of any support except the promises of God which we relied on heavily. One little five-year-old, blond curly haired Betty Collins, was crying because she was leaving the only home she knew— Gowans Home for Missionaries’ Children—and all her MK brothers and sisters to go to her parents who were to arrive in New York after four years in Africa.
The train trip was long and tiring and, before midnight, snow on the rails delayed us greatly. Finally, at 2 a.m. we left the train and took taxis to the SIM home in Brooklyn. Mrs. Trout and her famous strong coffee awaited us, but the clean beds were most inviting, and it seemed so sad to be rudely awakened by 8 a.m. to breakfast and to be ready to hear the great Dr. Haldeman at Broadway Baptist Church. Don’t ask me what he spoke about. I spent the time trying to keep awake.
We were joined in New York by a number of U.S. candidates, and they still had to give their testimonies in some of the great churches, and we all tagged along and added our testimonies and enjoyed the new ones. As I look back, it was all a great and very important experience. We’ll never know how many people took us to their hearts to pray for us. Once in a while we heard of someone like Dr. Stam, brother of John and Betty Stam martyred in China, who told Carolyn he had been praying for us for 25 years. He was scheduled to come to our station in Tchaourou until his plans were unfortunately changed. We’ll meet him and many other prayer warriors in heaven.
Ethel Neale and Orville Thamer travel to Lagos, via Liverpool, 1932
My Sunday school teacher in Hamilton had bought my winter coat. It was a navy blue chinchilla wool with a grey opossum fur collar. It sported a red leather belt and was very stylish, knee length. My best “go to meeting” dress was sky blue with navy trim, and my hat was a matching sky blue turban style. I had worn this outfit for all the platform appearances in Canada, and to my knowledge, had given offense to no one. Mrs. Trout was different, however, and with her such an outfit was unacceptable. We were to go to Philadelphia School of the Bible that night, and from Mrs. Trout’s standpoint, Miss Neale had nothing to wear! The basement—the missionary barrel—that’s it! And she hustled me down. At 4’lO” and 99 lbs. there wasn’t too much that would fit me. Her adopted daughter was a tall girl. She had left a brown tweed dress, and Mrs. T. put it on me. It draped around my ankles. Undaunted, she took her needle and thread, and starting at the front ran a huge tuck around the sides and back and met again at the front, and presto! I have a brown tweed dress at least 6-8 inches below my smart blue coat. Embarrassed, I’m sick to the stomach! That does not adequately describe my distress. Our American candidates all had smart new dresses, and the buildings were warm enough to put coats away while on the platforms, but not for me. How could I put off my coat and expose that freakish outfit? Dear Mrs. Lambie, God bless her memory, sensed my discomfort and sat beside me sweltering in her winter coat which had a big fur collar. If I needed my pride taken down a notch or two, it certainly happened that night at the Philadelphia School of the Bible…
One last thing before we leave New York. How about lunch at the great Wannamaker’s Store? Ah! The menu, please; but the prices! A glass of water and a toothpick would have been in order. Counting our change, we managed a poached egg and spinach. Coffee? No, thank you. That evening we did much better at a corner drug store on Broadway—a banana split for 25 cents and it was huge.
Dr. Bingham was to travel with us as far as England. He had some very unpleasant business to look after in the Liverpool office. Dr. Hooper, at 65, was going out to Ethiopia for the first time, and Dr. Lambie and his wife were returning there. Some of the U.S. candidates were also going to Ethiopia. We had expressed our willingness to go there, but at that time U.S. workers were preferred to the Canadians by Hailie Selassie’s government. Here, the party was divided, and the first half left for England on a small Cunard liner December 12, 1931. The second half left two weeks later.
The sea was rough with 30-foot waves. Orville’s camera showed them up pretty well. Decks were roped for safety for those who had to go out; furniture was screwed down and table cloths wetted to help keep dishes from sliding off; sides, too, were turned up. Many people took to their beds and stayed there. The rest of us staggered from side to side in the corridors, and did our best to enjoy the sumptuous menus and the tubs full to within a few inches of the tops with hot salt water that slopped out with every lurch of the ship. My steamer trunk travelled continually across the cabin floor, banging first on one wall and then on the other…The storm ended, and passengers we had never seen began to appear, and then all too soon we were in Southampton and on the boat train for London.
In London, we spent a morning at a tropical outfitter’s where we purchased pith helmets, camp beds, mosquito netting, mosquito boots, filters, and travelling bathtubs. At that time, policies were not uniform in the mission, and while the U.S. workers received any money that was in their accounts after their passage was paid, the Canadians were less fortunate. Thus it was, that while I had four times what my travel cost, I had no money for a tropical outfit in Britain. Orville paid for my helmet and mosquito boots and mosquito net, and he bought himself a heavy-duty camp bed so that I could have the light one he had bought in Canada, and we decided to go without the filters for the time being. We later bought one second-hand filter from a government officer, and we never did own a travelling bathtub. The galvanized tin bathtub served the purpose very well, and it travelled the bush treks for many years. If it rained on the mosquito boots and tin pots and pans and whatever else it contained, one just dumped out the water.
Left: Orville Thamer Right: Orville and Ethel
As I think of it now, I am amazed that Orville and I were allowed to travel to Bath and spend Christmas there with my former foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. King. They welcomed us with open arms and treated us royally. Christmas dinner was England’s favourite roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, and what else would you like, Ethel? What else but Brussels sprouts, and Dad King went to cut them fresh from his garden. We topped off the meat with the traditional plum pudding and custard sauce. For English people at Christmas, the weather was perfect, 55°F, but for Canadians, as soon as we moved away from the fireplace we were cold. Orville and I went for a walk, but it was damp and seemed to seep into one’s hones. It was too far to walk to my old high school, though I used to walk it twice a day. Just for a lark and old times sake, we went to the corner store. The displays had not been altered in 7½ years. All was just the same. I asked for an ice cream cone. English ice cream has a flavour all its own. The lady addressed this foreign looking couple, “We never have ice cream in the winter time.”
Combe Hay, where I lived for the duration of World War 1, was a must. Dad King gave us directions; so, after the tram to the edge of town, we walked the 3 1/2 miles on the old Roman road down into the village nestled at the bottom of a basin of hills. There we tramped around and recalled all the nice things, and the bad ones were just shadows almost forgotten.
…Our weeks’ vacation in the south of England was over. There was still much to see besides the Roman Baths and the famous Abbey but that would have to wait for another time. We must head back to Liverpool by train. SIM had an office and home there. It was literally as cold as a morgue. Even the stone pigs filled with hot water and in our beds barely kept us warm. The superintendent, resplendent in several layers of flannel petticoats, chided us for not wearing enough clothes. Such an unheard-of thing, girls not even wearing vests! No wonder we were cold. I think had we stayed much longer, we all would have gone to town and invested in vests, probably woollen ones.
All the ships for the west coast of Africa sailed from Liverpool, and the Elder Dempster Line had some nice ones that catered to passengers as well as taking freight, and the fourteen-day trip was a most pleasant one…We were gearing up for malaria infected West Africa, taking our 5 grains of quinine every day and viewing ourselves in the mirror as we sported our pith or cork sun helmets. We had never heard of sunscreen creams but we were learning from the senior missionaries who were in charge of our party to respect the sun. We plied them with questions. What kind of food will we eat? Onions. I don’t like onions. Onions is the only way we can put flavour into anything. You’ll just have to get to like onions. Spinach. I hate spinach. Spinach is cheap and usually available. It’s greens. You’ll have to eat it. Mangoes. What are they? Papaw. What’s that? Guavas. What are they? Plantains. Fruit or vegetable? Okra. And the list goes on and on.
I remember standing by the rail and looking across a placid sea to the golden shore line of what was to be our new home for the next four years, when a seasoned missionary behind me made the remark, “You know they never retire workers from the West Coast.”
“Oh, why not?”
“They never live long enough.”
Dinner on board was earlier for the Tourist Class and we took the opportunity to walk the full length of the decks while the First Class passengers were eating and, I might add, drinking. Evenings were soft and balmy and the sky was aglow with myriad stars and the sea was alive with phosphorescence in the wake of the ship. It was ideal for young couples in love, and as we were enjoying it all to the full before we would be separated again the hour sped by too fast, but there was always time for a good night kiss before we went to our respective cabins. Little did we realize that we would be reported to headquarters in Jos—and the story grew with the telling. I found it hard to like that man. No, he was not a Canadian. He joined our party in England.
Ethel and Orville were married at Egbe Mission Station on the second weekend in January, 1933. The Egbe Conference held the day before had introduced significant changes in SIM administration, including regulations intended to curtail European influence on African culture. Amongst the changes, African members of SIM were discouraged from wearing European-style clothing, and missionaries were strictly forbidden to pass along any of their personal clothing or accessories.
Unfortunately, the positives were swept away with the perceived negatives, including the closing of the boys’ school at Egbe, whose 90 pupils received an English-language education. [Students chose to continue their education at other Protestant mission organizations.] The new measures, described by Ethel as “callous and short-sighted”, created more problems than they solved, and were ultimately abandoned.
Sensitivity was high with respect to the new rules announced only the day before, and the dual weddings of Ethel and Orville, and another couple, Annie and Bill McIvor, were to be conducted with a minimum of the customary European-style fanfare. Regular readers of this blog will recognize several of the names in Ethel’s account. Ethel writes:
Given all the fuss about the clothes for Africans, one of the single ladies thought it would not be right for the brides to show off their veils; Annie had a short veil; I had a three yard veil, and four year old Gerald Hunt was going to hold it going down the aisle. Annie M. said, “I’d be glad to wear a uniform.’ Well, as I said, “A matter of such importance should be decided upon at headquarters, and since there is no time for that and to save argument, I will carry my veil over my arm,” and I did. The service was to begin at 9 a.m., and the two brides were honoured by being driven to the church in Mr. Hay’s car. It was a first.
Ethel’s love for her family is evident in the dedication of her autobiography: