Frederick Spencer Edmondson (1869-1940): Bermuda’s loss is Africa’s gain
In acknowledgement of Black History Month, The Royal Gazette continues the publication of stories throughout February on African-American, Black Bermudian and global African people, events and institutions, and their contributions in history
Frederick Edmondson was the first Black Bermudian to become an Anglican priest.
He was ordained in 1902 in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where he had moved in 1896 and would spend the rest of his life.
His ordination came 60 years before that of Canon Thomas Nisbett, who was the first Black person admitted to the Anglican priesthood in Bermuda.
Edmondson rose up through the Church’s ranks to become Canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Freetown.
Unfortunately, he never had the opportunity to serve in his homeland.
Edmondson began life in Africa as a teacher and missionary. He then began training for the priesthood.
He had dreamt of serving “in the great cause of Africa” from boyhood. It was White Bermudian cleric Ernest Graham Ingham who helped to make his dream a reality.
Ingham had trained for the priesthood in Britain and served in several parishes before being appointed Bishop of Sierra Leone.
During a visit home in August 1895, Ingham appealed to Black Bermudians to consider becoming missionaries in Africa.
Edmondson answered the call and sailed to Sierra Leone the next year.
Edmondson was one of five children born to William Joseph Edmondson and Martha Harvey. The Edmondson family, from Paget, were public-spirited. Edmonson’s father was chief pilot for the British Army Service Corps. He served as chairman of the Berkeley Educational Society, the governing body of The Berkeley Institute, for six years.
His older brother, Francis Harvey Edmondson, a carpenter by trade, was also a Berkeley chairman. An influential Oddfellow, he was longtime secretary of Alexandrina Lodge, and a Member of Parliament for ten years.
Fred Edmondson was a teacher: he opened a primary school in Warwick in 1887 and ran it until 1896 when he resigned to move to Africa.
Ingham, who was also from Paget, was a son of Samuel Saltus Ingham, a Speaker of the House of Assembly. He was educated at Oxford University in England. On becoming a priest, he served in several parishes in Britain. In 1883, he was appointed Bishop of Sierra Leone, which was then a British territory.
The African climate had taken its toll on several of Ingham’s predecessors, all of them Englishmen. The first three bishops of Sierra Leone had died in office within two years.
Ingham, the sixth bishop, thrived in Africa. But by his own account, winning converts to Christianity had been a struggle. In 1895, Ingham arrived in Bermuda on the last leg of a journey that had taken him to Barbados, Antigua and Jamaica.
In all four islands, he touted the same message: Africa was not the best place for Whites; Black islanders would adapt better to the African climate; they should consider returning to the land of their ancestors “to bring the light of Christianity” to Africans.
Ingham gave a round of talks and sermons in Bermuda, and there was extensive media coverage. According to The Royal Gazette, his talks were well received. But only Edmondson expressed any interest in pulling up stakes to move to the other side of the world.
He was interviewed by Ingham, who began the process for his move. At the time, Edmondson was 26 and single. He put in his notice at his school, which was located in a Samaritan’s Hall building near Christ Church in Warwick, and was replaced by future teaching legend Adele Tucker.
In February 1896, Edmondson set sail for Jamaica, arriving on the island in March. He underwent training by the Reverend C.H. Coles, warden of the Jamaica Church Theological College, in preparation for life in Africa. He was taught first aid, basic carpentry and building, theology and missionary work.
His time in Jamaica was not without incident. He learnt he would not be sponsored by the Anglican Church, which meant he was responsible for paying for any return trips to Bermuda. Author Michelle Simmons said that benefit was automatic for White missionaries.
Still, Edmondson was not deterred. On the eve of his departure from Jamaica, he said that preaching the gospel in Africa had been “a great desire of his heart from boyhood”.
A report of his speech, which was carried in Jamaica Churchman and republished in The Royal Gazette, left no doubt about his commitment to serving in Africa.
In November 1897, he left Jamaica for Sierra Leone by way of Britain. He and Ingham were briefly reunited in the UK, where Ingham had returned when his tenure in Sierra Leone unexpectedly came to an end.
Ingham showed Edmondson “considerable attention”, according to a report in The Royal Gazette. Edmondson left Liverpool for Sierra Leone in December, arriving in January 1898. They apparently were never in contact again.
In Sierra Leone, Edmondson taught at the church’s technical school, eventually becoming headmaster. He then began training for the ministry. He was ordained a deacon in 1902 and a priest the next year.
In 1900, he married Emma Nottidge, of Sierra Leone. The couple would have three sons — Frederick, Francis and Charles.
Although he had made a new life for himself, Edmondson’s ties to Bermuda remained strong and memories of his homeland vivid. He kept in touch with his family and fellow Anglicans.
In a poignant Letter to the Editor of The Royal Gazette in 1923, he gave examples of works his students at the CMS Diocesan Technical School were making for the upcoming British Empire Exhibition.
He went on to suggest works Bermuda could display, listing handicrafts in wood and metalwork, and photographs of the many “enchanting spots in beautiful Bermuda”.
In 1896, in the wake of Ingham’s visit, Black members of the Anglican Cathedral had established the Guild of the Good Shepherd to raise funds for the church in Sierra Leone.
As the years passed, the Guild of the Good Shepherd and sister guilds formed at other Anglican churches switched focus and set up the Edmondson Furlough Fund to cover the cost of a trip home.
In 1926, the Guild began preparations to bring Edmondson home for its 30th anniversary celebrations. But he was unable to be spared from his church duties. In November 1934, he was promoted to canon — an appointment that was reported in the Bermuda Recorder and The Royal Gazette, the following March.
Fundraising by the various guilds continued, but monies fell short of the cost of a return trip. Finally in August 1939, the guilds sent him £93, an amount that had been boosted by a £20 contribution from the Bank of Butterfield. The funds, he was told, could be used to pay for a holiday closer to home.
Edmondson expressed his thanks, but the next year would bring sad news. His wife, Emma, died in September and Edmondson, three months later, on December 9, 1940.
A tribute in the Freetown paper, which was reprinted in The Royal Gazette in June 1941 described him as a man of “outstanding personality, with a great capacity for work and an able teacher”.
As headmaster, “he trained men in the art of drawing, surveying and civil engineering, and many of his pupils in the school were able to distinguish themselves in life either as successful private practitioners or as government officials in this colony and along the West Coast.”
He had also opened an elementary drawing class for primary school students, according to the tribute, and founded a night school to teach workmen draughtsmanship and how to read plans.
For most of his time in Africa, Edmondson did double duty: priest and teacher.
Edmondson was survived by three sons: Frederick, an architect, Francis, an engineer, and Charles, a lawyer. Charles and Francis, who did not marry or have children, visited Bermuda in 1957. They addressed students at Berkeley, where their grandfather, William Edmondson, and uncle, Francis Harvey Edmondson, had served as chairmen.
Frederick Jr had seven children. His surviving children are Mary Booth, who lives in Canada, Ethel Pam in Nigeria and Emma Leigh in England. His 13 grandchildren live in Britain, Canada, the US, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
The achievements of Edmondson Sr and Ingham were unearthed by Michelle Simmons in doing research for a book about the history of the Guild of the Good Shepherd, ahead of its 125th anniversary in 2021.
The Guild of the Good Shepherd and Bermuda’s Forgotten Anglican Missionaries also points out the barriers encountered by Edmondson and other Black clerics, who were denied a position in their homeland because of their race.
It is a sad commentary on the Anglican Church in Bermuda that Edmondson was left to fend for himself in a new country with no financial support to pay for a trip back home, let alone the offer of a position in Bermuda.
But it was not surprising as the Church practised segregation until the 1960s with separate Sunday schools and choirs.
It was not until 1962, 60 years after Edmondson’s ordination, that the Anglican Church would permit the ordination of a Black priest on home soil: Thomas Nisbett.
Still, Edmondson would leave a legacy in Sierra Leone as a husband and father, and as headmaster and churchman. An obituary carried in The Weekly News in Freetown and reprinted in The Royal Gazette said: “Yes, a great man has fallen whose life was one of service for Sierra and West Africa in general. It will be difficult to fill the gap created by his death.”
October 10, 1869: Born in Paget
1887: Opens his school in the Samaritan’s Hall building on Middle Road, Warwick
August 1895: Ernest Ingham gives a series of talks and sermons in a bid to recruit Blacks to become missionaries in Africa; Edmondson expresses interest and is interviewed by Ingham
February 1896: Quits his teaching position and leaves Bermuda for Jamaica and a period of training, in preparation for life as a missionary in Africa
November 1897: Sets sail for Sierra Leone by way of Britain
January 1898: Arrives in Sierra Leone; becomes a teacher at CMS Diocesan Technical School, eventually becoming principal
1900: Marries Emma Nottidge, of Sierra Leone
1902: Ordained a deacon
1903: Ordained a priest; serves as chaplain of St. George’s Cathedral, Freetown
1923: Pens a letter to The Royal Gazette, giving an account of exhibits his students will be submitting to the upcoming British Empire Exhibition in London
1926: Plans by the Guild of the Good Shepherd to bring him home for its 30th anniversary celebrations fall through — Edmondson cannot be spared from his church duties
November 1934: Promoted to Canon of St George’s Cathedral
August 1939: Guilds send £93 to Edmondson to pay for a holiday closer to home
September 1940: Wife Emma dies
December 9, 1940: Dies, aged 71
• Courtesy of Meredith Ebbin and bermudabiographies.bm
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