The Magazine of Lenton Local History Society

Lenton Times Issue 7 - September 1992

Patagonian Missionary: Reverend George Despard

We recently [2018] realised that the Reverend George Despard who was involved in the Patagonian Missionary Society and whose story features below is not the Reverend George Despard who was curate at Holy Trinity Church Lenton. Our George Despard was born in about 1831 in the village of Rathmolyon, County Meath in Ireland. He initially studied at Dublin where he gained his M.A. and was ordained at Lincoln in 1853 with his very first post being that curacy at Lenton. After he left in 1855 he became Secretary of the Church Pastoral Society. He ended up as vicar of St. Luke’s church in Cheltenham, which is where he died in 1903. What added to the initial confusion was that while our George Despard was a Nottingham resident the Rev. George P. Despard actually came to Nottingham on several occasions and spoke about the Patagonian Missionary Society.

Question: What do George Despard (1853-55), Alexander Twip (1860-61), Thomas Mooney (1864- 66), Arthur E. Clarke (1884-85) and E. Aden Beresford (1892-94) have in common? Answer: They were all clergymen who once held the post of curate at Lenton. As can be seen from the dates none of them stayed here very long and, given their brief sojourn in Lenton, there is little we could or ordinarily would wish to tell you about any of these gentlemen. However, an intriguing story about one of the above mentioned came to light in a book by Jimmy Burns. This is Beyond the Silver River: South American Encounters published by Bloomsbury in 1989. On page 34 the author writes: 'In 1851, the Reverend George Pakenham Despard, BA, pastor of Lenton, Nottinghamshire, found a baby boy. He had been abandoned on a small footbridge in Bristol. There were no messages or documents on the child, but he was dressed in an immaculate frock and around his neck was a locket engraved with the letter 'T'. The Reverend Despard decided that the child was Catholic and from a rich family and adopted him. He christened him Thomas. The boy was eventually told the circumstances of his adoption and chose for himself the surname Bridges in memory of the meeting that had saved his life. Thomas grew up to be a clergyman like his adopted father and founded the Patagonian Missionary Society in Tierra del Fuego.'(*) This is all there is about George Despard in Jimmy Burns' book but fortunately a reference in his bibliography generated further information. The reference cited was to a book by Thomas Bridges' son, a certain E. Lucas Bridges. Published in 1948 Uttermost Part of the Earth combines autobiography with an account of the disastrous impact western colonisation had on the native indian population in Tierra del Fuego.

George Pakenham Despard
Photograph courtesy of Jim McAdam

Tierra del Fuego is the land at the tip of South America, at present arbitrarily divided between Argentina and Chile. It is a bleak inhospitable part of the world which, until the mid-nineteenth century, was the sole province of the native indians. Western interest was initially confined to mapping the area. Then in 1850 Captain Allen Gardiner, instrumental in founding the Patagonian Missionary Society in 1844, arrived in Tierra del Fuego, with six other men, intent on preaching the gospel to the heathen. These pioneer missionaries suffered a catalogue of misfortunes, were harassed by the Fuegian indians and eventually had to spend their whole time hiding from the very people they had come so far to save. In the end they ran out of food and by September 1851 all seven men had died of starvation. When news of Gardiner's fate reached England the newspapers raised a general outcry against this useless sacrifice of valuable lives. The Hon. Secretary of the Patagonian Missionary Society, none other than the Reverend George Despard, nevertheless felt that 'With God's help the Mission shall continue'.

This would seem a convenient point in the story to provide a few biographical details about George Pakenham Despard. Born in Lisbon in 1813 to Colonel William Despard of the Royal Fusiliers and his wife Elizabeth De Bois, George appears to have spent most of his early years in Canada and arrived back in England in order to attend Cambridge University. After graduating from Magdalene College he was ordained as a deacon and priest in 1837. Later he ran a private school in Stapleton, Bristol and served as chaplain to the Clifton Union there. While in Bristol George Despard became great friends with Allen Gardiner. Following the latter's death Despard took a leading role in raising money for the Patagonian Missionary Society and, given that its headquarters was in Bristol, it is a little surprising to find him leaving there in 1853 in order to become curate at Lenton. It is also rather puzzling to find that the relevant editions of Crockford's List of Clergy fail to mention Lenton and continue to give his address as Bristol. Furthermore the Bishop's Registers for the Lincoln diocese don't seem to include his name, as they surely should, at the time he was licensed to become a Lenton curate. Why there should be this lack of corroborative evidence is unclear but come to Lenton George Despard most definitely did. His signature is to be found on church records and Kelly's 1855 Directory shows him as resident on Wellington Square off Derby Road.

Following the 'Allen Gardiner' debacle the Patagonian Missionary Society resolved to create a base within the Falklands. Once established this would provide a convenient departure point for missionaries travelling the 400 miles to Tierra del Fuego. There they could make contact with the Fuegians, gain their confidence and persuade a handful to return with them to the Falklands. Later they would be shipped back to Tierra del Fuego and tell everyone about their friendly treatment. In this way a firm friendship would be built up between the Fuegians and those in the Falklands. Only then would the missionaries countenance the establishment of a proper base on Tierra del Fuego itself.

With the Falklands base on Keppel Island established in early 1855 the missionaries' new plan of campaign began. Their schooner, the 'Allen Gardiner', paid an initial visit to Tierra del Fuego but no Fuegians could be found willing to leave for the Falklands. Lucas Bridges suggests that as no second attempt to get in touch with the Fuegians was made, the Society decided that time was being wasted and the Rev. Despard should go out and take charge of operations. While true, this is not quite the whole story.

The Times newspaper had occasion to print the account of a court case heard in London in December 1859, brought against the Patagonian Missionary Society by one Parker Snow, who had been captain of the Allen Gardiner in 1855. While out in the Falklands Captain Snow had quarrelled with the missionaries over the suggestion that he might have to take responsibility for potentially illegal acts. There was a colonial law which stated that those who brought 'aliens' to the Falklands were subject to a penalty of £20 for each person and furthermore should an alien die while in the Falklands a charge of manslaughter might be preferred. Once Parker Snow found this out he requested the Society send out someone else willing to assume overall responsibility for the project - hence the reason for George Despard's departure. Despard resigned his curateship at Lenton in late 1855 and, after the due arrangements had been put into effect, sailed for the Falklands in June 1856. With him went his wife and some of his family (three of his daughters, one son and two adopted boys, one of whom was fourteen year old Thomas Bridges). When the Rev. George Despard arrived in Port Stanley he found the crew of the Allen Gardiner had just been released by Captain Snow, following completion of their six month contract. Snow further annoyed Despard by declaring the Allen Gardiner was of insufficient size to take everyone to Keppel Island along with the 80 tons of goods and the twenty Falkland cattle that had just been purchased. After further confrontations Despard sacked Parker Snow and sought a new captain and crew for the Allen Gardiner. He did, however, require a larger vessel to take his party and all their supplies to Keppel Island. Captain Snow and his wife were forced to stay in Port Stanley until they could obtain passage back to England. Aggrieved by his treatment at the hands of George Despard, Parker Snow brought an action against the Society. It was to prove an expensive embarrassment for the Captain as the jury found in favour of the Missionary Society.

Under Despard's leadership the missionaries enjoyed a degree of success and eventually a number of Fuegians were persuaded to visit the Falklands base. The natives stayed for ten months during which time a little of their language was mastered by the missionaries and the Fuegians received instruction in the benefits of a 'civilised life'. In October 1859 the crew of the Allen Gardiner under the stewardship of a Captain Fell sailed for Tierra del Fuego with nine of the returning Fuegians and Garland Phillips, a missionary. Nothing was then heard from the Allen Gardiner, so after several months Rev. George Despard enlisted a second ship to go and look for her. They eventually found the Allen Gardiner in the waters of Tierra del Fuego floating off Navarin Island. It had been stripped of everything that could be removed and only the ship's cook was still alive. He told his rescuers that the crew had landed and begun to erect a small wooden hut and that while they had been so occupied the natives had shown every appearance of friendliness. On the first Sunday everyone except the cook had left the ship in order to attend a service within the hut. Once the service had started some 300 natives had set upon the party and clubbed them to death. The cook was later captured but for some reason did not share the same fate as his eight companions. His life was spared and he remained with the Fuegians until taken back to the Falklands by the search party.

The fate of Captain Gardiner's party and now this more startling tragedy weighed heavily on the spirits of George Despard. He became totally disillusioned and thought it best to abandon any further attempts to establish a mission on Tierra del Fuego. Eventually in late 1861 he returned to England with nearly all those who had come out with him. After a short time in England he was invited by Bishop Perry of Melbourne to go out to Australia. This he did in 1863 and took up residence at Dunolly Parsonage in the State of Victoria. After which he became minister in 1868 at St. Paul's, Sandhurst in the Melbourne diocese. Finally in 1870 he became vicar at St. John's Malmesbury also in the State of Victoria. He died in Malmesbury in May 1881 aged 68.

When the Despards returned to England from the Falklands back in 1861 the one member of the family who chose to remain behind was Thomas Bridges. Thomas stayed on Keppel Island and eventually succeeded where George Despard had failed. How he did this is, as they say, another story and one that can be read in E. Lucas Bridges' book (reprinted in paperback by Century in 1987), a copy of which is now held at the County Library (918.276). We should like to acknowledge the help of R. Drury and Jim McAdam who helped fill in some of the gaps in this potted biography of Rev. George Despard.

(*) In relating this story Jimmy Burns has clearly got the year wrong. Thomas Bridges was in fact born c.1842 so he would have been an extremely large 'baby boy' by 1851.

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