008: Carrie, Gertrude and Grace Grenfell: children of missionaries in the Congo

The Grenfells at Walthamstow School, Kent
"Splendid Lives Series": 1910
“Splendid Lives Series”: 1910

George Grenfell (1849-1906) was once a famous man. He headed the Baptist Missionary Society’s work in the Congo for thirty years, and had several biographies – and has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Volumes such as that left, or the 1927 George Grenfell: Pioneer in Congo by H. L. Hemmens are slight works, unlike George Hawker, The Life of George Grenfell, Congo Missionary and Explorer of 1909 (580 pages) and a two volume (1,000 pages) study of 1908 by Harry Johnston. Grenfell died in Africa and was buried at Basoko where the Ariwumi River joins the mighty River Congo to flow a thousand miles to the Atlantic.

Grenfell’s wife was Rose Patience Edgerley, described in The Story of My Life (1923) by Harry Johnston as “a very remarkable woman, a West Indian Negress…who had come to the Cameroons with her parents and brother to work for the Baptist Missionary Society”. Her carpenter brother assisted erecting Johnston’s consulate building on Mondole Island at Cameroon near Victoria where the Jamaican missionaries including J. J. Fuller had settled in the 1840s.   She and Grenfell had eight children: four survived babyhood – the oldest daughter Patience died in Africa in 1899 aged 19, and her three sisters Caroline (Carrie), Gertrude and Grace were at Walthamstow Hall school in Sevenoaks, Kent into 1907. Their mother, according to the OxfordDNB, died in 1927. (Her photograph is to be seen on bmsworldmission.org ref Grenfell and Comber.) The Times 6 November 1928 (page 21) carried a death announcement from information just received from the Baptist Missionary Society. She had “just died in Jamaica” and “two daughters survive. Mrs. Grenfell came to England after her husband’s death in 1907, but afterwards settled in Jamaica”.   The census of 1901 (31 March 1901) shows two daughters at the school in Kent, and four year old Grace in Aston, Birmingham. The census notes she had been born in Leopoldville, Congo.   Caroline Mary “Carrie” Grenfell was 17 in 1901, when the census noted she had been born at Stanley Pool, Congo. She was soon a pupil-teacher at the school where she was recalled “sitting on the opposite side of the table helping us with our ‘three r’s…a lovely person…a born teacher” (Jeffrey Green, Black Edwardians, page 225). She had been intended for mission work, for she was studying French in Belgium in 1904. She died in Penzance, aged 46, in 1930. Her father had been born near Penzance where the Grenfell name is far from rare.   The Cornishman of 26 June 1930 (page 4) carried a brief announcement, stating she had died in a Penzance nursing home on 20 June, and was the daughter of the Revd George Grenfell.

Gertrude Grenfell was aged 11 according to the 1901 census, and also born in the Congo. She died in Manchester, Jamaica on 16 October 1913.  The youngest daughter Grace Isabel died in New York City 21 September 1985, aged 89.   The school photograph shows that the daughters had inherited some of their mother’s complexion. Grenfell remains a historic figure due to his Congo mission work, but the lives of his widow and three daughters should be uncovered in more detail as part of the story of black involvement in Britain’s history. Like the untraced histories of the Norwich-born grandchildren (born in the late 19th century) of Jamaica-born missionary J. J. Fuller, we may well be surprised.

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