Griffith John

It’s St. David’s day…for a few more hours anyway, and one Welsh man has been of interest to me a fair bit lately. With the outbreak of Coronavirus forcing Wuhan, China into 24 hour news coverage, a connection between there and closer to home has been in my mind. Wuhan and Swansea have a well known connection through one man in particular – Griffith John. A remarkable Christian preacher who in 1855, having been ordained at Ebenezer Chapel in Swansea, ventured to China in aim of spreading the Christian message through his services to the London Missionary Society. His 55 year commitment to his work in China is well documented, albeit perhaps not as well known as deserved. His wide legacy includes establishing schools, translating the bible into multiple Chinese dialects, being fluent in the Hankou dialect himself, and also founding the Hankou Renji Hospital, now known as Wuhan Union Hospital – that which has been at the heart of the storm as Covid-19 roams the city. There is apparently a statue of John outside the hospital, overseeing some of the chaotic scenes that must have unfolded this last month or so. And bizarrely watching us a little more closely at present, an original photograph of the same man currently lies on my desk.

Griffith John portrait photography by Lewin

It just so happens that Griffith John is my husband’s 3 X Great Grandfather. I knew nothing of this when we met. Neither did he. This was one of the many ‘oh by the way’ conversations that emerged several years later with his now late father. It was only when inheriting a number of items from his paternal grandfather that we got to engage a bit more. We were properly introduced to this figure in Welsh history via a brilliant portrait photograph, which we received in an old wooden frame.

Squeezed between life’s busy schedule of work and kids, there have been the occasional flurries of interest (usually on my part) in finding out more. This included making a special trip to Swansea to catch the exhibition of his life at Swansea museum back in 2017. My own family roots lie in Swansea too; Sketty, where Griffith John is buried, was where I used to visit my own Grandfather as a child.

Youngest son outside Swansea museum Griffith John Exhibition, 2017

When Wuhan hit the news through the still unfolding realities of Coronavirus, it occurred to me that our photograph was somewhere deep in the loft, safely tucked away still (I had no idea where) since our move nearly a year ago. So this weekend I delved into countless boxes, resolute in finding him again. I now want to revisit intentions I’d had numerous times over the years but never acted upon – researching the photograph and looking closer at others of him and the family I know are held in collections elsewhere. There are several that either depict or were taken by C.G. Sparham – Griffith John’s son-in-law and 2 x great grandfather of husband. The photography by and of missionaries is something I’ve in fact worked with a number of times, both in Bristol with the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum photographs collection, and at the Museum of London. I’m not religious myself, but I find the missionaries’ relationship with photography very interesting.

So I’m hoping to write up a proper essay on the photography in due course, starting with finding out about the photographer of our Griffith John portrait, whom I only know currently as Lewin. Initial searches raise Otto Lewin as a possibility – a 19th century studio portraitist in New York. John did travel via America and there is another photograph taken there around a similar age with the rest of his family c. 1906. However, I need to look further into this, the dates especially, and see if I can find other examples of a Lewin signature. There is nothing on the reverse of the print except a lot of foxing and marks from contact with the wood of the frame.

For now anyway, this link to China will remain on my desk (his stare slightly creeps my boys out) and I’ll get on and re-read the book I bought on Ebay of him years ago by William Robson, ‘Griffith John, Founder of the Hankow Mission Central China’.

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