(Great) Grandmother’s Footsteps

By Alex Sanderson 

Whilst I wait at Heathrow for my flight to Amsterdam, from where I will fly to Madagascar, I thought I should share a remarkable story. 

My uncle recently reminded me that my great grandmother, Mrs Frances Bowers, was a missionary in Madagascar. However, not much else is known amongst my family about where she was and what she did whilst she was there. So yesterday, unwilling to face the prospect of packing, I decided to visit the SOAS missionary archives to find out a bit more about Frances. 

I was constrained for time and archive rules allow only a few items to be viewed every couple of hours. But, what I did manage to discover I have shared here.

In 1946, Frances was appointed Candidates Secretary for the London Missionary Society (L.M.S). She continued this role for 16 years. Her work for the L.M.S seems to have been valuable; an article in the L.M.S Quarterly says about Francis: 

Hundreds of young women have found her a wise confidante, able to wait and also to stir; capable of being astringent and challenging but also deeply understanding and sympathetic. In the last few years, when she has seen more men candidates as well, they also have found her someone good to come and talk to. This ability to understand and stimulate young people has been one of Frances Bowers’ most valuable gifts to the Society and has been deeply appreciated by the members of Candidates Committee.

Mrs Francis Bowers

Mrs Francis Bowers

Frances was born in Johannesburg, where her father, Rev J. T. Harris, was a minister. The L.M.S quarterly notes that Africa was one of Frances' great loves. In 1952, her sixth year as Candidate Secretary, Frances was also appointed the L.M.S Secretary for Madagascar. This was the first time that the society had appointed a woman to an overseas portfolio. 

The quarterly notes that Frances came to identify very closely with Madagascar and the Malagasy church. They go on to say:

Mrs Bowers rapidly won the confidence of the missionaries in Madagascar and of the leaders of the Malagasy church. Her two visits to the Great Island enabled her to win many friends among them. They came to trust her judgment, to enjoy her sense of fun, and to share with her in a quite remarkable way their own hopes and fears. 

Moreover she seized every opportunity to bring Madagascar to the notice of the churches in this country and stimulate among them a new appreciation of the problems and opportunities of the Church in Madagascar, both as it has faced the integration of Church and Mission and the entry into the larger life of the world church, as well as the national struggle for independence.

So Frances visited Madagascar twice during her time as secretary, once in 1953 and again in 1954. On her second visit, she appears to have stayed for 2 years, until 1956. It is this visit that is recorded in our family history, written by my grand father John Michael Bowers. 

Many of Frances' documents, correspondence and itineraries from her trips are available in the archives. Unfortunately, I was only able to view details about her first trip whilst I was there. 

On Tuesday, I will fly into Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. On May 5th 1953 (63 years and and 3 months ago) Frances landed in Antananarivo for her first visit. She wrote in a letter: “It’s a fascinating place, growing so fast you can almost see it on the march. Great blocks of modern flats spring up among old Malagasy houses; departmental stores jostle with ultra-modern offices… the streets are noisy with innumerable cars and buses but the pousse-pousse men still ply their trade. … Malagasy people throng the streets, barefooted country folk along with ultra-smart men and women, and large umbrellas everywhere.

She goes on to say: “Are you asking why the L.M.S is still in Madagascar? Please don’t! Remember that so far I have only visited Tananarive, the most advanced and sophisticated area. Meanwhile, you would be as interested as I am to see the streets filled on Sunday mornings with families walking to Church in Victorian completeness; mothers with spotless white lambas, elegant sandals, beautiful sunshades; children charmingly dressed and cared for and fathers in very smart suits.

She finishes her letter: “… the human frame, after being violently bumped over so-called roads for some hours and then fed on large several-course meals, is all too anxious for rest!” 

She spent a fortnight in the capital, visiting schools and missionary institutions and people. She then spent 4 months visiting Antananarivo’s neighbouring regions, including Betsileo, Antaihanaka, Tsimihety, and Ambohimanga. 

There are other letters from her trip, including her recommended improvements to the L.M.S in Madagascar, and, also her opinion on the L.M.S requirement she have a male companion to accompany on her visit. Frances returned to Britain some time after September 1953. 

After 10 years as Secretary for Madagascar, Francis spent two years (1962-4) as a missionary in Southern Africa: first in Inyati, and one year (1964-5) at Moeding College, Ootsi, both in Southern Rhodesia (Zambia). She returned to England in April 1965. An archive notes: 

She [Mrs F. Bowers] gave valuable help, not only by a heavy teaching programme but also in re-organising and enlarging the school libraries. The Committee congratulates Mrs. Bowers on this further contribution to the work of the Church, through the society, and offers cordial good wishes for her retirement.

Frances died on 17th November 1982, leaving behind a family line of intrepid and adventurous children, grand children and great grandchildren. 

I am proud to follow in my great grandmothers footsteps: to a country that she loved, and I love in turn. I will take her spirit with me as I embark on my own Madagascan journey. 

Alex Sanderson