Hope Fountain Mission and the emergence of Missionaries in Rhodesia

Hope Fountain Mission and the emergence of Missionaries in Rhodesia

How to get here: 

From Bulawayo take the Esigodini Road before taking a right turn onto the Hope Fountain Road. Distances are from the turnoff. At 4.3km pass the Bulawayo Drive turnoff on the right, 6.1km the narrow tar road ends at the entrance to the Girls School. Turn right and follow the untarred road down the hill for 700 metres and see the Church on the left. An alternative route is using Burnside Road, which becomes Douglasdale Road and leads directly to Hope Fountain Mission.The cemetery is south west of the Church. Follow the road past the Church, turn right and take the first turn left, about 500 metres.

Hope Fountain Mission is the second oldest in the country after Inyathi Mission (formerly Inyati).

The impetus for the missionary movement in this country was provided by Rev. Robert Moffat who established a very personal and trusting relationship with Mzilikazi.

Although extremely important historically, Hope Fountain Mission has become somewhat rundown and in no way does it compare in its architecture, or interiors, with the Churches at Serima, Cyrene, Chishawasha, or even Driefontein.  However, there are a series of photographs with descriptive notes of the roles played by the missionaries and teachers who contributed so much to the early education and training of crafts such as building and carpentry of this country.

In 1896 Frank Sykes described Hope Fountain as “the prettiest spot in the neighbourhood of Bulawayo with a perpetual stream of clear water running between the hills, wooded slopes and grassy slopes, no more pleasant site for a residence could well be imagined.”

For all those that love Rhodesian Ridgebacks it is said that they were bred by the Rev Charles Helm who brought their maternal parents with him to Hope Fountain. The very simple interior of Hope Fountain Church is somewhat severe, almost barn-like with the high corrugated iron roof held together with metal tie-rods. The walls are hung with photographs and notes of the devoted missionaries and teachers that served their country and communities so well.  Jessie Lovemore says the Church was initially beautifully thatched, but despite having a lightning conductor, it was struck by lightning and burned down and had to be replaced by the corrugated iron roof. 

The Girls School was founded in 1915 and the Teacher Training School in 1927 and also today there is a Christian-based organisation working with orphaned and abandoned children in Zimbabwe called Hope Fountain International. 

Other Missionaries who gave devoted and loyal service over many years included W.G.Mc.D and Nan Partridge, Sitjenkwa Hlabangana, Mtompe Khumalo who belonged to the Royal Family and was born at the King’s kraal at eNyathini. Zhisho Moyo who started as a herd boy, Mrs Moyo who rose from teacher to Tutor Assistant at the Hospital before taking charge of the Clinic and Maternity Centre over 21 years, before becoming Boarding mistress for another 21 years. Henry Boli Mashengele started as a mule herder and after worked at Hope Fountain for 57 years as a teacher and carpentry instructor became a Boarding master and Church Elder.


Background and establishment of the first Mission station at Inyati (now Inyathi)

The Rev. Robert Moffat arrived in South Africa in 1817 and was joined by his wife to be, Emily Unwin, two years later. They established the mission station at Kuruman, in the Northern Cape and their daughter Mary married David Livingstone in 1841. Robert Moffat had established a close and personal relationship with Mzilikazi whom he visited in 1829 at Mhlahlandlela near Rustenburg near modern Pretoria and then at the Groot Marico River, near Zeerust in 1835 at eGabeni (Kapain)

The remarkable friendship between Robert Moffat and Mzilikazi was resumed when Moffat visited the King at Inyati in 1854, 1857 and 1859. At the 1857 visit Mzilikazi finally consented to a mission station being established in amaNdebele country and on 26 December 1859 six wagons outspanned at Inyati. William Sykes and Thomas Morgan Thomas had left from Cape Town in July 1858 trekking north to the London Missionary Society (LMS) station at Kuruman, where they were joined on their journey by John Moffat, the son of Rev. Robert Moffat.

John Moffat and his missionary colleagues were useful translators for Mzilikazi and then Lobengula, but they achieved few Christian converts.

The Rev W.A. Elliott in his book Gold from the Quartz published in 1910 says: “In 1865 it became necessary for Mr. and Mrs. (John) Moffat to go south for medical treatment, and Mr and Mrs Sykes made a short trip to recruit in their company, for mission life in Matabeleland in those early days played havoc with health. This exodus left Mr and Mrs Thomas alone. Their position was difficult, and the work which claimed their attention various and abundant. Cattle had to be herded, and sheep and goats, nor could they be herded together; the gardens to be tended, the house-work done, to say nothing of the insistent claims of direct mission work. For all this the only help available was that of two little girls and a boy of nine years of age.

This is given as an ordinary illustration of the great strain under- manning of the mission imposed on the missionaries. The conditions altogether were unspeakably depressing. The climate depressed, the loneliness depressed, the apathy of the people depressed, the non- success depressed, the incessant strain of working beyond strength depressed, and the result was disastrous to the work. To withstand and overcome in Matabeleland in those early years demanded a small colony of half-a-dozen families, whereas at times there was only one family, and occasionally one man. The thing was impossible.

Thus quite early in the history of the missionaries, it became evident that the work must either be abandoned or strongly reinforced. Two stations, with two families at each station, seemed ideal till better times should dawn. But the King set his face like flint against any suggestion of more missionaries. He was always friendly, and he faithfully stood by his promise to Moffat, but he would have no more missionaries. Attempt after attempt to get his assent was made through many years, only to meet with repeated rebuffs.”


Establishment of Hope Fountain Mission by John Boden Thomson 

John Boden Thomson (1841-1878) and his wife Elizabeth née Edwards were both from Scotland and left Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 9 August 1869; arriving at Inyati Mission Matabeleland on 29 April 1870 where John Moffat, William Sykes and Thomas Morgan Thomas were already based.

Thomson met with Lobengula at his new kraal at KoBulawayo, on the 23rd April hoping to negotiate a location for a second mission station near the King’s new kraal. Lobengula gave Thomson permission to seek a new location. Thomson was assisted by Hartley and Baines and they found an ideal location besides a natural spring, and called it Hope Fountain Mission. The Land was granted to the LMS on the 16th November 1870, with the King retaining right of possession if the society ever left.

Again W.A. Elliott provides detail of the torturous negotiations: After some preliminary conversations, Messrs. Sykes and Thomson went to Bulawayo, the new chief town and royal residence, and boldly asked the King for a place where Mr Thomson could build and teach. To the great pleasure and surprise of the missionaries, the King said, “Where do you want to build? The country is before you, go and seek a place." They could hardly believe their ears; it seemed too good to be true. That for which they had prayed and striven so long given at last. With hearts filled with gratitude to God they hastened to the search.

One of the indunas recommended a place as suitable for a mission station, and on examination they were mightily pleased with it. It seemed “just the thing." It was three miles and a half from Bulawayo, in a charming valley, with a beautiful spring of water, amid a large population.

Advice was sought from Messrs. Hartley and Baines, renowned travellers who were more competent to form an opinion. They carefully examined the whole locality and gave a most favourable verdict. The two missionaries went at once to the King with their report, and were dumbfounded when Lobengula brusquely asked: “Why have you been riding about my country?”

"You told us to look for a new station where Thomson could build; we have been doing so with the help of Baines and Hartley." "I do not want any more missionaries; I have enough." With this shot the King went away, leaving the dismayed missionaries to their disappointment. Monday saw the King at the wagon, and the missionary introduced the topic uppermost in his mind. John Lee, an old resident, acted as interpreter, in place of Mr. Sykes, who had returned to Inyati. A long talk ensued, in the course of which many questions were raised.

“Were missionaries of any use to the people?” King and indunas seemed to be of opinion that the country was better without them.  “What is the message from God? How would the message benefit him and his people? What is the Missionary Society?” To these questions from the King replies were given as seemed best under the very difficult circumstances. “I believe in God; I believe that he made all things just as he wants them to remain. I believe God made the Matabele just as he wished them to be; it is wrong for anyone to seek to alter them."

Then he said he was tired, but he added to his indunas, “I see that this message will do us good in this world and in the other. It is a great matter; I will take some time to think about it." At last Mr. Thomson told him that his supplies were done, and that he must go home. Then he frankly said, “I give your Society that valley for a mission station as long as they like, under me as King, and no trader is to build there."


Thomson had the first house built at Hope Fountain Mission and a vegetable garden which was irrigated from a dam on the river.

W.A. Elliott writes: “The King had long promised to pay Hope Fountain a visit, and in July 1871, he came on horseback, and later on in his wagon. He had a good look round, took a great fancy to some of Mrs Thomson's fowls, which she gave him; and was smitten by the satisfactory character of the bricks which were being made. He immediately set his own people to work to make bricks for himself.

Lobengula found this visit so much to his mind that in about a month's time he came again, this time in state. He was accompanied by his sister Mncengence, three wagons and about 150 attendants. It was a great occasion. He drew up to the house, and outspanned at the front door; and his beer pots and other paraphernalia nearly choked up the little mission house. The royalties took their food with the missionaries; and Mncengence with the King's children and attendants slept in the house. His majesty retired to his wagon for the night. Next morning the King examined the new house with surprised admiration. He must have one like it at Bulawayo. He liked the garden well, but the three little pigs called forth his loudest praises. Nothing would do but he must have some of the young when they should be born. Early next day the people came in increased numbers to greet their King, and for three solid hours they sang and danced before him. Altogether it was a most notable honour that the King had done the missionaries, but its frequent repetition was likely to rouse qualms.”

Inyati and now Hope Fountain were now established with their Christian work in full swing; the second missionaries to be appointed were the Helm’s to Hope Fountain (1875) and Mr. Elliott to Inyati (1877)

Thomson was then recalled, sometime in 1876 before the Helms arrived, to England for the establishment of a new mission at Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika and the party, including Thomson, Roger Price, Elbert Clarke, Edward Hore, Arthur Dodgshun and Walter Hutley left Zanzibar on 21 July 1877. The expedition was a total failure; travelling by ox-wagon across Central Africa proved a disaster. Price returned to England to consult with the Directors of the London Missionary Society, but never returned, and Clarke withdrew from the Mission in January 1878. The remaining group arrived in Ujiji on 23 August 1878, but Thomson died of a fever on 22 September 1878 and Dodgshun died on 3 April 1879.


Thomson replaced by Charles and Elsbeth Helm

The Thomson’s were on their own at Hope Fountain until 1875 when they were joined by Charles Daniel Helm (1844 – 1915) and his wife Elizabeth (Elsbeth) nee Baroness von Puttkamer (1875-1913) on the 2nd December 1875. Charles and Elsbeth had met in London where Charles was training to be a missionary and Elsbeth was a governess.

They reached Hope Fountain on the 10th December 1875 and took over the Thomson’s first home of pole and dhaka(mud) unbleached calico was used for the ceilings under the thatched roof, and a soil and ant-heap mixture for the floors.

However, Elsbeth’s health gave continued concern and William Sykes recommended the Helm’s return to Kuruman until recovered. They left Hope Fountain in May and after recuperating returned by the year-end.


John Moffat had resigned from the LMS (London Mission Society) in 1879 and in the following years he held a number of Government appointments and was appointed British Representative to Bulawayo in 1887. On the 11th February 1888, he entered into a treaty with Lobengula, on behalf of the British Government. The Treaty secured Matabeleland and Mashonaland to British influence, ruling out influence from any other country.

The Bishop of Bloemfontein, Knight-Bruce, arrived in May 1888, on his journey to Mashonaland, he was feeling ill when he arrived at Bulawayo but, as he was anxious to see Charles, he rode out to Hope Fountain. He wrote in his diary: “the sight of the Mission house after the little ride of 9 miles in contrast to the Chief’s Kraal gave me a feeling of the blessedness of Christianity such as I had never understood before.”

Charles Helm and the Bishop discussed the customs of the African for a while and then Charles sent a boy to show Knight-Bruce “the road”. Charles, concerned that the Bishop was not well, visited him the next morning, which was the 26th May, and walked over with him to visit Lobengula, who questioned the Bishop on his motives for coming into the country. The Bishop’s health deteriorated, and that night he slept in the wagon, but the next day Elsbeth put him on the sofa in her kitchen, and, as he says, “Every possible kindness and attention were given me. Never shall I forget the Christian hospitality of the two people”.

The Cape Government in August that year made Charles’s position as Postmaster official. He was supplied with a 23mm diameter date stamp inscribed “Bechuanaland”, in addition to the name of the office. Charles knew that Lobengula would resent the implication that Matabeleland was part of Bechuanaland, as Lobengula’s relations with Khama were already strained over a border dispute, so he deleted the offending word and asked Sam Edwards at the Post Office in Tati to do the same.


The special connection between Charles and Elsbeth Helm and Hope Fountain Mission

Charles and Elsbeth Helm stayed on at Hope Fountain for another 39 years and both are buried in the historic churchyard. The Helm’s daughter, Mrs Jessie Lovemore wrote the following account of Missionary life under Lobengula:

Our day at Hope Fountain started with short morning prayers followed by breakfast at 7:30. My father then went to the kraal to see the cows and calves, goats and sheep and the few oxen we kept at Hope Fountain for ploughing, or for pulling the Scotch cart. Then he gave a look around to the mealies, or wheat according to the times of the year. About nine o’clock he returned to his study, a room slightly away from the house where natives were already collecting, and the next couple of hours were spent in attending to the hundred and one ailments from which they were suffering, a break being made for a cup of morning tea. Dinner was at half past twelve, after which the household retired for a rest, either to sleep or read or sew or a bit of each. At 3pm all met for afternoon tea, and a little later my father and Mr. Carnegie went to the river for their daily swim, walk and general look round. Not being able to have tennis or other outdoor games for lack of facilities, the men had to have other exercise. I think that, and not going out into the hot sun from mid-day till 3 o’clock, had a great deal to do in keeping them fit. Being so far from medical aid, and with wife and children under their care, they were wise to be careful. After supper, soon after sundown, we had evening prayers, to which the servants came. It was held in the native language, and always included a hymn. For the rest of the evening my father read, wrote letters, studied and did little odd bits of work for which he found no time during the day. Bedtime was rarely before 10 or 11 o’clock.

My mother’s day started earlier, of course, attending to the children and, till we gradually trained native girls in household work, getting breakfast ready. After breakfast came the daily round of housework. Cooking, laundry and house cleaning took up all the morning, and the quiet time after dinner was always enjoyed.

The first two mission stations in Matabeleland, Inyati and Hope Fountain, were established in 1859 and 1871 respectively, by permission of Mzilikazi and Lobengula. As Matabeleland was so far from the coast and because of the fear of witchcraft, superstition and indifference of the natives as a whole, it was decided not to establish any other mission stations for a while. The natives came to services, and enjoyed the singing of hymns. The four missionaries, therefore, steadily carried on their work, hoping for results someday but as long as it was a native state under a native chief who had absolute power of life and death, it was not possible to break down the native’s fear. Most of the mission work consisted of doctoring the bodies of the natives. One could only pray that their souls would be touched in time. Witchcraft abounded, and no native would have risked owning a book, for had anyone died in his kraal, or the crops of any of them failed, it would have been put down to that book, and the owner would probably have lost his life. Hence the missionaries were very careful not to endanger in any way the lives of the one or two who showed signs of awakening.

Every morning at all the stations you would see a crowd of sick people waiting to be treated. It was remarkable that though they were so steeped in the belief of witchcraft, they never for a moment doubted the missionary and his cures. For instance, my father was one day away in Bulawayo, ten miles from Hope Fountain, when a man came to my mother with something wrapped up in a leaf. He said a woman had bitten a piece off his nose, and would she sew it on! He had tried to have it sewn on with some hair from an ox’s tail, without success. He was very truculent when my mother firmly said she did not know anything about that sort of thing, but at least he consented to await the return of my father. The wound was doctored - but without the piece torn off, for “hot weather” reasons.

My father was a great smoker, and one morning a man came in suffering from toothache. The tooth had to come out, so my father laid his pipe down on a stone nearby and took up a suitable pair of forceps. He was tugging away when out of the corner of his eye he spotted the victim’s leg go towards the pipe, big toe and next one spread out ready to grab the pipe. A man came another day with an appallingly shattered arm. He had been out on one of their raids, and been shot six weeks previously. He’d returned with the impi, a six weeks’ march. There was no chloroform available, but Mr. Selous and my father managed to amputate the remains, and it all healed up well.

The London Missionary Society always tried to have two missionaries at each station. When Mrs. Cockin’s first baby arrived, my father and mother attended to her. As there had been in the earlier days, several cases of women dying in childbirth owing to ignorance on the part of the husbands about such matters, the London Missionary Society insisted on the missionaries working at the hospitals for six months before leaving England in order to gain a little general experience, especially in midwifery. Poor Mrs. Cockin was very bad, and it was decided to use instruments. Mr. Cockin administered the chloroform but was so distressed that he fainted almost immediately, so my mother had to take over and she was terrified she would give too much. However, everything went well and the baby throve, and a couple of years later Mrs. Cockin had another infant, under easier circumstances.

The missionary women took their lives in their hands when they went pioneering. The Cockin’s spell of work was very brief. When they went for a short visit to Shoshong (Khama’s Capital) in Bechuanaland he developed severe malaria and died. Mrs. Cockin went to Kuruman as teacher for some years, and retired later to England. For two years my parents were alone at Hope Fountain. In 1828, Mr Carnegie was sent to join my father. He married in 1886 Mary Sykes, daughter of Rev. and Mrs. William Sykes of Inyati Mission. For 15 years the two missionaries laboured together in wonderful harmony and friendship, together with their families. This spirit has been handed down to their children and grandchildren. When the London Missionary Society decided to open a new station near Figtree, about 30 miles west of Bulawayo, the Carnegies were appointed there. Now that Rhodesia was being populated and roads made, farms occupied and the country generally civilised, there was no need to put two missionaries on one station, to combat the utter loneliness. The Carnegies were very sad to leave Hope Fountain.

It is said that Charles Helm brought two bitches from South Africa, both rough coated and grey-black in colour, and that the hunter Cornelius van Rooyen bred them with his hunting pack which comprised the breeds Khoikhoi, Greyhound, Bulldog, Pointer, Irish Terrier, Airedale Terrier, Collie, Deerhound and possibly Bull Mastiff. At the time no one noticed that either of these two bitches possessed a ridge on its back, but time these two bitches became the foundation of what we call today, the Rhodesian ridgeback.

Lobengula thought highly of Helm who had studied amaNdebele language and culture and in October 1888 when Rhodes sent three agents, Charles Rudd, James Rochfort Maguire and Francis Thompson to Matabeleland, he was required to be present as interpreter and adviser throughout the deliberations which led up to the drafting and signing of the Rudd Concession.


David and Mary Carnegie – long-term residents who served Hope Fountain Mission

Another wall plaque commemorates Joseph Cockin who arrived at Hope Fountain in May 1878 and died of fever at Shoshong on 3 February 1880. The wall plaque says: “he was a fine man physically, most devoted and earnest in his missionary enthusiasm, and descended from a good stock, his grandfather having been a founder of the London missionary Society.” J.D. Hepburn in his book Twenty years in Khama country and pioneering among the Batuana of Lake Ngami writes that Cockin was on his way south to Klerksdorp with his wife to fetch provisions and windows for the house they were building at Hope Fountain when he died. His wife continued as a missionary at Kuruman from 1881 to 1886.

The ideal of two mission families at each of two mission stations became an accomplished fact when David Carnegie arrived on 13 October 1882 and three years later married Mary, daughter of William Sykes at Inyathi Mission. He founded the Centenary Mission in 1896 and was succeeded by George Wilkerson on his death in Bulawayo Hospital on 29 January 1910 aged 54 years and is buried at Hope Fountain.

Technical Training at Hope Fountain

George Wilkerson arrived in 1896 and started the Hope Fountain Industrial Institute where he trained local amaNdebele men as builders. They built the existing Churches at Hope Fountain, Inyati and many others around the mission station. The wall plaque says in 1909 he married Constance Evelyn Clustin and the next year took charge of Centenary Mission station near Figtree which had been established in 1898. David Carnegie died very unexpectedly in 1910 aged only 54 years. Jessie Lovemore says Centenary closed down in 1912 as it was in a proclaimed European farming area. The same year George Wilkerson joined the Baptist Missionary Society and carried out missionary work in the Congo, dying in 1941.

Neville Jones extends the teaching facilities at Hope Fountain Mission 

Neville Jones was the assistant Home secretary of the LMS in London when he married Ruth Collard. In 1912 they moved to Hope Fountain where he was in charge until his retirement from missionary work in 1935. He was the driving force behind the Girls Boarding School and the Teacher Training School.

He died in October 1954 after being awarded an OBE in 1948 and Doctorate of Science in 1953 and he and his wife are buried at Hope Fountain cemetery.

Hope Fountain Fort

In 1896, Hope Fountain Mission was looted and burnt down during the First Umvukela or Matabele rebellion before the arrival of the Matabeleland Relief Force which camped nearby in May 1896 and built a fort.

On 23 May 1896 Capt. C.W. Halsted was accompanied by 47 men of the Matabeleland Relief Force to Hope Fountain Mission which they found had been burnt down and deserted and the were fiercely attacked, but over the space of three hours managed to beat off their attackers. The fort has an unusual shape, very different from the usual standard patterns of forts employed elsewhere. As can be seen from the photo, it had earth walls which were topped off with a double layer of sandbags which took them to shoulder height and does not appear to have had a firing step, or a ditch.They constructed Hope Fountain fort on the eastern end of hill which overlooks Hope Fountain Mission.

Credits: Zimfieldguide, Jeannie Boggie. First Steps in Civilizing Rhodesia, Rev. W.A. Elliott. Gold from the Quartz. London Missionary Society, 1910, N. Jones. Rhodesian Genesis. Rhodesian pioneers’ and Early Settlers’ Society. 1953, Mrs Jessie Lovemore. Missionary life under Lobengula, I.J. Cross. Rebellion Forts in Matabeleland.

Photo credits: Zimfieldguide, Frank Sykes, I.J. Cross, www.Ourstory.com (orafs)


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