South West Wales

19th Century Swansea missionary Griffith John celebrated

Exchibits at the Swansea Museum Image copyright Swansea museum

The life of a 19th Century Swansea missionary is to be celebrated in the city's museum.

In 1855, Griffith John set sail for China as a penniless 24-year-old, with nothing but a zeal to spread the gospel through good works.

150 years on, the Wuhan Union Hospital he founded in central China is now one of the country's biggest.

His works have forged a century-and-a-half bond between Swansea and Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.

For the past four years, Wuhan Union Hospital - which has more than 5,000 in-patient beds and which treats 3.5 million patients each year - has been collaborating with Swansea University's Medical School.

'Enduring legacy'

Last year, Swansea council signed a trade agreement with Wuhan, which will see the two cities' authorities cooperate in the fields of economy and trade, transport and logistics, culture and sports, and education and tourism.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of Wuhan Union Hospital, a Swansea delegation made up of council leaders, university staff and representatives from local businesses visited China, where they were presented with the exhibits which will form the basis of the exhibition.

They include books, Chinese silk banners gifted to Griffith John by the people of Wuhan and a collection of artefacts and traditional musical instruments which belonged to him.

Councillor Robert Francis-Davies, Swansea council's cabinet member for enterprise, development and regeneration, said: "The Reverend Dr Griffith John is one of Swansea's most-distinguished sons. His enduring legacy and popularity in Wuhan speak volumes for the positive impact he had on China.

"The exhibition traces his life and legacy, giving Swansea Museum visitors the opportunity to discover more about this remarkable man."

Image copyright Swansea council/Swansea Museum

Born in 1831 to a copper-working family in the Greenhill area of Swansea, John lost his mother before he was a year old and his father as a teenager in separate cholera outbreaks.

Despite this he proved himself to be an outstanding scholar.

Too poor to be educated in school, from the of eight he studied alongside much older boys at Ebenezer Chapel and by 14 he was already preaching all over south Wales.

As the Reverend Graham John, the current minister of Ebenezer explained on the 160th anniversary of Griffith leaving for China, by the time he left it was already apparent what an extraordinary man he was becoming.

"By the late 1840s John was already something of a local celebrity as 'The Boy Preacher'; earning praise for both the depth of his knowledge and the passion with which he preached," he said.

"Really Wales' loss was China's gain, as the following he'd amassed contained echoes of Evan Roberts' Welsh Religious revival half a century later.

"But what he achieved in China was outstanding. He was preaching in Chinese inside six months, and translated the gospels into, not one, but several Chinese dialects."

John's arrival in China coincided with the outbreak of the Second Opium War.

Image copyright Swansea council
Image caption Swansea council's delegation captured some local colour in Wuhan by way of photographs

He was an outspoken critic of his own country's opium trade - seeing first-hand the devastation addiction was causing to the Chinese - and his first ventures into healthcare were clinics to help wean people off the drug.

The settlement agreed at the end of the war opened up China's interior to the west for the first time and allowed John to spread his work even further.

"Even after the Opium War, most British missionaries stayed around the more-westernised seaports" explained Mr John.

"But Griffith John wanted to reach people deep in the baking interior, where he was often chased away with rocks by people who'd never seen a westerner before."

Yet John soon won over the locals, and travelling over two thousand miles (3,200km) around what is now Wuhan by the turn of the century he had established more than dozen schools and eight hospitals, including - in 1866 - Wuhan Union Hospital.

Griffith John's work in China lasted 55 years and he only returning home shortly before his death, aged 80, in January 1912.

He is buried at Bethel Chapel in Sketty, and is remembered in the names of flats and streets around the Greenhill district of his birth.

The exhibition at Swansea Museum runs from 27 January to 25 June.

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