Henderson Collection, Cory Library, Grahamstown

James Henderson Collection, Cory Library, Grahamstown

James Henderson (1867-1930) was a Presbyterian missionary and educationalist. He became the third principal of the well-known Lovedale College in the Eastern Cape from 1906 to his death in 1830. Henderson was married to Margaret Davidson and they had three children, Donald (1901-1948), Betty and Margaret. He studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh and in 1895 began work as a missionary in central Africa, in succession in what are now Malawi and Zambia. He then became principal of Lovedale, during his tenure furthering both expansionist and relatively liberal policies.

Henderson was chairman of the provisional committee responsible for setting up Fort Hare University College in 1916. He was involved in the General Missionary Conference and the temperance movement, and he also served on the Alice municipal council from 1913 to 1930. He led the General Missionary Conference’s 1911 investigation into its research-based rebuttal of the manufactured so-called ‘black peril’, in which white women in South Africa were alleged to be under threat from the violent sexual predations of black men. It was through this but he came to know Olive Schreiner, who became one of the people involved in carrying out ‘so-called black peril’ investigations. As with previous principals, “On the day of his burial the students of Lovedale worked from dawn to make a road so that he could be buried on Sandile’s Kop (a local mountain top), overlooking Lovedale” (Shepherd 1968: 356).

The Hendersons had three children:

Donald John Davidson Henderson, b1901, d1948. He became a doctor, having partly training in Britain. He killed himself after murdering his wife Mary Southey and their four children in February 1948.

Betty (Elizabeth) Henderson, c1903. She was a Rhodes University College graduate and then taught in Lovedale’s High School in the later 1920s. She later married and became Betty Walsh and was still alive when her sister Margaret died in 1983.

Margaret Mary Serena Henderson, no birth information traced. She later married Ben Ballantyne and lived in Grahamstown. She died in March 1983.

The Henderson papers

The focus of WWW work has been the family letters written by James Henderson. These are to his mother Thelma, his wife Margaret Davidson, and their three children, Donald, Betty and Margaret. They are part of a wider collection of Henderson’s papers, consisting of the following:

General and Miscellaneous correspondence: MSS 8842-43; 8388; 8819-21; 8917; 8971; 8980; 9089
Missionary life letters: MS 14,423
Family correspondence: Thelma Henderson, MS 14,425
Family correspondence: Margaret Henderson, MS 14,426
Family correspondence: Children, MS 14,430
Diary: Margaret Henderson, MS 14,438
Journal: James Henderson, MSS 14,431-2

The family letters

There are 5 of Henderson’s letters to his mother Thelma, 27 letters to his wife Margaret Davidson and 69 letters to his three children. Although relatively few in number, these letters convey well that Henderson wrote in different ways to different people.

Henderson’s letters to his mother Thelma are from 1904 (and so before he was appointed to the Lovedale principalship) and are a kind account of travelogue of his travels and outreach work in trying to establish new missions in central Africa. They are typically very long and mix an account of his travels with various details of his missionary endeavours which his mother, the wife of a missionary as well as the mother of one, would be interested in.

The letters to Henderson’s wife Margaret were written between 1907 and 1912, in periods when he was away attending meetings and other activities connected with his role at Lovedale. They are very different from the letters to his mother and on one level more perfunctory because much shorter.  However, this reads as deep familiarity rather than and emotional distance, and also that the absences would be short and that Margaret, the daughter of a missionary, would be most interested in the inputs and outcomes of these meetings, in which he was present to promote particular policies.

James Henderson wrote weekly ‘round letters’ to his three children (Donald Henderson, Betty Henderson and Margaret Henderson). Those that are extant are dated between 1925 and 1930, and so were written when Donald and Betty were adults and Margaret in her late teens then early 20s. There are 69 of these letters extant and all are typed. In epistolary terms, these letters are particularly interesting. For time reasons Henderson wrote a typed letter to all of them (depending on who was at home in Lovedale and who was not at any particular time) with a number of copies made for this purpose. They were typed on his typewriter using carbon paper. A copy of the ‘common letter’ was sent to each, and he also sometimes included personalised notes to them at the close, although sometimes muddles could occur: ‘My very dear Son, This time by accident it is the copy for Margaret that has been left for you’ (Trio, letter 51).

These letters consist mainly of Donald’s copies. Some are clearly written to all three, some to one or two of them, and some are more difficult to work out because addressed more vaguely, to ‘Dear family’, ‘Dear children’ and so on. In the latter instance, generally clues are found in the texts which indicate the intended recipient. It is this that makes clear that what is extant are the copies sent to Donald, with the additions addressed to him by name and mainly concerning issues or decisions regarding his medical training and career. However, Henderson comments that he found writing to them like this restrictive because preventing him from modulating his writing ‘voice’ for each of them, and while this is why a number have the additions addressed by name, it did not fully solve the problem.

Interesting aspects of Henderson’s family letters include:

    • Henderson’s letters to his mother provide a quite detailed account of one of his missionary travels in central Africa in August and September 1904.
    • His letters to his wife were mainly written when particular events such as conferences and committee meetings were being held on policy matters with regards to ‘native education’ and they provide useful insight on how Henderson saw the pattern of changes occurring. In particular, they show Henderson operating at quite a high level of policy-making and his feeling that often the people he was dealing with had little idea as to the realities.
    • The letters to his children in particular give much detail on the everyday fabric of life at Lovedale in the 1920s, including issues concerning teaching. They are also cover such matters as the rise of Nationalism and its impact, political issues surrounding the education of the black elite at Lovedale and Fort Hare, and plans for the ‘Inter-State Native College’.
    • Overall with regards to matters of race and ethnicity, the letters show that Henderson mainly used the then conventional distinction of Native / European when referring to people in category terms, while as frequently his references are to people by personal name, although often with a race or ethnic qualifier.
    • Henderson draws his distance from an acquaintance discovering that ‘Natives are human’, although his own terminology shows the limits of his particular brand of liberalism, in referring to ‘The native people’, ‘Native girls’, ‘the Natives themselves and many more repetitions of ‘Native’ as a descriptor. This was perhaps considered good practice at the time, but it failed to recognise that people might come from very different ethnic groups with little in common with each other except skin colour and the responses of white people to this.

Last updated: 20 February 2017


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