|China missionaries on the Yangtze river. Quaker Tapestry panel B7, Service Overseas.|
Robert Davidson was born in 1864, the eldest of the six surviving sons of Adam and Mary Davidson of Hillsborough, near Lisburn in Northern Ireland.
Robert's father had served as a soldier in China but had found himself unable to continue to subdue the heathen rather than reach out to them as fellow human beings. He declared himself a pacifist, was discharged from the army and sent back to Ireland where he became a Quaker. He supported his family by opening a grocery shop but also held mission meetings to which people flocked from miles around. Adam wanted to go back to China but bad health and lack of education prevented him so he urged his eldest son to go in his place. 'Go to China', he told Robert, 'and as you meet the Chinese tell them that you come with the Bible and not with a gun, as I mistakenly did.'
|Robert (centre) with mother Mary|
|and brothers Warburton, Alfred and Asher, 1886 |
Robert was educated at the Friends School in Lisburn until he was fourteen when lack of money forced him to leave and earn his living in a linen factory. His father's words had given him a goal however and when he was nineteen he wrote to the Friends Foreign Mission Association (FFMA) in London asking them to send him to China as a missionary. Friends were hesitant about sending someone so young, uneducated and inexperienced on such a hazardous posting but Robert was insistent and persuaded Henry Stanley Newman of FFMA to visit his father. Henry was impressed and when Adam died in 1885 it was in the knowledge that his son had been accepted for service.
Robert came to London for his training in mission work, an ad hoc course of study designed to fill the gaps in his general education and to give him a basic knowledge of theology, church history, book-keeping and carpentry as well as a three-month elementary medical course. He spent his evenings at the Friends Mission Hall in Hart's Lane in Bethnal Green where his temperamental suitability for mission work could be tested and he threw himself into this with vigour.
It was also at Hart's Lane that Robert met one of the senior workers Mary Jane Catlin. Ever since she was a child Mary Jane had wanted to go overseas as a Quaker missionary. Remaining at home to look after her invalid mother, she threw her considerable energies into any opportunity for service that came her way. She started adult schools and self-help societies for the London poor, set up and ran convalescent and childen's homes at the seaside at Folkestone and Worthing and qualified as a nurse. At the same time she acted as secretary for innumerable Quaker committees. She later said that during those years she was known for her bag, her bonnet and her Bible.
In spite of the age difference between them Robert and Mary Jane's shared interests and enthusiam brought them together and in July 1886, when he was 22 and she was 39, they married and in September set out together for China.
Eventually they made their way to Szechwan, West China where they arrived in May 1887. They made the hazardous journey from Shanghai 1000 miles up the Yangtze River to Ichang and then 500 miles through the gorges, the boats pulled by trackers with bamboo rope. They studied the Chinese language and customs and developed the Friends Mission against considerable odds through medical and educational as well as evangelistic work. Mary Jane used her nursing and midwifery skills as well as her organisational and administrative abilities to assist Robert and to work herself among Chinese women. They had one son, Robert, known as Robin, born in 1889.
|Teapot from Horniman collection|
|The Davidson brothers, 1902, Henry, Warburton, Alfred and Robert|
In January 1918 Mary Jane died suddenly and unexpectedly of pneumonia at the age of 70. Her daughter-in-law Kathleen wrote, 'There is no fearfulness, no ugliness, no horror in her death. She was wonderful. The order of her house, her accounts, and all she possessed surpasses anything I ever thought of. She must have always been prepared to go.'
|Mary Jane and Robert at Szechwan YM, 1916|
Four years later Robert married an American colleague, Pearl Page. In his later years he became a lecturer at the West China Union University which he and his brothers had helped to found. When he retired in 1925 he was asked to take on the headmastership of the Friends School in Brummana, Lebanon, where he stayed for five years.
In 1932 Robert finally retired and settled on the south coast of England in Bournemouth, where his meeting much appreciated his help with young people and his service as an elder. He was far from idle, taking on the secretaryship of the Christian Universities in China Council and of the China Committee of Friends Service Council (which had taken over the work of FFMA). Although his health prevented him from taking up the many invitations he received to return to China he attended many international meetings and it was while he was at one of these in California that Robert died of heart failure at the age of seventy-eight.