Dictionary of New Zealand Bography logo

Story: James, Annie Isabella

Page 1: Biography

James, Annie Isabella


Presbyterian missionary

This biography, written by Stuart Vogel, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Annie Isabella James was born on 22 April 1884 at Otepopo, North Otago, New Zealand, and grew up on a farm at nearby Herbert, in a family of six boys and six girls. Her parents were Elizabeth Morrison and her husband, Joseph James, a farmer. She attended Otepopo School, but her schooling did not progress beyond standard six as she was needed on the farm. Her mother died in 1903 and she moved to Dunedin to work in domestic service. There she joined the St Andrew's Presbyterian Church youth group. A fascination with mission work overseas, and in particular China, was encouraged by the minister of St Andrew's, Rutherford Waddell, and subsequently by Alexander Don and George McNeur, who had founded the Canton Villages Mission of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand.

James was accepted for overseas missionary training, and the members of the St Andrew's Bible Class agreed to raise sixpence per week each for her support while the congregation pledged £100 a year. She attended the Presbyterian Women's Training Institute in 1910 and 1911. Despite her lack of formal education she took second place in church history, and was ordained deaconess in September 1912. Don and McNeur helped her to study Chinese, and she was appointed to the Canton Villages Mission as an evangelist, stationed at the mission compound at Kong Chuen (Jiangcun), 13 miles north of Canton (Guangzhou). In 1914 her health required her to return to New Zealand, where she trained in midwifery; in 1916 she returned to China.

Kong Chuen hospital opened in October 1917. Annie James worked with girls' schools in Kong Chuen and nearby villages, but her main ministry was among women and children in evangelistic and medical work. In 1921 she returned to New Zealand and undertook the Karitāne nursing course in Dunedin. Qualified as a maternity nurse, she returned to Kong Chuen in 1922. After anti-Christian riots between 1925 and 1927, when the Kong Chuen compound was evacuated three times, James was relocated at Lung Tseung, about 40 miles from Canton in the heart of the Fa (Hua) district, a position considered strategic for the mission's work.

After a two-month course in child welfare in Melbourne in 1929, in 1930 she was transferred to Kaai Hau, 40 miles north-east of Canton, at the request of local Chinese leaders. She opened a branch hospital, where she was to serve until 1951. She began maternity and dispensary work immediately, and in March 1934 was able to report 2,000 cases referred to the dispensary, 43 indoor maternity cases and 48 outcalls over the previous 18 months. She also began a Sunday school, daily ward services, weekly study groups, and services of worship, using a local preacher. The hospital was soon self-supporting, apart from a grant to supply a trained nurse. Its isolation, however, made it difficult to keep trained staff.

In 1935 and 1936 she was on furlough in New Zealand, bringing with her Betty Leung (Po Chan), one of the five orphan children she eventually adopted. By now the hospital was established as an important medical and missionary centre. James had compiled a handbook in Cantonese on the principles of infant feeding and hygiene. Better roads had lessened the isolation of Kaai Hau, and in 1936 James was given a Ford V8 by the Busy Bees children's missionary organisation in New Zealand, an indication of her growing status. James's Chinese name, Tse Koo, meant 'beautiful and peaceful', and the local people supported Po Wai Yi Yen, 'The Hospital of Universal Love', enthusiastically.

In October 1937 the Japanese army bombed and occupied Kaai Hau. James had to abandon the hospital, and set up a clinic in a temple 10 miles away, returning to Kaai Hau every five days to conduct a dispensary. She refused advice to leave her post and return to the relative safety of Canton or Kong Chuen. In 1942 she was able to return to Kaai Hau, but had to flee when Japanese forces appeared. For her courage and determination she was recommended for an MBE, which was awarded in 1942 but not presented until 1952.

Before 1949 there were three main departments in the hospital: the daily clinic, which saw an average of 1,750 patients per month; the maternity department, which had 16 beds; and the outcall maternity department, which involved James in long and arduous trips around the local Tsung Fa (Conghua) district. James was assisted by three nurse aids and a graduate of the church's nursing school. She returned to New Zealand for furlough in 1946–47, again in poor health, and sought support to rebuild the hospital. But on her return in August 1947 political instability had made the project impossible, and in October 1949 the communist takeover prevented further development. The volume of work at the hospital declined markedly after official discouragement of the use of Christian hospitals.

Annie James knew that the presence of a foreigner in Kaai Hau would make life difficult for her nurses, and she applied for an exit visa. However, on 26 February 1951 she was interned and charged with the death of the child of a communist general. This charge was dropped, but other accusations were brought against her, stretching over the previous 21 years. After extreme hardship, which brought her close to death, these too were abandoned and James was released. On 10 April other members of the mission had been withdrawn to Hong Kong, where James arrived on 13 May. Back in New Zealand she recorded her experiences in I was in prison, published in 1952.

Annie James spent 1952 in Hong Kong working at a home for refugee children. She officially retired on 31 March 1953, but continued to assist in this work. Of her adopted children, only one, Po Chue, was able to immigrate to New Zealand when James returned in 1961. She settled back among her old congregation in Dunedin. She died on 6 February 1965 in Auckland.

Annie James's life epitomises missionary dedication in the early twentieth century. Her hospital and her self-sacrifice were signs of the greater and universal love in which she believed, and her return to New Zealand marked the end of a missionary era. Small, slight and unassuming, James was avowedly non-political. She had lived through some of the most turbulent times in Chinese history, and in a series of popular biographies her example was held up as an image of courage and heroism to New Zealanders.

How to cite this page:

Stuart Vogel. 'James, Annie Isabella', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3j4/james-annie-isabella (accessed 23 July 2024)