Great Churchmen No. 22
First Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa
Published by Church Book Room Press
James Hannington was born on September 3rd, 1847 at Hurstpierpoint, in Sussex, where his father, Charles Smith Hannington, had but recently acquired the property known as St. George’s. The pleasant mansion with its ample grounds and shrubberies and its neighbouring lakelets must have proved a veritable paradise for a child whose eye was uncommonly keen to observe the habits of
birds and the barely-perceptible movements of timid woodland creatures, whose ear was early attuned to the sound of little voices in bush and bank and hedgerow. The boy was, moreover an eager collector, and, as his horizon grew, so did his cases and cabinets increase in size and number. In these pursuits he was helped and encouraged by his mother—“the gentlest, sweetest, dearest mother that, ever lived”, as he once called her. Her understanding love was the greatest influence in the early life of the excitable, high-spirited and sometimes wayward boy, whose self-willed and reckless nature was nevertheless redeemed by affectionate and generous strains and by that sterling honesty that was ever one of his chief characteristics.
For James’s early education a tutor had been engaged, but when he was thirteen he was sent to the Temple School at Brighton, where he remained for the next two-and-a-half years. Despite the kindness and sympathy of a discerning headmaster he cannot be said to have derived much happiness or benefit from his schooling, for academic studies did not, at this stage, appeal to him. At the age of fifteen he entered his father’s counting-house and for the next six years or so he was engaged in commercial life, for which he was temperamentally so unfitted. The monotony was, however, broken by many a cruise in the family yacht and by extensive European travel. In addition to these activities he obtained a commission in the 1st Sussex Artillery Volunteers. He proved an excellent officer and, under his training and supervision, his detachment won more than one valuable prize at the annual camp competitions.
Despite the joys of frequent travel and his progress in soldiering, “shades of the prison-house”—which in his case meant the counting-house—were beginning to close upon the energetic youth, and it was only his strong sense of filial duty that prevented him from relinquishing a position that was becoming increasingly irksome to him. The story of his emancipation therefrom is a most interesting one.
Towards the close of 1867 the chapel of St. George’s, which Charles Smith Hannington had built in his private grounds for non-conformist services, was, by his express desire, licensed for Church of England worship by the then Bishop of Chichester, and it was thenceforth recognized as a curacy under the Rector of Hurstpierpoint. The opening service under the new order was held on December 17th of that year and James recorded his impressions on the “splendid and most suitable sermon” preached by the Rector on that memorable occasion. He little thought as he wrote those words that the day would come when he himself would occupy that pulpit. The succeeding year naturally brought him into closer contact with ministers and prominent laymen of the Church of England than he had experienced previously. Not that spiritual yearnings had been hitherto unknown to him. Many passages in his diary show that there were longings, indefinite perhaps, and but half-articulate, which indicated that beneath all his fun and gaiety there were far deeper strains than the casual observer would have imagined. But the change from “Independent” to Church worship would seem to have led him to a more constant habit of self-examination and to an increased exercise of prayer.
By the year 1868 he had it “fixed upon his mind” that he was to be ordained, but a disturbing question repeatedly came to him. Was he seeking ordination because of a genuine desire to serve God and his fellow-men, or because it offered a means of escape from the commercial service he so much hated? With his characteristic honesty Hannington would have scorned to enter the ministry unless directed thereto by motive’s entirely worthy. But on April 23rd of that memorable year he was able to write to his mother: “I have decided in favour of the Church. I believe that God is with me in this matter.”
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