Peter Briggs: 1926-2020
Teacher, headteacher, and magistrate who had a long association with BMS World Mission after serving in Congo
In 1942, to celebrate the 150th foundation of the BMS, an appeal was made for £150,000 and 150 candidates for missionary service. Peter and Eileen were two of that 150, Peter having already made contact with Ernest Payne at one of the BMS’s monthly prayer meetings held at the old BMS headquarters in Furnival Street before these were bombed.
The Briggs family were stalwarts of the old Upton Chapel in Lambeth situated immediately opposite the Imperial War Museum where Peter's father, grandfather and aunt all served as deacons. It was there at the last service held in the bombed-out shell of a roof-less Upton that Peter and Eileen were baptised by the Revd Theo Valentine in 1941. Leaving Dulwich College in 1944 Peter joined the navy and saw war service with the Pacific Fleet in Ceylon and Australia.
Demobbed in 1947 Peter trained to become a teacher at Culham College of Education with an additional year of theological study at Birmingham University. On graduating he taught for a few years at what was then an experimental comprehensive school in West Norwood whilst Eileen trained to become a state registered nurse. The family were now in membership with Chatsworth Baptist Church under the ministry of the Revd Frank Goodwin and Peter became an officer in the church’s strong Boys Brigade Company.
Peter and Eileen were married in 1949, the service being held at Herne Hill Baptist Church, because Chatsworth’s buildings had been totally destroyed by a V2 weapon in September 1944, before being accepted by the Baptist Missionary Society for missionary service in the then Belgian Congo in 1952. A further two years of training took place, first at the Selly Oak Colleges, and then in language training and the securing in Brussels the appropriate Belgian qualifications for work in Congo.
Their initial work was in the Upper Congo at Yakusu and its sub-stations, but they later transferred to the Lower Congo to represent the Upper Congo communities on the staff of the Ecole de Pasteurs et d'Instituteurs where Peter was involved in teacher training and the founding of a new secondary school at Ngombe Lutete [Wathen].
However his work there was complicated by the outbreak of violence in the Congo people’s search for independence from a reluctant Belgium. When Eileen was evacuated by helicopter the local church persuaded Peter and a colleague to remain to do what they could in what was now a war-torn situation, though the deacons were unable to guarantee their safety. The situation deteriorated and the British ambassador was anxious to extricate all British personnel, though an armed patrol to evacuate the missionaries was deemed too dangerous.
News of the missionaries’ safety was hard to come by in the UK prompting much urgent prayerful concern. At this point one of Peter’s former students who rejoiced in the name of ‘Emile Zola’ managed to reach them and send a coded telegram that the stranded missionaries ‘would accept the help of Uncle Sam’s whirly bird‘ [i.e an American helicopter], but this never arrived and after some hazardous experiences, taking advantage of a lull in the violence, the two missionaries escaped by hiding in the back of a VW Beetle, Peter thereafter to be of service to the newly arrived UN forces as an interpreter.
After a year on furlough in the UK, Peter and Eileen returned to the Upper River, to Kisangani [the former Stanleyville], 1300 miles up the Congo River, to set up a Christian book shop and a large educational service for schools, distributing books, and stationery. The work was well established, but once more civil disturbance – the early years of the Simba rebellion –in which some missionaries were killed, caused Peter and Eileen to return to the UK, but not before Peter had helped in founding the first Congo Protestant University, which still exists, though nationalised in 1971. Peter also served at this time as pastor of the Kisangani Baptist Church.
Back in England, Peter had a second career in the education of children suffering from social maladjustment becoming in 1969 the founding headmaster of Yewcroft School in Harborne, Birmingham, which sought to deploy, in a residential context, a holistic concern for these youngsters’ development, with a view to their being able later successfully to reintegrate into ordinary secondary school education. The experience he gained in this work he later deployed as a magistrate on Birmingham’s juvenile bench. On their return to Birmingham, Peter and Eileen joined the church at Warley where Peter served as a deacon and for a time as church secretary.
Taking early retirement in 1983, Peter became the Baptist Missionary Society’s first Midlands Area Representative undertaking extensive visits to the churches in both the West and East Midlands promoting the work of the society, in a voluntary capacity. To equip him in this task he and Eileen made a visit for the BMS to a quite different mission field namely Brazil in 1990. He also served on the society’s General Committee until the year 2000, where he successfully campaigned for the creation of a Peace and Justice Group. He wryly commented that his work for the BMS ended where it had begun, in the service he gave as honorary librarian of St Andrew’s College, Selly Oak.
Peter is survived by Eileen, his wife of 71 years, his son and daughter in law, Sam and Helen, and his grand-daughter, Juliette.