A remarkable woman from Hong Kong

SERAMPORE NEAR CALCUTTA was a Danish colony, or at least under Danish administration, between 1755 and 1845. It was then known as ‘Frederiknagore’. When we visited the place briefly in 2019, we were struck by the similarity of the type of design of its Church of St Olave (built 1806) and that of the far better-known St Martin-in-the-Fields (built 1721-26) on the east side of London’s Trafalgar Square. Although there are similarities between the two churches, there are also many differences. One of them is that the interior of St Olave’s is far plainer that that of St Martin’s. Even though many thousands of miles apart, there is a tiny aspect of Asia in the church on Trafalgar Square.

In the southwest corner of St Martin’s, I spotted a memorial, which aroused my curiosity. It is a simple green cloth-covered square notice board surrounded by a wooden frame in which various things are carved. These include the words “Requests for prayer”; carved plant motifs; Chinese pictograms; and the words “Praise God for his servant Florence Li Tim-Oi DD. 1907-1992. The first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion 25 January 1944”. There were several notices and a couple of plastic drinking cups pinned on the board.

Florence was born in Aberdeen, Hong Kong during a time that most Chinese parents favoured male children. However, her parents were unusual in that they challenged the then current prejudice against girls. As a student, she joined the Anglican church, probably after hearing a preacher (in Hong Kong) asking for women to dedicate their lives to working for the Christian ministry. At her baptism, she chose her English name, Florence, to honour the late Florence Nightingale. After studying at the Canton Theological College, she was eventually, in 1941, ordained as a deaconess. At that time, she was sent to the then Portuguese colony of Macau to help refugees fleeing there from war-torn China.

When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong, it became impossible for ordained Anglican priests to reach Macau. Although she was not yet ordained, Florence had to perform all the functions normally carried out by an ordained priest. In January 1944, she met Hong Kong’s Bishop Raymond Hall in an unoccupied part of China. There, the bishop, realising that there was no Anglican priest in Macau and that Florence had the ‘gift of priestly ministry’, ordained her as an Anglican priest. In so doing, on the 25th of January 1944, Florence made history by becoming the first woman to be ordained as an Anglican priest. This was 30 years before the ordination of women was permitted by the Anglican Church in the rest of the world. So, her ordination was frowned upon by some leaders of the Anglican Church.

After WW2 was over, Florence lived and ministered in China. In Maoist China, churches were closed (from 1958 to 1974), and during the so-called Cultural Revolution, Florence led a miserable life, as did many other Chinese people. She was sent to a farm to work with chickens and her home was raided several times. After a long time, she was allowed to retire from the farm and was given permission to leave China. In 1983, she was taken to Canada, where she assisted in the religious activities of a church in Toronto. By then, the Anglican Church in Canada had approved of the ordination of women. On the 40th anniversary of her ordination in China, she was reinstated as a priest. In later life, Florence served at the Anglican Cathedral in Toronto, where she lived the rest of her life.

I do not know when the memorial noticeboard commemorating Florence was installed in St Martin-in-the-Fields. However, on the 25th of January 2014, a service was held in the church to mark the 70th anniversary of her ordination as the first female Anglican priest. I am pleased that I spotted the somewhat unobtrusive notice board because if I had missed seeing it, I might never have known about this remarkable woman of faith.

How I avoided an awful fate

Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE IS A CITY which I have visited often since I was a child. My first recollection of the place was visiting Gonville and Caius College to meet my father’s long-term collaborator, the Hungarian born economist Peter Bauer (1915-2002). Later, after 1965, during my childhood and adolescence, we used to visit Cambridge to spend time with my father’s friend from his student days in Cape Town (South Africa), the social scientist Cyril Sofer (died 1974) and his wife Elaine. At first, I used to visit them with my family and when I was in my teens, I used to stay with them in their large Victorian house near Selwyn College. It was Elaine, who first introduced me to the joys of the drink known as ‘Bloody Mary’.Further travels to Cambridge followed when a childhood friend of mine attended Clare College to study for his bachelor’s degree. Through him, I met his good friend, now a well-known writer, Matthew Parris.

Many more visits to Cambridge followed my graduation at University College London in 1973. Although I remained in London to study for a higher degree, some of those who had graduated with me moved to Cambridge to pursue further studies. Three out of the nine of us, who graduated in physiology in 1973, embarked on doctoral theses in the city’s university. One of these was Lopa, who is now my wife. While she was at Cambridge, we were still ‘just good friends’, as the saying goes.

On one of my visits to see Lopa, I stayed in a house in Owlstone Road, which is south of the historic centre of Cambridge. A mattress was set up for me in a ground floor room with a street facing window. The room had been recently occupied by a female student, who had moved elsewhere. This sojourn in the city was during the time when the so-called Cambridge Rapist was assaulting young women, always within their homes, at an alarming rate. He carried out his attacks between October 1974 and April the following year.

Apparently, he followed potential victims to their homes and noted down their addresses in a notebook.The rapist carried out his first rape on the 18th of October 1974. Then another on the first of November, and yet again on the 13th of that month (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Samuel_Cook). The latter was carried out within Homerton College, now a part of Cambridge University. He struck again on the 13th of February 1975, and then, unsuccessfully, on the 5th of May.

I slept soundly at Owlstone Road when I was staying there for a night or two. One morning, I woke up and saw police vehicles out in the road. It was the 8th of December 1974 and the rapist had raped a woman in the house next door to where I was staying, having broken into its ground floor room, which mirrored that in which I was sleeping. What none of us knew until after the perpetrator, Peter Samuel Cook, was eventually caught during his attack on Owlstone Croft’s nurses’ hostel in June 1975, was that the villain had listed the house in which Lopa was living with some other young ladies in his notebook of potential targets. The young lady who had occupied the room where I spent a couple of nights was in the rapist’s list of future victims.

Cook, who had knifed at least one of his victims, was a violent person and might have been awfully annoyed with me had he broken into the room where I was sleeping and found me, a man, instead of one of his intended female targets. Subsequent visits to the wonderful city of Cambridge have not, I am pleased to relate, been so potentially hazardous. Cook was jailed for life and died in Winchester Prison in 2004.