Winifred Ashby was born in November 1876, and married Harry Lechmere Clift in 1901. For their life story see under Harry Lechmere Clift. Theirs was very much a joint missionary work in Nanning, China with the CMS initially, then the BCMS from 1924-30 and latterly in Hong Kong from 1930.
From their early days in Kuei Lin, Guangxi Province (1906), Winifred provided invaluable assistance to her husband in the Medical Centres they started, interviewing patients as they arrived, assessing their ability to pay, and weeding out scroungers; also helping in operations, or as a chaperone, or indeed conducting consultations in cases where women were not happy seeing a male doctor. With those patients she would put questions given by Dr Clift. She would also make up prescriptions written by him. When he was ill and unable to see patients, Mr Child, their host, would interview the male patients, and Winifred the female, reporting symptoms back to 'H' (as she called him, he called her Win), and following his directions. There was no lack of work to do. By their expertise and hard work the Clifts overcame the innate resistance to 'foreign medicine' that was felt by the local population.
To speed up their integration and acceptance they both dressed in Chinese fashion. Winifred writes, 'My foreign ways interested them immensely. The fact that I brushed my hair every day was a great amusement. They will leave their elaborate chignons (coil of hair at the back of the head) untouched for days, only smoothing stray hairs now and then.'
The Clifts' other great work was to establish and lead churches, firstly in Kuei Lin and Nanning and later the Emmanuel Mission Church in Kowloon from the 1930s onwards, using the wealth of their missionary experience combined with their leadership and teaching giftings. Winifred would play a baby organ to accompany the hymns sung in the services. In their early years the organ was an object of wonder to local people, who were delighted that this machine could sing with them. Winifred also led a Ladies' Bible Study Group and delivered lectures on Christian topics during the week.
During their time in Nanning, the Clifts even started a Foundling Home to take in abandoned babies, mostly girls, which grew to number some 26 infants. Although having no family of their own, they clearly had a heart for children, and could not stand by and tolerate the female infanticide that prevailed at the time. However, managing a medical mission as well as a church and a foundling home was hugely ambitious and probably a bridge too far, and in 1924 'the state of Mrs. Clift's health made it plain that she must be moved to Hong Kong.' The problem was solved by handing the whole lot over to their Missionary Society, the BCMS, to manage. This they did, and they moved to Hong Kong.
Winifred Clift published four books - Very Far East, Annals of an Isle in the Pacific, Looking on in Hong Kong, and Seng Chang Sees Red and Other Stories. The first two are compiled from letters typewritten home to family and supporters describing life as they lived it, in Nanning and on Cheung Chau, the location of their holiday home. They give a fascinating insight into a fast-disappearing Imperial Dynasty China at the beginning of the 20th century, a China of feuding warlords, of distinctive male and female hairstyles, of elongated nails (which indicated wealth - one didn't have to work), of sedan chairs and rickshaws as the standard taxi service, of idol worship and belief in spirits and superstitions and dragons, and of crippling female foot-binding (also a class thing, indicating one didn't have to work. In fact it rendered one unable to work!). The Chinese also counted time in ten day periods rather than seven day weeks.
During the War, the Clifts were in their mid sixties, now with 'senior missionary' status. Winifred, interned in Stanley Camp along with her husband, was intrepid. Once she found her 'camp legs,' she continued the same weekly Bible study for women that she had run before the war. To free up any mothers, children and babies were taken care of. Winifred was 'a thorough and inspiring teacher.'
By the end of the war Jill Doggett writes that Winifred had 'suffered a great deal' and had been 'very sick.' Beth Nance states that the Clifts 'were almost bedfast (confined to bed by illness or age), especially Mrs Clift.' Consequently they were put on the first ship out of Hong Kong for repatriation.
Although they came through the War, Dr Clift died in 1949, and Winifred survived him by a further 17 years. She returned to England but must have realised her home was in Hong Kong, for she returned to live there until her own death in 1966, aged 89. She was buried together with her husband in the Hong Kong Cemetery, Happy Valley. Winifred's obituary speaks of 'years of weakness patiently borne,' perhaps referring to her latter years after Harry's death. Looking at all that she and her husband achieved and the significant influence they had, one cannot but be impressed.
Their church The Emmanuel Church continued and has now grown to six churches and is known today as The Emmanuel English Church, the rest being Cantonese language congregations.
Sources: The Yip Family of Amah Rock - Jill Doggett;
Very Far East and Annals of a Small Isle in the Pacific by Winifred Clift;
The First 25 Years of the BCMS
My Life - Elizabeth Nance;
and the Gwulo team - thank you.
Winifred Lechmere Clift
Very Far East (1909)
Very Far East
C Winifred Lechmere Clift
This is essentially a very readable journal of the first two years the Clifts spent in China, firstly at Kuei Lin in Guangxi Province and then latterly in Nanning, when it became the capital. They first went out in 1906 and set up a Medical Centre and very quickly built up a patient list, relying on the success of their treatment and word of mouth to establish trust in the local population, who were naturally wary of ‘foreign medicine.’
Patients were charged for treatment and drugs but Dr Clift was a generous man and, if funding permitted, did not deny treatment to ‘the few who cannot be turned away and who can’t possibly pay for themselves.’ In the first 4 weeks he saw over 200 patients and received 33 dollars in payment (£66 sterling). In cases where local women were unwilling to see a male doctor, Winifred would step in and chaperone or else conduct the consultation herself asking questions given to her by her husband. She also assisted in the work by making up prescriptions written by her husband.
Early on, Dr Clift had a request from the Provincial Governor for his sick granddaughter, who was ill with bronchitis and dysentery, which he managed to cure; then for his other granddaughter, who was cured of bronchitis. This greatly increased the general acceptance of the Clifts and their ‘foreign medicine.’
They went out to China without any knowledge of the Chinese language*, and took lessons after their arrival, which Winifred said sometimes she thoroughly enjoyed and other times she found a chore. They studied both Mandarin and Cantonese, which seems an ambitious undertaking. In other respects they were well versed, and from the outset followed the example of their missionary predecessors in China, and dressed in Chinese dress. This too greatly increased their acceptance and the receptivity of the locals to the gospel message they were so keen to share.
Winifred felt Chinese dress suited her husband very well, being tall and slim, and when he did revert to European dress, ‘H’ (as she calls him) said, ‘English clothes are really barbarous things.’ He felt as if he were wrapped up in stiff paper. ‘Our Chinese garments are loose and cool and altogether more comfortable.’ In later years back in Hong Kong, the Clifts reverted to western dress.
Dr Clift even went so far as to adopt the Chinese hairstyle, having the front of the head shaved every 10 days and sporting a long Manchu braid at the back. This had been compulsory for nationals in the Qing Dynasty but the practice was gradually abandoned in the years after it ended (post 1911).
The early years in Kuei Lin were when the Clifts first began the practice of holding their own Sunday services, as there was literally no one else within 100 miles (or more) of where they were, offering anything of the sort. In the early days when men and women expected to meet separately, Winifred played their baby organ for the women. Dr Clift had to put in a lot of practice to accompany a few hymns for the men. Later on they held joint meetings but with a central dividing curtain in place, and Winifred accompanied.
As local people came to faith, so the Clifts’ little congregation grew, and when they went to Hong Kong in 1930 it must have been a very natural thing to keep church going. And so the Emmanuel Church came into being.
* This may seem strange to us today, where the practice is to learn before going. There can't have been the provision back then. It was certainly happening after the War. Lucy Clay learned Cantonese at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London before going out in 1948.