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RIP Elsie Beatrice Manley

May 25, 2020

Elsie Beatrice Manley: ABM Missionary PNG 1949-1963

By the Rt Rev Dr Jonathan Holland (author of The Destiny and Passion of Philip Nigel Warrington Strong), with a note by Don and Rosemary Mortimer (ABM PNG 1963-1969 and 1966-1969), and notes by the Rev Dr Ivan Head Gifts in Wills ABM. 

Elsie was born in Albany, Western Australia in 1923 to Harold and Enid, one of 5 children. Educated at Methodist Ladies College, Perth, she subsequently worked in a woollen mill in Albany as an accountant. 

As a young woman she heard the ABM Chair, Bishop George Cranswick, call for missionaries to serve in New Guinea. It was the post-War years; new overseas horizons had become visible; missionary work had a certain romance about it; and Albany was a small place to be locked into. Elsie, ready for an adventure, moved to the House of Epiphany, ABM’s missionary training centre in Sydney, and undertook studies to be a teacher. Her father asked after her forthcoming salary. Elsie replied 25 pounds. Not bad, per month. No said, Elsie, per year. Her father was shocked: and he would have to pick up any shortfall in Elsie’s expenses! Margaret Young was the Warden then and had a ‘no smoking’ policy. The story goes that she came into the room when the students, or at least Elsie, were smoking and Elsie put her head in the chimney to see where the smoke was coming from!

In 1949 she landed on the shores of Papua; and met the bishop, Philip Strong, whose steadfastness during the war had won him admiration around Australia. He sent her to Gona Mission station on the north-east coast, where for 12 years she worked alongside priests and nurses as the station’s head teacher. She was one of a number of well-trained educators, who began to improve the delivery and organisation of teaching in the Mission in these post-War years. 

She taught around 300 children each year at the primary level, as well as supervising a number of Papuan teacher-evangelists. Living conditions were basic, but Elsie was not in any way materialistic. Boarders lived in small dormitories. They cooked their own food, grew their own vegetables, slept on dusty floors. There were no pens or pencils, irregular class attendance, language difficulties, occasional pregnancies. Yet much fun and learning. 

Elsie could be a strict teacher. She knew her mind and could express it forcefully, something that those who knew her in Australia could also testify to. But any strictness was tempered by an even greater kindness and sensitivity and many new missionaries could thank Elsie for her welcome to them and her willingness to help them acclimatise: cakes baked, insect repellent shared, advice born of tropical experience given.

She also had mischievous sense of humour. Once she compiled a small booklet called ‘Tropically Typically Topical’ with a wonderfully long sub-title, that began; ‘A Non-Anthropological Study of Papuan Dunnies ….’ If in Australia, she began, there were a number of words to describe a toilet – the dunny, the loo, the lavatory, the privy, the out-house, the bog – in Papua there was one word only – the ‘small house’. She recalled the Queen’s visit to Sydney in 1954 and Richard Dimbleby’s delightful radio commentary heard throughout Papua, which brought such joy to listeners when he said: ‘I don’t think there is small house in Sydney without a Union Jack flying on it today’! She hoped readers would have a ‘giggle’ as she described some of the small houses in Papua she had seen and used!

From time to time Elsie assisted Bishop Strong in his administrative work. Much of it was typing: letters, memos, reports, and most significantly, the bishop’s diary notes often scribbled on scraps of paper before deciphering and typing by Elsie, then pasted in a foolscap exercise book. Volumes of these diaries are now in the National Library, Canberra where Elsie’s careful typing, representing entries for more than three decades can be seen.

The ABM history, Grit and Grace contains this all too brief line about Elsie post the catastrophic eruption of Mt Lamington in 1951: ‘Miss Elsie Manning and Mr Ted Marriott held together the population of the Martyrs’ School in temporary accommodation on the old site at Gona until the beginning of 1952 . . .’ 

Of her days in New Guinea she wrote in the 2011 publication Missionary Memories edited by ABM missionaries John and Judith Cottier: ‘I am glad that I was in PNG when I was; there were tough times, the Mount Lamington eruption, shortage of teaching aids, teachers etc, long Walkabout to inspect schools etc etc but the Mission family WAS a family and many of us keep in touch and know them better than some members of our natural families. We and the Government Officers and Administration were honest and did our work in the fairest and best ways . . . .’ 

By 1962, Elsie felt she had done all she could in PNG. Strong had been elected Archbishop of Brisbane; and when he indicated his need for a secretary in Brisbane, Elsie was pleased to accept. She lived with him in Bishopsbourne at Hamilton, in her own room, and from Hamilton would type and post his letters.

Hers became a ministry of devotion and support to Strong. Although 24 years his junior, she became a maternal carer and fiercely loyal to him. She prepared his meals, ironed his shirts and bought his clothes. She answered the phone, made appointments, and typed up his diary. She packed his case for interstate trips, made sure he left on time for appointments (punctuality was not one of Strong’s virtues) and not infrequently drove him to his destination. Strong was fortunate to have Elsie around.

In 1970, Elsie retired with Strong to Wangaratta. She continued not only as a carer, but as a companion and friend, perhaps the only person who could persuade Strong from a particular course of action. Theirs was a comfortable, close, loyal and platonic friendship. 

The house received many visitors, Elsie always providing the food and drinks. She enjoyed cooking and if she knew anyone in Wangaratta who was sick, she would appear at their front door with food. 

She did not like throwing anything out, with the result that clutter was everywhere, but it didn’t matter. She got involved in her own interests, more so as Strong aged and then died in 1983: a book group, some teaching at Wangaratta secondary school, lots of church activities, including around the cathedral, and the Sunday lunch roast with friends. 

In more recent years, Elsie lived at St. Johns Aged Care Village. She died peacefully in the early hours of Friday 15 May, aged 97. She will be remembered fondly by many: especially for her kindnesses and humour, her many friends and family, her support for and friendship with Strong, and her contribution to the Anglican church in PNG. ABM acknowledges her extraordinary life and service.