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Thomas Bridges (1842–1898) was the first Anglican missionary to succeed in setting up a mission in Tierra del Fuegomarker, Argentinamarker. On his retirement from missionary service he received a grant of land from the Argentinean Government and became a rancher.

To understand the scale of his achievement it is necessary to know a little of the earlier missionary activities in that area.

In 1826 Captain Robert Fitzroy, in command of HMS Beagle, was sent to explore the Southern Ocean and to chart the channels at the southern extremity of South America. He discovered the channel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, now known as the Beagle Channel, which forms the southern shore of Tierra del Fuego. In the course of that expedition four young Yahgan or Yamanah people were taken on board and carried back to England. They were given the names, Boat Memory, York Minster, Fuegia Basket and Jimmy or Jeremy or Jemmy Button. Boat Memory died soon after arriving in England. The others were educated and taught various crafts. After two years in England they were returned to Tierra del Fuego by Captain Fitzroy again in the Beagle. It was hoped that they would give the local population a favourable report of their treatment in England. To continue their education on the voyage they were accompanied by Richard Matthews of the Church Missionary Society and he intended to remain with them in Tierra del Fuego. They were landed at Wulaia, on the west coast of Navarin Island, south of the present day town of Ushuaia, together with food, clothing, tools and other supplies. A vegetable garden was created and three huts built; one for Matthews, one for Jimmy Button and one to be shared by York Minster and Fuegia Basket who had been married on the shore of the island on arrival. The marriage was performed by Matthews and was perhaps the first Christian ceremony involving the local population to be held in Tierra del Fuego. The ship’s party returned to the Beagle leaving Matthews and the Fuegians on the island. Later Fitzroy decided to return to the island to check that all was well and found Matthews distraught. He had been subjected to continual pestering, his belongings taken and was in fear for his life. Matthews was taken back on board the Beagle and returned to England.

The next attempt was made by Allen Gardiner. He was instrumental in founding the Patagonian Missionary Society. In 1848 he and four companions set off for Tierra del Fuego with six month’s supplies planning to land and to make contact with Jimmy Button and the rest of the local population. That attempt failed due to a combination of the hostility of the Fuegians and bad weather. Gardiner returned to England.

In 1850 Gardiner recruited six companions, Mr. Williams, a surgeon, Mr. Maidment, a missionary, and four Cornish boatmen Messrs Badcock, Bryant, Erwin and Pearce, to make a new attempt. He purchased two open launches, which he named the Pioneer and Speedwell, and a tender for each. In September the ship Ocean Queen, bound from Liverpool to California, took Gardiner, his companions, his boats, and six months' provisions to South America and they were landed at Banner Cove on Picton Island on the 5th of December. Due to an oversight, their supplies of ammunition were left on board ship leaving them with inadequate supplies for hunting for food.

They had no success. They did not make contact with Jimmy Button. The Fuegians they did encounter were hostile and demanded or took whatever of the party’s belongings they wished. Gardiner and his party escaped in their boats but they were pursued. Eventually Gardiner and all the others died either of illness or starvation. However, before he died, Gardiner wrote proposals of how future attempts to engage the Fuegians should proceed. He proposed that Fuegians should be invited to the Falkland Islands where they would be well treated and be allowed to return to Tierra del Fuego whenever they wanted thus persuading others to follow and to establish a firm friendship between the missionaries and the Fuegians. He also urged the missionaries to learn the Fuegian language. He hoped that contact would be made with York Minster, Fuegia Basket or Jimmy Button who would assist in these proposals.

Following the failure of Gardiner’s expeditions the next attempt was led by George Pakenham Despard, then secretary of the Patagonian Missionary Society. From 1853 to 1855 George Despard was curate at Holy Trinity church Lenton, Nottingham. He had formerly lived in Redland, Bristol where he ran a private school at his home. He had also been the Chaplain of the Clifton Union, the Poor Law Union covering a large area of suburban Bristol and some adjoining rural areas. In the early 1840s the Union used the buildings of several of the old parish workhouses: the children of the Union were housed in the St George Workhouse, at Hudds Vale Road, Bristol. In 1847 a new workhouse was erected at 100 Fishponds Road. All of these addresses are in the Stapleton are of Bristol.

It was in Bristol that Despard met Allen Gardiner and where his association with the missionary society began.

It was also in Bristol that George Despard encountered Thomas Bridges. The precise detail is unclear. It is generally accepted that Thomas Bridges was found abandoned, aged about 2½ in Bristol, possibly on a footbridge, and that he either wore a locket with the initial ‘T’ or that his clothing was marked with a letter ‘T’ from which it was inferred that his name was Thomas. Thomas is said to have chosen the surname Bridges in recognition of place where he was found. He is thought to have been born in 1842.

There is no record of Thomas Bridges in the 1851 UK census. There is, however, a pupil, George H Bridges, aged about 11, in the private school at George Despard’s house in Redland, Bristol. The entry immediately above that of George H Bridges is another pupil, George H Pope. Given the improbability of two boys in consecutive entries having the same first names it seems likely that the entry for George H Bridges is a transcription error and that he is in fact Thomas Bridges. If so, it is possible that he was put initially into the workhouse at Hudds Vale Road and that George Despard later, on recognizing a gifted pupil, took him into his private school.

George Despard set about putting Allen Gardiner’s plans into action. The Society obtained a grant of Keppel Island in the Falklands and purchased a schooner which was named the Allen Gardiner. The schooner, captained by Captain Parker Snow, sailed for Keppel Island in October 1854 carrying a prefabricated house and provisions and the base was established. The schooner then proceeded to Wulaia where Capt. Snow met Jimmy Button and an unsuccessful attempt was made to persuade several of the local people to go on the ship back to Keppel Island.

After this Captain Snow made no further contact with the Fuegians. The missionary society in England felt that time was being wasted and the ship was recalled. George Despard volunteered to lead the next expedition. He took with him his second wife and his children, four daughters, Emily, Bertha, Florence and Harriet and his son Emilius. He also took Thomas Bridges, then aged about 13.

This trip was much more successful than the earlier ones. Contact was made with the local people and several were persuaded to go to Keppel Island where some of them learned English and some of the English, Thomas Bridges in particular, learned the local language. This contact with the locals continued for four years after which it was decided to embark on the next stage of the plan i.e. to set up a mission at Wulaia. The ship sailed under the command of Captain Fell. The party included Garland Philips a catechist, and several others. George Despard and his extended family remained on Keppel Island.

Months passed without news. Eventually George Despard set off in the schooner Nancy in search of the Allen Gardiner. They found her anchored at Wulaia completely stripped. On board was the ship’s cook Alfred Cole. He reported that, on arrival at Wulaia the ship was surrounded by locals some of whom took property belonging to the ship’s party which the crew then retrieved. Despite this poor start the party landed the necessary materials and built a mission building. On the 6th November 1859 the building was sufficiently complete to hold the first church service. The entire ship’s crew, except for Mr. Cole, attended. He remained on the ship. Shortly after the start of the service the crew was attacked by the local population and all were killed. Mr. Cole escaped but was later captured.

After some repairs the Allen Gardiner and the Nancy returned to Keppel Island. After this setback George Despard petitioned the missionary society asking permission to return to England. When the society gave its approval he and his family returned to England. However Thomas Bridges, then aged about 18, remained in charge of the Keppel Island base. Thomas Bridges spent the next year on Keppel Island living with some of the Fuegians who had remained there. In this way he perfected his knowledge of the language and he started work on a dictionary of the language, which when completed in 1879, contained 32,000 words.

The next superintendant of the base was the Rev. Whait Hockin Stirling. The Rev. Stirling and Thomas Bridges made their first excursion into Tierra del Fuego in 1863. They made contact with the Fuegians who, on encountering a white man who could speak their language, received them well. In 1866 the Rev. Stirling made a visit to England accompanied by four Fuegian boys. They returned and in 1867/8 a group of Fuegians were assisted in setting up a settlement at Laiwaia on Navarin Island. Then a search was made for the best spot for a mission. The site chosen was in what is now Ushuaia and a small three-roomed prefabricated hut, about 20 feet by 10 feet, was prepared at Port Stanley for erection at Ushuaia. The hut was erected on the shore at Ushuaia and the Rev. Stirling, accompanied by one of the young Fuegians who had accompanied him to England and the latter’s wife, moved in on 14 January 1869. The Rev. Stirling remained at Ushuaia until the Allen Gardiner returned and then returned to England where he was ordained, as the first Bishop of the Falkland Islands in Westminster Abbey on 21 December 1869. Bishop Stirling had jurisdiction over ‘the whole of South America with the exception of British Guiana’.

Thomas Bridges did not take part in building the hut because, in 1868, the South American Missionary Society (successors to the Patagonian Missionary Society) decided that he should return to England and take Holy Orders. He was ordained deacon by the bishop of London and then spent some time touring England lecturing on Tierra del Fuego and his work there.

In Bristol he met his future wife, Mary Ann Varder daughter of Stephen, a master carpenter, and Ann Varder. The Varders lived in Harberton, a village about a mile south-west of Totnes. In the household with Mary, were her sisters Honor, Johanna and Elizabeth and Stephen’s younger brother Richard, also a carpenter. Thomas and Ann married in the church at Harberton on 7 August 1869 and, two days later, they sailed in the S.S. Onega for Rio de Janeiro en route for the Falkland Islands.

The party at Keppel Island at that time consisted of William Bartlet, his wife and children, Mr. Phillips, and Jacob Resyck. Mr. Bartlett was a farm bailiff and had enclosed and planted land adjacent to the mission hut. In November they were joined by John Lawrence, a nurseryman, and his wife and son and James Lewis, a carpenter, and his wife.

The Allen Gardiner delivered materials for a new mission house, Stirling House, to be erected about a third of a mile away from the first house at the top of the hill - presumably where the monument now stands. On 10 October 1870, Thomas Bridges, Jacob Resyck and James Lewis went to Ushuaia to dig the foundations and erect the building. Thomas’s wife, Mary Ann, who was pregnant, remained in the Falkland Islands during this time and on 5 December their daughter, Mary was born.

After Mary’s birth Thomas returned to Ushuaia where he and Jacob Resyck took up residence in Stirling House. Mr. Lewis went back to Keppel Island and on 14 May returned with his wife, son and new baby. The baby was baptized Frank Ooshooia (sic) in Stirling House on 28 May. On 17 August Thomas Bridges and his wife and daughter Mary set out for the final leg of their journey to Ushuaia arriving on 27 September 1871. The Mission was established.

Bishop Stirling returned to the Falklands in early January 1872 to a salute of seven guns and was installed as bishop. He then made a visit to Ushuaia in the Allen Gardiner and on 23 March wrote “We have just returned from Tierra del Fuego, and can report favourably of our work there. The Bridges and Lewises were well, and exerting a wholesome influence on the Indian population. Thirty-six men, women, and children were baptized, and seven couples married as Christians. My little hut is transformed into a school-church, and our congregations in it were crammed to excess during my stay, when the native services took place. A spreading influence for good is manifest, and the future appears to me full of hope for these Southern Indian tribes. It is something that among themselves, and spontaneously, some of the natives have begun to meet for prayer and singing in their own dwellings. On one occasion I was present, and the prayers offered up were most reverent in tone, and earnest, simple, heart utterances; confession of sin, and petitions for Divine aid, mingling with intercessions for others, many mentioned by name. It seemed to me the most interesting prayer-meeting I had ever been present at. My only share in the proceedings was the giving of the Benediction."The infant settlement of Ooshuwya (sic) has an outward look of beneficence. Stirling House, with its gardens attached, and in splendid order; the tiny church, with its pretty belfry and tastefully-formed cross; the rough but serviceable native-built house, the home of six families; an extensive plot of land, five a a-half acres, devoted to gardens for the natives, and admirably fenced in; a field of two and a half acres in the rear of the houses ('The Parson's Field,' Mr. Bridges calls it), with a cow-house ready for future imports; certain wigwams, of a superior class, dotted here and there in the neighbourhood of the more substantial dwellings, give an appearance of stability, and a homely, hopeful tone to the Christian settlement. Let us hope and strive to enlarge and establish more and more, every year, the Lord's work in Tierra del Fuego."

In 1886 the government of Argentina established a presence in Ushuaia. Bridges left the community and was granted lands at Estancia Harberton, where he raised sheep.

Thomas Bridges died in Buenos Airesmarker on July 15, 1898 and is buried there in Chacarita Cemeterymarker. His tombstone records that he was 55 years old. Buried in the same grave are his grandson, Percival William Reynolds (1904-1940), his son Esteban Lucas Bridges, and Esteban's wife Jannette McLeod Jardine (1890-1976).

References

  • Thomas Bridges
  • Bridges, E L (1948) The Uttermost Part of the Earth Republished 2008, Overlook Press ISBN 978-1585679560
  • Tombstone in Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires.



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