Editor, journalist, missioner – Ernest J.D. Abraham
By H Dominic W Stiles, on 16 December 2011
ABRAHAM, Ernest J.D. (1867-1940) (aka Tsenre Maharbra and Lucian V. Ralph as pen-names)
Abraham, who was a missioner to the deaf, lost his father Jonah, described as a “ship carpenter” in the 1871 census, when he was fourteen, to an accident. However we now know that he did not die but received a blow on the head that changed his personality so that he became violent (see ‘Additional Information below). Born in Greenwich in 1867*, Ernest was in a variety of jobs in the next few years, including one as an errand boy (see 1881 census), but was it seems informally ‘adopted’ by the Rev. John Jennings who was a deaf mute minister who began a relationship with Ernest’s mother. In fact in the 1881 census Ernest’s widowed mother Sarah was shown as working as a domestic servant at the same address as Jennings, 5 Harcourt Road, Deptford, though from family information we can say they were co-habiting (Class: RG11; Piece: 714; Folio: 115; Page: 23). These are the reasons he was to say his father had died.
Abraham’s mother had learnt to sign as her sister was deaf, and the children all learnt from her, and we must suppose, the Rev. Jennings. Ernest was sent to a private college to get an education. Jennings had founded both the South London Gospel Mission to the Deaf and Dumb, and a free school for deaf mute children in South London. Abraham assisted him in the school, taking over when Jennings died in 1884 at the behest of the local Deaf; he was elected minister to the South London Gospel Mission, 1885; he edited The Deaf and Dumb World, which became The Deaf Mute World in 1887, then folded due to lack of money and Abraham’s ill-health. He was appointed to the staff of the Manchester Society for Promoting the Spiritual and Temporal welfare of the Deaf and Dumb in March 1887 (his branch became the Bolton Mission to the Deaf). Marrying on 17th October 1891, Abraham then edited The Deaf Chronicle, which became The British Deaf-Mute in 1892. He started and edited The Bolton Review in 1897. Having previously (1892) applied for a post as missioner and been rejected, Abraham was eventually given a job with the Adult Deaf and Dumb Mission of Victoria and emigrated to Australia in 1901. He hoped that the climate would help his health which was sometimes poor. In 1903 in Australia he raised funds to build a church and institute, and to found farm and home for aged and infirm deaf mutes in Victoria. Abraham, although not himself Deaf, was thoroughly immersed in Deaf culture, and was a founder member of the Institute of Missionaries to the Deaf, the Guild of St John Association of Deaf Mutes, the British Deaf Mute Bureau. In the 1880s and 1890s there was a good deal of rivalry between him and the Rev. Gilby.
In his unpublished memoirs, Gilby says of Ernest that “He wore clericals and lemon kid gloves with fur collar and cuffs; he was only about 20! […] he was a born advertiser, eaten up with the modern spirit. And so his magazine beat mine to a frazzle.”
Gilby was graceful about his old enemy and says they had agreed to bury the hatchet, but clearly there was some lingering resentment.
I am grateful to Fiona Subotsky, a relative of Ernest’s, for the information below. I have corrected a few things in the text above as a result.
More on Ernest Abraham, by Fiona Subotsky
According to my late aunt Freda Powell’s written account, Sarah Theodosia Clark (her grandmother and my great-grandmother) was born on 24 January 1848 as one of three children of Thomas and Sarah Clark, née Sutton, who owned a pork butcher’s shop in part of Tooley Street (then known as Thornton Street), Bermondsey, London. ‘When she was a child her younger sister Eleanor, of whom she was very fond contracted a childish ailment which left her deaf and dumb. Together they learned the deaf and dumb language so that they could still do things together.’ Her father died, and her mother married again – a Mr Mason, and had further children. His business went downhill, and as a result ‘servants had to be let go, Eleanor was apprenticed to a tailor and Sarah took over the running of the house’ (which by this time was in Greenwich). In the 1861 census, Eleanor is noted as ‘born deaf and dumb’. In the 1881 census, still with the Masons, Eleanor is noted as a dressmaker and ‘deaf and dumb from birth’.
Sarah made the acquaintance of Josiah Samuel Abraham, who had a good job as a ship’s carpenter in the local John Brown’s Shipyard, and they married on 9 September 1866. The children were Ernest Douglas (b. 1867 ), Stella Theodosia (b. 1868), Thomas Edward (b. 1871), Eleanor Maria (b. 1873, my grandmother) and Edward Alfred (b. 1875). Unfortunately after a strike the shipyard removed its business to the Clyde and Josiah had to work as a foreman in the guano factory. There he fell (probably pushed) from a ladder and sustained a severe head injury, which required an operation at the Greenwich Seamen’s Hospital. He was nursed by Sarah as the hospital was really only meant for seamen. When Josiah returned home he was suspicious of his wife and violent, which included hanging Ernest out of the window by his feet ‘with threat to let him drop if they all did not do exactly as he wanted’. ‘It took four male attendants to subdue him’ and he was admitted to Maidstone lunatic asylum. Freda then notes ‘My grandmother was very ill with brain fever for some time and by the time she recovered and collected her children from various relatives, Josiah Abraham was dead’.
Recent family research supports much but not all of this story. There is a record of Josiah’s admission to the Seamen’s Hospital and he was admitted to Maidstone Hospital in 1877. He did not die until 1918 by which time he had been transferred to Bexley Asylum.
Freda continues that Sarah gained training as a District Nurse and Midwife and because of her knowledge of the deaf and dumb language was recommended as a nurse for John Jennings, a Nonconformist missionary who had throat cancer. Sarah ‘found in him a wonderful person, kindly and gentle with a great heart’. ‘Their [necessarily common-law] marriage was very happy and he became a loving father to all of Sarah’s children, the five Abrahams as well as the three William [b. 1879], Mabel [b. 1882], and Beatrice [b. 1884] that Sarah bore to him.’ All the children learned the deaf and dumb language and my grandmother Eleanor remembered teaching the deaf children’s Sunday school class to read and write. She also recalled staying with her aunt Eleanor Clark ‘who although deaf and dumb, had a successful tailoring business in Greenwich, making uniforms for the officers and cadets of the Greenwich Naval College’.
Ernest was sent to a private school and then theological college, but did not complete training as John Jennings died in 1884 and his family disputed the will. In the 1891 census, Ernest, now in Bolton, has with him his siblings Stella and Edward Abraham, and half-sister Beatrice Jennings. The rest of the family is with Sarah Jennings in Dulwich Road, Lambeth, where she is working as a laundress.
By 1901, Ernest is in Bolton with his wife and 2 children, while elsewhere in Bolton is his mother Sarah Jennings as a retired monthly nurse, with Stella Abraham, and Mabel and Beatrice Jennings. Next door is Thomas Abraham with his wife and 2 children.
Later the same year Ernest Abraham and his family sailed for Australia on the SS Austral. They were joined some years later by Thomas, Stella and Mabel with their families, and there are many descendants in Australia, some of whom altered the surname to Braham.
*See the Free BMD web pages: Births, June 1867, Abraham, Ernest Josiah D., Greenwich 1d 743
[Article updated 9/6/2015]
ABRAHAM, E. A world of deaf and dumb, or a land with 1,000,000 deaf-mute inhabitants. Contains short account of the Bolton, Bury and Rochdale Branch of the Manchester Adult Deaf & Dumb Society. 1888.
Marriage. Deaf Chronicle, 1891, 1(2),
British Deaf Monthly, 1901, 10, p. 193 (photo with wife and children)
Resignation of the Bolton missioner. British Deaf Monthly, 1901, 10(114) p.121; 10(116), 169.
FLYNN, J.W. No longer by gaslight: the first 100 years of the Adult Deaf Society of Victoria. Adult Deaf Society of Victoria, 1984., particulary p.163-5
FIRTH, G.C. Chosen vessels. The author, 1989. pp. 22-23.
GILBY, Rev. F.W.G, Seventy four years among the Deaf and Dumb.