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“Then you’re a fool,” said my father – Arthur Upson – deaf missioner in Egypt

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 8 May 2015

As anyone who has read even a small amount about Deaf History will know, there is an intimate relationship between religion and mission work, and deafness, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, with positive and negative effects on those involved.   Usually this takes the form of religious missions among deaf people in the country concerned, sometimes bringing them together into communities by the formation of institutions with educational or religious aims.  A different example is Arthur Thomas Upson, who lost his hearing when a young man when he was already determined to lead the life of a missionary abroad, but whose missionary activities were in Egypt.

UpsonArthur was born is Essex in 1874, the son of Arthur Upson of Rayleigh, a harness maker, and his wife Sarah.  In the picture we see Upson in the back row, third from the right.  We read about his gradual ‘conversion’ to mission work in his memoir, High Lights in the Near East (1936), p.14-15).  He worked as a student teacher in Rayleigh after finishing school, and in the wet summer of 1890 the new term was delayed by one week so the boys could help with the harvest.  Walking by Southend pier, Arthur was asked by Alex Nielson of Forest Gate if he was a Christian.  He replied that he hoped he was, was given a pamphlet “Safety, Certainty and Enjoyment”, which when he had read it gave his his first Damascene moment. Later, when he decided to become a missionary, he was accepted by the North Africa Mission.  His father’s response to his determination to go abroad was, “Then you’re a fool”.  He started to learn Arabic, and soon found himself engaged to Miss Kitty Philpott, but the marriage was delayed until 1901.

Upson dedicationUpson became ill in 1899, while he was in Egypt learning Arabic.  He had ‘confluent smallpox’, which damaged the hearing in his right ear, then underwent an operation on a ‘burr’ in his left nostril (whatever that means), supposedly causing hearing problems in his left ear.  The operation did not address the problem and seemed to make it worse as he started to lose his hearing in that ear as well.

It is hard to gauge how successful Upson was as a missionary.  Then, as now, apostasy from Islam was not allowed.   The memoir is not a great piece of writing or a narrative of his life, but it is a collection of ‘episodes’ and reminiscences.

The outbreak of war in 1914 saw the start of a massive troop movement into Egypt.  Where there were soldiers there would be prostitution and Upson was greatly exercised by this.

“Brands plucked out of the fire” (Zech. 3:2). What imagery!  What urgency!  How the fire burned within me at the very thought of the thousands of troops and hundreds of officers that were being destroyed in the fires of Cairo and Alexandria. Twenty-five streets and lanes in our one city of Cairo were given over to the detestable traffic in girls and women. And still the area was continually being enlarged until much of what is commonly called the “European Quarter” was involved. Near us, a single building of about 40 rooms, formerly a well-known hotel, was used by “Officers Only.” Further, there had been almost a complete breakdown of attempts to make vice “safe” (?), and not a few of the bolder men, such as Anzacs, had taken matters into their own hands and several brothels had been burnt down in revenge for disease taken from the women.
many were greatly worried at the mounting percentage of V.D. cases.
One can hardly walk past those beautifully-kept cemeteries at Cairo, Jerusalem, and other places in the East without wondering how many were victims of Turkish bullets and how many of unmentionable diseases! (ibid p.68-9)

Upson’s answer was to distribute ‘purity’ leaflets in English and Arabic, over four years 40,000 of each.  We might wonder if his use of ‘brands’ was deliberately suggestive!

He continues,

The matron of one hospital wrote to ask my help to try to stop “Sandbagging,” a species of crime that I have never heard of in any other connection.  On going into the matter, it appeared that soldiers – Anzacs, if possible, for they carried more money – were invited into certain brothels, taken up to balcony rooms, made drunk, and then violently struck in the centre of the spinal column by something hard enough to benumb the victim but without wounding him – originally a bag of sand was used – then the poor wretch would be pitched over the balcony into the street, and perhaps killed, or one or more limbs would be broken.  Needless to say, the victim was always robbed of all he carried before he was thrown into the street.  When picked up by the Military Police, there was every evidence of drunkenness and so it became easy to conclude that he “Fell over the balcony whilst drunk.”  Terrible!  But we made urgent representations to the Authorities and the patrols of Military Police were strengthened and a better look-out was kept, and in time that particular form of crime seemed to come to an end. (ibid p.70-1)

Upson letterAs you will see, Upson sent copies of his two books to Selwyn Oxley, and into one, Oxley has stuck a letter from the author.  His adventures included him crossing the Gobi Desert (BDT).

Upson returned to Essex around 1936, dying there in 1958.

Abdul-fady, Evergreen and other Near East Bible Talks London ; Edinburgh : Marshall, Morgan & Scott, (1938)

Abdul-fady, High Lights in the Near East London ; Edinburgh : Marshall, Morgan & Scott, (1936)

Deaf Missionary’s Life with Arabs, British Deaf Times, vol 33, p.58, 1936

Upson, Arthur, A Deaf Publisher in the Near East, British Deaf Times, vol43, p.24, & p.46-7, p.68-9, p.83-4, 1946

[Updated 26/4/19]

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