The story of Sarah Ann Jones (nee Thomas) b. 22 November 1908 d. 21 December 1999

The story of Sarah Ann Jones (née Thomas) – Sarann Fach, as she was affectionately known in her younger days, reflects the quality of good upbringing despite poverty and the strength of vital religious conviction. A diminutive 5ft 3ins she was looked down upon by her three brothers and by others, yet she showed a strength of courage and bravery that was outstanding. Her story is told in a book Missionary in China available in Llanelli Library.

Like many children of her day she was denied an opportunity of further schooling and found herself at a young age working in the Morfa Tinworks. In her youth she was challenged by the Christian message in special meetings conducted by David Mathews in Soar Llwynhendy and enjoyed the support of members of her own chapel, Nazareth Llwynhendy, as well as that of the many keen Christians in Llanelly who were products of the Revival that had broken out in nearby Loughor and spread throughout the country.

No wonder, then, that at only 18 years of age she ventured away from home following a vocation, first to the Bible College of Wales in Swansea, then to Mildmay Mission Hospital in London in preparation for a life-time of service in China as a Missionary with the then China Inland Mission.

Her going to China at this time was in response to an appeal made by the Mission for 200 recruits to ‘replace’ the casualties of persecution and martyrdom in that country following years of internal conflict and antagonism towards outsiders. The Barnsley chemist, Hudson Taylor, had already blazed a trail, not to the comfortable colonial coastal towns but to the interior regions with all their poverty, hardship and danger.

So it was that Sarah Ann found herself volunteering for work among the mountain tribes people in south west China not far from the Burmese border. From Language School she and several colleagues embarked on an arduous journey around the coast to Kweichow Province. Writing home to her parents in Cefncaeau she described some of the horrendous conditions on that gruelling journey:

Yesterday afternoon we stopped at Hoi han which is on the north coast of Hainan island. We did not go ashore as the boat was lying out and, as we did at Fort Bayard; to do that we should have had to take a Chinese boat. I wish that you were here to see these Chinese in their boats waiting to take off passengers and cargo. Their boats are just heavy wood with material sails. It seems that the women do a good lot of work - such a noise they make quarrelling and shouting, pushing each other away from the ship as each wants in first. I held my breath many times. It seemed as if they will fall in the sea. Then last night at 3 am there was such a noise, with rattling of chains, that we wondered whatever was happening, but it was just that the ship was casting anchor to wait for daylight before entering the port – Pakhoi. We didn't go ashore either as there was such a commotion with the boats below. At 2 pm we started off again and, DV, hope to be at Haiphong tomorrow morning. I mentioned before that perhaps we would not take the train until Monday, but we think now that we take the train at 6 pm tomorrow night for 3 hours, then get out to sleep in an inn, using our own bedding, get on the train at 6:30 next morning, sleep in an inn at night and do that for 3 days. It is not possible to go by train at night because the way is so precipitous, steep and dangerous. When Yunnanfu will be reached we shall be several thousand feet above sea level. A missionary who lives outside Yunnanfu told me in Shanghai that it is a mile high! I hope you won't be tired of reading all these details; I do want to keep in touch all the time.

And again:

We slept seven of us in one room in this place. I was in a bed with two girls and covered in with mosquito netting. It made me think of the old curtained beds of long ago. We were up in the morning at 4:30 am, had a bite and then, when we were ready, got into rickshaws at 6 am and got on the train at 6:30 am. First, though, our passports had to be seen to. We were on the train for three hours, then changed into another one immediately, then we were on it till 7:30 that evening. The scenery on the way was just glorious. The foliage was something like it was in Ceylon and I imagine such as it would be in India: small mud and straw roofed huts among the palm trees, naked little brown children running about, men and women with huge straw hats shaped like an umbrella and the men working with the water buffaloes in the valley rice fields. It made me think of pictures I have seen in different magazines. We passed through jungle after jungle and the mass of trees and plants and creepers and flowers. This made me think of the poor missionaries in Africa and South America and India who are out working under such circumstances. The sun was beating down and it was so warm inside the carriages. These carriages hold 16 persons and are something like the top of the trams at home (wooden seats!); and after three days, the first of which was 13 hours solid of being shaken about in this funny little train, made us glad to be on our feet. To look at the train from the outside you would think it was a luggage train and not a passenger one. The passengers are mostly Chinese and it was amusing to watch them with their cooking operations in the seat next to us. This railway is French and is really a marvel. The way the train wound among the mountains and hills was just wonderful. The constructing of this was a great feat, I should think. The officials on the train were French and at every station we stopped at we saw a foreign face among the crowds of Chinese and we guessed it was a French official. You will be wondering if we had anything to eat all day. Oh, yes, we had taken some food with us from Haiphong. And so Sunday, May 1st passed for me. Almost every hour of the day I pictured you, wondering what you would be doing and so on. I was greatly blessed in spirit by meditating over verses of Scripture and repeating to myself some of these old hymns. The train shook so much it was difficult to read. At last we arrived at our stopping place for the night: the train also stopped here. It was called Laskai. By this time it was dark and the fireflies were out and looked just like stars in the darkness. It just reminded me that we are lights shining in a dark place.

At last, we and our luggage arrived safely at our home for the night - a dirty Chinese inn. We were very glad to reach it. Our room was almost on the street and I think that people outside were quite amused to watch us undress. There was quite a little crowd gathered when we were washing ourselves. There was hardly any means of hiding. It was good to have a wash after the heat and burden of the day. We were simply covered with black soot smuts and our clothes sticking to us and our bodies. Then we had supper again - a Chinese meal with chopsticks, and then prayers together, and to bed. Our bed (we were seven in one small room and 4 beds between us) was not what you might say comfortable. It was just wood and no pillows. The night was oppressively hot and a few lizards and other such things walking on the walls made us want to go to sleep quickly. I slept with Jean and both of us had a good night’s sleep and were thankful for a bed to lie on although it was wooden.

The next morning we and our luggage were off again. The train started at 6:30 am. We just crossed the border from French Indochina to Yunnan and here we stopped, this time to go through customs and to have our passports examined. The Lord wonderfully undertook for us. The Chinese official was so nice and was interested in having a chat with Mr Jensen who told him all about the ruined places in Shanghai. When it came to our luggage he just asked whether we had any stuff subject to duty payment. Mr Jensen showed him the forms giving evidence of two boxes of medicine and a little folding organ for which he had to pay in Haiphong and explained that they were coming along by freight and that he should have to pay at Yunnanfu. So, the official said everything was all right. So you see how again we were undertaken for. The gent might have had a notion to make us open all our boxes but we didn't have to open a single one. This day was a long one but the scenery outside made us forget the wooden seats and in the afternoon we got the little spirit stove going, got some water from some place when the train stopped, boiled the kettle, made such a refreshing cup of tea and enjoyed a roll of bread and some sardines and bananas afterwards. That cup of tea was a real treat. One of the girls had a little tea with her and Mrs Jensen had all the stores packed. Bananas were very, very, cheap – growing wild in some places.

We went through 110 tunnels in that one day. The mountains were very high and jagged and it seemed to be all tunnels - some small, some big. They all have numbers so we could count them. We arrived at our destination at 6 pm and after the usual performance of getting things together, and checking them, and engaging coolies to carry the bigger things, we arrived at our “home” which was a still dirtier Chinese inn. The first thing to do was to have a wash and then a meal - Chinese - which really tasted good. Rice is the substantial thing and every other thing is a luxury. We got ready for bed. Oh no, I must say how first we had a little audience of children come to see us! They came up outside the room where we were (there was a kind of veranda affair to which everybody was free to come) - quite a number of people came up from the street to look at us.

For a young lady who had never before travelled further than Swansea this was an adventure which she endured with much fortitude.

Having reached her appointed location she set about befriending the people and helping them with literacy and self-help skill as well as sharing the Christian message. The people loved her and her winning ways.

After a few years she and her husband Ieuan, whom she had met at the Bible College in Swansea, were married. Rather than live in a secluded Mission House, they had decided to adopt native clothing and live among the people. They took a decidedly non-colonial approach and sought to affirm the native believers and entrust them with responsibility. This entailed training native Chinese men to spread the message and to encourage them in the outreach work. Concentrating on this aspect meant moving around the villages which were located on the slopes of very high mountains requiring traversing precipitous paths. Describing some of these journeys she wrote home:

Do you know, it was 6 months yesterday - to the day - that we got married, and of that six months we have been 31 days ‘on the road’; and we have five more days before we reach Shuicheng. We have experienced exceptional blessing since our wedding; it has been a real milestone in our lives, starting with the Bible School in Kweiyang.

We hear that the way to Shuicheng is very bad, probably worse than usual as the Chinese New Year (mid Feb?) is near. We pray that the Lord will show himself to us in ‘the column of fire and smoke.’ "There are no ‘second causes’. God is our 'Circumstance' " as Hudson Taylor said.

Ieuan and Philip (our helper) have gone to the town to see whether there are porters going back to Shuicheng on Tuesday, or whether they would come with us to carry our things. Fourteen of them were going to go in a few days' time but they changed their minds and are now going tomorrow. We hope we can send a letter with them to the men in Heo-ri-kuan, who were intending to come and meet us and take us through the dangerous parts. If you know that hymn in Consecration & Faith. Like a river glorious / is God’s perfect peace. / Over all victorious / in its bright increase”. That was a real blessing to me as I sang it today, especially the verse, “Hidden in the hollow / of His blessed Hand / Never foe can follow, / never traitor stand. / Not a surge of worry, / not a shade of care, / Not a blast of hurry, / touch the spirit there.

Packing in China is quite a big job, but I’ve mastered the ‘art’ by now. Philip bought a leg of pork from someone and he will boil a big piece for the journey. He will also make ten or more loaves of bread that we can take with us. This will need to suffice as we won’t have a chance to make much, although Philip and I have asked Mrs Crapuchettes for a little dough to put on one side, and it will be enough, like yeast, to make the bread. I’m also copying recipes for making yeast. You have to have one sort that’s called a starter, and add sugar, salt, and flour to it to make the yeast. Then put it in a tightly corked bottle and leave by the fire for days.

We will have plenty of food; we have just ordered 10lbs of ‘Klim’ – dried milk, from the Business Dept in Shanghai. Interestingly, 10lbs of milk (even with 1 to 4 parts water) goes quite quickly, it costs $26 and with postage over $30 at the current exchange rate, that’s £2.00 British money. That is, if someone sent me £2.00, it would only be enough to pay for 10lbs of milk- probably enough for 2-3 months if used moderately. The exchange rate between countries is really interesting.

The weather is very cold, and the charcoal fire is very welcome. Philip said he would buy a basket so that I could carry some fire for the journey. It is a small clay container 8ins across, in a basket like frame, and a little charcoal fire in the container. We had better have plenty of clothes. The ‘wadded gown’ is a good standby and the things folk have knitted for us from home.

On one occasion she found herself travelling alone with her 8 month old baby on a journey that entailed crossing a high mountain. When darkness fell the driver and his mate abandoned the bus – and its passengers – and walked to the nearest village to spend the night. Fearful, yet bold, she was alarmed when bandits appeared intent on looting the bus and any goodies it might contain. With great presence of mind she appealed to these rough men for help in lighting a fire and preparing milk for the child (not disclosing that she already had the necessary supplies). They responded well to such an approach and stood guard over her and the infant until dawn when they melted into the background and the driver reappeared to resume the journey.

Happy though they were living, helping and empowering these noble tribes people, the political scene in the country was changing. One of its main features was a column of Communist soldiers gathering for a long march north eastwards to overthrow the government. Not only were these rebels ruthless with regard to their own people but especially antagonistic towards any ‘foreign devils’. Consequently Sarah and Ieuan, along with other companions, fled before the “Reds” keeping one day’s journey ahead of them for several months until they reached the coast and returned to the UK in the Spring of 1939.

The War which erupted in the autumn of that year kept them from returning to China. And, by its conclusion no European missionary personnel were allowed to enter the country.

Sarah Ann then remained in Llanelli and after the war supported her husband in overseeing some of the new mission work in Carmarthenshire, notably the work of Bethel on the new Cefncaeau estate.

These years were much quieter than those turbulent ones among the mountain ranges of south west China but no less effective and appreciated by the many people she came into contact with. Few of those whom she met and helped each day had any real idea of what she had gone through in her earlier years.

With old age came serious illness, including cancer, and she ended her days with her son in Glasgow where she and Ieuan are buried in the Western Necropolis. Her remarkable story is told in more detail in a little book entitled Missionary in China, a copy of which is lodged in Llanelli Library.