Joseph Henry Fish

Connections - Robben Island

During one of the regular weekly health walks, the words "Robben Island" jumped out at me from a gravestone. Why did my eyes make this connection? And, indeed, the connection between the cemetery and this small, distant, but notorious, island was itself a surprise. The memorial was to Joseph Henry Fish, who died on 29 July 1930, aged 72, in London. It notes that he had been a missionary to lepers on Robben Island and in South Africa for 41 years. The inscription also refers to his wife (but not by name), who had died in South Africa six years earlier and had also 'laboured amongst the lepers', and his daughter, Jessie.

Of course, conversation turned to the Island's most famous resident and, immediately, another connection came out. Out of about a dozen walkers, one had met Nelson Mandela. Sometimes, it really is a small world. Mike had been active in the anti-apartheid movement and, when Mandela visited Cardiff in June 1998, he had asked particularly to meet those who had supported his cause and paid tribute with the following words. "When the call for the international isolation of apartheid went out to the world, the people of Wales responded magnificently. The knowledge that local authorities all over Wales were banning apartheid products from canteens and schools - and that the universities, the Welsh Rugby Union, and the choirs had cut their links - was a great inspiration to us in our struggle. So too was the contribution organised by Welsh workers. Action on such a scale could only flow from strong support by ordinary Welsh people on the ground. So we knew that the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement spoke for a people who cared for our freedom as their own.

"When I got home, I tried the 21st century way to find connections ... on the world wide web. Bingo! A perfect match against my search criteria - but it was the wrong connection: I had found another member of the Friends, John Farnhill, pursuing the same information about Joseph Henry Fish. A quick check with him revealed that he had had a little more success - Joseph had a brother, James Westcot Fish, who had also served as a missionary on Robben Island and, furthermore, had written on his experience. His book "Robben Island - An Account of 34 Years' Gospel Work Amongst Lepers of South Africa" was published in 1924. The brothers' family came from Devon, their father being a rope-maker, and they had lived in Grangetown.

By 1991, all political prisoners had been freed from Robben Island and, in 1996, the last of the common law prisoners left the island. It is now a tourist destination.

But now I'm hoping for another fortuitous connection - with a reader of this newsletter who may be able to throw more light on the missionary to the lepers 100 years ago whose final resting place is Cathays Cemetery.

Source: fcc newsletter 4 pg2