The Northern Missionaries - Bishop Stringer - The Bishop who ate his Boots

William Kirkby  |  Robert McDonald  |  William Bompas  |  J.W. Ellington  |  Isaac & Sadie Stringer

John W. Ellington
(1862- 1902)

In response to Rev. Sim's appeal for assistance in the Yukon, Mr. T.F. Buxton promised the Church Missionary Society (CMS) an annual donation in return for establishing a mission at Forty Mile, located near the confluence of the Yukon and Fortymile Rivers. The CMS recruited Rev. John W. Ellington from England to start the mission. The son of missionary parents, Ellington was young and naïve and his connection with the North was brief and unhappy.

In March 1885, Ellington set out for Rampart House where Rev. Sim was to train him for the work in the Yukon. He had already left for Canada when word reached London of Sim's untimely death, but the CMS decided not to recall him.

Delayed one year while en route to the North, due to the Riel Rebellion, Ellington reached Fort Simpson (Northwest Territories) in August 1886. He spent the winter at the Fort learning the Tukudh language. Bishop Bompas was impressed with his quick grasp of the language and understanding of the scriptures. Bompas did not doubt the young man's suitability for mission work and ordained him as a deacon.

Ellington's first winter was spent with George C. Wallis at Rampart House where they shared the preaching and worked out a comfortable pattern of splitting the other chores. On August 3, 1887, Ellington left Rampart House and arrived at the community of Forty Mile. He decided to build Buxton Mission on an island by the town and enthusiastically began organizing the construction of the mission house.

Things were going well for Ellington. The two native bands in the area were responsive to his teachings and the mission house was nearing completion, however, the growing population of gold miners at Forty Mile proved to be too much for the inexperienced missionary. Humourless and quite incompatible with the irascible miners, Ellington was an easy target for their practical jokes. One prank had Ellington convinced he was holding a funeral for some unfortunate soul when in fact he was burying a coffin filled with rocks. To add to his misery, he had fallen into debt with the traders and his relationship with the natives had deteriorated. The native people claimed his speech was hard to understand and it is also possible they resented his tendency to perceive them as lazy.

Mr. J.E. McGrath of the Yukon River Boundary Survey, spent some time at Forty Mile. He is reported to have said that Ellington had never known anything of the world and that

"while he was a pious, zealous and conscientious man, he was almost as unfit to be left to himself in a wild country like this as a 12-year-old schoolboy would be."

Although the Church Missionary Society had cautioned Bompas not to let Ellington work alone, the Bishop was too short of staff to follow this advice. By June 1889, it was all too much for the man and his sanity began to give way. Overcome by loneliness and oppressed by a sense of failure, Ellington set off down the river intent on leaving the country. He stopped at Nuklakayet on the Yukon River to see the Reverend Canham who persuaded him to return to his post. Sadly, his mental state continued to deteriorate and a year later he was taken home to England. In those days, the science of psychiatry was limited. As a result, his family felt his condition was probably due to severe sunstroke. The doctor stationed at St. Michael on the Alaska coast diagnosed his affliction as "softening of the brain". Ellington was committed to an asylum in England where he died in 1902.

Old Log Church Museum 2002