William Upchurch: Baptist missionary to China

Motor-cycle scrambler, chemist, musician, shopkeeper, missionary, pacifist, soldier, minister and centenarian, in China William Upchurch saw and recorded at first hand the Xi'an coup of 1936 and crossed paths with the American radical journalist Agnes Smedley, whom he met as she was marching to the front. He also spent time with General Peng Dehuai of the Long March who was later imprisoned by Mao, and had dealings with many Chinese preachers including the local Pastor Sun, whose long beard, as he described it in his memoir, A Prevailing Wind (2007), consisted of six two-foot-long hairs, one of which came away in his hand as he was being arrested by Red soldiers.

William Samuel Upchurch was born in 1907 in the small market town of Hitchin in Hertfordshire, the first of four children to survive. His father, William Septimus Upchurch, was a lay preacher, remover and antique dealer, of liberal, pacifist and socialist sympathies that sometimes made life difficult for him in an essentially conventional town. William junior decided to become a missionary having read the biographies of various others, most of them martyred and some of them eaten. "Delicious reading!" as he recorded. He attended Spurgeon's mission college, played pranks and almost got himself drowned, his entire life being littered with a series of near-drownings.

Having qualified, he went to China where he was to spend the period from 1935 to 1952 working for the Baptist Missionary Society. Knowing little of China at first but learning Mandarin, he roared through Beijing on his motorbike, often with a girl on the pillion. Later he suspected that the BMS regarded him as "a picaresque rogue" given to "extramural activities", and he soon found himself posted well out of sight and trouble, to the remote "gospel village" of Fuyincun, near the Tibetan border.

His subsequent travels in China were extensive, ranging over the whole territory, including parts occupied by the Japanese, where he witnessed the torturing of Chinese and Koreans, eventually escaping down the Burma Road back into Free China. It was his experience of Japanese occupation that led him to abandon his pacifist principles in 1941 and enlist.

He did so at Chungking, being immediately made Liaison Officer for Intelligence, very soon being promoted to Captain and eventually to Major. He instructed Chinese recruits in sabotage, then asked to be transferred to India for proper training in explosives. At the end of the war he was put in charge of Japanese prisoners in Burma but not before returning home to fall in love and marry. Then he was off again.

He returned to China in 1947, this time with his pregnant wife, arriving in Shanghai along with, as he put it, "a tidal wave of Western missionaries". The mission was in Xichang, a beautiful if forlorn area. Following the Communist victory, life became progressively more difficult. The accusation meetings started and, eventually, Upchurch himself was to face one that he survived with the help of friendly testimony. For all that, he felt considerable sympathy with the Liberation Army's early aims, a sympathy he was later to carry back to England.

On his return he was offered the post of Emergency Administration Officer in Malaya. This meant fighting corruption and working across four languages, often under attack by insurgents, his job being to create safe areas. He grew to love Malaya and once his contract was up he returned, this time in charge of audio-visual development for the Malayan Christian Council. He moved to Kuala Lumpur and saw in independence, returning to England in 1959.

Unemployed for a while, he became a postman in Hitchin before taking on a church in Sheffield. Shifting to London after that was difficult. London Calvinists of a stricter and more limited temperament found him hard to take. He retired in 1972 to the house his father had built in Hitchin.

Upchurch played the piano, organ, violin, accordion and cello at various times and occasionally taught these instruments. His love of words and word play led him down endless labyrinthine paths that made his sermons entertaining and, sometimes, delightfully puzzling.

George Szirtes

William Samuel Upchurch, missionary: born Hitchin, Hertfordshire 3 May 1907; married 1945 Winifred Meakin (one son, two daughters); died Hitchin 16 April 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: General Manager

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of global logisti...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager - £70,000 OTE

£35000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Manager (Vice President...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Marketing Executive i...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable