Obituary: Gordon Legg

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The Independent Online
Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) was severely underdeveloped in the 1930s and held firmly under colonial rule. The South Africa General Mission (now the Africa Evangelical Fellowship) had waited for years for the opportunity to have missionary workers there. When Gordon Legg, then in his twenties, saw an article in its house magazine, outlining a plan for six single missionaries to enter the country, he wrote an application that same day.

Henry Gordon Legg was born in Derby in 1912, the younger son of a railway clerk. He was educated at Bemrose Secondary School and the School of Commerce before being apprenticed at 15 to a Derby clothier. At 20, he joined the men's outfitting department of D.H. Evans in London, rising to become First Salesman. With an instinctively courteous manner, he was well suited to this metier. But his life's work was to be far removed from men's outfitting.

After two years at the Missionary Training Colony in Upper Norwood, London, Legg spent some months in Portugal, picking up courses in language and culture at the ancient University of Coimbra. With rudimentary knowledge of both, he sailed to Africa in 1939 aboard the RMS Warwick Castle. His aunt had been appointed MBE for her service in Swaziland and he stayed with her when he first arrived, learning some practicalities of bush life. Her living-room floor was covered with a film of fresh cow dung to keep fleas at bay. The choice was his, she said, but most Europeans preferred the smell to the bites.

Legg was stationed in Mihecani, in the Zambezia Province of Mozambique. He built up a school of 600 pupils, with a health clinic attached, which was run by his second wife, Katie. (His first wife, Mary, died of cerebral malaria after only two years of marriage, in 1944.) Portuguese Roman Catholic priests had long resented the influence of the Protestant mission, with its evangelical teaching. In the late 1950s the sudden death of a child in the clinic gave a pretext for them to put pressure on the government to close the station down. The Leggs heard of the death while on furlough in the UK, and rushed straight back, but were shortly afterwards visited by a government official who gave them 24 hours to vacate the whole compound. They were expelled from Mozambique.

In 1961 Legg moved to Johannesburg as Assistant General Director of the Africa Evangelical Fellowship, becoming its General Director in 1969. He was the last to hold this post in Johannesburg before the international headquarters moved to Berkshire, England.

There were massive adjustments for the Leggs to make, from the bush to the city, from a mission compound to an office, from front-line service to international leadership. Ever with an eye to the needs of others, Legg developed the work among the thousands of men who poured south to the gold mines which formed a crescent between Johannesburg and Klerksdorp. Although well cared for in dormitory accommodation and with adequate food, these men struggled with life in such alien surroundings, and inter-tribal fighting was not uncommon. Legg toured the mines and, with permission from their European managers, distributed Christian literature to the workers.

Retiring to Redbourne, near St Albans, in Hertfordshire, Legg never lost his love for the Mozambique church. His dealings with Africans had always been marked by respect and integrity, never bearing a trace of the patronising attitudes so pervasive then among Europeans. This was evidently acknowledged, for Christian leaders and civic leaders alike greeted him with great warmth when he visited the country again in 1982. By this stage the church there was already ten times the size it had been when he was expelled. On a return visit in 1993, when he was 81, he describes how, on his arrival in Nampula, "more than 5,000 lined the road approaching the church and about 2,000 were inside and outside for nearly three hours".

Robin Wells

Henry Gordon Legg, missionary: born Derby 12 January 1912; married 1942 Mary Jenks (died 1944), 1949 Katie Allen; died Harpenden, Hertfordshire 15 August 1997.