Dr. William Toop

Dr. Toop lived in Tientsin where he met Eric Liddell in 1925. He tells of his relationship with Eric Liddell from then into the 1930s.

Eric was a man of many parts. I first saw him soon after his arrival in Tientsin when I went early one morning to the Recreation Ground in the British Concession there, and stood with a group of young runners who had gone for their customary training. The year was 1925; I was no athlete, but at the tender age of eleven I wanted to see this Christian world champion sprinter who was, like me, the son of missionary parents and born in China. The fellows stood watching as Eric, some distance away from the pavilion, practised starts and generally limbered up. He was never stand-offish, and of course very much at home with other athletes, so was very soon “one of the boys.” I had seen Eric, so I cycled back home, to breakfast and to school, where incidentally John and I were friends with his younger brother, Ernest, only two years our senior.

It wasn’t long before Eric was invited to become superintendent of the Sunday School in the Union Church. Eric was ideal for the post, he loved children, and they him, and his presence always kept the 60 – 70 youngsters attentive. He had the senior boy’s class, four of us – John (my twin brother) and I (we always were together, which is why I often say “we” rather than “I” in what follows). The third was our best friend, Norman MacKenzie, whose father was the local representative of the Canadian Board Mission. The fourth was not always there and I am afraid I have forgotten his name. I think I am right in saying that for our first session together, Eric began by going through a challenging book by a popular American preacher and writer; “Lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes” (for that week probably the first chapter!). He certainly used this book to make us think and rethink our faith and beliefs.

At a later date, discussing the subject of divine guidance, Eric referred frequently to the Scriptures and urged us to study them, especially in seeking to know God’s will. He told us one Sunday afternoon of a Believer who was in hospital with a severely injured foot. The surgeon was concerned lest gangrene should supervene and amputation become necessary to save his life. When in fact symptons of gangrene did occur, the patient told his surgeon that his “Daily Light” that very morning had given him much comfort and indeed assurance that he would not have to lose his foot; it was October 19 and the text that morning was from Proverbs 3. 26 “The Lord shall be thy confidence, and shall keep thy foot from being taken.” The Scriptural wording was so apposite; it seems old King Solomon must have had this patient in mind! The operation was postponed and finally abandoned.

Quite often the Union Church pulpit was offered to others, as there were many missionaries in the city with administrative posts and no access to a pulpit who were happy to “supply”. I remember Eric preaching, especially referring to a very definite relationship with God in Christ. He said one day he might be walking down the street and come face to face with Jesus. “Liddell!” He’d say “about that young fellow you saw last night – how did things go?” and Eric’s mind would have flashed briefly back to those amazing days with D.P. (Thomson) and others in the Scottish universities in the early 20’s; and bounced back again to the Chinese students, now his mission field in the Tientsin Anglo-Chinese College where he taught science.

Being an academic as well as an active sportsman, Eric was asked by the British Municipal Council to advise on the construction of a large sports ground to be built in open fields on the outskirts of the British Concession. It was duly done, with plenty of space, having room for a cricket pitch in the centre. Sadly, for cricket and the more popular game of tennis, grass was not an option. Dusty soil had been blowing in from the mighty Gobi Desert for aeons of time, and still are, so coarse grass was used to hold the surface from being blown away. So tennis was always played on clay and cricket had to accept very “samey” pitches as the game could only be played by laying a tarmac pitch, and the 22 x 3 yards’ heart of the contest was covered by a layer (or by 2 layers) of coir matting.

Eric of course was very anxious that the running track should be up to scratch, and it was magnificent. About 1/3 of a mile in circumference, it was wide and multi-laned, and beautifully cambered, with the final flat straight 150 yards or so and adjacent field sports (jumping and javelin etc.) laying opposite a huge concrete grand stand. The Min Yuon (People’s Field), as it was called, won the admiration of all visiting sportsmen. One notable visitor was the German, Otto Peltzer. It must have been just after the 1928 Olympics, when after the games some top athletes would go on world tours so that the Americans (N & S), Australians, Japanese and other “Pacific Rim” countries could see them in action against local heroes. Of course, both men had heard of each other, and it was decided that they would both compete in the 880, Otto’s race and Eric’s 440. In the event each won their own race, but Peltzer was astounded at the competition that he met from Eric. He insisted that Eric should return to the UK in a year or so and train for the 1932 games, but Eric’s diary had no room for that. However, never one to ignore a challenge, and intrigued by his friend’s remarks, Eric did train for the 1/2 mile and in due course beat Otto Peltzer’s record!

There was another special race he ran there. Our school games often included events contested by another school, namely the R.C. School run by the French Catholic Marist Brothers. The girls of their corresponding institution would frequently field teams to run or jump against our girls from the Tientsin Grammar School (which was co-educational). One year they had no 4 x 100 yards’ relay team, so it was decided to ask Eric to run against what was considered a rather exceptional group. Their ace athlete was a young Australian teacher whose parents were also L.M.B. missionaries so that their homes were in the same compound. Nancy could run, and she was determined to give her team a good start. She was not the sort to be running away from a supersport like Eric. Always chivalrous, Eric was careful to keep his distance when the ladies were passing the baton. But from the start, the girls – and their many vocal supporters – were determined that this should be a never-to-be- forgotten occasion. The No 2 got her baton safely to No 3, and grandstand applause redoubled. Then – the final lap! The runner was a wee but very bright, very fast and very Scottish girl in our class, Mary Hall. At last Mary had the baton – but oh that tape seemed a whole mile away! She burst along the track like a frightened rabbit. The whole grandstand came to its feet. She wasn’t running against the French – she wasn’t running against the English! This was a tartan challenge, Scot against Scot, and no quarter asked or given. The shrieking schoolgirls were inaudible to her – but NO! Eric was drawing ALONGSIDE!! With the strength of utter desperation, she flung herself into the last strides – and there was THE TAPE!! SHE HAD WON!! There too was Eric, giving her a mighty hug of congratulations! A never- to-be-forgotten occasion indeed.

The Canadian Board’s representative in Tientsin, Hugh Mackenzie, was a kindly gentleman. A Scots- Canadian, a big man with a small wife and a large, happy family.

Their daughter Florence was a beautiful tall girl with lovely eyes and long black ringlets framing her face and falling to her shoulders. She was lively and she was a stunner. Florence was the pianist in the Sunday School! Florence was also the elder daughter in the house that owned the tennis court! And, as if another close contact could possibly be arranged, Florence used to go (as our two did) on an afternoon most weeks to have piano lessons from, if you please, Miss Jenny Liddell. In the course of time her mother, Mrs Liddell, began to notice that just on Thursday afternoons, Eric would find it necessary to be in his room (and so, around the house) and even occasionally to consult some volume in a room adjacent to where Jenny had her piano – and her pupil. Poor fella, how could Eric see more of Florence and not make it imperiously obvious? Keissling and Boder, a German restaurant famous for its cakes and chocolates and ice creams, was this the answer? – Well, yes, but at a cost. For Eric’s stratagem, though successful in taking her there, became a costly business – he hid Florence by inviting at least 4 or 5 other MacK’s as troops to the delight of K & B! Us lesser fry – what did we think? Think? You don’t go there to think – we just loved the grub and the great guy who was paying for us to eat it! Ulterior motives didn’t come into it – that sort of nourishment was best taken neat! But, what of Florence? I had no thoughts of “Eric and Florence” in my mid- teens; John and I were late developers, and even would miss what a lot of others didn’t. One thing I do remember was that at tennis one hot afternoon Florence was bemoaning that her handkerchief and her fan was in her bedroom. Appeals were fruitless, and I was beginning to feel sorry for her. Then, after losing another point she said it to me straight – “Bill be an angel!” and grinding down my better self I sided with the boys and yelled back – “Not if it’s upstairs!” and in spite of the strong support from the lads I felt a complete and absolute heel at letting my dear old Mum down in not helping a damsel in distress. And, though almost 70 years ago, that feeling irks me to this day!

When I followed John into this world in September 1914 Mother was in a little Mission hospital in the province of Ptonan; in Jigongshan, a holiday station frequented by missionaries to escape with their families from the terrible summer heat of the Yangtze valley. The young American missionary doctor greeted our arrival with “Mrs Toop, here come 2 more medical missionaries!” I guess Dad grinned – he had been an assistant in a grocer’s shop in London, and mother, (whose father worked on a farm in rural Essex) had been in service in a big house in a London borough. Both families were Godfearing with little of this world’s blessings, but rich in faith. Dad was pastor in a little Baptist gathering in Pimlico from where in 1910 they had felt a call to missionary service in China. “Medical missionaries” indeed! When World War 1 broke out in August 1914 funds from UK could not be sent to small private outfits in China so Dad was unemployed and home- less in a very strange land. But God had His plans, and when they got downriver to the mighty seaport of Shanghai, the representatives of the British and Foreign Bible Society there accepted him and sent him to manage their office in the great northern city of Tientsin. There his industry, concern for the distribution of the Scriptures over a very wide area, and his meticulous book-keeping soon resulted in the further outreach of the spread of God’s word in a very needy area. There was a good school in the British Concession with most of the teachers Oxford graduated. Our parents, intrigued by the American doctor’s words to us, told us of them, and from small boys we were stated to be “medical missionaries” – whatever the strange and different words meant. But as we grew, we kept saying it, and the unreality of the situation began to worry mother & dad. They had always put by what they could, but one day had a cruel set-back when their bank in the city failed. Strangely enough, that’s where Eric came in.

Eric and Rob were both missionary kids; their parents were not wealthy – yet Rob had become a doctor! Eric told them of the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society formed by godly Scots Church- men and doctors, who in the 1840’s had the vision of a group who would provide funds for just such as Rob Liddell- and us! They checked out and, if accepted, provided money to enable them to graduate as doctors, and so be able to go out as medical missionaries. This was wonderful news, and was indeed the way in which we were able to fulfil the impossible future promised by one of God’s servants as he delivered twins.

Then Eric told Dad the bad news – Tientsin Grammar School was a good school, but there was no instruction in Physics and Chemistry as essential foundational subjects for a medical education. Eric’s eyes were probably his best feature – they were so level and unafraid, they were blue and honest and they knew how to twinkle! Our school days were nearly over, so he offered to give us a few evenings a week in his own rooms in the Tientsin Anglo-Chinese College in these two subjects. What a man!

And there was yet another tremendous help that Eric was to be for our parents and ourselves. We were growing up, and should be in the homeland, for work or study. But this was a major problem – missionaries nowadays can fly all over the world, they can even get emergency leave to be home for a dying relative for a few days. In the 20’s & 30’s the usual way via Suez generally took about six weeks; perhaps a little shorter by crossing the Pacific to Canada or the USA, get a transcontinental Express and then from Quebec or New York to Liverpool. The quickest route was by the Trans-Siberian Express, through Moscow and Northern Europe and generally through Germany and France and so across the Channel to home – about two weeks. So it was not at all uncommon for older teenagers to be taken to the home-countries in the care of friends.

The previous year Miriam had been able to earn her trip to UK by Trans-Siberian railway when a young couple going to England advertised in the local press (The Peking & Tientsin Times) for a helper for their baby. Well, Miriam was one person – looking for two could be pretty steep. But before Miriam went there occurred a very important incident. At the seaside, Pei Tai Ho, where we used to go our holidays, Miriam and we two were growing in the faith, and wished to be baptized. North China enjoyed (or at least experienced) what is called a continental climate – i.e. hot summers & cold winters, and not a great deal of rainfall. The summers were so hot that schools etc. had 3 months’ holidays then as heat was so enervating and uncomfortable. This meant that Christmas and Easter holidays were both shortened. Mothers and families went to the sea- side, where dads could join them on occasional weekends and finally a longer spell. Most missionary societies had their own groups of houses. Mostly folk from Tientsin went to Pei Tai Ho where one met missionaries and business people from many parts of China. We had wonderful sea bathing and terrific beaches. Dad built his own bungalow, a place of very happy memories. There we usually went to the home of Plymouth Brethern for morning worship, and to a large house nearby for an evening meeting. (Nowadays Beidaiha – as it is phonetic- ally spelt in Mao’s China – hosts huge government conclaves) Dad contacted these Brethern folk, and so it was that one Sunday afternoon (when the beaches were gene- rally empty) a small group of believers gathered on a beach for a short service. Mr Edwin Thorp (English, with a Canadian wife, and a family of four) whose mission station was way up north of the Great Wall, led in prayer commending us three to the Lord as we took this step. Having previously examined each of us, and happy to proceed, he waded out to a suitable depth of water. We three followed out and back as he baptized us by immersion in the waters we loved. As we returned, dad led the singing of Follow, Follow, I will follow Jesus! To our surprise and delight we found that in the group was none other than that man again! Eric had somehow heard of the baptism and had cycled under a blazing sun along three miles of wretchedly rutted cart tracks from their holiday home to our beaches to identify himself with us all in this holy rite.

So, after Miriam had gone to England mother and dad looked for some escort brave enough to undertake two green teenagers. To their intense relief and joy they heard that Eric was himself planning to go back to Scotland. This time he was going via Canada, as Florence, now his fiancée, was doing her nursery training in Toronto. Mother’s brother, Will Holmes, lived in Toronto and the whole plan fell into place. John and I were absolutely thrilled. We were a closely-knit family. Peggy, now fourteen and a half, would be the only one left of the four. She was a bonny and cheerful youngster, and would be a great help for both mum and dad. After Miriam had gone we had no one to play the piano. Family prayers always followed breakfast, before going off to school. As we sat around the drawing room we sang a hymn, then all read a verse or two in turn till the portion was finished. Dad would explain the word, then he or mother would lead in prayer as we knelt. That regular family worship has given us a wonderful love and respect for the significance and authority of God’s word as the most important corner- stone of our lives, and has proved a tremendous anchor ever since.

The day after Miriam left, mother sat up in her bed and heaved with sobs for the “loss” of her first baby. It struck me profoundly – it was the only time I had seen such deep sorrow. Of course now, a year later, the “loss” of her twins would be cause for more such pain and heartache. The bright side was that we were leaving home under such divinely appointed guardianship.

Finally, the packing was done, and Eric came to collect us, and “Goodbyes” were said and prayer offered – which might not be convenient on the wharf – for we were leaving by ship to Japan, for trans-shipment to Vancouver. Mother could not withhold from saying what her eyes had been saying all morning – “You will look after them, won’t you?”

And I can now see and hear yet, Eric, lovely gracious Eric, with the kind blue eyes – and the very personification of integrity, reply

“Mrs Toop, I give you my word” and that was so sure.