When Box Hill Was A Village
From Coal Mines to China
One of the men who greatly influenced my life as a young boy in Box Hill, was an enormous mountain of a man who lived in Victoria Street. I used to walk past his house going to school and in the morning would find him walking back towards his house trailing a golf buggy. He was coming home from playing eighteen holes of golf. So regular were his daily early morning golfing outings that we usually walked the length of the street together talking as we went. With this man I began a friendship that was to last for the next twenty years.
Harry Clark, or as he was known by his initials, H.A.G. or ‘Hag’ Clark, was a most remarkable man by any standards.
In his early life he was a coal miner in the mines of South Australia. God called him as an extremely tall, broad shouldered and fit young man to enter the College of the Bible in Melbourne, Victoria, to train for the ministry of Churches of Christ. In those early days at the close of World War I transport was not an easy matter for a young miner so he rode his pushbike from Adelaide to Melbourne and each term holidays would ride his pushbike back home again to see the folks before setting off to ride back to Melbourne. He was probably one of the fittest young men ever to train for the ministry. His student church was 77 miles away from the college, so he rode his bike there and back each weekend. After three years of Bible College he topped the course and won an entrance scholarship to Melbourne University.
The boy from Adelaide who had little education was certainly beginning to show his ability. He completed his Master of Arts winning scholarships and passing with honours at Melbourne University. He then added the Diploma of Education. All the time he felt God’s call to him to ministry and, in particular, to overseas ministry on the mission fields. So it was that the young man who had graduated from Melbourne University, accepted the call to become a missionary to China. In the western provinces of China he settled to the tasks of learning the language and serving the people.
From China Harry Clark wrote to a fellow student in Melbourne and asked her to come out on the field as his bride. With equal courage she journeyed on the long and difficult journey to Western China where they were married and continued the ministry with a group of other Australian missionaries. His wife, Dorothy, came from a family long committed to Foreign Missions, her father being a dentist and lay preacher who was secretary of the Foreign Missions Board.
For the next fifteen years those missionaries served valiantly caring for the people in all of their needs and endearing themselves to an older generation of Chinese, a few of whom remember them with great vividness to this day.
In the late thirties the Japanese military forces attacked China and gradually the forces of Japan overthrew the Chinese forces taking into captivity many missionaries. H.A.G. Clark managed to evacuate his wife and young children while he saw out the difficulties of the war. Eventually he became a chaplain with the Australian armed forces and served with them through the rest of the war. Immediately after the war he went to Japan with Allied Occupational Forces. His expertise in Chinese and in Japanese made him a valuable member of the Australian Forces.
He ministered to both Japanese and English speaking people until 1952. From there Harry Clark won an unbelievable opportunity entrance to Yale University in the United States of America. He travelled to America and completed his course in Theology with distinction.
All of this rather exciting period of his life was pretty much a closed book for casual conversation. In the few years immediately after World War II the trauma was too vivid. The torture and death too real to talk about on an early morning walk. But over the next twenty years I learnt something more of his life, of his personal sufferings and depth to his ministry. On three occasions, in the twenties, thirties and fifties, he and Dorothy served as minister of the Box Hill Church of Christ.
Whenever I think of Hag Clark I always think of him walking. I guess it was because those early mornings on the way to school I met him walking back from golf. Also because he started the habit then of walking into his office where he was secretary of the Victorian Council of Churches in the heart of Melbourne during the 1950’s.
It was a ten mile walk into the city. Yet every day he walked into the office and then at the end of the days work walked the ten miles home again.
Those of us who saw his immense bulk and size walking along the footpath never could understand why he walked so much, walking alongside the railway line that could take him into the city.
One summer day I met him walking towards the city and asked him if he was going on this sunny Saturday into the office. He replied “No. Today is not a day for the office. I’m walking in to the MCG to watch the cricket.”
I responded to him immediately “Why do you walk into town and back every day? Surely it is easier to go by train?”
He looked at me and broke into the broadest of smiles “Of course, it is easier to go by train and I wish I could go by train. But you see the trouble lies here.” And with that his two enormous hands slapped his huge girth. “I have too much weight on and Dr. Kemp said to me a long time ago, ‘Harry, you have to lose some weight and I want you to lose a hundredweight.’” “A hundredweight!” He roared laughing. “How do you think I’m going to lose a hundredweight off this big old frame?”
“Dr. Kemp told me the best way was to exercise and so every morning I play eighteen holes of golf at dawn, and every day I walk into Melbourne and back again and that makes my weekly tally about 140 miles. I have about 100 pounds still to lose!”
He was always a great athlete, not only a champion bike rider in his boyhood, but a great golfer, a lover of cricket and a walker. Gradually as I got to know him I discovered he had interests in other sports as well. One day I was invited into his home and to my amazement there was a huge room at the side of the house which was lined with books, thousands of books, great Chinese vases and other memorabilia from his years in China and Japan, and in the centre of the great room a billiard table!
My eyes must have stood out on stalks because he asked me if I had not seen a billiard table before. I told him I had, but I always thought that billiard tables were in saloons where there was sly grog, thick cigarette smoke, SP Booking, illegal gambling, and loose women! He was staggered at my knowledge of such a life!
He then had a serious talk with me saying that we must never judge objects by the way people misuse them and that billiards and snooker could be an enjoyable game for men. With that he racked up some snooker balls and introduced me to the game, looking somewhat like Jackie Gleeson playing ‘Minnesotta Fats’ in the film “The Hustler”.
One day it was pouring with rain as we met walking along the street. My mind boggled at him having to lose one hundredweight by walking and I asked him the progress of his exercise. “I’m losing weight all right,” he replied, “but I’m not losing it fast enough. I was at Dr. Kemp’s the other day and I worked out how far I had walked and how much weight I had lost. I worked it out that if I was going lose the one hundredweight that he wants me to lose, I will have to walk around the world twenty two times!” And with that he burst into the most glorious laughter which shook his whole body from top to toe.
Hag Clark was a regular attender at my church, a regular supporter of the football club in Box Hill which he had founded and which today is still a strong force in Australian Rules football.
Years later when I was a student minister preaching in my first ministry, he and his wife would sometimes squeeze into the impossibly small Volkswagen and visit me in my student church some fifteen miles away. Each time he came he would bring an armful of books from his library that might be of help and interest to a young preacher.
As I open one now, I look at the bookplate inside the front cover which says:
Henry A.G. Clark
“Let knowledge grow from more to more
And more of reverence within us dwell.”
His bookplate had one of his own drawings of an Australia gum tree. Underneath the roots was a stack of books which indicated his interests in life. On top was Religion. The next book was Sacred Art, the next book Church Unity, the next book Australiana, the next book Ceramics, the next book Science and the next book Travel and Sport. Together they seem to sum up the interests of a big man who was big in vision, big in his service and big in his commitment to the Kingdom of God.
I guess it is hard to really estimate the significance a man like that upon your life but one thing is certain, in those days when I never had a father, there was one large genial man who gave me a vision of what a father would be like more than any other. I often thought of H.A.G. Clark as I walked up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock, to No.55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which was once a village, where the adults were kind and the children grew up responsibly.