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The Pied Piper of Dudley Port

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 03, 2008

Hettie Hilda Harper of Dudley Port, near Birmingham, England, was born to an LDS father and a non-member mother. Her mother must have been supportive of her father’s religion, though, because Hettie was baptized at age 8. Several of the family’s children died young, leaving a gap of about ten years between Hettie and her two younger sisters; Hettie herself was only 18 when their mother died in 1922.

In 1924, concerned about the training of her little sisters, and desiring “to bring my sisters up as my dear mother would have liked to bring them up, had she been permitted to live,” Hettie began to hold a sort of a “home Primary” in her family’s rustic kitchen for the two little girls and two of their friends. She based her lessons on two missionary tracts: John Morgan’s oft-reprinted The Plan of Salvation, and Orson F. Whitney’s The Way, the Truth, and the Life. The girls also began memorizing the Articles of Faith.

Hettie must have been a very unusual teacher, because the children began asking for lessons more and more often until she was holding class almost every night. And they told their friends.

Then came the problem of making room for them. I seated some on the wooden sofa, some on the table, a few on the sewing machine, one on each side of the fender, and the others on the floor. On one occasion the table gave way, but there were no injuries. And there in the flicker of the candle light we learned the songs of Zion and the teachings of the Lord.

At times I was reminded of the old woman who lived in a shoe; I had so many children I hardly knew what to do with them. They came for the gospel like the children went after the Pied Piper of Hamlin; there were fat ones and thin ones, tall ones and short ones – they came in droves. Some of the older people, upon hearing the word “Mormon” kept their children away; but often they would return – so eager were they for the message of truth and life. … The number attending has ranged from twenty to forty in summer and from forty to seventy in winter. That is all we can squeeze in, for our home is not very large.

(Hettie recorded this while she was still holding her “Primary” – this is not an old-age reminiscence where the numbers have grown with the passing of time.)

These were not easy children to teach, either. “The children, mostly waifs from the streets and from disorderly homes, needed training, and at times were very rowdy and boisterous, even to damaging the house.”

Finally the responsibility – and the numbers – became too much for Hettie to handle alone.

After a time I told the missionaries about the children … Then the President of the Birmingham District sent missionaries to our home to teach the children each Wednesday evening, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. We held our meetings in the sitting room by gas light, when the Elders came. To accommodate all, we removed the table and used the extra floor space. My father encouraged me by giving money for an occasional party and prizes; also for little texts, which likewise attracted more children.

Hettie’s patience and steadiness eventually paid off. By the time she had been teaching four years, Hettie could write,

The behaviour is now excellent. Though the children sit close together and become cramped, they remain quiet unless spoken to. They are full of energy and zeal. Sometimes, if an Elder is quoting a passage of scripture slowly, the children will join in and finish it with him. They memorize quickly and pray better than do many adults. One child opens and one closes each meeting with prayer. We have solos and recitations during the services, which make them very interesting. … After many lessons and reminders, although some of the children are still ragged, they come with clean hands and faces.

With the help of the elders, Hettie and her family began hosting cottage meetings each Sunday, one for the children and a later one for adults.

Many of the children, however, attend both. The Spirit of the Lord is richly manifest in these gatherings and it is beautiful to see so many children with their smiling faces and large eyes upturned toward the speaker’s face – in an old-fashioned room with quaint pictures and curtains. It is a picture to which no artist could do real justice. At present [1928] we are teaching Church history and character-building stories in the kitchen meetings, while in the sitting room many other beautiful truths are taught by the Elders.

The Elders were not as skillful – or at least not as child-oriented – as was Hettie. Sometimes the Elders’ lessons were too difficult for the children, and “after such a lesson the children pray for the stories to be more interesting so that they may understand.”

Through my long experience with them, I know exactly what the little ones need, and I have won the love of many. I have almost forgotten the hard times I used to have, and I am fast receiving the fruits of my labours. The children bring me flowers and many little tokens of love. I dearly love them and would do anything to give them happiness, of which they receive little in their homes. Their leisure time is very limited, and many have to care for babies during the meetings, while their mothers are in public-houses, and elsewhere. …

Many have a testimony of the gospel; they pray for the servants of the Lord to come and teach them, that they may receive their parents’ permission to join the Church [seven of her children had been baptized by 1928, with parental permission], and that they, too, may become missionaries. … We trust in God and feel that this work will continue to grow.

I do not know – yet – what became of Hettie and her Primary children. A rough poem printed in the Improvement Era in December, 1929, suggests that Hettie had expanded her efforts to Beehive Girl activities, probably because her own sisters were growing up. By then, eight girls – in a branch with a total membership of 11, so that once again there is evidence of sweeping the neighbors into the fun – were members of Hettie’s “Ivy Swarm.”

Gossip and slander they all despise,
They hate all envying, cunning and lies,
They refuse to do anything which is mean,
Abhor all that’s wicked, impure and unclean.
They ever are striving hard to be good,
Each trying to perfect her own womanhood. …

Our Dudley Port girls are very sweet,
You will find them hard to beat,
When they grow old and grey and hoary
They still will strive for the Celestial Glory.

Hettie died in March, 1976.



13 Comments »

  1. You are a wonderful example to me. I have no idea how you accomplish so much research and writing and so continuously. Good work.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — September 3, 2008 @ 9:06 am

  2. It’s truly inspiring to see how ordinary people have done extraordinary things. I mean this in all sincerity, Ardis:

    Some day someone will write something about those whose hearts were turned mightily to “their fathers (and mothers)” in the fullest sense of community sealing that Joseph envisioned – and I have a feeling your name will be near the top of the list.

    Comment by Ray — September 3, 2008 @ 9:36 am

  3. Thanks, again, Ardis for this wonderful addition to the stories of unknown saints (unknown to us, but surely known and loved by those who were changed by these good saints’ lives).

    Comment by Mark B. — September 3, 2008 @ 10:18 am

  4. This is wonderful. It reminds me of a Sister Missionary in Macau who baptised a whole primary. Even today the “Elders are not as skillfull” when it comes to teaching children. In Sister Harper’s case it is good to know that some of the parents were eventually interested too.

    Again, I think about your possible source. Was it a letter she wrote to a general authority perhaps? First hand sources can be very exciting.

    Comment by BruceC — September 3, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  5. Here is a map of Dudley Port, which looks like it is as far from an actual port as you can get in England.

    I’ve really been enjoying the series of stories about Saints who lived outside of the Western United States.

    Comment by Researcher — September 3, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

  6. Amen to Ray in Comment 2.

    Comment by Joey — September 3, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

  7. Thanks! One of the remarkable things about the church is that it continues to produce such people.

    Comment by Mark IV — September 3, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

  8. Today was a hard day — your comments have gone a long way toward making it a better day. Thanks.

    Researcher, I hadn’t thought about (duh) GoogleMaps covering Europe. I looked at my mission field and was able to get down to street level (not house front views but an aerial view where the individual buildings were very distinct) and pick out some of the places I had lived. Amazing to have forgotten that we lived so close to the major highway in one place, and had such a large park around us in another. Really cool.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 3, 2008 @ 6:39 pm

  9. Ardis,as usual, this is a wonderful story. I loved it. Were you able to find out who the missionaries were who may have helped Hettie with her teaching? Where did you get your information for this special account?

    Comment by Maurine — September 3, 2008 @ 11:34 pm

  10. Maurine, and all — Hettie wrote up her experiences, I’m guessing at the request of some missionary who helped her, and sent them to the mission president.

    Yesterday, by coincidence, I found a follow-up report in the Millennial Star telling what Hettie’s Primary had grown into after another couple of years. There is a picture, too! I’ll post that as a sequel in a few days. It may not be too strong to say that Hettie’s private effort brought Primary to all of Europe, not just Britain, in addition to having specific local consequences. Stay tuned.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 4, 2008 @ 8:30 am

  11. Great story. Her name is also a kick to say!

    Comment by Justin — September 5, 2008 @ 9:45 am

  12. Hettie was my maternal grandmother – I wonder what other writings and stories you have found. My mother has told me of occassions of persecution because of her and her fathers religious beliefs. Also of the meetings held in Handsworth when the church was struggling in numbers following the men being drafted for war. Grandma came from the East coast and I have memories of her there holidaying in a caravan as well as of her at home in the midlands

    Comment by Debbie — December 3, 2009 @ 11:07 pm

  13. Debbie, how wonderful to hear from a granddaughter of Hettie! I have a few other bits of information that I’ve gleaned from the Millennial Star (the church’s publication in England during those years) and one or two other sources, which I’ll pull together for you in the next little while. Maybe you’d be willing to tell us a little about her life after this time with the neighborhood Primary children — anything you could tell us would be new and welcome. I like her, the way she seems to do what needs to be done, regardless of the difficulties, and I hope that characteristic served her well in adult life.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 4, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

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