The Hospital Builder: Hugh Gordon Roberts

By Rev. Lyndan Syiem

Rev. Thomas Jones Day is being observed in all the seven districts of the Khasi-Jaiñtia Hills. The Government of Meghalaya had first notified this holiday in 2018, in honour of the first Welsh Calvinistic-Methodist missionary among the Khasis who arrived at Sohra on 22 June, 1841. There is a wealth of scholarly research, popular writings and documentaries on the man. The focus this year, 2022, will be on one of Thomas Jones’ illustrious successors, the Rev. Dr. H.G. Roberts, who in 1922 established the hospital that today bears his name.
Hugh Gordon Roberts was born in Liverpool, centre of the large Welsh diaspora in England, on 16 July, 1885. His father was the eminent physician, Dr. David Roberts, who was also an elder of the famous Catherine Street Presbyterian Church at Liverpool. After his college education, Roberts apprenticed to become a chartered accountant. However, his quiet life of cashbooks, vouchers and registers was suddenly disrupted by the Great Revival of 1904-06, where he was profoundly touched by the preaching of the young revivalist, Evan Roberts. Much to everyone’s surprise, the quiet, sober accountant suddenly expressed a desire for missionary service in foreign shores.
He joined medical school and qualified as a surgeon in 1912. He also received ordination, in keeping with the Welsh Mission’s old policy of integrating church ministry with medical service. He married Katie Jones and the two sailed to India, arriving at Shillong in 1913. Adept with the latest medical treatment and modern surgical procedures, the young Dr. H.G. Roberts soon gained a reputation beyond missionary circles. When World War I broke out in 1914, he was appointed Civil Surgeon of the Civil Hospital (at present-day MUDA parking lot, Police Bazar), as the incumbent had been transferred to the war zone. So the Welsh Mission Hospital was not the first in Shillong but it followed the Civil Hospital.
Historically, the Welsh medical mission began with Dr. Owen Richards (1843-1844); his tenure had been too brief though to make any impact. The next medical missionary was Dr. Griffith Griffiths (1878-1904), who established a dispensary at Mawphlang in 1883, which was shifted to Sohra in 1891, and thence to Laitlyngkot in 1897, which introduced the Khasis to Western medicine. There had also been Dr. Arthur Davies Hughes (1887-1891), who sadly had to return home after his wife suffered a major accident, and Rev. Dr. Edward Williams (1893-1925), who built a large dispensary at Jowai in 1914.
Recognizing that dispensaries were no longer adequate, Dr. H.G. Roberts coaxed the hesitant mission directors in Liverpool and the unwilling colonial British government to support his vision of a full-fledged hospital. With modest initial funding, construction began in 1917, in the midst of war, at the large mission property at Jaiaw. Dr. Roberts donated his entire earnings of 30,000 rupees, from three years as a Civil Surgeon, towards building the hospital. This was just the kind of exemplary leadership that inspired the Welsh to contribute generously. The Great War ended in 1918; the next year Dr. Roberts, Katie and the two children that had been born in Shillong went on furlough to Liverpool.
Dr. Roberts travelled across Wales and England to raise funds for the hospital building and for medical equipment. He featured in the ‘Orient Missionary Exhibition,’ which enlightened Welsh Presbyterians about various needs in the Khasi-Jaiñtia Hills, the Lushai Hills and the Sylhet plains; this exhibition raised 30,000 pounds for the Hospital. When Dr. Roberts and family returned to India in 1920, the government awarded him the Kaiser-i-Hind Medal in recognition of his wartime services, and appointed him as a member of the Assam Legislative Council. Construction hastened with fresh funds and the Welsh Mission Hospital was inaugurated on 25 March, 1922 by the Governor of Assam, Sir William Morris.
The hospital provided medical treatment, vaccination, rural outreach and training to compounders, who blended compounds into medicines. The nursing school, under Miss Margaret E. Buckley, produced annual batches of nurses. There were capable physicians like Dr. Drinsingh Hynniewta, Dr. Phin Sing and others after them. The hospital’s reputation quickly spread throughout Assam (the entire North East India at that time) and beyond. Dr. Roberts was also an innovative engineer. He built the hospital’s central heating system with old pipes and boilers from a decommissioned ship in Calcutta. He also installed a steam laundry and an X-ray machine, novelties for that age.
The arrival of another surgeon, Dr. Robert Arthur Hughes (1939-1969), eased the pressure on Dr. Roberts and settled the question of a successor. During World War II, the Hospital treated wounded British and American soldiers who had been fighting against Japanese soldiers. Dr. Roberts was appointed Consultant at the Military Hospital in Shillong. Despite such a heavy workload, he found time to minister as the Pastor of the Jaiaw Presbyterian Church; the church will celebrate its 125th anniversary in 2023. Dr. Roberts was well-known for his discipline and dedication to duty, qualities which he expected of his colleagues, qualities that defined the hospital during its glory days, qualities urgently needed today.
At the conclusion of World War II in 1945, Dr. Roberts and family returned to England. He immediately began fund-raising for constructing another hospital, at Jowai. Four years later, in 1949, Dr. Roberts and his wife arrived at Jowai, with 40,000 pounds for the new project. He personally supervised the construction and the hospital was inaugurated on 8 March 1953 by the Governor of Assam, Mr. Jairamdas Daulatram. Dr. Norman Tunnel (1953-1969) was appointed the senior medical officer, but the Hospital itself was a gift from the Presbyterian Church of Wales to the KJP Synod; it was formally handed over by Rev. Llewelyn Jones, General Secretary of the Mission Board.
In 1953, the 68 year old Dr. Roberts and Katie finally left the Khasi-Jaiñtia Hills. He became adviser of the Mission and mentor to aspiring missionary doctors. He passed away at Eastbourne, England, on 20 December, 1961. In honour of this great physician, the hospital was renamed in 2007 as the Rev. Dr. Hugh Gordon Roberts’ Hospital; it is celebrating its Centenary this year. In its first fifty years, the hospital was the premier health-care provider in undivided Assam. During the latter decades, it has faced many difficulties and challenges, yet by God’s grace it has overcome these troubles. As in the times of Dr. Roberts, the hospital that he built still requires our support and prayers.

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