Madge Saunders – A Remarkable Woman

Ordination and Induction of Marjorie
Ordination and Induction of Marjorie

In November 1965 a woman called Madge Saunders arrived in Burngreave to begin working alongside the minister at St James Church in Burngreave.

Whilst this seems an unremarkable statement, it hides two remarkable facts that challenged some of the social mores of those times: firstly Madge was from Jamaica and secondly that she was a woman. In the 1960s it was quite unique for a black woman to come from overseas to hold such a position within a local church: a radical reversal of the original missionary culture. The story of her tenyear sojourn in Burngreave is one that I have been keen to unravel. So, in celebration of Black History Month, I went to talk to some of the people who remembered her.

Barry Swift, Treasurer at St James Church for over 30 years, gave some background to her coming:

“In the late 1950s the first African Caribbean people started to arrive in Sheffield.They came with expectations of better conditions but were often faced with great hardship in finding both jobs and accommodation. Even in the local churches they were sometimes made to feel unwelcome. By the 1960s quite a few were coming to St James. Our Minister then, the Reverend Gillespie, had enlightened views for the time and, aware of the tensions with the church, wanted to reach out to immigrants and make them feel welcome. So, through the church, he requested a man of God to come from Jamaica to work with the congregation and increase understanding amongst them.What was surprising then was that we got Madge – a woman – instead!”

Recalling her arrival, Barry described what happened. “When Madge first came, there was a problem finding somewhere for her to live. Arrangements were fairly haphazard and she ended up in a dismal place on Rock Street. Whilst waiting for the Council to offer her a place, my wife and I invited her to come and live with us for a few months. She took part in my daughter’s first birthday party, I remember. Finally she got a flat on the top floor of the high rise on Andover Street.”

After her ordination as a deaconess at St James, Madge began work in earnest. Her focus was on children and families, having trained as a teacher and social worker back in Jamaica. She organised family worship, held classes for black children in her flat, helped Rev Gillespie set up advice sessions for immigrants (quite a controversial thing at the time) and took part in numerous meetings and committees, all with the intention of breaking down some of the barriers that black people encountered. She later wrote:

“I tried to bring about understanding and respect for the immigrants as people who need no special treatment, only wanting to be treated as human beings”.

As well as the local work, Madge became a member of the Race Relations committee and spoke regularly on Radio Sheffield. She wrote a booklet called ‘Living in Britain’ to help immigrants adapt to British life. This was well received and later translated into Urdu and Gujerati for other migrant communities.

Janet Lees, former minister at St James, recalls Madge’s achievements:

“She is a fantastic woman, now in her 90s but still active in the church back in Jamaica. But what she did here in ten years was truly ground breaking! She was the first black woman from the United Reformed Church of Jamaica to come to Britain as a missionary and her achievements here in Burngreave show what a remarkable person she has been. She wasn’t afraid to take on a challenge… and she certainly faced a few of those here! The fact that she led the St James congregation after Rev Gillespie died is testament to the fact that the congregation saw her as their minister.This was pretty unusual in the 1970s! And before she left Sheffield, they held a reception for her at the Town Hall, led by the Mayor.”

Listening to these stories of Madge has been truly inspiring and I can’t begin to do justice to her history in 600 words: for anyone interested in knowing more, you can read about Madge’s work in ‘Daughters of Dissent’ edited by Elaine Kaye, Janet Lees and Kirsty Thorpe, published by the United Reformed Church, 2004, and available via the URC website: – go to the bookshop section. Also available in Burngreave Library is the story of a visit made in 2002 by some of the St James congregation to see Madge back in Jamaica: ‘Full Circle: A journey for justice’.

Thanks to Barry Swift and Janet Lees for talking to me about Madge Saunders.

by Nikky Wilson

<< | Up | >>

Print version

The content on this page was added to the website by Derrick Okrah on 2007-02-06 22:11:57.
The content of the page was last modified by Derrick Okrah on 2007-02-16 11:43:11.

Follow us on Twitter @TheBMessenger

All content is copyright © Burngreave Messenger Ltd. or its voluntary contributors, unless otherwise stated, not to be reproduced without permission. If you have any comments, or are interested in contributing to the Messenger and getting involved, please contact us.

Burngreave Messenger Ltd. Abbeyfield Park House, Abbeyfield Road, Sheffield S4 7AT.
Telephone: 0114 242 0564. Email:
Company Limited by Guarantee: 04642734
Registered Charity: 1130836

The Burngreave Messenger is a community newspaper with editorial independence, funded by the Big Lottery, Foyle Foundation, Trusthouse Charitable Foundation, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Scurrah Wainwright Charity, local residents and our advertisers.

Help the Messenger with a donation