THIRTY years before he was to be greeted with the famous phrase ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume?’, one of Britain’s most famous explorers spent a year in Ongar training to become a missionary. JOE CURTIS fins out more.

Doctor David Livingstone was 25 when he travelled from Glasgow to Essex in 1838 to spend 15 months training with the London Missionary Society, based at what is now the United Reformed Church (URC) in Stanley Place.

Before he became an explorer honoured for discovering the source of the River Nile, naming the Victoria Falls and treating the ill in Africa, Livingstone arrived in Ongar an idealistic young man who had suspended his medical studies to spread the word of God. Local historian Zoe Lee, of Fyfield Road, said: “He was an incredible man. He came here to study and he taught himself Latin effectively - he was an amazing person.”

But the Reverend Richard Cecil, who taught Livingstone and half an dozen other men to be missionaries, was not quite as impressed. He described him as “worthy but not brilliant” and commented that his studying was “steady but not rapid.”

Livingstone did not go up in Cecil’s esteem when he forgot the words as he delivered a sermon at a nearby church.

Preaching for the first time at the Independent Chapel in Stanford Rivers, Livingstone stumbled as he faced a small congregation. He apologised to his audience, which included a disappointed Rev Cecil, and fled.

Mrs Lee said: “Cecil didn’t rate him at all. There was no sign, to him, of the greatness to come. But he must have been quite a confident young man because he had come so far from quite a poor background.”

It appears Livingstone embraced Ongar, visiting The Royal Oak pub in High Street at the end of a long day.

While accounts by fellow students describe him as a rather withdrawn man, he fell in love with a local merchant’s daughter, Catherine Ridley, who did not return his feelings - eventually marrying his friend Thomas Prentice.

He would often go walking around Ongar, once undertaking a memorable 50-mile round trip to central London and back to see a sick friend.

“He was building himself up for his 5,000-mile walk around Africa, though he had intended to walk around China but the opium wars prevented him going,” said Mrs Lee.

Jean Easter, of the URC, added: “He was a very keen walker, and would go for miles and miles around here by himself - it’s a solitary activity but one he enjoyed.”

The URC still has the walking stick Livingstone used in Africa, and Mrs Lee will hold a talk on the man at the URC on Thursday, January 19 at 8pm. It costs £3 for non-members

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