(JOHN) NORTHCOTE DECK. Born Norwood, London, 12 March 1875. Died 10 May 1957, Toronto, Canada.
[Article by Stuart Braga in Australian Dictionary of Evangelical Biography, 1993.]
Northcote Deck was the second son of Dr John Feild Deck and his wife Emily (née Baring Young). He came to Sydney from New Zealand with his parents in 1877 when J.F. Deck established the Sydney Homeopathic Hospital at Ashfield, then a wealthy suburb, and studied Medicine at Sydney University. In 1908, he visited the work in the Solomon Islands of the South Sea Evangelical Mission conducted under the aegis of his aunt, Florence Young, and felt called to join the Mission. For the next nineteen years, he served as the SSEM's first medical missionary, travelling among the islands of the Solomon group in the mission’s vessel Evangel. Florence Young wrote that Northcote ‘threw himself heart and soul into the work. He took full charge of the vessel, and as Captain, engineer, photographer, explorer, doctor and visiting missionary and teacher has done work of untold value... The moment the anchor is dropped there follows the important and strenuous work of visiting the out-station schools to instruct, encourage and guide the native teachers.’ To the islanders, he was ‘Liutasi’, the man who goes everywhere. In 1910, he became the first white man to cross Guadalcanal, notoriously hazardous for whites since the depredations of the blackbirders. The next year he recovered the skulls of an Austrian party which had been wiped out in Guadalcanal some years before. These exploits, performed at such obvious peril, earned Deck the Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society.
He assisted in the establishment of an outpost at the more remote Rennell Island in 1910, and on returning a little later, was horrified to find the bones of the three native teachers. They had been killed, it appeared, to obtain the nails with which the mission house had been constructed, to use as fish hooks. Writing in 1945, Northcote commented of this setback, ‘at the time the whole tragedy seemed like defeat. In the light of subsequent events it was only victory deferred.’ However, Rennell Island remained closed for many years thereafter; the government forbade the establishment of a mission station until 1934, a policy with which Deck reluctantly concurred.
He married Jessie Gibson, on 19 April 1911 while on deputation work in Dunedin, New Zealand, his parents’ home town, where the mission had a Council of Advice; there were no children. After Jessie died of Blackwater fever in 26 March 1921, Deck married in October 1923 his step-cousin Gladys Deck, from Motueka, New Zealand, who had arrived in the Islands earlier in the year; a daughter and a son were born to them. The losses of his first wife and cousin, Constance Young, strengthened Northcote’s utter commitment to the Lord’s work. Following Constance’s death in 1924, he wrote, ‘we are here to glorify God every day and night, and anything which does not do that must go’. Though Florence Young was the founder and undoubted leader of the SSEM, her nieces and nephews, members of the Deck family, were among its key members in the field for most of the first half of the 20th century. Seven of the eleven children of John and Emily Deck became missionaries: five with the SSEM and two with other missions, most of them for long periods. All had drunk deeply at the fountain of their parents’ faith and piety, solidly based upon Bible study, so characteristic of the Brethren of that period. The seed thus sown bore fruit as the years went by, with the establishment of a strong indigenous church in the Solomons.
Deck’s monthly letters describing his missionary journeyings had an apostolic quality, and gained a wide circulation, 2,000 copies being printed in the 1920s. Like St Paul, he was in danger often, and was no stranger to suffering. He also produced a number of devotional works and accounts of the work of the SSEM, and lived to see the fruit of his labours and those of his fellow workers. Despite the desperate battle for Guadalcanal in 1942, one of the fiercest conflicts of the Pacific theatre of World War II, the work of the mission was unharmed, and continued to grow in subsequent years.
He left the Islands in 1927, and lived until 1935 in England, then in Australia for four years before settling in Canada in 1939. He had a warm and generous personality, and an uncommon gift of combining gentleness and authority as a public speaker: his words were with power. He was a sought-after speaker at conventions, and was an active board member of Christian organisations. Naturally, he maintained a keen and prayerful interest in the work which he had done so much to establish.
J.N. Deck, South from Guadalcanal: the romance of Rennell Island (Toronto, 1945)
H.J. Gibbney & A.G. Smith, "Deck, John Field" [sic] in A Biographical Register, 1788-1939 (Canberra, 1987)
A. Griffiths, Fire in the Islands! (Wheaton, Illinois, 1977)
F.S.H. Young, Pearls From the Pacific (London, n.d. )
• Pamphlets by J. Northcote Deck;
• Articles by JND published in the evangelist press, 1951-1957;
• Island Letters (SSEM circular letters) by JND, 1909-1928;
• J. Northcote Deck, Circular Letters, 1909-1928;
• Manuscripts by JND, folders 1-36;
• Typescripts of articles by JND mainly published in Not in Vain and the SSEM circular Island Letters, 1915-1956;
• Manuscripts on the Solomons by JND; Draft book on the Solomons by JND;
• Jessie Deck (wife of Northcote Deck), letters to her parents, Mr and Mrs Gibson, 1911-1918;
• General letters and prayer circulars received by JND, 1918-1946, including letters of Margaret Grant, Norman C. Deck, Joan B. Deck, Kathleen M.A. Deck, V.M. Sullivan, and others;
• JND, Letters-out, 1908-1934;
• JND, Letters to Florence Young, 1908-1924;
• Letters received before and after the death of JND, Jan-Oct 1957;
• Last articles by and obituaries of JND, Jun-Nov 1957;
• SSEM materials amongst the JND’s papers; and sundry papers.
See Finding aids for details.
Deck, J. Northcote (1875-1957)