James MurConnect Phillippo was born October 14, 1798 in Dereham. He was the son of well known builder Peter Phillippo and Sarah Banyard the daughter of a wealthy farmer. He was not a diligent student, but won prizes for his extraordinary memory and his ability to recite poetry or long passages from books. At about seven years of age he was sent to a school conducted by the Rev. Samuel Green, Baptist Minister where he was distinguished for little more than for disobedience and mischief for which he frequently rendered himself liable to chastisement. He was subsequently sent to a Grammar School at Scarning. According to his 1874 autobiography he became something of a ne’er-do-well after he left school, but after two near fatal accidents he reassessed his life.
He had a desire to go to the Baptist Church at about the age of 15 on attending he was directed to a seat near the pulpit. After a number of visits and under the conviction of sins, he accepted Christ has his Saviour. He took religious instruction with Rev. Samuel Green and in 1816 he invited his family to the Dereham Baptist Church to witness his baptism. They went with some reluctance. His father was a staunch member of the Parish Church and had threatened to disown him. A considerable number of the town attended the service. James’ family continued to attend the church, and his mother also became a Baptist. After working for his father for a while James became a book keeper, printer and book binder before he felt the call of missionary work and applied for training. He began his studies in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire in 1821. In 1823 it reported that “Mr. Phillippo also has pursued his studies under the patronage of the Missionary Society, and is expected soon to go to Jamaica”.
After finishing college James was to be married before going abroad as was the common practice for a soon-to-be missionary. He married Hannah Selina Cecil in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire and almost immediately they sailed for Jamaica under the auspices of the BMS, leaving Gravesend Kent on October 29, 1823 . It must have been a very difficult decision for James and Hannah to leave all their family and friends, possibly forever. They both knew that there was a good chance they would not survive the tropics for long. It was not an exaggeration to say that the Caribbean was the “graveyard of the white man”. The fevers, heat and humidity killed many colonists, sometimes within weeks of arriving at their new homes.
Their new home in Jamaica must have come as a terrible shock. It was in a former Army compound surrounded by a brick wall. Their house was very small with two stories and only one filthy room on each floor. The inner walls had been painted black to ease the failing sight of the previous missionary. They set to work with the optimism of youth and made themselves a workable home. Later the ground floor became their first school. The wife of a Baptist missionary was every bit as much a missionary as was her husband. Their home was the place where hospitality was always available and as a missionary’s wife it was her job to receive callers and visitors and serve them refreshments. James and Hannah lived above the school in which they worked side by side.
Slavery was a key issue, not just in Jamaica, but throughout the British Empire. Although the slave trade had been abolished in England in 1807, it was still permitted to own slaves in the Colonies. As a missionary who had campaigned fearlessly, both in Jamaica and England, for the abolition of slavery it seemed only natural that James would take a leadership role in the housing of the newly freed slaves. He knew that many slaves would be emancipated, but left with neither home nor source of income, so he envisioned a village where newly freed slaves could live and work. He bought twenty-five acres of land ten miles north of Spanish Town in the St Catherine Hills where he founded Sligoville, the first Free Village.
When his beloved wife Hannah died in 1874 at the age of 82, James could no longer bear to live in the mission-house and retired to a small cottage outside Kingston. He continued his missionary work until he retired on Sunday July 7, 1878. He lasted less than a year after his retirement, worn out by a long, hard life in an unfriendly climate. He was well respected by the Jamaican people at all social levels and died on May 11, 1879 in Spanishtown at the age of 81. James and Hannah had nine children, five of whom died in childhood.