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THE ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF A SCEPTICAL SOUL.

By W. John Green

Contents

bulletLet Battle Commence.
bulletCrown Jewels.
bulletWe move to Stourbridge
bullet“Quires and places where they sing”
bulletSunday School.
bulletDropping Pennies.
bulletThe Juniors.
bulletIncentives and Deterrents.
bullet“Sing a song of praise today”…. etc.
bulletRegistration and Statistics.
bullet“Each in his appointed place”.
bullet“To “ERR” is human….”
bullet“Thou shalt not come in to Dudley”
bulletOther worthies.
bulletComestibles and Coathangers.
bulletMore of the faithful.
bullet“John Anderson my Jo, John….
bulletLes dames grandes et formidables.
bulletFletch & Co.
bulletDissenting Divinity.
bullet“Them dry bones - hear the word of the Lord”
bullet“Sacraments and other Rites”
bulletChosen, elect and precious.
bulletQuestions loom.
bulletFreedom and bondage.
bullet“Spare the rod…..”
bullet“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” - but not in my back yard.
bulletNo fun and games.
bulletFirst, second and third worlds.
bulletIn aid of - what?
bulletIndependence.
bulletYou are our servant.
bulletAnglesey 1939
bulletBack to the old routine.
bulletUniversity Days.
bulletA taste of Army Discipline.
bulletOut into the world!
bulletWoodall-Duckham.
bulletSettling in Scotland.
bulletMore “Precious Jewels!”
bulletWhat shall I teach?
bulletSt. Aidan’s calls.
bulletCommitment, Conversion - or what?
bulletBack to “Quires and places where they sing”.
bulletFootnote: But with a grain of salt perhaps?

Let Battle Commence

I think that it probably all started for me in Aberystwyth, this “religion” business I mean. In Bath Street to be precise, in a room in the boarding house run by a Mr. & Mrs. Carter who had some connection with the family and to which they were wont to retire for the annual summer vacation. My subsequent life-long affinity with Wales may be a result of this.

I was never given the impression that I was a “prem.”, so during a holiday in July 1922 seems to be as good a guess as any as to the date of my conception, leading to my emerging into the world on April 15th. 1923.

My father’s philosophy, consciously or unconsciously had been so moulded by the teachings of John Calvin that his way of life gave the impression that copulation rated with murder, bad language and the ingestion of alcohol as the cardinal sins, probably in that ascending order of horror rating.. No-one is perfect however, so imagine a rainy day in Aberystwyth with hormones rampant, no television and the fact of being a hundred miles from home and thus a long way from possible detection. These factors must have conspired to lead him and my almost equally puritanical mother into dire temptation. I sometimes wonder if my presence thereafter provided a perpetual reminder of his fall from grace, and whether this accounted in any way for certain oddities in our relationship.

I was, in due time, born - at 31, Yardley Street, Stambermill., a village on the eastern fringe of Stourbridge, and about which much is written elsewhere. This event occurred on a Sunday, which must have confronted my parents with a dilemma. Satisfaction was expressed in my hearing in later years that, “The child that is born on the Sabbath day is bonny and blithe and good and gay”, with the implication that I had better live up to this ideal.. I cannot recall this being mentioned following the birth of my brother in 1928.. He was born on a Friday, so it might have led to sibling jealousy, on his part for my apparent head start in the “Being Good” stakes, or on mine for his being excused the incentive. It is perhaps necessary to record that in spite of being born on what is mistakenly called the “Sabbath Day”, I have shown no symptoms of being “gay” in the later sense of the term.

The timing of my arrival must have interfered with the sine qua non of Sunday tradition. Certainly it is unlikely that my mother would have been able to attend church. I never presumed to ask whether my father did, his (then) only-begotten son being on the threshold of this world, “trailing clouds of glory”. Midwife and doctor, too, were forced to “work” on a Sunday.

Crown Jewels.

Soon after this I was told, I was “christened” at Lye Congregational Church where father was a deacon and had a great deal to do with the Sunday School. This event was, I was later told, marked by great rejoicing, the Sunday School being given a three-line whip to attend at full strength and to sing:

“When He* cometh, when He cometh to make up his jewels,
All his jewels, precious jewels, his loved and his own
Like the stars of the morning , his bright crown adorning
They shall shine in their beauty, bright gems for his crown.

He will gather, He will gather the gems for his kingdom,
All the pure ones, all the bright ones, his loved and his own.
Like the stars…..etc.

Little children, little children who love their redeemer
Are the jewels, precious jewels, his loved and his own.
Like the stars….etc.

*Note: Nowhere does it say who “He” is!

In my early years, I soon inferred that in spite of my causing from the beginning a gross breaking of the Sabbath, I was not only regarded as, but expected to continue to be, a “precious jewel”. The acquisition of a measure of pragmatism in later years, prior to acquiring with it an awareness of the limitations of the metaphor, gave me a certain foreboding that some time in the future, I was destined to turn into a crown jewel.

Thoughts of being incarcerated in the Tower of London - or its celestial equivalent - for 99.9% of my existence and only being brought out to shine on rare state occasions, did not have much appeal. Logic would suggest that to avoid this fate, one must avoid being excessively “pure” or “bright”. I have consequently managed to avoid perfection in both of them for most of my life, probably to the great disappointment of my parents. In any case it would appear that the “jewels” were all little children, so my survival beyond infancy virtually guaranteed my failure to qualify.

The bit about “loving their redeemer” became a bit of a puzzle, since “redeeming” had an association with the pawnshop, that early pre-cursor of the credit card, with which, of course, WE had no dealings. Whether in my pre-cognitive years someone had got me out of hock was a question I did not dare to ask. Nevertheless, the connection has, in later life, shed some light on the doctrine of the Redemption. No doubt Alan Bennett would appreciate the analogy.

Many years later I discovered that of the hymnbooks on my shelf, the only one in which this ditty was printed was the Church Hymnary of the Church of Scotland, so perhaps it only applied to Scottish children.

The developing of thoughts along these lines was seeding a certain scepticism about the “religion” which I was being taught.

Of our subsequent connection with the Lye Congregational Church I have little memory. Presumably I was taken there in perambulator and push-chair whilst we still lived at Stambermill, which we did until 1926. The Minister at the time was one W. J. Rees, to whom I may owe my initials, and the Church Secretary was George Harbach, a bald worthy with a high collar and even greater pomposo, but I may have picked up this knowledge at a later date. In the choir at “Lye Congs” was a certain Mrs. Caroline Bridgewater whom I was to encounter again some years later as my teacher, complete with cane, at Hill Street School, Stourbridge. It was something of a shock to find that a woman who demonstrated her Christianity by singing in a church choir and, presumably, assuring us that “Jesus loves the little children”, could actually be in the teaching profession with its totalitarian methods of imposing a draconian discipline on the same little children.

We move to Stourbridge

In 1926 we moved to 7, New Road, Stourbridge. Father had been appointed Manager of the Showrooms of the Corporation Gas Department in the town centre and a three-story town house had become vacant next-door-but-one to his place of business. This was an upward move socially as Stourbridge regarded itself as outside the “Black Country”, it said so in its guide book, and was in fact on its extreme westerly edge and the country was within walking distance.

We also moved to the Congregational Church in Lower High Street. This, too, was a social climb This church must, at one time, have had the appearance of a characteristic red-brick non-conformist chapel. This origin could be seen on the rare occasions when one went out to the small grave-yard at the back.. The building originally lay well back from the street, and being built into the side of Giles Hill, had been approached by a rather long flight of stone steps, originally outside the building. The “ascent of Zion’s Hill” had probably influenced the siting as much as the lack of J.C.B’s at the time, thus imposing much hardship on the arthritic and otherwise infirm in later years.

The premises had been enlarged by the addition to the front of the building of a suite of rooms at three levels. On the street level were the stoke-hole for the heating boiler and for coke storage. As a child, this, to me was a mysterious and rather scary cavern, lit as it was by a single electric bulb and a glow from the boiler. In my later years it became the lair of one Harry Bridgens who tended the boiler. Harry was later encountered as the one who took tar samples at the gasworks.

Opposite the stoke-hole door was that of the kitchen whence the Ladies’ Committee would cause tea and dainties to emerge on social occasions. Between these two was the original stone staircase leading to the now first-floor entrance to the Church itself. On that level, too, was the “Lower School Room”, complete with rather basic toilet facilities and a long row of coat hooks for use by worshippers. This room was used on Sunday afternoons by the infants’ Sunday school, in my time presided over by Dorothy Fletcher - one of the several church families. At this level too was the “Church Parlour”, a smaller room used for lesser functions and for the gathering of the choir. Outside the door of the Church Parlour a long wooden staircase led to the Upper School Room where major functions were held and where the Junior Department of the afternoon Sunday School met to be instructed by Mr. Ben Green and his assortment of teachers. There was no fire-escape from this upper room, nor were there any fire extinguishers, and with the only entrance/exit by way of a wooden staircase……… ! ! ! However, we were no doubt under the special protection of the Lord who, in our case, would refrain from indulging in one of his favourite pastimes, sending down fire from heaven. The outside façade of the church was therefore non-ecclesiastical in appearance and could have been a business or even warehouse premises. A gothic-shaped notice board however, proclaimed its sanctification.

Much later, probably after the ‘39-’45 war, Congregational theology had moved sufficiently away from iconoclasm to allow a cross to be mounted in the window over the main entrance door. The Cross was made up of two electric fluorescent tubes.

No doubt my father’s status and activity at the Lye Congregational meant his election as deacon at Stourbridge within weeks rather than years. I cannot recall his ever appearing to be a mere man in the pew.

The Stourbridge church interior was arranged like so many non-conformist buildings, with no central aisle, but with a central block of pews, two other blocks of seating being against the walls on each side Access to these was by way of two side aisles. Each pew had its own small door which was closed once the pew-holder and family were installed. That ensured that no-one else could enter.

Compared with many Anglican buildings the church was very well furnished, with carpeting throughout. There were even two toilet/washrooms. Years later it did strike me as odd that most Anglican churches lacked this facility and caused me to speculate on the reason for this. Pews were allocated by name to the faithful, this being indicated by a printed card mounted in a small brass frame fastened to the hymn-book ledge. The regulars never sat anywhere else but in their allocated pews. This meant that the pew seating could be made more comfortable according to the occupants’ status and wealth. Most had felt pads on the seats, mostly in turkey red felt with a suitable ecclesiastical design. Some had carpet on the floor, and some had extra cushions. As a child, I wondered why the possession of wealth seemed to go with a more sensitive derriere, but to enquire would have brought an enjoinder not to be silly.

On three sides of the church there was a commodious gallery, whether originally provided as a necessity, or with over-optimistic speculation as to the size of a projected in-gathering it is impossible to say. It’s seating was never used in my time. At the back, at gallery level was the pipe organ, replaced by a “Hammond” just prior to the war. At an early stage the church had been equipped with “deaf aids”. In various pews were hand-sets on hooks, wired into an amplifier system, with a microphone on the pulpit desk In this respect the church must have been years ahead of its time. The snag was that in order to be able to use the system, one had to have sufficient influence to have a hand-set installed in one’s pew.

The “Green” family pew was about five down on the right-hand block. It had a felt runner but no carpet or cushion - which just about sums up our status, or our contempt for other people’s.

A few pews, mostly at the front, were unallocated. This ensured that the visitor or stranger received maximum exposure to the scrutiny of the faithful. On the same principle, the “Minister’s Pew”, dominated by the wife of that worthy, was right at the back of the church, its access being curtained, and its level several inches above all others. Thus the said wife’s field of view was maximised, facilitating the report back

On entering the building one was greeted prior to the service by what in the Church of England would be called a sidesman, but that was Anglican terminology so was never used. The standard method of greeting was to offer the “right hand of fellowship” followed by an enquiry after the person’s health. Amusement could be obtained by the younger set when, seeing the approach of someone known to be deaf, would offer the the r.h of f , followed by “Good morning Mr. XXXXX.”. The reply would be “Very well, thank you!”

Persons allocated to this duty knew who would require a hymnbook provided by the church and who had his/her own, bound in Morocco leather, and which was locked away between services in a wooden container attached to the relevant pew. Woe betide the apprentice “sidesman” who offered a cheap and nasty hymnbook of common ownership to a chapel worthy who had spent every bit of seven-and-sixpence on a private hymnbook.

The other duty of the “sidesman” was to greet occasional strangers and to decide into which pew they should be shepherded. If it were certain that the Bloggs family were away or unlikely to turn up because Mrs. had been poorly, the stranger might be directed to that pew. Otherwise there were always the seats at the front which, being no-man’s-land, lacked certain comforts.

In some of the pews there remained one or more hat brackets on which gentlemen could hang their hats during the service. In my time, a cloakroom had been provided so that this facility had fallen into desuetude. Some brackets had been removed, betraying their former presence by the residual screw-holes.

In the apse at the east end of the church was the central high pulpit, adorned in red velvet, and from which most services were conducted. This apse, with its domed ceiling had been re-painted in my time to represent the blue dome of heaven, complete with small golden stars. No doubt this was designed to give the worshipper heavenward aspirations but later history lessons caused me to connect it with the Court of the Star Chamber in which undesirable things happened in the 15th. and 16th. centuries. Between pulpit and congregation was the “communion table” on a platform, and flanked by choir stalls facing inwards. One set of choir stalls was later replaced by the console for the Hammond organ which had taken over from the old pipe organ in the late thirties.

“Quires and places where they sing”

The choir during the thirties consisted of Charlie Worton, organist, and a man of uncertain temper who lived at Cradley or Colley Gate and eventually married one of the Postlethwaite sisters (see below). He was assisted by George Bills, who pumped the organ bellows. Charles was apt to vent his frustration, annoyance or boredom by noisily operating the “rat trap” swell pedal when a fortisssimo was called for - and sometimes when it wasn’t. Choir members tended to consist of families. Of the Webb family, Lily, Ethel, and Jessie sang soprano and their brother Frank sang bass. Frank was a dapper little man with waxed moustachios who would have been well cast as Hercules Poirot in place of Suchet. Ethel worked at Mark & Moody’s book-shop, Jessie at Douglas’s the jewellers and Lily at something less in the public eye. None of this family was married, but I understood that Frank’s wife had died in her comparative youth. They lived in a house at the lower end of Bowling Green Road. I can just remember meeting their parents, probably in the late 20’s.

Then there was the Leyland family who lived in a terraced house in Bailey Street. At some time they had moved to Stourbridge from Gloucester, whence the father, Harry, had retained a Gloucester accent. He sang a peculiar tenor, over the top of a wing collar but probably had bad eyesight, for often he would not sing the words of a hymn, but sing la-la to the tenor part. At various church social events, Harry could be persuaded to sing “Jerusalem” (“Last night I lay a-dreaming etc. - not the Parry version) or “The Lost Chord”. People clapped when he had finished, whether for appreciation or relief was hard to judge. He was Secretary of the Choir, which office was burdened with the need to give a choir report to the Annual Church Meeting. On one memorable occasion he began his report with the statement, “Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, we ‘aaven’t ‘ad a meetin’ since the laast one”. This credible statement caused some younger members of the choir to have a sudden coughing session into their handkerchiefs.

Harry conducted the morning Sunday School which was held in an upstairs room immediately prior to the 11.a.m. morning service in the Church. His tenor voice dominated the singing of the Lord’s Prayer and the final hymn, which filtered down from the Upper Room to entertain the gathering assembly in the church. I was to meet that particular setting of the Lord’s Prayer much later, in the 1990’s when I discovered its use at Milston, near Amesbury.

Harry had two daughters, Edith who was somewhat chubby and Dorothy who was somewhat scrawny. Dorothy worked as a shop assistant at Haskew’s, a nearby drapers, and Edith in the offices of the Water Board. Both sang soprano, and both “taught” in the afternoon Sunday School.

Prominent in “pole position” among the contraltos was Mrs. Newnham (Minnie) who sang with an overstrained gravelly tone. She competed well in the secondary aim of the choir ladies of the time, i.e. to show off their millinery. Her husband, Harold, sat on the back row and sang bass. He ran a corn and cattle-feed store on the corner of Market Street and Greenfield Avenue, and could often be seen about the premises wearing a smock coat and leather leggings, the latter to identify himself with the farming community who were his customers as well as to discourage rats from climbing up his trousers. They had a son, Billy who was regarded as being a bit wet. Had sliced bread been invented at that time, Billy would almost certainly have been dubbed “Mother’s Pride”. He was last seen wearing the uniform of a sub-lieutenant in H..M. Navy - well people do change don’t they!

Mrs. Newnham was ably assisted on the contralto line by Mrs. Postlethwaite, whose husband, Charlie, also sang bass, and at one time or another by their two daughters, Audrey and Gwyneth, both contraltos. Other sopranos were Miss Annie Millichamp, whose father was a conductor on the Midland Red, and lived at Wollaston, Stella Stanford, one of the Stanford family of Lower High Street, Mrs. Wheeler, the wife of the Station Master at Stourbridge Junction, and their daughter Muriel, Olive Shirt to whom I took an early fancy, Grace White, and latterly Mavis Hollyhead whom I married.

There was another bass - apart from myself - a man named McReedie whose highly polished bald dome was fascinating. His time and mine hardly overlapped.

Whereas this goodly company was not necessarily “gathered all together at one place and at one time”, it nevertheless provided a good proportion of the congregation, both morning and evening. They assembled in the “Church Parlour”, a small room adjacent to the Church itself, and when all was ready, would be summoned by the sidesman who had previously ascertained that no rich and respected church member was still climbing Zion’s hill and who would be “put out” if they did not beat the choir to the starting gate. Said choir would then proceed in single files, the aisles being rather narrow, to their respective places.

Meanwhile the Minister had arrived at his own vestry, there to be joined by such Deacons as had no other duties. When the choir were in place, this godly company would emerge, take their places, and the service would begin.

Sunday School.

The church was situated in Lower High Street, at that time not the ‘best end’ of the town, but the appearance of adjacent properties suggested that at an earlier time, the district had been prosperous. Most of the buildings facing the High Street were of the “Strawberry Hill Gothic” style, indicating a wealthy ancestry. At the back of the church were Mill Street and Giles Hill, virtually slum property, but they were well out of sight. This may account for the congregation consisting mostly of middle-class professional or trades-people who by this time had moved out of the centre of Stourbridge to the more well-to-do areas to the south and west.

The Sunday School, on the other hand, drew its children mostly from the adjoining slum areas and from the rather down-market areas of Amblecote and Enville Street. This meant that the children, if any, of the church congregation, did not attend the Sunday School in case they “caught something”. Neither did most of the congregation have anything to do with the Sunday School. The principle of Christian agape thus being established, the instruction of the young was left in the hands of people with a mission like my father and Harry Leyland or those of spinster ladies of a considerable age range including Emmie Davies, the Webbs and the Leylands, providing for them a sublimate motherhood.. From time to time the teaching staff was augmented by various young ladies who were on their way up and out and who wanted to get work experience.

The Juniors were children between about seven and eleven years, and were the biggest unit. There were “Senior” departments for older youngsters, carefully segregated of course as the years of puberty threatened. That for boys was, in my time run by Mr. Jack Harries, the brother of the then Minister, T. O. Harries, and was held in the Church Parlour. That for girls was held in the church vestry and run by Miss Emmie Davies, a lady who appeared to us at our age as an ancient crone, an impression reinforced by her apparent inability to wear false teeth, her natural ones having disappeared long ago. This left her with a small wet rose-bud of a mouth. I wondered how she coped with anything harder than a dunked biscuit, but the matter soon ceased to be of interest. Emmie and her sister Alice, lived together in a substantial red brick terrace house in the better part of Amblecote. Alice died soon after our arrival, but there was no proven connection between these events.

Their brother, “A.E. Davies was a tall imposing character who lived with his wife and sons at a house in Dingle Road, Pedmore. “A.E.” was “General Superintendent” of the Sunday School. He conducted an “all together” Sunday School service in the church at the opening of each school term, and presided at prize-givings. His services invariably included the hymn “We’ve a story to tell to the nations” with chorus, and a prayer which he started with the words, “Almighty God on high, we come……etc. This aroused my brother’s curiosity as to where “High Wycombe” came into it.

As “A.E.” was never known to teach a class, and only surfaced when added dignity was required on special occasions, his job specification was difficult to define. We were given to understand that “A.E” was connected with one of the Stourbridge Glass manufactories. He then appeared to retire, and afterwards was reputed to have taken over the “Pixie Toy Company” makers of cuddly toys. His appearance and mien seemed to be somewhat incompatible with this occupation which was the subject of speculation. Perhaps he had hidden depths. He had two sons, Michael and Gordon. Michael read Law at Birmingham University and became a High Court Judge, Sir Michael, still living in retirement at the time of this writing. Having had a somewhat violent disagreement with Michael on one occasion, one of my life-long dreads was of having to appear before him on some charge or other. The announcement of his retiral brought relief from this phobia. Gordon was a closer contemporary, but his career is not known.

“A.E.” carried a wallet which was fascinating, as when he dug it out of his inside pocket, it was always stuffed to bursting point with various papers. However, as he was somewhat spare of frame, it probably helped to “fill him out”.

Whereas Ethel Webb taught in “The Juniors”, the eldest Webb sister, Lily, was the Sunday School Secretary. This appointment absolved her from actual attendance at Sunday School, except of course, on special occasions. After serving in this office for several years, she decided that the time had come for her retiral and at a special ceremony and with fond tears, she was given a commemorative presentation. A few months later she was restored to office, probably because no one else would take it on. We wondered when the next presentation would be made.

Dropping Pennies.

My memory of the Infants’ department is very small, probably because I was. The climax of the gathering together seemed to be the presentation of cash to an invisible Jesus, accompanied by the song:

“Hear the pennies dropping, listen to their fall,
Every one for Jesus, he shall have them all……etc.”

Whilst singing this deep theology, the children would form a single file and walk past a basin into which the penny was dropped. I have vague memories of being “told a story” and singing ditties such as “We are but little children weak”, encouraging us to do things for Jesus’ sake in spite of our inexperience and incompetence, meanwhile “waging a weary war with sin” and “bearing our little cross”. One had minor reservations about all this such as, if Jesus were so “high and good and great” why did he need our meagre cash and our puny efforts? Life had its compensations, however, such as the annual prize for attendance, and the infant equivalent of “cakes and ale” at Christmas. As in my case, only the most debilitating disease could provide an excuse for NON-attendance, the glittering prizes could be classed neither as bribery nor reward, merely as compensation. In this way I later acquired a very well presented volume recounting the exploits of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. I sometimes wonder if my parents realised that at the time Robin was a more acceptable icon than “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”.

What happened at the morning Sunday School I have no idea, apart from Harry Leyland’s tenor. Clients of this seemed to consist of children driven from the local slum cottages so that their parents could get a lie-in. Most of them seemed to be named “Green”, but we were not related. The Mater familias, an obese woman who had produced more than her fair share of infants, seemed to be determined that all her brood should receive the expected prizes for attendance on “Prize-giving Sunday”. Woe betide the keeper of the register who had inadvertently marked “our Betty” as being absent and thus threatened her 100% record.

After their own preliminaries in the Upper School Room, les miserables were shepherded into the church to endure the adult service preliminaries, followed by the “Children’s Address”. In delivering this the Minister was expected to demonstrate his empathy with the “little children weak” who were not “born to any high estate” whilst the congregation simpered. Having received their weekly dose of patronage the children were shunted out of the building to find their own way home.

One wonders whether any of the seed fell on other than stony ground.

The Juniors.

The Junior Sunday School, held at 3.p.m. attracted the biggest following. The service commenced with the children sitting in rows with their teacher at the end of the row. The service was then conducted by my father, it being a characteristic non-conf. service, suitably modified. Hymn, prayer & L.P., Bible reading, comment, hymn, and then, “Your lesson story please”. This was the signal for pandemonium to break out whilst the bent-wood chairs were re-arranged to form a circle for each class. The teacher would then tell a story of some biblical or social significance designed to encourage pureness of living. Some had spent time in preparing, but others simply read the story from the “Sunday School Chronicle”.

Audience participation was not encouraged as children were apt to ask questions to which the teacher did not know the answer. (e.g. Why did Jacob’s angels need a ladder when they had wings ?)

“Time up!” was announced by a chord on the piano, the signal for more furniture shifting. When the racket had subsided announcements would be given, then the final hymn and “benediction”, followed by a life threatening rush down the long wooden staircase which led to freedom.

Among the curiosities was a small girl named Verdun Beasley, so called because her father had fought at the Verdun disaster in the First World War. We wondered whether her father regarded her as an equally significant disaster. We hoped in vain for the arrival of a Passchendaele Potts, but you can’t get that lucky. There was also the Vale family, consisting of Leslie, Connie and an anonymous tot. On one Sunday Leslie arrived with tot, but without Connie. He marched up to my father’s presidential table and announced without ceremony,

“Connie cor come terday, ‘ers gotta wash the crocks”.

I wonder what happened to Leslie Vale and what his reaction would be if he knew that he had been quoted on many occasions by my family when unable or unwilling to perform some chore, and for many years afterwards. Somewhere out there, living or departed, is an old lady who has gone through all of her life unaware that she is remembered by one or two as “Connie Corcum”.

Incentives and Deterrents.

One of the glittering prizes for belonging to Sunday School was the annual Sunday School treat. This comprised an outing to a field, graciously lent for the occasion by one of the church worthies and involving a trip of a mile or two in an open lorry, also kindly lent. One wonders what the Health and Safety people of today would make of thirty or forty children being transported without seat belts in an open lorry.

Arrival at the field would signal the start of an assortment of races, egg and spoon, sack, obstacle etc. and other ingenious ways of killing time and guaranteed to encourage competition with its associated envy, jealousy and hate amongst the precious jewels. This exertion would be followed by the “tea” when at trestle tables the children would be provided with sufficient bread and butter, sometimes garnished with “salmon and shrimp”, to ensure that their appetite for the inevitable slab cake did not exceed the supply. Then back to the lorry for homeward transport.

“Sing a song of praise today”…. etc.

The other “Big Event” of the year was the Sunday School Anniversary. For this, the platform beneath the church pulpit was raised and extended so as to seat most of the children. Each year some organisation would publish a selection of hymns suitable for Sunday School Anniversaries and from this a selection would have been made some weeks ahead and rehearsed by the various “departments”. As the event was in high summer, before the schools “broke up”, some of the hymns were sentimental ditties about flowers and - such as - “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”. The implied transmogrification of ambition from being a “precious jewel” to being either a flower or a sunbeam had little appeal for me. I would have preferred being an engine-driver, but the Revd. Wilbert Awdrey had not then made the obvious connection between rail transport and Christianity. One or two of the older girls were selected to “do a solo”, which gave great satisfaction to some fond parents and caused un-Christ-like jealousy among others.

A week or so before the Anniversary, the platform extension having been erected, there would be a rehearsal in the Church. This was conducted by Harry Leyland whose musical skills qualified him as Maestro. Hitherto rehearsal had been with the various pianos, but the final one was all together with the organ, for which Charles Worton, the church organist, had been hauled unwillingly from his post-prandial at Cradley. Charles was not the most placid of men, so that when Harry’s discipline seemed to flag, Charles would intervene. On one memorable occasion one wretched child was threatened by Charles with having some books thrown at him if he did not co-operate more actively in the singing of “….then we may stay the angry blow, then we may check the hasty word; give gentle answers back again and fight a battle for the Lord."

The Sabbath would dawn when for once, the church congregation and the Sunday School would come together - at least they were in the same room at the same time, the children being “up on the platform” and the congregation in the pews below. At some time during the service, a church worthy, who had nothing to do with the Sunday School, would take centre stage and before announcing the collection, would tell the congregation what a wonderful Sunday School we had and how we all owed a debt of gratitude to those who gave of their time … etc… etc.”, meanwhile turning to beam on the younger element, most of whom wondered who he was and what he was going on about.

For this service the Sunday School staff abandoned tradition and mostly sat at the front, enabled by doing so to beam or frown on their charges as the occasion demanded, and to be handy to cope with the emergencies associated with incipient nausea or urination.

Registration and Statistics.

On reaching the age of eleven or so, it was decided that my absorption of godliness through Junior Sunday School had reached saturation point, and as by this time the “Senior Boys” had faded away following a change of Minister, the threat of limbo yawned. To avoid my having Sunday afternoons off, and thereby being exposed to temptations, I was given the post of “Registrar”, This involved keeping registers which recorded particulars and the attendances of all children. On the latter depended their eligibility for a prize for attendance. The appointment introduced me to the world of statistics, and for the Annual Meeting I prepared percentage attendances for each child, average attendances for each Sunday, and probably variations from mean in each department. It is unlikely that this information was of use to anyone and was not understood by several, but it sounded good in the report. This appointment meant that I was given a trestle table and a chair at the back of the Upper School Room. Here, having collected data from the various departments, I could do the necessary arithmetic whilst others worshipped God. Here, too when duties had been done, I found that I could follow in my music book the music of the hymns being sung without having to sing them. This improved my ability to read music, which has come in handy ever since.

The visitation to Emmie Davies and her “senior girls” provided a combination of embarrassment, horror and curiosity. Emmie was one of the old school whose faith ran to the confident expectation of white wings and a golden harp in the world to come. My father once caused her great indignation by enquiring why the wings had to be white and what was wrong with blue. As a budding scientist, I could have added to this certain comments on the tensile strength of gold making it unsuitable for the manufacture of harps - but that would not have helped much. Emmie must have had difficulty in reconciling this doctrine with the aspirations of a bunch of adolescent females or to use it as encouragement for them to remain “pure and good and true” - whatever that meant. The slum background of some of them must have provided more frequent encounters with the more realisable delights of impurity, evil and vice.

I cannot recall when, exactly I gave up the onerous job of being Registar; it was probably when I left school prior to going to University. I do remember being presented with a rather handsome gold-nibbed fountain pen in appreciation of my efforts. For the rest of my life, the odd hospital term “registrar”, for a consultant’s chore-boy, has taken me back in time.

“Each in his appointed place”.

As I have already indicated, pews in the church were allocated to regulars who never sat anywhere else. The back pews of the side blocks were larger than the others, probably because someone had not realised that the length available could not be divided by an exact number of pew widths, so the back ones were 1.3/4 times as big, with extra seats against the wall.

Of the right hand block, the back pew was the property of the brothers, Will and John Waugh, bespoke tailors to the nobility and gentry, but being dissenters, probably not to the clergy. Will, the elder, was the Church Treasurer. He wore rimless pince-nez with a power of several dioptres, probably due to his having done much close needlework in his trade. These, catching the light, gave him the appearance of having, unlike the Scottish “moose”, a perpetual “tear drap in his e’e”. John was less enthusiastic and only turned up at church on special occasions.

In front of them sat a rather strange family who had a shop just below the church where picture framing was carried out. They were fronted by the Stanfords,. This family lived in a strange three-storey house on the canal bank and consisted of Edgar, the father, a joiner by trade, his somewhat rotund, apple-cheeked wife, and their children, Stella, Gladys, Horace, and the twins, Edgar - known as Dickie - and I think, Mary. They obviously could not all get into one pew, but that caused no problem as they were rarely all there together. Stella was in the choir, then in the R.A.F. and at the end of the war, decamped to Australia with her acquired husband.

Gladys and Horace were contemporaries of ours. Gladys, surprisingly and whilst still in her teens, was made a deacon but later converted to the C-of-E. She became a teacher and also a churchwarden and leading light of the Parish Church at Clent. Horace joined the R.A.F during the war and was a friend and associate of my brother Paul. Of the twins’ progress I have no recollections.

Next came the pew of the “Shirt” family who had a café and confectioners’ business on the corner of Market Street and High Street. I can just remember the parents of Charlie who was about the same age as my parents. They had two children, Olive, mentioned above as being in the choir, and Ron who eventually went out to foreign parts to minister to the heathen..

Then came the Green family who always sat as Dad, John, Mother, Paul. Separation from my brother was probably to avoid the possibility of altercation during the holy hush. During the sermon, a sweet was usually provided - in non-crackle paper of course. It was during these, and especially during the long extempore prayer, that I had much early experience of acute ennui. When I was very small, father would provide paper and pencil and the fleeting moment could be passed in artistic creativity, but later it was assumed that I was capable of receiving instruction, so the diversion was no longer provided. Sermon time thereafter was only relieved by speculation concerning the fox’s head fur around the neck of Mrs. Hazelhurst who sat in front of me and wondering if the eyes were real or not.

The Hazelhursts consisted of “Mr” , a tall upright figure of a man, compared with whom his wife and daughter were tiny. They lived in Parkfield, and were one of the few families I remember our calling upon as a family. I still have a pair of brass dividers which formed part of a set of drawing instruments given to me by Mr. H..

In front of the Hazelhursts sat the Claxtons, Charles being something at the Water Board. Mrs. was a somewhat chubby little figure. They were accompanied by daughter Winnie, one of the archetypal spinster daughters still living at home. She may well have been one of the many who had been bereft of boy friend or fiancé by the first world war, at the end of which it was too late to start again.

Next came a pew which was occupied from time-to-time by H. Watson and F. Price. These gentlemen were the deacons and leading lights of the chapel at Chawnhill which came under the supervision of the Congregational Minister of Stourbridge. When there was no service at Chawnhill they were wont to turn up at Stourbridge, no doubt to seek inspiration from the source.

In the left-hand block, the large rear pew was occupied by the Beard family. Mr. Beard, whose hirsute appearance lived up to his name, I can just remember. His two daughters, Gertie Beard and Mrs. Aston accompanied him and still used the pew after his demise. Mrs. Aston’s Christian name was never uttered in my hearing. Of the fate of Mrs. Beard mère and Mr. Aston I am still in ignorance.

Next, on that side, came the Galletly’s, and in front of them, the Toobys and the Davies’s, some of the latters’ idiosyncrasies being described above.

To “ERR” is human….”

Edward Reginald Reed Tooby was Church Secretary and a power in the land. He was for a time, Mayor of Stourbridge and Chairman of the Worcestershire Congregational Union. He had been an Army Captain during the first war and so was appointed Welfare Officer for the district during the second. He had a thriving building contractor’s business and was thereby responsible for much of the council housing which sprung up between the wars. He was reputed to have secured the contract for the compulsory removal of all iron railings in the borough which we believed were to be melted down to make more tanks. After the war we learnt that this would have been an uneconomic way of doing things and that the main purpose of the exercise was to give a feeling to “donors” that even if they were not being shot at, they were “doing their bit”. We were left to speculate as to the final destination of all the iron railings.

“E.R.R.” as its Secretary was a, if not the, principal lay officer of the church. He was wont to hover at the entrance to the Church, especially if distinguished guests were expected to make an annual appearance. One of these was Major Thompson of Harborough Hall, who, on his rare appearances was greeted with much bowing and scraping, there being no silver trumpets to sound. If I were “on duty” at the right time, ready to hand out hymnbooks to hoi polloi, E.R.R. might condescend to introduce me as “one of our young people”. I took exception to this. I could not regard myself as one of his young people, and longed to introduce him as “one of our old boys”, but did not, of course, dare. Consolation was obtained by the thought that I was turning the other cheek, for which there might be some reward hereafter.

The gallant Major, some years later, earned eternal damnation by my brother who was told off by him for “speaking to me with your hands in your pockets.” Whether this was resented principally because of my brother’s anti-military leanings or because it was not a “congregational” thing to do, will no doubt remain a mystery.

It remains another mystery as to why the Major was given such adulation. It is suspected that Mammon may have had something to do with it.

During one year of this period, E.R.R. became Chairman of the “County Union”, a loose affiliation of Congregational Churches in Worcestershire. This called for his visiting, during his term of office, as many of the Worcestershire Churches as was possible. Predecessors in the office had been sufficiently skilled, bold or enabled to be capable of conducting the service or at least delivering the sermon at the visited church. E.R.R. apparently felt unable or unwilling to do this, so recruited my father to do the necessary for him. In view of the much vaunted Congregational doctrine of “The Priesthood of all Believers” I wondered about this. I felt that father was being “used”, if not patronised, but for him the kudos probably overcame any misgivings. It did mean, however, that I sometimes travelled with them on these visitations, once to a church at Malvern Link which rejoiced in the title of “Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion” (sic). Don’t ask me why, but it can no doubt be looked up in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church if my reader really wishes to know.

Mrs. Tooby was a well built lady whose stature befitted her status - particularly during her time as Mayoress. She was a pleasant person and known for her full length fur coat, for the wearing of which she might today have been lynched by Animal Rights fanatics. They had two sons, Edward (Eddie) who became a Colonel in the Army and who died a few years ago, and Dennis, married to Helen, who at one time lived a few doors above us on Meriden Avenue, Wollaston.

“Thou shalt not come in to Dudley”

Also utilising a pew in this area were Mr. & Mrs. Galletly about whom I can remember nothing, and perhaps one or two other families before, near the front, the pew of the Dudley family. Having been given a leg-up into this world by a Doctor Darby and having received his assistance in the matter of survival over several crises, it was easy, when encountering Doctor Dudley, to deduce that all doctors’ names must begin with an alliterative “D” Disillusionment, of course, set in and so began my initiation into the processes of logic.

For a short time after our arrival, Doctor Dudley Senior, was still alive, and, I believe, still practising as a G.P. at commodious premises next to the church. He died in our time and a brass plaque on the wall alongside the pew commemorated his life. He had two children, Geoffrey, who had qualified as a Doctor and who took over the practice, and Georgina (Georgie). I recall being hauled off to Chawnhill Chapel, which had been re-furbished, to attend its official re-opening, a function nicely performed by Georgie, then in her youth. Geoffrey married and had a son, Brian who also became a medico. Georgie presumably devoted her life to further good works, but my small interest in her was due to her owning a Lanchester car. This was a somewhat up-market vehicle, one of its distinguishing features being its epicyclic gear box, a model of which it was my ambition to construct in Meccano. This feature obviated the need to de-clutch, then a somewhat skilled and delicate operation. Her surgeon brother was no doubt capable of skilled and delicate operations so one wondered why she wasn’t.

The Dudley family eventually moved to Pedmore, but kept the premises in Lower High Street as the surgery. As this was almost the lowest part of the town, the sick and infirm were assisted by gravity in reaching the surgery. They had, of course, to fight against it on their way home. Having done so and reaching home safely, this should have been proof enough of their having been cured. Certain extracts from the Congregational Hymnary might have suggested that similar healing grace might result from a visit to the Congregational Church, but proof of this was lacking in my time.

Other worthies.

The centre block of pews, those accessible from the right-hand aisle were habited at the back by the “Minister’s Pew” described above.

My memory of exactly where the others sat is somewhat vague. There were, however, the Hood family. Clarence Hood was blind and had a fascinating and very pointed nose. We were given to understand that he was a staunch supporter of the Liberal party. Why this should have been the cause of irony from my father I could never understand. The latter was equally contemptuous of both Con. and Lab. and so should have been a Lib. himself - it was assumed that you had to have some political allegiance. For a short period, having developed a temporary interest in naval architecture, I wondered why Mr. Hood had had a battle cruiser named after him, but it soon became clear that he hadn’t.

Mrs. Hood, whose origins were in Hull, had some expertise in “Tatting” in which she instructed my mother. This skill had no connection with the Cockney “titfer-tatting”, but was a long-winded way of changing cotton thread into decorative table mats using a shuttle. I could think of better ways of wasting time, but tastes and interests differ. The Hoods had two daughters, Patty and Betty, but that was in the days when girls were more of an embarrassment rather than a genre to be cultivated.

On this side too were the Fisher family, one of whom was called “Gus” which I found unusual, being more in keeping with names given to comic paper characters. Fisher the elder had a fine bass voice and should have been in the choir. His enthusiastic response to the exhortation: “The Lord is King, lift up thy voice…” is his only claim to a part of my fading memory - apart from mild curiosity as to a possible relationship to Jeremy Fisher.

Comestibles and Coathangers.

Towards the front on this side sat the Dutton family. Father was a small, thin, weedy little man with a small thin weedy little black moustache. He worked for the Water Board. The family however was dominated by Mrs. Dutton of whom Pam Ferris, the materfamilias in “the Darling buds of May” provided a reminder. Mrs. D., also an enthusiastic member of the British Legion (Women’s Section), could always be found dealing with the refreshments at any church or civic function, so we speculated that her size was in some measure due to her supplementing of regular meals with left-overs from the various functions. She was prominent in particular in the town’s catering arrangements in connection with the Silver Jubilee in 1935 when there was a civic “Old People’s Tea Party” in the Town Hall.

Mr. & Mrs. Dutton had spared no effort in proving their fecundity by bringing forth a large family. There were, to my knowledge, Dorothy, Teddy, Betty and Jimmy, and one or two more younger ones whose names escape me. Teddy, being of the requisite height joined the Brigade of Guards and his rare appearances in church when on leave were in full scarlet uniform, which probably caused a degree of tachy-cardiac irregularity in some maiden breasts.

Of the others, only Jimmy gives reason for recall. On one Sunday, Jimmy, who was then about twelve years of age, appeared in church with others of the family, wearing his “Sunday -best” jacket. It was plain that this jacket had been put over a coat-hook since the previous week, but had had the loop hanger of another jacket forced over it . This had caused a protrusion in the cloth, just below the collar which, had we not more accurately diagnosed the cause, could have given rise to speculation that young James had a large carbuncle in the region of his cervical vertebrae. Thereafter, if we were caught putting a jacket on a hook without using the loop hanger or a wooden coat hanger, mother would warn us of the danger of a “Jimmy Dutton” being moulded on to our jackets. Going down in history as a bulge in some cloth is fame indeed!

More of the faithful.

As regards the centre block on the left hand side, I cannot recall the tenant of the back pew. At one time the Hope family from Oldswinford used the next one down. I was at school and University with their younger son, Ian, who is at the time of writing in New Zealand, having emigrated there, probably in the 1950’s.. Mr. Hope was a tall, balding, rather humourless man who gave the impression that he had, in fact, abandoned hope, his wife appearing to us as having a similar lack. The elder son, Dennis being a couple of years older than me, was rather out of our circle. They lived in Worcester Road, Oldswinford, in a rather nice detached house.

In this area, too sat Mrs. Howie and her son, Donald. They lived at the top of Worcester Street, opposite Mary Stephens Park. Mrs. Howie is remembered as having a fondness for fur stoles and I recall her air of hauteur compounded by, I believe, her use of lorgnettes. Donald was a tall, spare man who held some position in one of the banks, and was therefore considered reliable enough to take the collection from time to time.

John Anderson my Jo, John….

In this section of seating too, sat J. Anderson, tailor and outfitter who had a shop in the High Street. He advertised his trade by being always immaculately turned out with wing collar and bow tie, and what is more, spats. Anderson distinguished himself by deciding sometimes to wind the clock in the gallery during the long prayer, probably thinking he could not be heard. His wife was equally immaculate, modelling herself and her wardrobe on that of the late Queen Mary. At a very early age I was once privileged to be allowed to kiss her through the veil which adorned her millinery. It was not a delightful experience and, like “No-good Boyo” of “Under Milk Wood”, I never kissed her again. My brother recalls having been given sweets by Mrs. Anderson, sweets which always seemed to smell of Lily-of-the-Valley. He has had an aversion to that perfume ever since.

I am not sure what, if any, official position J Anderson held, but he was a church deacon and often gave out notices with a rather strangled accent with Scottish overtones which, in my innocence, I put down to his wing collar being a trifle under-sized.

Father, when taking me round the shops on a winter’s evening would sometimes call in Anderson’s to discuss some church matter. If there were no other customers, this discussion would be extended, which left me to admire the cast-iron paraffin stove which heated the shop and in which the flame could be examined through red glass. There was also the glass-topped show case which formed the top of one of the counters. This contained a variety of studs, braces, suspenders and bow ties, with other gentlemanly accoutrements, but which, after the first half hour, failed to relieve utter boredom. We had been reminded frequently in Sunday School that each Christian child had “his little cross to bear” Endurance of boredom was certainly the price I had to pay for the privilege of becoming a crown jewel or whatever. High up on shelves reached by ladder were a selection of hat boxes, the contents of which were never displayed in my presence.

Les dames grandes et formidables.

Somewhere in front of the Andersons’ was at one time the pew of Mrs. Moyle. She was the relict of George Moyle, grocer and provision merchant, having shops at Lye and Stourbridge and from whom a proportion of our comestibles was purchased.

George had died some time before our arrival in Stourbridge leaving his widow well provided-for. Mrs. Moyle appeared to have modelled herself, not on Queen Mary, but on the dear Queen on the 19th. century to the extent of having a liking for jet adornment. Her progress to her pew was slow and regal, assisted by a decorated umbrella or parasol according to season. She lived in a grand red-brick house in Heath Lane named Rydal Mount and was highly respected. Occasionally the house and grounds were opened to allow some sort of summer fête in aid of church funds. As the interior was loaded with a vast amount of Victorian clutter, parents were sorely tried in avoiding catastrophes.

A similar lady was Mrs. Francis, who sat almost at the front.. She too was in our time a widow, that of the late Doctor Francis who lived and practised in Greenfield Avenue. She had the endearing habit of never arriving before the second verse of the first hymn, and as her pew was almost at the front and she walked rather slowly, her progress, in fur coat in season, took up most of the rest of the hymn. If the hymn were short, the Minister would courteously wait for her to settle before proceeding. A visiting officiant, not knowing the drill, might receive a hard stare.

Fletch & Co.

In this seating area too was the pew of the Fletchers, consisting in the early days of Harry and Mrs. F, with offspring Dorothy and Norman.. Norman was last seen, not in “Slade Prison” as was his namesake, but in R.A.F. uniform during the war, and Dorothy is mentioned above in connection with the Sunday School. Harry was somewhat deaf and had the privilege of having one of the deaf aids fitted in his pew.

The Fletchers were, by marriage, distant relatives of ours. Harry Fletcher had married a Vinnie Brooks, daughter of the fruiterers at Lye Cross. Her sister had married Albert White, one of the White family of farmers and who had a butchers’ shop at Lye. Albert White was the brother of Sam White who married my mother’s sister Ruth. So work that one out ! Grace White, Albert’s daughter, appeared as a chorister from time to time when visiting Auntie Vinnie.

Dissenting Divinity.

The normal church service, both morning and evening, was based on the “hymn sandwich” which characterised non-conformist worship. At the evening service there was no children’s address and there was no anthem in the morning except on special occasions.

A typical service would start with a “Call to Worship” - a sentence from Scripture on that theme. Next came the “Sanctus”.

It is necessary to record that the only service book to which the congregation had access was the hymnbook, at that time, the “Congregational Hymnary”. This however contained a selection of pointed psalms and passages of scripture, canticles, anthems, responses, with a selection of Anglican chants to which psalms and other material could be sung. Much of the material was taken from the Book of Common Prayer, but one had to discover that for oneself and thereafter “tell it not in Gath”.

There were at least three simple settings of the Sanctus on which changes were rung, together with one or two other short anthems used as introits. The congregation had to be referred to the number in the hymnbook, and whatever introit was chosen it would be announced as “The Sanctus is number xxxx.” Many years later I discovered that the Sanctus was in fact part of the Eucharist - a term which was anathema to Dissenters, rating in horror value only next to “The Mass”.

There would then be a short introductory prayer, extemporised by the Minister and followed by a sung Lord’s Prayer. This was followed by the first hymn and the first Bible reading, the second hymn and another Bible reading. As far as I am aware, there was no fixed lectionary, and readings were chosen by the Minister. The danger of this system - or lack of it - was that favourites tended to be repeated at short intervals. There was a time when I.Cor.13 was over-used, and as the A.V. version was de rigueur, I became a bit bored with “charity” and its virtues.

At morning services then came the children’s hymn and the children’s address, after which the children, like Israel of old, were released from bondage.

Next came the “Chant”. This was one of the pointed psalms taken from the back of the hymnbook or a similarly pointed passage of scripture. This was always announced as “The chant is number xxxxxx”. Never was the scriptural provenance referred to. Was there some sort of taboo indicated here? They were announced as Psalms in the C-of-E, so ………????

The “chant” was followed by a lengthy extempore prayer, then, in the evening, the Anthem, the announcements and collection and another hymn. The climax was then reached in the sermon. In Congregationalism in those days, a Minister was judged very largely on whether he could “fill the Church”, this supposedly depending very much on his being able to retain the congregation’s attention for the duration of his sermon, which might well last for twenty minutes. The content of the sermon was important of course, but that was a secondary consideration.

“Them dry bones - hear the word of the Lord”

Having heard in my time hundreds of sermons, and having preached at least an equal number, I sometimes wonder about the value of all that expended time. No doubt there was some theological input. At “Stourbridge Congs” there was plenty of exhortation to social rectitude, and the need to succour the poor, the needy, the outcast, with whom one did not normally associate, and especially to convert the heathen who were conveniently “overseas”, being spread exponentially from Greenland’s Icy Mountains to India’s Coral Strand, blindly bowing down to wood and stone. This latter task was left to the London Missionary Society of Broadway, Westminster whose zeal we were continually exhorted to support financially, aided by collecting boxes in the shape of African Huts made of papier maché. As there were no African huts on a direct line from Greenland to Bombay, nor on the circle whose circumference passed through them, one assumed that diversions had been made. Dr. Livingstone came into this somewhere.

It is perhaps a tragedy that all I can recall coming from the pulpit was, from Rev. T. O. Harries, that there had been an heroic missionary in Papua names James Chalmers whom the natives called “Tamate” - Harries himself had been out there in the “mission field”. (Why do I think of Foggy Dewhurst and his little natives?) From his successor, J. W. G. Dew, in a sermon on hypocrisy, I learnt that “putty and paint would deceive a saint”. Well, not a lot of people know that! Yes, I have forgotten a good deal and some seed probably fell on good but unconscious ground, but the harvest which has stayed gathered in, after seventeen years of sowing, seems a little disappointing.

At long last we were allowed to relieve pressure on the pelvic bones by standing up and singing the last hymn which was followed by the Benediction, then home to Sunday dinner or hymns round the piano according to the hour.

During my University years, the Minister was Revd. Dafydd Arafnah Thomas with whom I struck up some rapport. His dissertations from the pulpit were more learned and possibly because of that and, for a change, made some sort of sense to me. He was not universally appreciated however, probably for the same reason. Latterly he was replaced by a Revd. Clifford Pickford who provided a contrast, but by then I was away most of the time.

“Sacraments and other Rites”

Once a month, after the evening service, there would be the “Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper”. This meant that at the end of the normal service, many of the congregation would depart, leaving behind those whom I thought as a child, must have qualified by being especially “holy” and “trusted in their own righteousness”. For this the Communion Table came into play, behind which on a large throne, sat the Minister. On either side of him on lesser thrones, sat the four deacons who had been assigned to this duty. The “elements” had been prepared previously by the “ladies” assigned to this duty. This task involved removing the crust from one or two thin slices of white bread brought from home, and then cutting the bread into 3/8 inch cubes, placing them on a silver plate. As “temperance” - at least in public - was a virtue, it was a bottle of blackcurrant cordial which would then be produced and a diluted teaspoonful of this would be placed in each of several small glasses which in turn were placed in an ingeniously designed double or triple-decker holder with silver mountings. These furnishings would then be placed on the Communion Table and covered with white linen. I wondered how this abhorrence of ethanol could be reconciled with our Lord’s conversion of many gallons of innocuous water into wine, and at a function at which people were expected to get drunk - well it says so in the Bible.

I wondered too, why the pretence had to be made that it was wine when quite plainly it was not. Since then I have had similar reservations about certain “wings” of the church having an abhorrence of the use of unleavened bread at the Eucharist, when it seems apparent that it is what Our Lord must have used at the Last Supper. Perhaps we are wiser than he was about food chemistry..

I fail to recall what sort of liturgy was used, but Zwingli reigned triumphant. The sacrament was received by the elements being brought to the end of each pew by the deacons, the containers being passed along the pews. It also explained the one-inch diameter holes at regular intervals in the pew ledges. After drinking, the small tapering glasses were placed in these holes to prevent their being knocked off during pious devotion. On my being admitted to Membership of the Church, I was allowed to partake of these mysteries, but cannot recall ever being told what it was all about. It was many years later that I discovered the connection with the Eucharist and the Mass. At the time it came over to me as a sort of charade at which we were called upon simply to remember the Last Supper. To what end was not made clear.

Chosen, elect and precious.

Musing on these past times, I realise now that there remained a strong strain of Calvinism in the Congregational Church. At the age of about fourteen I was formally admitted as a Member of the Church, sitting with some contemporaries on the front row and being offered “The Right Hand of Fellowship” by the Minister. I had been given no specific preparation for this. Presumably this was accounted for by the fact that I was a scion of a staunch Congregational family who were already part of “the elect”.

It would be assumed also that because I had religiously presented myself on church premises three times each Sunday for the past ten years and as far as was discernible had never been caught in acts of fornication, inebriety, swearing, buying Irish Sweep or raffle tickets, or a Daily Mirror and ten Woodbines on a Sunday, then I could be accepted as one of those whose march to Zion could proceed.

Questions loom.

At the age of ten years I achieved a place at the Grammar School when instruction in Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics in particular began to raise problems regarding the creation and properties of matter which seemed at variance with certain Biblical conceptions. This assault was assisted by the school’s “Religious Instruction” curriculum. This included having to spend a whole term studying I Thessalonians without previous background and context information, and a term or two with the School Chaplain whose interest in Egyptology did not get us much beyond Queen Hat-Shep-Sut who, we were informed, was “a bit of a goer”, but without elucidation of the term. (What is more, she wore trousers!) Perhaps it would have been better if Pharaoh had managed to overtake the Children of Israel!

Freedom and bondage.

The reader, if there ever is one, of this treatise, will by now have noted a certain scepticism, if not cynicism in the foregoing account of the Stourbridge Congregational Church and its adherents. This was brought about by the effect of many inconsistencies in the world in which I found myself. Much later in life, having studied theology and Church history, I was enabled to see reasons for this, the significant one being the incompatibility of sixteenth and seventeenth century Calvinistic Protestantism with a world in which social conditions had vastly changed. The impact of scientific knowledge and rationalism was challenging religion, philosophy and ethics which were based on the authority of metaphysical hypotheses. At the time, I could only see and experience the practical effects of all this.

“Spare the rod…..”

In infancy one accepts without question the customs and rules of one’s parents, simply because one knows no other. In early years, therefore, I accepted that a normal, self-evident and universal rule of life was “three-times at Church on a Sunday, and no alcohol”, this being closely linked to “honour thy father and thy mother” and the need to wash behind your ears. Honour was a synonym of “obey”. Whereas we were certainly not deprived of love and care, I was aware that always in the background loomed a continual threat of censure and of punishment, mental or physical, for misdemeanours, whether committed deliberately or unconsciously and often through ignorance. Original sin probably had something to do with the doctrine of “Spare the rod and spoil the child” which, whilst not emphasised specifically, had not been completely discarded.

Punishment for misbehaviour, such as happened sometimes at school, was acceptable and soon forgotten. Punishment, especially physical punishment, for misdemeanours which had been accidental, or because of lack of knowledge, I recall resenting bitterly and recall some instances to this day.

My father could by no means be described as a cruel man, but I recall, as a child, looking at his hands as he dozed in an armchair, and thinking, “Those are things which cause me pain.” That is very sad, but so began the influence of the eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not be found out”. As is recorded elsewhere, he could perpetrate acts of incredible mental cruelty, not deliberately, but more because he lacked the ability to realise that standards other than his own were not necessarily wicked.

Lack of social contact with other people who did not conform to the accustomed discipline led me to assume at first that our way of life was the normal one.. As a young child, I assumed that those who were not seen in the Congregational Church must attend services at other churches in the district, perhaps of the Methodist, Baptist, or other Free Church persuasions. Even the “poor” who lived in slum property at Lye, Cradley and all stations to Birmingham had their “Bethel Chapels” and mission halls. One of these near Quarry Bank was even called the “High Town Ragged School”

That was all right, of course, but others could be seen entering the portals of the Parish Church, or even those of the neo-gothic Roman Catholic Church a few doors from our house, and their religion was suspect for reasons never explained to me. The innocent enquiry as to what went on inside these buildings was met with warnings not to concern myself with the matter. I was later to find that the parent being quizzed used this answer as a cover for their own ignorance.

It came as something of a mild shock, at a later age, to discover that there were people in the world, other than the “heathen beyond the seas”, who did not attend church at all except perhaps for “hatches, matches and despatches”. It seemed equally strange to realise that some of these people, whom I had come to know in other capacities, were normal, kindly, respectable, decent people of high moral standards and conduct, and not the personifications of evil which might have been expected in those lacking the discipline of Calvin.

There seemed to be an inconsistency somewhere, in that much was made in hymns and sermons of the church’s teaching, and indeed that of St. Paul and our Lord himself, that the supreme achievement of the Incarnation was to “set his people free”. Yet that was not my experience. Particularly as a teenager, I became aware that my belonging to the Church, so far from setting me free, was keeping me a prisoner in many ways.

“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake”
 - but not in my back yard.

The difficulty was that there were things that many people seemed to do which were forbidden to us. Already we have seen that alcohol in any form was anathema, not only itself, but it was necessary to avoid as far as possible people known to consume it. Furthermore, premises on which it was consumed or from which it was sold were treated as dens of evil, to be avoided. The consequences of this were that we could never stay at a hotel, or even have a meal there even if we could have afforded it. It meant that organisations such as the Rotary Club, to which my father, had he been of a different frame of mind, could have made significant contribution, as to other similar organisations, but they met at the Talbot Hotel. At the weddings of both my brother and myself, father made it quite clear that he would not attend if alcohol were served.. This caused tremendous embarrassment and resentment.

No fun and games.

John Calvin had expressly forbidden “dancing and games”. As a result I was unable to go to dances with their desirable social contacts, in spite of having taken some lessons clandestinely. Billiards and snooker, at which I think I could have made a fair showing, were forbidden because they were only available at clubs where alcohol was consumed, and what is more, were associated with the dreaded “gambling”. Card games were not allowed, much for the same reasons, except at home and the thirties version of “scrabble” which was called “Lexicon”. This was acceptable within the family as it had an educational value and improved the vocabulary. Furthermore, at home the sins of playing for half-pennies or for match-sticks would not be encountered. Father usually won as he had had more time in this world to increase his vocabulary. He should by rights have been handicapped.

Anything with the remotest connection with gambling was anathema, even to the purchase of raffle tickets at a church “social”. Once I won a horse-racing game in a competition organised by the local paper but was not allowed to play with it.

All this had a stultifying effect on my developing need for social life other than that which was firmly anchored to the Congregational Church. The lack of social graces with which this left me until it was too late to catch up has been a matter of resentment if not of anger for most of the rest of my life.

I can recall playing bowls with father and also “chip and putt” golf whilst on holiday, but this, too, was confined to the family so the competition was again unequal. I would have liked to play tennis, but girls did that and so there was an inherent potential threat.

Unlike other boys, who were introduced to the bicycle at a fairly early age, I was not allowed one until I was thirteen, and in the upper fifth form at school. I was given the impression that this was due to the fact that we lived in the middle of the town and on a busy road with its attendant dangers, and also that it could not be afforded. Later I began to suspect that my lack of transport was in some measure due to fear that it would enable me to escape more easily from parental control and thus fall into the hands of the world, he flesh and the devil. However, having at last obtained a bike it became my main aid to exercise, to escape and to freedom. The day after my acquisition I pedalled thirty-odd miles and suffered accordingly.

Compulsory attendance at church, three times a Sunday, deprived me of another social and educational privilege. Our Chemistry master, the well respected John Timbrell was a keen radio “Ham” and was in charge of the two amateur radio stations at the school. On Sunday mornings in term time he offered hospitality and tuition to sixth-formers, and some of them went on to pass the tests by which they became licensed radio operators. I had become interested in this world of early electronics and would have dearly loved to join my contemporaries. However, my need for two doses of Calvinism per week over-ruled this ambition - another matter to which I “look back in anger”. Another was the ban on doing any homework on a Sunday, apart from Art on a Sunday afternoon. Why Art was acceptable as a Sabbath occupation and not Maths or Latin, I never could rationalise. Often, particularly in later school years when a good deal of homework was set, this meant its consuming much of the limited and precious time available for recreation on week-days.

First, second and third worlds.

In my developing eyes and understanding, the world in which I lived seemed to be dividing itself into three parts. First there was the strict puritanical world of my parents to which I was expected to conform. From assuming that this was the norm and, apart from “evil doers”, the standard kept by most people, it began to dawn upon me that this discipline was unusual and that of the Green family possibly unique.

Then there was the world of other Christian people, known to have various church connections, but whose less rigid ideas were suspect. Contact with them was therefore to be restricted to the occasional formal visit and under parental supervision.

The “third estate” was the other world where the ”heathen in his blindness” bowed down, not perhaps to wood and stone, but to habits varying from the contemptible to the unmentionable. Examples of their ungodly behaviour seemed to be on a sliding scale, varying from hanging out washing on a Sunday to imprecation, inebriation, fornication, misrepresentation, murder and not going to church, the order of sinfulness being somewhat blurred.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a façade of loyalty to family whilst longing to experience, if not always to enjoy, the pleasures of the real world.

In aid of - what?

The discipline had become such a way of life that only occasionally did the question come to the surface - “What is this all in aid of?”, or, as we were later to be encouraged to ask when composing sermons, “What is the object of this exercise ?”

The discipline seemed to be founded on this life being a military campaign consisting of “Christian soldiers marching as to war”. This caused problems as at the same time one was expected to “give gentle answers back again” and to “turn the other cheek. It was stressed by many a sermon that, like Bunyan’s “Christian”, we were on a pilgrimage, bearing our cross, attacked continually by the world, the flesh and the devil and marching to Zion where “infinite day would exclude the night and pleasures banish pain.”. On arrival at “Jerusalem the golden with milk and honey blessed” - a rather sticky sort of place I thought - suggestions abounded in what joys would await us there. We could, “all in white, wait around.” We could lie prostrate before a throne and gaze and gaze on its occupant who was high and lifted up - an extremely painful operation if you think about the body posture required.

There was the traditional “Emmy Davies” paradise when harps would be played and wings fluttered. We were promised perpetual light, eternal rest, never-withering flowers, and everlasting spring. We should neither hunger nor thirst any more and thus perforce be denied the pleasures of eating and drinking. Another possibility was that of singing God’s praises “with thy saints for aye” after being “ransomed, healed and restored”. “From what? To what?” I asked myself having never experienced a major and traumatic change in manner of life, which change would never have been allowed anyway!

I sometimes wonder why so much emphasis is placed in church hymnody on “praising” God. In normal parlance “praise” is a commendation given to someone often patronisingly, by another who is in a position to judge. In my relationship with God, it is I who by definition am the inferior being judged. Certainly I may continually feel the need to thank God, but that is not the same as endlessly praising him.

Furthermore, whereas I thank God for the “many blessings of this life” and perhaps with decreasing enthusiasm at 80 years of age for my preservation within it, I see no reason to thank him for my creation. It was not at my earnest petition, graciously granted, that I was created and introduced into a world which is far from perfect. Life has not been entirely a bed of roses, the rest of the creation being what it is and in which life is a perpetual competitive struggle. Towards the end of life on this earth, life becomes a drawn-out battle with the symptoms of ageing. It is significant that such things as machinery, artefacts and works of art can be maintained so as to serve or give pleasure for hundreds of years, some for thousands, but the human individual can only exist for, at most, a hundred years of which half is spent in gradual physical deterioration. Whereas in the great scheme of things there may be good reasons for this limitation, it does not seem to be a logical reason for unlimited thanksgiving.

One can appreciate how the appeal of promised joys after death would appeal to an age when the common man had a pretty hard time of it for most of a comparatively short and arduous life. A hymn “for working men” in the blue edition of “Hymns A & M” takes the theme, “In this life, brothers, you must endure the pains of hard labour. Remember the sufferings that Jesus endured for you, but soon it will be all over and eternal joys await you.”

The hymn should rightly continue, “Meanwhile the system will continue to exploit you, your wife and your children”. My great-grandfather dug coal out of the ground with a pick and shovel at a time when little boys were sent up chimneys to sweep them and slavery had not been abolished. Meanwhile the Victorians wrote their hymns praising God.

It is significant that one of the greatest menaces to humanity today is contained in the Koran which promises more specific joys after death, especially if you blow up as many infidels as possible as well as yourself. These promises must have much appeal to so many whose lives otherwise are, on the whole, pretty miserable, being dominated by danger, violence and cruelty. Voluntary martyrdom does save them from “enduring to the end”. An explosion giving an agony lasting a fraction of a second, and then immediate and unending joys in heaven must be attractive if the alternative is a lifetime of deprivation, poverty and danger. Politicians in particular seem unable to appreciate that the ultimate threat, to many, is not that of death.

There would seem to be only the very few in this world who can stand back from time to time and look objectively at the religious beliefs in which, let’s face it, we have all in some measure been brain-washed, and ask, “What’s it all in aid of ?”

Sometimes I think of all those nice, respectable, comfortably-off, Congregationalists and would love to go back to them in time and ask them what they really believed. Did they all consider themselves as Calvin’s “elect” and if already pre-destined, why all the effort?

Independence.

Had one been able to ask the respectable, middle-class Congregationalists of my younger years why they called themselves such, what was the basis of their faith and what it was that distinguished them from other Christians, I suspect that the results would have been vague. I doubt very much if their replies would have contained much about doctrine, conviction, or conversion, or even much about history. There may well have been something about independence.

Congregationalists originally were “Independents”. Their history goes back to immediate post-reformation times when doctrine, forms of worship, authority, and relationships between State and Church were all in turmoil and literally, in a process of re-formation.

It can nevertheless be surmised that the Congregationalists of the early 20th. Century accepted a form of worship and to varying degrees, the discipline, primarily because they had been brought up in that tradition. Indignation was stirred by ministers and visiting preachers about the injustices which had resulted in the emigration of the Pilgrim Fathers, and in the Five Mile Act etc. There was some adulation for the exploits of Oliver Cromwell avoiding reference to his performance in Ireland.

Most were, as I have already indicated, comfortably off middle class people who had their own businesses or were in permanent careers, few of which involved dirty hands. Their family histories, like our own, may have shown a struggle over a few generations, whereby they had moved away from their exploitation as workers during the industrial revolution to comparative independence. Independence in their religion, from the Bishop, the Diocese, the Hierarchy, the Establishment, and from the threat of being told what to do, marched well with their cherished independence in other aspects of life. Some of the congregation had Scottish Presbyterian or Welsh Calvinistic roots and at the time of their immigration to England had found the Congregational order of worship familiar. In many, if not most secessions from “The Church”, once the anger and indignation of the original cause for a beak-away had softened or ceased to have much significance, people continued to adhere. Habit was one reason for this, as was the desire to belong to a clique whose ancestors had a common history and who shared a common adversity. “We come unto our fathers’ God…..etc.”

Whilst there was a loose association of Congregational Churches in County Unions, and a supervisory “Moderator” of a province, neither of these had any executive power either doctrinally or financially. Each congregation managed its own affairs and appointed its own Minister. Whilst there were lists “A” and “B” of ordained ministers, the difference between which I never discovered, the congregation could legally appoint anyone they chose as the Minister. Once at a Dudley Church, a “minister” was appointed who had not been ordained and had, shall we say, strange views. He could only be ejected by the Trustees of the chapel obtaining an injunction forbidding his entering the building. My grandfather was one of the trustees.

Whereas the monthly “Church Meeting” was in theory the ultimate authority for each individual congregation, the court of Deacons became de facto the executive and within it were office-bearers who carried much weight.

You are our servant.

The method of appointment of a Minister following a vacancy was for the Moderator of the Province to suggest a few names who had shown a desire to move. Several of these would be invited to “preach”. Of these, one might be selected to return and preach “with a view” If the man really wanted the job he would naturally produce his best effort for this occasion.. If the preaching was thought likely to “fill the church”, then the candidate would be offered the job. He then became the servant of the congregation, advantage being taken of the quotation, “I am amongst you as one who serves.” He was provided with a house and paid a pittance to obviate a need to serve Mammon as well,

Many years later a young Methodist Minister of my acquaintance was faced with the same challenge. “You are our servant”, they said, “you must do what we want!”. He had the wisdom and the courage to reply, “Yes, I am your servant, but you are not my Master.”

Experience at Stourbridge over several years and several Ministers showed a repeated pattern. First came the honeymoon period when everyone was so pleased with the new Minister - well of course, we chose him! “What a nice change from the last one for whom we made life so intolerable that he left.” “Soon the church will begin to fill up, we shall have to clean up the gallery for extra seating and the roof will ring with enthusiastic singing as a preliminary to what you’ve all been waiting for, the brilliant sermon. - like they get from Leslie Weatherhead at the City Temple and like we get at the big Methodist churches when we go on holiday.”

It didn’t happen of course. Soon things had settled down to a routine much as before, perhaps with a few minor changes which would not upset anyone.

Within a few years the good people of the Congregation began to get bored and to deprecate the Minister’s idiosyncrasies, to complain in Anderson’s shop and the Ladies’ Meeting that he had failed to “fill the church”, to remark on his strictness or his laxity, and so on, even to personal habits. They were the ones who paid the piper, but “he” could or would not play the tune they demanded. His shortcomings were not sufficiently heinous for him to be sacked, but life could be made difficult.

After attending a Church Meeting on one occasion when something like the above was being discussed I became so disillusioned that I walked out of the meeting and disappeared for several hours, giving my parents cause for much “worry”. I recall too, thinking that if this was the dark face of the Christianity in which I had been indoctrinated but which had demanded so much of me, then I “wanted out” However, parental control of the exit door kept it firmly shut.

Anglesey 1939

A glimpse of emancipation came at the beginning of August 1939, when at the age of sixteen, that I had one of my most memorable experiences. Some years previously, King George VI, then Duke of York, had been instrumental in setting up summer camps for boys of differing backgrounds. Half of them were public schoolboys and half industrial apprentices. The first of these camps had been at Southwold and the short film of the Duke and his family joining in the action song “Underneath the spreading chestnut tree” has been replayed in almost every archive film of the Royal Family ever since.

The idea was spreading and in 1939 was organised a “Birmingham Schools and Works” camp for a similar selection from the Birmingham Area. King Edward’s School had by this time been officially a “Public School”, the Headmaster being a member of the Headmasters;’ Conference and this being the defining qualification. The school was offered two places at the camp.

At the end of the summer term in 1939, Ian Hope and I had completed our penultimate year at school. I cannot recall the method by which selection was made; nevertheless we were offered the available places. Rather to my astonishment, my parents allowed me to go. This would be the first time that I had spent a night away from parental control except for time spent in isolation hospital at the age of five.

I have little doubt that in giving this permission my parents considered themselves condemned to a fortnight’s continual “worry” about me, but as part of the cross they had to bear. To compensate them for this hardship I would be expected to be eternally grateful or if not, to be ashamed of myself.

Nevertheless, one Saturday morning we left Birmingham by coach and took the A5 to Bangor. There, for some reason that was never explained, we changed to the train to Holyhead and I made my first acquaintance with the Menai Strait, Britannia Bridge and Llanfair. P.G. At Holyhead we were taken to the camp site which was on the shore of Holy Island in the grounds of Penrhos House. Accommodation was tented, with marquees as dining and entertainment rooms.

The whole thing was well organised. The “troops” were divided into sections of about ten, each with its section leader. Our section leader I knew only as “Skip” and I think that most of them were scouters.

The routine was Spartan, but enjoyable. One lesson I learnt on my first night was that sleeping on a camp bed consisting mainly of one sheet of canvas was rather different to sleeping on a six-inch thick mattress. Blankets had to be arranged so that there was as much under you as there was over, otherwise you became very cold in the middle of the night.

The games were organised so as to avoid the “standard” games. The “public school” contingent might have had an unfair advantage over the industrial contingent if this were not so, so activities consisted mostly of games devised specially for the camp. These included, however, cross-country running and as we were on the coast, various water activities. At the end of the two weeks I was able to complete a five-mile steeplechase without any adverse effects.

Entertainment was self-generated. “In house” talents were fully exploited. One of the boys was from Eton - the connection with Birmingham not apparent - so we learnt and sang the Eton Boating Song with great enthusiasm.

Ian and I were not in the same section and particular friendships had to be made from scratch. I found myself mostly in the company of a Lawrence Cureton who was a pupil of George Dixon’s Grammar School in Birmingham. Many years later, well after retiral, I discovered, living in Upavon, Gordon Salt who attended that school and whilst not knowing Lawrence personally, was a contemporary of his.

On our last night in camp we built a huge bonfire on the beach. This was mid-August 1939 and war was to break out a few weeks later. Ours was to be the last coastal bonfire for long years thereafter.

This expedition provided a turning point in my life, and in an assortment of ways.

First, it took me away from home and from parental domination. Discipline was sufficiently strict, but so as to enable everybody to have an enjoyable time rather than to enforce parameters. Yes, we did have a service in the marquee on Sunday morning, led by the Archdeacon of Aston, but afterwards we were free to “re-create”. There was a camp concert on the Sunday evening which would have horrified John Calvin, amongst others.

I did not catch pneumonia through being cold on my first night, nor from dispensing with the “summer vest” during the hot spell, nor did I go into a decline through washing in cold water I did not drown in the sea. I managed to “keep my bowels open” without encouragement from on high, even though the sanitary arrangements were somewhat primitive. The company of so many non-Congregationalists, day and night for a fortnight did not result in my utter depravity prior to my entering hell.

During the second week, with Hitler rampant and the world hovering on the brink of war, I received a letter from my mother which finished with the admonition not to get my feet wet! I still have the letter.

The company of Lawrence and others made it clear to me that it was possible to modify the coarse Black-Country accent without being contemned for “trying to be posh”.

Three years later, in 1942, I was to visit Anglesey again during part of a University vacation, but this time on my own and by push-bike. The story of that is recorded elsewhere. Since then Mavis and I have had several holidays on Anglesey and my affection for “Ynys Môn” remains. It was there that my emancipation started.

Back to the old routine.

I returned home, subtly changed, but to face a fortnight at Morecambe with the family. This could have been an utterly boring anti-climax but for the fact that the family custom was to take railway tickets that allowed unlimited travel within a certain area for a week. Interest in railways and in geography was thereby satisfied, and I was for one day, allowed to go on my own to Carlisle via Barrow and Whitehaven and back via Penrith and Shap. This journey was to be recalled many times in later life when the Shap summit, both by road and rail, was to be one of the staging points on the road to Scotland. I also had the thrill of seeing the streamlined “Coronation” train speeding through Carnforth station, later to achieve fame as the scene of “Brief Encounter”.

There was another year to do at school until University, but the new school term coincided with the outbreak of war., so we had other things to think about.

There was a vague plan at the time that I should do another two years at school in the hope of obtaining sufficient qualifications to fit me for Cambridge, after which a niche might be found for me in some sort of scientific research. However, the coming of the war altered things. It was wise to seize any opportunity for further education otherwise one was likely to be summoned to be shot.

I therefore took the opportunity of accepting an offered scholarship at Birmingham University starting in the Autumn of 1940.

University Days.

As I look back to 1940 I find that it is remarkable that I was able to go to University at all. At the end of May and the beginning of June of that year came the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk, with all that that implied for a young man who had just reached seventeen years. Technically I was still under age for call-up, but many had been known to get over that difficulty. There was, perhaps, the thought that in three years’ time I might be better qualified to do something useful prior to getting shot. It was a further coincidence that the scholarship pittance which I was offered was from the Warwickshire Coal Company who wished eventually to recruit technicians to prepare, treat and market coal

The significance of this was hinted to us when we found ourselves engaged on projects to make oil from coal and to use producer gas, made “on board” from coke, to propel public transport. North Sea oil had not at that time been discovered and would, in any case have been vulnerable. Fuel, apart from that imported at great hazard from America, consisted of ample coal supplies together with a minimal amount of oil from wells at Eakring in Notts. Much if not all of the meagre civilian ration of petrol at that time was obtained either from Eakring or from the many “Benzole Plants” situated on gasworks and coke-oven plants. These also produced much raw material for the manufacture of explosives which had a certain demand. Railways, apart from the London Underground and parts of the south-east, were steam driven using coal fired locomotives.

The course in the Mining Department on which we were allowed to embark at Birmingham University was therefore of some importance to the war effort. It was one of two, the other being Mining itself, which were allowed to run their full course of three years. Other courses, including engineering were shortened and a “War Degree” made available.

I embarked on this course largely by accident after grabbing an offer which was made, not because I had set myself on such a career, but simply because I had, inter alia, two Higher School Certificates in Chemistry and it was the first firm offer made.. In those days one did not hesitate. There is little doubt that my being given a place at Birmingham, only twelve miles from home, was a great relief to my parents who could then keep me unsullied from the world. Previous mentioning of places like Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool or Manchester had evoked a stony silence. That would mean “going into digs” with concomitant exposure to evil.

A taste of Army Discipline.

I started at Birmingham in September 1940, three months after Dunkirk. It soon became apparent that an academic course, however “dirty handed” it may have been was not the whole story. It was made clear to all “freshers” that they would be expected to join the Officers’ Training Corps, which was designed as a pre-OCTU Senior Corps and affiliated to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. This would mean that a good deal of military training would be added to our academic course and after three years we would be expected to have passed the Army examinations and go on to be Commissioned after a further few months’ training.

On my arrival at the University, the Corps was somewhat limited in size and officered mostly by T.A.’s, with a regular Adjutant. On my application to join, I was subjected to a searching interview by the C.O and given a medical. Having passed these I was issued with a khaki tunic with brass buttons, breeches and puttees, boots, a “cheesecutter” cap and sundry items of webbing in which to pack my equipment. I also had to pay the sum of ten shillings for the privilege of “coming on the strength”

The urgency of the war situation meant that the set-up was rapidly changed, A regular C.O., regular Officers and P.S.I.’s were moved in and the Corps was raised to battalion strength. The antiquated uniform was changed to “battle dress”. Drill, too, was modified, but I retain some pride in being one of the last few to “form fours”.

Eventually, apart from training, duties involved mounting a guard on the campus overnight. Parachute invasion was a real possibility at that time. It was not until after Hiroshima in 1945 that I realised that one of the buildings we so casually guarded, but to which approach and entry were strictly forbidden, housed the “Cyclotron” with which attempts were then being made to split the atom. I did wonder sometimes why we were equipped, not only with rifles, but with Bren guns, anti-tank rifles, “PIAT’s”, grenades and mortars. The success of this operation was demonstrated by subsequent history.

Another duty was “incident spotting” at night from the University tower. Birmingham and its district were being bombed from time to time - fortunately this bombing did not extend to the tower. Military training was a regular on Wednesdays and Saturdays. At the time of University vacations we were taken away for periods of continuous training where we functioned as a training regiment. Further details of this may be given elsewhere.

In order to regularise our position with what was then the “War Office”, we became on night duties, a battalion of the Warwickshire Home Guard. This enabled us to be “on the strength” regarding rations, kit, weapons and ammunition. (It was nothing like “Dad’s Army” - not most of the time anyway!) An Officer Cadet going on night duty could at some time be seen changing his badge from that of the O.T.C. to that of the Warwickshires. Later, as by then a Guard Commander, it was one of my duties to ensure that this was done, otherwise, we were told, if there had been an invasion and a man captured, he would not have been entitled to the Geneva Convention “privileges”.

All these duties, added to what in normal circumstances might have been an arduous academic course, and the fact that I was still living with parents at Stourbridge meant that there was little time for anything else. Later in the war we were also involved in a weekly fire-watching duty on nights when we were not on guard militarily. I never heard anyone complain. We all knew what the alternative would be!

In the midst of all this, I was still expected when at home, to continue the discipline of churchgoing, twice on a Sunday. Furthermore I would have liked to spend a little of my very limited time with Mavis whom I had then met. I was compelled to tolerate this because of the need to keep a roof over my head and of my utter reliance on the meagre pittance allowed to me by my father who wanted account of every penny.

Out into the world!

In 1943 I had completed both academic and Army courses. I had done well in military matters having been promoted to the highest Cadet rank possible to any except one or two “clever dicks”. I was given command of the Passing-Out Parade - one of my proudest moments.

I had not done so well academically however, and still feel that the only reason I graduated was the fact that, as a side-line or project, I had taken over the Editorship of the University Technical Magazine, a professionally produced “glossy” of technical articles and advertisements. This had run “in the red” for some years and I took the opportunity to get it back “in the black” and preferably make a profit. Bob Haslam, then my junior, and I did just that. A little commercial acumen can sometimes count for more than academe. It may have helped Bob, eventually, to become Chairman of the Coal Board, if the last one.

As a result of all this, I had quite expected that when I came before a government selection board who would decide my future, I would without hesitation be given a rail voucher for Sandhurst or Catterick and that would be that.

In the light of later events, the timing of that would have meant the virtual certainty of my being on the “D-Day” landings and that might well have been the end of that.

How did we manage all this? Looking back I often wonder, but we did know there was a war on.

Woodall-Duckham.

The background provided by the above will explain why the “religion” with which I had been brought up and the discipline enforced by parents as its result, began to become not only irksome but ridiculous. I am sure that they had little idea how irksome and ridiculous it was. One night I had command of twenty or thirty armed men on guard duty all night.. The next I could be landing in “serious trouble” because I stayed out after 10.p.m. with my girl-friend!

I was not, however, offered the expected “further training” but was directed to the Woodall-Duckham Construction Company whose plant was producing a large quantity of gas, tar, benzole, coke, ammonia and certain other delights. Their type of gas and coke making plant had been installed in many towns from Penzance to Inverness and some overseas prior to the war. A commissioning and on-going technical support service was provided. Plants such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Copenhagen and Bergen had been left to the tender mercies of the Nip and the Bosch during the war for obvious reasons. I was taken on as an Operating Engineer in September of 1943 which involved my going where I was sent at short notice - anywhere in the country. The work involved commissioning and trouble-shooting, with some experience being obtained on the construction side of the business.

This suited me very well in one important way. I immediately asked for half--a-month’s salary in advance and lived on half pay - which was very little - for a couple of months, simply to get away from parental and financial control. Then I got out. Home leave, when it was possible, came about every four to six weeks. This was enough absence to make the heart grow - a little - fonder, but not enough to restore proprietors’ rights. Its disadvantage was that I was working away from Mavis for most of the time - but “there was a war on”. There were many much worse off.

Yes, I did go to church with them when I was at home - “noblesse oblige!” Yes, I did go sometimes when I was away, perhaps because of a remaining sense of obligation, perhaps because there wasn’t much else to do on some Sundays at that time. There was no television during the war. Perhaps nostalgia was a reason and I wanted a change from the hard-flogging, hard-swearing, hard-drinking atmosphere of heavy industry into which I had been rudely projected. Perhaps it was because I could, for once, go voluntarily. For one period, when in Aberdeen, immediately after the war, I went from time to time with my landlady and her family to the local C-of-S, where I experienced considerable difference to “Stour Congs”.

We attended Beechgrove Church at which the Minister had been the much-respected Dr. Stuart. In my time he had been followed by the equally respected Roderick Bethune who later followed him to North Morningside, Edinburgh.. Good teaching, reverence in worship and ready acceptance of my “foreign-ness” and temporary status were appreciated characteristics of Beechgrove, long remembered with gratitude.

For the three and a half years during which I travelled on my own, and for the first three and a half years of married life, churchgoing was occasional and sometimes non-existent. Apart from wanting to break away from enforced puritanism, the need, often, to work on Sunday mornings created a difficulty. When the plant for which you have a full-time responsibility is working continuously it’s demands must take priority. It was at that time borne upon me that “The Church” has made little provision for “going to church” for people whose work makes it impossible to be available at the traditional hours of worship.

There was also the continual moving, usually once every six weeks, which made it impossible to fuse with the social aspect of corporate worship which is a usual and habitual part of most Christian behaviour and which is an important part of the lives of those who have made it habitual. I sometimes think that “the Church”, however the term is defined, has failed to cater for the far more mobile population which we have seen develop in the latter part of the twentieth century. Later experience suggests that the Parish Church has often become a club for the “fixtures” whilst the more numerous “mobiles” ignore its existence. But that is another matter. The effect of this was that, for us, the Church and its teaching and habitual attendance at worship took a very low priority in life between 1943 and 1950.

Settling in Scotland.

Having spent some time previously on one or two major Scottish works and having acquired some knowledge of Scottish history and habits, together with a quotable supply of Rabbie Burns, I accepted in 1950 the offer from the firm to become their Area Operating Engineer (Scotland). My getting on pretty well with the firm’s Scottish clients who were beginning to feel a bit neglected by London may have had a little to do with the appointment.

In the Autumn of that year we moved to Glasgow and obtained a house there in 1951, staying for almost exactly ten years. This enabled us to put down some roots as far as it was possible to do so in a country in which we were strangers.

Giffnock, less than a mile away, had its own Congregational Church to which, in view of past history, we felt that we owed a certain loyalty. This was a very “up-market” church socially and financially. Worship was very much on the lines of the Church of Scotland, and there was little obvious association with English Congregationalism except for the monthly Church Meeting.

The Church Secretary I used to meet occasionally on the bus into town. He usually pressed me to come to the Church Meeting. As my “patch” then was the whole of Scotland, it was often impossible to get back on a day in the mid-week in time to attend meetings. However, I did manage, by breaking speed limits and delaying my supper until late, to get in to one meeting just before it started. I hurried to the end of a row of chairs. When an interval came I expected to be included in some conversation with those sitting round me, but I was ignored to the extent of having to face backs of jackets. I did not bother to get to any more meetings.

More “Precious Jewels!”

In 1952 our son was born and was Baptised at Giffnock Congregational. A year or two later I began to consider what religious instruction, if any, he should receive and where, and in 1955 when our daughter was “on the way” the matter seemed to be assuming greater urgency. We were still “occasionals” at Giffnock.

What shall I teach?

I was approached, possibly early in 1955 after a morning service, by the Minister who said that the Sunday School was short of a teacher and would I consider taking on the job. By this time I had got my area organised so that I could have been available on most Sunday mornings. I thought it might be a good idea if I made an effort to discover what it was that I would be expected to teach. Was it stark Calvinism, Hot Gospel or did Jesus want them all for Crown Jewels, Sunbeams or perhaps Little Prairie Flowers? Having taught weapon training, army drill and gas engineering, I nevertheless felt a bit short of qualifications to teach Sunday School.

I therefore made an appointment with the Minister who, I thought, might be able to enlighten me.

To my astonishment, a day or two later, but before my interview, a Deacon arrived, saying that he was in charge of the Sunday School and that he was delighted that I was going to help with the teaching. Furthermore he had brought me “The Book” from which the lesson for the following Sunday would be taken and he looked forward to seeing me then. Having been used to giving young engineers a year or two’s training prior to letting them loose on a gas making plant, I considered this a little odd.

The day dawned on which I was ushered into “the study” and let into the secrets of children’s R.E. My deductions from this were that the primary purpose was simply to get children to attend Church/Sunday School, and to avoid the more public of the social sins. In Giffnock, maintaining respectability came pretty high on the list as one of the aims I thought that there really must be a little more to it than that, and so I became something of a disappointment to “himself”

Shortly after this I went, expecting the “usual”, to evening service. I found that this was the annual service of the local Masonic Lodge which in those parts was a power in the land. The normal rather thin evening congregation had been ushered to the remoter parts of the seating, leaving the brethren to make a Grand Entrance with flapping of aprons and clanking of metal.

Well, it’s not so much that I mind various organisations having a corporate service from time to time to thank God for their association and to seeking his blessing on their activities. Whether he gives it or not is his business. In later years I have encouraged Brownies, Scouts etc., Orders of Moose and Naval and Army Units to do likewise. I can even go along with the visiting organisation displacing regular worshippers from their accustomed seats After all, we must be hospitable. I am even ready to ascribe to the Deity the qualifications needed to become an F.R.I.B.A. so long as he is not limited to that. I do, nevertheless begin to wonder what it is all about when during a long extempore prayer, the officiant seeks God’s Blessing specifically on “our homes and our businesses”. I was greatly tempted to get up and call out, “What about me, I ain’t got no business, I just work!”

Giffnock Congregational had a good choir and this was well displayed, taking, literally “centre stage” at services. The front one or two rows were occupied by an assortment of ladies whose secondary characteristic, as had been the case at Stourbridge, was the showing off of millinery. The most prominent of these and the apparent “Queen Bee” was a Mrs. Pegler. Early in 1955 she approached Mavis after a service and invited her to join the choir Mavis explained that she felt unable to commit herself at that time as she was six months pregnant.. Mrs. Pegler’s immediate and unthinking response to that was “Oh! What a pity!”

No single incident is much in itself, but it was beginning to emerge that Giffnock Congregational was not our scene.

St. Aidan’s calls.

At this time, Jennifer had been born, so Mavis was fairly well occupied with family, but on the odd occasion I had gone to a service at St. Aidan’s, the Scottish Episcopal Church at Clarkston, a mile or two away. This Church is one of many in Scotland which are of the Anglican Communion. Perhaps there was in this a touch of nostalgia for something “English”. We had not then lived in Scotland long enough to have lost all nostalgia for our “roots” in England. It is perhaps significant that forty three years after leaving it I have lost very little of my nostalgia for the time I spent in Scotland, and in many ways regret that circumstances forced me to leave.

The services I attended at St. Aidan’s were at times like Easter and Harvest Festival which seemed to be given little attention in Scotland. The chief impression I gained from these visits was that services there were as much or more concerned with worship and the seeking of spiritual strength than with preaching and exhortation to be respectable.

One example of this was that at Giffnock Congregational, prior to the service, the church would be filled with chatter until the Church Officer appeared with the pulpit Bible. It then reluctantly subsided in the presence of Holy Writ.

In contrast, my first impression of St. Aidan’s services was that of quiet. The Rector of the time, H. A. Standbrook, would be kneeling in his stall at least five minutes before the service, and apart from a little unavoidable noise, the entering congregation was silent. Several would be kneeling. At the right time, the Rector would go to the vestry whilst the organ played, and then return following the choir procession. When all were in place, a sentence calling to worship would be read. “The Lord is in his Holy Temple, let all flesh keep silence” was typical. We did just that - for half a minute or so. Only after that did corporate worship begin.

The Rector’s stall was to one side, leaving the altar as the main point of focus. This was a welcome change from the mixture of organ pipes, simpering lady choristers and their millinery, organist’s bald head and parson’s idiosyncrasies delivered from on high, all of which aids to worship hit the worshipper head-on at Giffnock.  There, one sometimes felt, God had got lost in the crowd!

Commitment, Conversion - or what?

With, therefore, some little experience of St. Aidan’s, and with increasing unease about Giffnock Congregational, it was on a summer evening in 1955 that I felt the need for worship and set off in the car up Orchard Park Avenue. At the top of the Avenue was a T junction controlled by traffic lights. To go to Giffnock Cong., I would have to turn left, to St. Aidans Clarkston, right. The lights were against me. Until the amber appeared I had not made up my mind which way to go. It changed, and I turned right.

I forget the details of what happened immediately after that visit to St. A’s, but it was the end of Congregationalism for me. Under the encouragement and tutelage of Revd. H. A. Standbrook, Rector of St. Aidan’s, I began to do a good deal of reading concerning the Christian faith and the practice of worship in the “catholic” - with a small “c” - church. Whilst in Dundee I bought a copy of the then newly-published “Revised Standard Version” of the Bible, reading first the whole of St. John’s Gospel. I still have the volume, and “John” still has the dirtiest edges. It has been my vade mecum ever since.

It is rather sad, I think, that in spite of spending so much time “in church”, it was only at St. Aidans that I began a process of learning, for the first time and in detail, what the Christian faith was really about. I found that it made an interesting study, one reaction being “Why has no-one told me this before?” Christianity became a faith, a spiritual reason for behaviour and the basis of a way of life. Previously the behaviour came first, based on conformity to rules and the expectation of parents. It had been wrongly assumed that the conformity would lead to a spiritual awareness. This had not happened.

The process was greatly assisted by my observation of the commitment of several individuals, couples and families, in particular the Morrisons, with whom I struck up a rapport. There was also a strong and committed Men’s Society which met regularly for study and companionship. I did a great deal of reading, books being recommended by the Rector.

The result of all this was that I was, later that year, Confirmed in Glasgow Episcopal Cathedral by the Rt. Revd. Francis Moncrieff, then Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway, Mavis following some months later,

Prior to my Confirmation I felt it my duty to see the Congregational Minister and explain my conduct rather than he should find out by hearsay. Little is recalled of that interview. There was something about our “all going home by different paths” and about his having had lunch with the Bishop of Glasgow, but the rest is history.

So I became an unusual phenomenon, namely, an Englishman who became an Anglican whilst resident in Scotland. This may explain why, in spite of my being later ordained in the Church of England, I have always regarded and still do, the Scottish Episcopal Church as my “Mother Church” and many of the complications of English Church order and establishment as questionable, if not unnecessary.

Back to “Quires and places where they sing”.

A marked difference between worship at St. Aidan’s and that to which I had become accustomed in Congregationalism is that there were many “jobs” for all sorts of people to do. It is true that during my latter years at Stourbridge I had been given a place in the choir. I sometimes wonder why non-conformity made no use of its children as choristers except for the annual Sunday School Anniversary.. In spite of, at the age of ten, being in the school choir and singing in the chorus of the “Yeomen of the Guard”, and the following year singing the alto part in “The Jackdaw of Rheims”, I was not recruited as suitable material for the church choir until I was about sixteen and my voice had broken. However, I did enjoy choral singing, and it has been one of my principal delights throughout my life.

At St. Aidan’s I was soon enrolled as a server and functioned as Master of Ceremonies on special occasions. When not on duty in these respects I was recruited into the choir and came to look forward to Friday nights’ choir practice as one of the high points of the week, sometimes breaking speed limits to get back in time. In the fifties the choir consisted of a dozen or so sopranos, three or four contraltos, a tenor and two or three basses including myself. This was not an ideal balance, but was sufficient to provide a four-part harmony at all sung services.

In later years I have not only had the privilege of having a choir at all the churches to which I have been licensed, but have also functioned as choirmaster at three of them, covering a period of seventeen years.

Since retiral and moving to Wiltshire in 1990 it has been a source of regret that most churches in the diocese do not have a choir and at such as Pewsey where they do, the quality and discipline is markedly poor. Most of the clergy I have encountered seem to be musically illiterate, so that little taste or leadership is passed on.

Footnote: But with a grain of salt perhaps?

It has been explained to one or two people who have been given draft copies of the above that the primary object of writing is to get as much down on paper before memory finally fades. No attempt has been made to be fair, diplomatic, or even unprejudiced, only to record personal feelings of the time, or memories which have been dredged up in later years. It is interesting to note that whereas much criticism of parental and contemporary standards is both expressed and implied, some of the comment on fellow “Congers” was undoubtedly inherited.

Stourbridge Congregational, like many other congregations of the church at any one time, no doubt served its age and generation and served them well. It was only to succeeding generations that they appear as anachronisms to the point of being sometimes, ridiculous. What will be said about us?

WJG. Aug/Sep 2003

© The Estate of William John Green, 2004