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
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
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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 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”.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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