Project Canterbury

A Life in Order: The Memoirs of Brother Francis SSF

Brisbane: The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

[22] Chapter Three: At Peckham and the War

Although the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross under Fr. George Potter withdrew from affiliation with SSF, a close connection was maintained between us. George in 15 years had built up a good congregation in the church of St. Chrysostom, Peckham in South London from almost nothing. The church had belonged to the Countess of Huntingdon's sect and had been handed over to the Anglican Church, but the neighbourhood had deteriorated, most of the larger houses being turned into flats. The Vicar had lived in a large house outside the parish. Fr George first moved into an old pub, putting up a notice outside saying "Under new management" but, after an operation for a duodenal ulcer, the doctor advised him to give up the parish. However, he continued his work for homeless boys in his new hostel at Nunhead.

The Bishop of Southwark asked whether we in the SSF could undertake the parish work at St. Chrysostom's. I was chosen to be the new Vicar with the help of two brothers, Fr. Charles and Brother Cyril Hunt, who later joined the Roman Franciscans. So in October 1938 we moved into a small house in Hill Street, now become the vicarage. John Smith, a Tertiary and newly ordained deacon came to join us. Fr. George became officially my curate, and came down to preach once a month. He had been trained at Kelham by the S.S.M. He was one of the first priests to introduce the Parish Mass with communicants at 9.30 a.m. He had a loyal group of servers, drawn from a patrol of Rover scouts, who used to spend a night watch of prayer before their enrolment as Rovers. There were of course Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, who were encouraged to join in the 9 o'clock Sung Eucharist. On Sunday evenings there was a Solemn Evensong with cope and incense and psalms sung in Gregorian plainsong, but followed immediately by a mission type sermon with popular hymns and. It was hoped the less 'churchy' folk could be slowly integrated into the more liturgical services. People could choose whichever part of the service they, preferred. After the service people could go to the church hall for recreation, which might include a film or, in Fr George's time, a boxing match! We had two or three lady workers who lived in a large house further down the street from us. One of them was Molly Lockyer, who [22/23] ran a girl's hostel on similar lines to that for boys run by the B.H.C. But she left soon after we got there and became a leader of the Tertiaries in Cape town. We had three other lady workers in the parish. One paid worker and two voluntary ones. I felt it was wrong for the brothers to have a regular stipend as Franciscans so, following the example of a vicar in Derby, we gave the Vicar's stipend to the Parochial Church Council, and established a system of envelopes into which people could put a regular offering for the upkeep of the brothers. I think people preferred to pay for the services of the brothers than for church expenses.

Fr. George used to come and preach for us once a month. Br. Francis B.H.C. stayed with us for a while as our steward and did our shopping for us, but he could not get used to our silent times after compline at night till after breakfast in the morning. So after a while he dropped off. Brother Giles B.H.C used to come to play the organ for us and lead the ladies choir in the gallery of the church. They even managed to sing some of Pergolese's Stabat Mater one Holy Week. John Smith, a deacon and Tertiary came to help us. Stephen Lambent, now a Friar in the SSF, also joined us. He acted as Scoutmaster in our Scout troop. He was ordained deacon in Southwark Cathedral in 1939. After Hitler's invasion of Poland, war with Germany seemed inevitable, so preparations had to be made in the event of a conflict. Houses which had a garden like our own and our girl's hostel were given small steel shelters, called Anderson shelters after Sir John Anderson who invented them. The basement of an old brewery, now underneath a garage, was prepared by the Camberwell Council as a shelter for people to sleep in. It could hold as many as 700 people and was divided into ten sections. This was just opposite our vicarage and we brothers were asked to become wardens. Brick shelters for about fifty people were also built in the streets. St. Chrysostom's church had an extensive crypt, part of which was taken over by the Air Raid Precautions men as a basis for their operations. Their tobacco smoke often became mingled on Sundays with the incense in the church above!

The clergy of the various denominations, including the Jewish Rabbi, were encouraged to come together to be instructed in the A.R.P. procedures and in Red Cross work; the first time they had come together [23/24] ecumenically for common action. It was good to see an evangelical vicar ordered around by a Roman Catholic priest! I think we all enjoyed it very much. With the threat of Nazism, our Rural Deanery became very concerned with the question of pacifism. Neville Palmer, who came to us from the C.P.S.S., believed very much in Ghandi's passive resistance movement, and I agreed with him. We perhaps did not realize the fiendish nature of Nazism. Not long before the war, before Stephen had joined us, he and I went on a walking tour in Germany. We took a steamer up the Rhine from Cologne to Coblenz. Then we began to walk up the Lahn Valley to Fulda, staying in the Hitler Youth Hostels. Stephen was very impressed by the discipline of the Youth working in semi-military fashion on the farms, singing rousing Nazi choruses. The Hitler youth were very hospitable to us, because Hitler had told them to be friendly with the English to keep them out of the coming war. They would sometimes walk with us quite a distance to show us the way, but we were horrified by the anti-Jewish propaganda we saw posted up in the towns and villages.

On the way we visited the Bruderhof community. They were a mixed community, married and single, some with children. They were firm pacifists and so were anathema to the Nazis. They believed very much in settling their affairs by unanimous agreement under the guidance of the Holy Spirit far into the night if need be. Of course they were very suspect by the Gestapo, the Nazi police, and were later chased out of Germany, first to Holland and then to England. Owing to Nazi surveillance, Stephen and I could only talk political affairs with an American lady visitor, who was staying with them, in a remote corner of the garden. At Fulda we saw a Nazi shrine erected for youth rituals replacing a Christian shrine and for a ceremony replacing confirmation. We returned to Cologne via Wiesbaden and Bonn, where Stephen was given back a purse by the station master, full of money, which he had dropped there on our way in. After a year of "hanging out their washing on the Siegfried Line" the battle of Britain began in earnest. In September 1939 there was a false alarm one Sunday morning. The air raid sirens sounded while I was preaching at the Sunday morning Eucharist and all the congregation dived under their pews, leaving me in the pulpit! But nothing happened. However on September 8th 1940 the sirens went at 7 o'clock in the evening, and a large squadron of Hitler's [24/25] bombers flew up the Thames estuary, setting on fire the factories and warehouses all the way up the river. This continued all night, the people filling the shelters. There was a big paper factory behind our Vicarage which was set alight by fire bombs. This of course attracted other bombers. The bombing went on all night until the "all clear" sounded about 5.o'clock in the morning. During the night I was wandering round visiting people in the shelters. I was carrying the Blessed Sacrament around with me in a pyx in case people who had been bombed might be needing it. I was just about to visit a family in a shelter behind our vicarage about 3 a.m in the morning, when I heard the scream of a bomb. I flopped quickly to the ground and heard bricks and wood flying around. On getting up I saw a 30ft crater about 30 yards in front of me. A fireman's truck, which had been standing nearby was blown to bits, and the driver's body was found on the roof of a house in the next street. The windows of our house were all smashed. A few days later I found a large paving stone blown through my window onto my bed, where the pillow should have been!

For about three and a half months the sirens went at 7 p.m. every evening, and the bombing continued in different parts of London until about five o'clock in the morning. Brother Stephen ran a canteen for the shelterers. Every evening the shelterers expected the brothers to say prayers with them in all the ten sections of the shelter. Brother Charles used to accompany the hymns with his violin. Safe in the arms of Jesus was a favourite hymn. The people at first had to sleep on the floor of the shelter, cheek by jowl. We had to call the men in the morning at different times for their work. Brother Stephen went several times to the Camberwell Council office to request them to put in bunks and other conveniences This finally resulted in three-tier wooden bunks being put in for them. Some fat old ladies found it difficult to climb up to the higher bunks, which caused much amusement. One brother had to stay on watch in the shelter until 2 am in the morning, when another brother would relieve him and they would say Matins together at the time of exchange. The offices were said regularly every day and I don't think we ever missed morning Mass throughout the war. We had a little chapel in the basement of the vicarage. One of the young pacifists who was ordered to come and help us with our youth work. He was very [25/26] nervous in the raids and insisted on sleeping under the altar on the floor of the chapel.

At the beginning of the bombing the children were all supposed to be evacuated to safer country areas and the schools were all closed. But after a few weeks many of them returned, unable to accustom themselves to country life or the more elite houses where they were billeted. So we started a little voluntary school in the vicarage for the boys and at the girl's hostel for the girls, run by the lady church workers Miss Andrews and Miss Knight. Lessons given over the radio were a help too. But under such circumstances the children were not easy to control. The Boy Scouts continued, and I got a local builder to teach them to pass their builder's badge by repairing brick walls in people's gardens which had been broken down by the bombs. Stephen and I became watchers for fire bombs. One evening, when I was watching for fire bombs in the street, a drunken man came along and appealed to me because he said he had got lost and could not remember his way home. So we walked along arm, in arm, shrapnel dropping from the sky. He was singing away. I was wearing my habit and a steel helmet. But when we got to his house we found that the back wall of his house had been blown out by a bomb and the house was extremely unsafe, but he insisted on going in to get some bottles of beer and wanted to stay there. So I got hold of one of the bottles and tried to draw him out of the house. However, he got angry and began swearing at me, so all I could do was call the police. They managed to get him out and take him to a safer place. What happened to the beer I don't know.

The old school, which had been used for the Scouts, and for a boys club was rendered unsafe by a bomb dropped nearby. So they were transferred to the crypt of the church in a part unoccupied by the A.R.P. Two young men were passed on to us to do social work because they were conscientious objectors. Cecil, also a conscientious objector, was to become a brother later. He helped us to run the boys club who were a pretty rough lot. We got a gym instructor to train them, but he failed to control them. Stephen got some Irish Guards to train them, but they failed also. So we had to be contented with a Scout troop, run by a young man with whom I kept up a correspondence until his recent death His mother was a Tertiary, who was very good to us. Also we had [26/27] a group of ladies who helped us with the women and girls' work. Kate Pomfret, our cook and a Tertiary, together with Cecil, pushed a mobile canteen around amidst the falling shrapnel for the people in the street shelters. Stephen and I formed a fire extinguishing group to put out the small phosphorous fire bombs that were being dropped on us. One night some of these dropped on the chapel next to our church, belonging to the Shaftsbury society. Stephen and I set out to extinguish the bombs, I with a water extinguisher and Stephen with an axe to hack off the slates of the roof to get at the bombs. The chapel minister stood below, anxious lest Stephen was about to bring down the whole building! Eventually some Irish Guards came and dealt with the flames successfully. But eventually a bomb was dropped on our church, blowing out all the windows, making the building unsafe for worship. So we had to transform our hall into a church and use the stage as the sanctuary. Daily Mass was said in the basement chapel of our house, as were the daily offices. Later a time bomb was dropped in the corner of the road between our vicarage and the girl's hostel. We were told it was unsafe in either house, though the brothers did move into the girl's hostel for a while. Eventually we all camped out in the hall, the ladies behind the stage curtain. As far as we knew the time bomb was never exploded or extracted, but that part of the road was sealed off for some months. The nightly bombing continued until Christmas, when they gave us a few days respite. A lot of toys had been sent to us for the children in the shelters and some students had come to help us over Christmas. So after the midnight mass I dressed up as Father Christmas, and we formed a procession through the streets, led by the A.R.P. volunteers and followed by students, carrying the sacks of toys. Our entrance to the shelters was a great surprise to the people and their children.

Early in the New Year the church of the next parish St. Jude's was completely destroyed by a bomb. The Vicar, a rather nervous man, immediately resigned and we were asked to take over the parish. It was hoped that the congregation would come and join us, but there had always been a certain rivalry between the two congregations. When Fr. George became Vicar of St. Chrysostom's a number of St. Jude's people, attracted by Fr. George, joined St. Chrysostom's, causing a certain amount of jealousy. I asked Fr. Harry Fox a Tertiary priest, who [27/28] was now on our staff to take over the running of St. Jude's. He had been an architect and managed to transform St. Jude's church hall into a charming little chapel where St. Jude's congregation could worship. The brothers were now able to move into St. Jude's vicarage with Fr. Fox. It was a high building with four floors, rather dangerous in the bombing, and especially for me who slept on the top floor!

After a time when some repairs had been done, we were able to use part of the church again. But then a V2 rocket from France dropped on to the flats next to the church, which put it out of action again. Br. Neville was praying in the church at that time but was not hurt. Brother Douglas, who was living in the Y.M.C.A Services Hostel in Westminster, was told that incendiaries had been dropped on the Lantern Tower of Westminster Abbey. So he took a party of servicemen over to help the Abbey fire-watchers extinguish the fires. Brother Douglas was living in two small rooms with a glass roof, unlikely to be proof against the bombs, but he was never hit. There was also a bigger room next to his. He used this as a chapel for the men who visited him every evening. Our Society chapters were often held there. By the end of the war every one of the churches in our deanery had been made unusable by the bombs.

The end of the war was celebrated with great rejoicing, people having picnics in the streets. I went to hear Bach's Mass in B Minor in Southwark Cathedral, a very emotional experience for me. I started a small boys club in what had been the girls hostel. It was only for church boys who were communicants or being prepared for confirmation. They were encouraged to bring in their friends, if they were prepared to join a confirmation class. There was, of course, a Sunday school for the rather wilder type of child. We also had a Scout troop, which I, as Scoutmaster, took for a camp on the rocky Dorset coast, where I had been to school. Unfortunately things were still a bit upside down on the railways and the tent poles got lost on the way. Fortunately, near the station where we arrived there was a timber yard and we were able to pick up some poles. They were all of different sizes, so that the tents looked rather odd, some tall and others rather squat. The District Commissioner who came round to inspect the camp was not impressed!

[29] During the war Fr. Charles had conducted a mission service for about eighty of the shelterers. After the war, on Wednesdays, he continued to hold a similar service for the "half ways". Thus our congregation gradually began to be built up again. Charles was often away, visiting girls' boarding schools, where he was very popular. When our Vicarage had been repaired, two sisters of the Evangelist Sisters of Jesus of Nazareth came to help us, and occupied the house. But they had a rule of not handling any money, so a lady in the parish had to do all their shopping. Later, when the sisters had withdrawn, we brothers returned to the Vicarage. Fr. Fox got married to the St Jude's Sunday School superintendent and they remained in the vicarage of St. Jude's.

In 1947 a request came from Fr. Grocer of St. George's Church, Stepney in the East end of London for a friar to come and work among the large number of people coming from the East and West Africa and other places. They were arriving in his district, often having stowed away behind banana heaps in the ships and then having to spend a month in prison. Algy and the Chapter decided that our time in Peckham must regretfully come to an end. Charles and Neville found a small house in the notorious Cable Street which had been a brothel. They found a picture in the top floor of St Clare holding up a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament in it!

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