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Feather's Miscellany: Reverend Herbert Wilkinson

John-Waddington Feather tells a story about a remarkable clergyman.

What perverse creatures we humans are. When we’re at war and fighting abroad, our streets are at peace and safe; when we’re at peace, the streets we live in are full of violence and fear. It’s as if the onset of war, like a tumour, draws into it all the ills and violence of civilised life before it bursts and the blood-letting begins. There inevitably follows a ruinous peace, till the cycle begins again.

Relatively speaking, Britain is currently enjoying the longest period of national peace since the Romans left its shores fifteen hundred years ago. There has been war every century since and the 20th century saw the most terrible global wars of all, when two white tribes in Europe and beyond slaughtered millions; either on battlefields or in death-camps and gulags.

Yet while battles raged abroad, relative peace reigned at home. Our streets, apart from odd visits by the Luftwaffe in the cities, were peaceful enough to walk through at night. Our teenagers were disciplined at work and school, if not at home. Most left school at fourteen for work and at eighteen were in the forces. When fights broke out, as they always will among the young, fists were used, not knives or guns or boots. And it was unheard of to have women fighting blind drunk in public.

The rowdiness in the streets of Keighworth in the 1930s was not violent. Teenagers paraded the town centre on the Sabbath in an age-long courting ritual; the sequel to Saturday night dances. They were rowdy and that upset the prim middle-class townsfolk and the Sabbatarians. The teenagers were a nuisance but no threat, and no one knew exactly what to do till the Reverend Herbert Wilkinson hit upon a solution – Sunday night dances in the parish hall after church.

He’d only recently come to Keighworth as vicar of Trinity Church down Garlic Lane. At his public school, university and seminary he’d been a radical. He and his wife were upper-crustian by birth and upbringing but under-crustian by calling and so he’d landed up down Garlic Lane in one of the roughest parishes in the town. Leastways, part of it was rough. The railway line divided the middle-crustians from the under-crustians, and as is the way of things the middle-crustians ran the church. They were not at all amused when their new vicar introduced new ideas into the church – especially Sunday night dances.But Herbert Wilkinson won the hearts and minds of his parishioners by visiting widely and counselling wisely.

He realised that in a changing world education was vital but few of his under-crustian parishioners allowed their children to go on to higher education, even when they’d won scholarships to the Grammar School. Families needed feeding and clothing and houses needed rent paying, so parents took their children away from school at fourteen and put them to work. Wilkinson recognised intelligence and pleaded with working-class parents to let their children stay on. His foresight bore fruit a generation later as more under-crustians went to university; unthinkable a generation before.

Oh, yes, Herbert Wilkinson was a good man and old and young had much to thank him for. He was a highly cultured man, well schooled in the arts especially drama. He produced plays in the parish hall and introduced Nativity Plays in church at Christmas. He knew many well known dramatists personally and brought them to church. It wasn’t unusual to see J.M.Barrie sitting in the congregation and Wilkinson named his three children after the characters in Barrie’s “Peter Pan”: Michael, Peter and Wendy, the first girl ever baptised with that name which Barrie made up. And I might add it didn’t go down well with the bishop, a stick-in-the-mud left-over from the previous century. But in that as in much else, the bishop was ignored and for his part the bishop, who appeared down Garlic Lane only at Confirmations, let it go.

However, the Sunday night dances brought opposition from outside the church as well as inside it. The prim ladies from middle-crustia over the railway objected strongly to the church being packed with noisy youngsters who left sweet wrappers and peanut shells under the pews when they attended services on Sunday nights. Some regulars left the church and wrote letters to the press, but Herbert Wilkinson soldiered on. Many of those who came to dance stayed to listen; and many remembered his sermons only a few years later when fighting for the nation’s life in the forces.

When the dances began the Sabbatarians hired a band and played hymns outside the parish hall but failed to drown the music inside. So heated became the argument that the Police Superintendent stationed a bobby outside the hall, in case there was trouble. Inside the hall there was no trouble for no booze was sold and if any youngsters looked like fighting, there was always Ira Fotheringill to sort things out. They soon quietened down when his twenty stone of rugby league muscle descended on them. Very soon the policeman outside came in and spent the evening sipping tea, and something stronger after the dance in the vicarage with Ira and one or two other helpers.

In 1939 war was declared and the world changed. In Keighworth the lights went out as everywhere else in Britain. The young who’d gone to Trinity Church went off to war; some never returned. At nights the streets were empty and black. The bell stopped ringing for services at church and the parish hall became a restaurant for nearby factories producing munitions. The vicar along with Ira Fotheringill volunteered for the forces and became a chaplain in the army. The large vicarage housed evacuees from the cities being bombed, and the church was run by an elderly Reader. Once a month a retired priest took a Communion service. The church became the focal point for prayer and grief: for men and womenfolk away in the forces and for those killed.

In 1945 peace, if not sanity, returned and the survivors trickled back: the demobbed, the prisoners-of-war, the crippled, which included Ira Fotheringill. They were all changed people and none more than Herbert Wilkinson. Oh, he tried to carry on as before: visiting the sick, counselling etc, but there were no more dances. By the 1960s a more affluent youth spent their nights in pubs enjoying new freedoms which they soon turned to licence. For many, religion and the parish priest became non-entities in a growing materialistic society.

Herbert Wilkinson carried on for a year or two after the war but he was a changed man. He visited Ira Fotheringill when he was discharged from a military hospital, for he, too, was changed; broken in body and mind.

They talked about their wartime experiences: Ira in the RAF and Herbert a chaplain with the 8th Corps of the British Army. His unit fought its way across North Germany till eventually they reached a place called Bergen-Belsen and entered Hell. Battle-hardened as they were, the troops who went into the concentration camp at Belsen had seen nothing like it. They were traumatised beyond measure.

Worse still, what they discovered there was repeated again and again across Europe where the Nazis had built their death-camps: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Treblinka and the rest. The Revd Herbert Wilkinson’s faith was sorely tried. How could a God of compassion and mercy allow such obscenities?
He didn’t lose his faith entirely. He reasoned that if there were no God then only Man was left to create an ideal world. Yet it needed only a perverse shift of logic and it became right to make real a world-vision of a Master Race by eliminating all other races, the “Mein Kampf” Hitler dreamed up and wrote about. There just had to be a God to counter this. Evil couldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

He didn’t stay long in Keighworth after the war. He was approaching retirement and took the living of a quiet country parish in the Derbyshire Dales. Among the peace and beauty he saw daily about him, he gradually worked out a new relationship with his Maker; a relationship in which God suffered with his people yet ultimately remained in control; a relationship which reconciled the gentle world Herbert Wilkinson lived in with the Holocaust he’d seen.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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