Sunday, 20 November 2016

Remembering Father John Groser (1890-1966),
once the best-known priest in the East End

The house at Saint Katharine’s that was home to Father Groser for almost 20 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

The East End of London was the stronghold of the Anglo-Catholic slum priests from the late 19th century until the decades immediately after World War II. One of the most colourful of these slum priests was Father St John Beverley Groser (1890-1966), who served in Christ Church, Watney Street, and Saint George-in-the-East on Cannon Street Road, both off Cable Street. Before coming to the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine as its first Master after it was brought back to the East End.

Father John, as he was known to all in the East End, was injured in the Battle of Cable Street 80 years ago in 1936, and there are signs throughout the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine that are reminders of his saintly and heroic life.

I was staying in Saint Katharine’s last week during a residential meeting of the trustees of USPG, the Anglican mission agency, and I was reminded of Father John’s legacy there and as I walked up and down Cable Street on Thursday and Friday.

Father John was one of the most significant Christian socialist figures in 20th century Britain, and was once the best-known priest in the East End. He was the Vicar of Christ Church, Watney Street, from 1929-1948, and when this and other churches were destroyed in the Blitz, he became the curate-in-charge of Saint George-in-the-East and Saint John, Golding Street, from 1941 to 1947.

He wrote only one book, yet he made an enormous impact on the Church of England and the labour movement, and through the Student Christian Movement and student missions, he had a major impact on the wider Christian community and on local struggles around housing, fascism, and the care of the elderly.

A blue plaque at the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine celebrates one of the best-known slum priests of the East End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Father St John Beverley Groser was one of 11 children of an American-born father, the Revd Thomas Eaton Groser, a missionary who had worked among North American Indians, and an English-born mother, Phoebe Wainwright, who had worked in Labrador. He was born on the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, 1890, in Beverley, a remote cattle station in Western Australia where his father was Rector – and so he was given the names St John Beverley.

He came to England as a teenager, but retained a deep fondness for Australia all his life. In England, he went to school at Ellesmere College in Shropshire, one of the Anglo-Catholic schools of the Woodard Corporation. He then trained for ordination with the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield.

In 1914, he became the curate at All Saints’ Church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a tough slum parish where he was radicalised by his experiences. He was puzzled when the bishop complained he had been sent there to save souls, not bodies.

At the outbreak of World War I, he became a frontline chaplain in France, where his experiences continued to shape his values. His commanding officer put him in charge of a group of demoralised soldiers in a time of heavy casualties. He was mentioned in dispatches in 1917, sent home wounded and received the Military Cross in 1918.

Back in England in 1917, he met Mary Agnes Bucknall (1893-1970). They married in Saint Winnow, Cornwall, where her father was the vicar, and they had two sons and two daughters. Her sister Nancy married the Revd Charles (Carl) Threlfall Richards, who had been at Mirfield with Father John, and later he was one of Groser’s curates at Saint George's in Stepney.

After World War I, he spent a year working with the Church of England Men’s Society in the Dioceses of Carlisle, Durham and Newcastle. He then went to Cornwall, as a curate at Saint Winnow’s. Meanwhile, Mary’s brother, the Revd Jack Bucknall, had become curate to the Revd Conrad Noël, the ‘Red Vicar’ of Thaxted, and introduced him to his Catholic Crusade. John was totally captivated by the ethos of Thaxted, where the Red Flag, the liturgy and the music were all of a piece, and later did temporary duty there.

From 1922-1928, Father John and his brother-in-law Jack Bucknall were curates in Saint Michaeland All Angels, Poplar, under Father CG Langdon. All three priests were Socialists, but as events proved, the curates were far more radical than their Vicar. The two families lived next door to each other in Teviot Street. There they rubbed shoulders with the great East End political figures of the day, including the Labour leader George Lansbury, and they became part of what was known as ‘Poplarism.’

John and Jack organised many street corner meetings for the Catholic Crusade, always dressed in cassocks and flanked by the three symbols of the crucifix, the Red Flag and the flag of Saint George. Father John had no time for the Union Jack, and scouts at Christ Church were only permitted to parade the George, and their neckerchiefs, significantly, were red.

He was beaten by police batons in the General Strike, and his licence was removed for a time.

The new vicar, Father Kenneth Ashcroft, was a priest with Labour sympathies, but there were many conflicts with him and with Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London. There were threats of sacking, and in the end, Groser resigned. During a year of unemployment, he did not sign on, as he had threatened, but supported his family by Sunday duties, selling life insurance, and some craft work.

Saint George’s flag flies over the tower of Saint George-in-the East (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In 1929, he was appointed Vicar of Christ Church, Watney Street, within the parish of Saint George-in-the-East off Cable Street. A church that was facing closure was transformed. High Mass and Solemn Evensong, both with incense, were celebrated with Thaxted-style ceremonial. The church was re-ordered with a more open sanctuary, was lime-washed, and was decorated with banners of Saint George, the parish church, and banners of red representing the Red Flag.

Sentimental music gave way to Bach and Byrd, and new hymns were introduced that combined radical politics and romantic pastoral nostalgia. Sharles Dalmon’s hymn, usually sung to the tune of ‘We plough the fields, and scatter,’ included this verse:

God is the only landlord to whom our rents are due;
he made the earth for all men and not for just a few.
The four parts of creation – earth, water, air and sky –
God made and blessed and stationed for ever man’s desire.
Uplift Saint George’s banner, and let the ancient cry
‘Saint George for Merrie England’ re-echo to the sky.


The 1932 Manifesto of the Christ Church Campaign for Socialism proclaimed: ‘We believe that the principal duty of the Church is to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a Kingdom of perfection, a Kingdom of love, justice, comradeship, beauty, and all that we know as good.’

The first stage in the programme was establishing a classless and democratic Socialist State. The second step was establishing a World Cooperative Commonwealth of Socialist States.

The congregation grew, but there were factional divisions among left-wing groups over Stalinism. John and Mary Groser and the group at Christ Church were driven out of the Catholic Crusade in March 1932, and they then aligned themselves with other alliances, including the Socialist Christian League. Father John wrote and spoke extensively on unemployment, opposed means testing and the use of police powers over ‘loitering with intent’ against the unemployed, and worked on committees on poor relief and public assistance.

Theologically, Father John was a traditional Catholic Anglican who saw God, and orthodox faith in God, as subversive. In a sermon in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in 1934 he claimed that nothing but the religion of the Incarnation, fearlessly taught and worked out in practice in a new social ethic, can save the situation.

The Revd Jack Boggis, whose vocation had been inspired by Father John at Poplar, came to Christ Church as his curate (1932-1936) and produced the radical Christ Church Monthly. Later, he would succeed Father John as the rector of Saint George’s.

Father John played a key role in galvanising opposition in the East End to Sir Oswald Mosley and his black-shirt fascists. He took part in the Battle of Cable Street 80 years ago, on Sunday 4 October in 1936, and had his nose broken by a police baton.

From 1938, was president of, the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League, a broad-based grouping of activists, many of them Jewish and or Communists. It began with meetings in his vicarage. He later reflected in Politics and Persons how the tenants’ movement revitalised people from the defeatism of the depression.

The Communist activist Phil Piratin, who was a key figure in the Battle of Cable Street and later MP for Mile End (1945-1950), said Father John’s qualities earned ‘him a name far beyond East London. He was a Labour supporter, but without hesitation threw himself into this work, and when he — tall, white-haired, patriarchal in appearance, and in his clerical garb — together with Tubby Rosen, the Secretary of the League, stocky, aggressive, stubborn, went into action together, there were few landlords or their lackeys who could stand up to them.’

In 1938, Father Groser was one of the few Anglican priests to speak out against Chamberlain's policy of appeasement with Germany. He wrote to the Anglican Guardian:

‘Blackmail has succeeded. The threat of force has triumphed ... That Mr Chamberlain should talk of “peace with honour” when he has surrendered to this blackmail, torn up Article 10 of the League Covenant without reference to Geneva, and sacrificed the Czechoslovaks in order, as he says, to prevent a world war, is bad enough; but that the Archbishop of Canterbury should say that this is the answer to our prayers ... is beyond endurance.’

On 20 June 1939, the tenants of Alexandra Buildings on Commercial Street ‘built barricades of tables, doors and sofas at each entrance and a drawbridge to resist the bailiffs. Six were arrested for obstructing and assaulting the police.’ They held pickets at the landlord’s offices while both the Mayor and the Bishop of Stepney, Rabbi Israel Brodie and Father John argued the tenant’s case inside with the landlord for two hours.

Politicians and bishops, priest and rabbis had been brought together to put challenge slum landlords. When he landlord agreed to stop the evictions and to negotiate, the barricades came down again.

When World War II broke out, he displayed characteristically heroic care for his people and wrote scathingly about the arrangements made for East Enders. In 1940, he broke into an official food store and distributed rations to homeless people and organised buses to take them to safety. He was involved in the creation of a railway arch air-raid shelter in Watney Street.

Saint George-in-the-East, where Father John was the priest-in-charge for six years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Father John’s ministry at Christ Church came to an abrupt end when the church and the vicarage were destroyed by a bomb on 16 April 1941. Saint George’s was blitzed the following month. The family moved to Saint George’s Rectory, and for the next six years he led the combined parishes of Christ Church, Saint John’s and Saint George’s, together with his brother-in-law the Revd Carl Richards, the Revd Geoffrey Lough, and the Revd Denys Giddey as his curates.

A priest who was once on the margins was now becoming acceptable and acclaimed. He was in demand as a preacher, speaker and broadcaster, and was the Select Preacher at Cambridge University in 1941. In 1943-1945, he sat on the Bishop of Rochester’s group that produced the report Towards the Conversion of England, commissioned by the Archbishops to identify a mission strategy for the post-war world but had limited impact.

Father John was also part of Archbishop William Temple’s Religion and Life Movement, an ecumenical campaign launched in 1940 after the 1937 Oxford Conference on Church, Community and State.

After World War II, he toured theological colleges. Then 1946, Father John, appearing as himself, was introduced as ‘Father John’ in Land of Promise, a film about urban housing past, and making a plea for decent post-war reconstruction. The film was directed by Paul Rotha and was narrated Sir John Mills.

Meanwhile, he was appointed Rural Dean of Stepney (1945-1956), and in 1947 he was instrumental in setting up Stepney Old Peoples' Welfare Association.

By now, he was thinking about forming an East London community with its own centre. In 1946, he wrote: ‘The basic need of Church life in East London is to strengthen the central core of the life of each parish and borough … The centre would contain all the essential accommodation for a real Christian community life … It would provide for a far wider fellowship than just that of the residents.’

He proposed this centre would help, encourage and co-ordinate the activities of clergy and lay workers, train people for religious and social work and for leadership, promote educational and cultural activities, undertake evangelistic work among people not in touch normal parish life, and further the spiritual and bodily welfare of the aged.

Inside the chapel at the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

His ideas found life in 1947 with the proposal to move the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine back to the East End. But Father John and his colleagues promised that their work at Saint Katharine’s would complement rather than conflict with the work of parish priests in the East End.

In 1948, after a sabbatical in Germany, he was appointed the Master of the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine. While building work was being done, the family lived at 400 Commercial Road, the vicarage of the closed church of Saint John the Evangelist-in-the-East.

Father John and his friends then moved into the former Georgian vicarage of Saint James’s on Butcher Row, facing Cable Street, in 1948. They set up a chapel in the bombed-out vestry of Saint James’s Church as they began to rebuild.

John Groser played Thomas Becket in a film of TS Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’

In 1949, he played Thomas Becket in a film of TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, directed by George Hoellering, alongside Mark Dignam, Michael Aldridge, Leo McKern and Paul Rogers. Eliot himself was the Fourth Tempter, and Father John’s son Michael was the Third Priest.

Hoellering wanted someone with spiritual authority, rather than a known actor, to play the part. Father John let his hair grow long, rather than wear a wig, and entered wholeheartedly into film, with its theme of spiritual defiance of temporal authority. The film was shown in 1952 and received mixed reviews; it was never on general release, perhaps because it was over three hours long. However, Stephen Brown reported in the Church Times earlier this year [29 January 2016] on its release on DVD.

Father John rushed ‘about the croquet lawn, cassock tucked back, as absorbed in winning the game as he was when pacing the same lawn preparing his next sermon or lecture’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Dorothy Halsall, a sister of the community and a key figure at Saint Katharine’s, describes Father John rushing ‘about the croquet lawn, cassock tucked back, as absorbed in winning the game as he was when pacing the same lawn preparing his next sermon or lecture.’

Father John and Ethel Upton, another key woman at Saint Katharine’s at this new stage, maintained their links with the trade union movement. Trade unionists were invited to Saint Katharine’s and a centre for the Worker’s Educational Association was set up. There were courses for newly-ordained priests on ‘The Task of the Church in Industrial Society,’ seminars on ‘The Church and Society’ and on ‘The Church and the Trade Union Movement,’ invitations to public school chaplains to experience East End life, and conferences on life in the East End.

Informal and confidential meetings between dock workers and management were facilitated, the London Industrial Council met here too, the Metropolitan Industrial Mission was formed here, and there was hospitality for the Old People’s Welfare Offices.

Father John remained at Saint Katharine’s for the last 14 years of his ministry, supported by a lay community before it was replaced by members of religious orders. There he wrote Politics & Persons (1949). In 1951, with the local Franciscans, he helped found the Stepney Coloured People’s Association, of which he became President.

He retired at the age of 72 on 28 June 1962, and John and Mary moved to Watlington in Oxfordshire in 1962, where they lived in retirement. He died in Watlington 50 years ago on 19 March 1966 and was buried in the churchyard. His papers are held at Lambeth Palace Library.

Plaques and rooms in the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine recall Father John’s legacy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A year after his retirement, Father John wrote of Saint Katharine’s: ‘It has been our aim to make this place a centre of life, Catholic in the deepest meaning of the word, concerned not only with the enriching of the life of the Church, but always looking outward in concern for the world and forward in adventure, believing that the Holy Spirit, active both in Church and world alike, calls for such adventure for the Kingdom of God.’

The former Chief Rabbi, Sir Israel Brodie, said Father John embodied the characteristics of the saint, with his Amos-like indignation at the grinding of the faces of the poor and his desire for radical social change.

The John Groser Memorial Trust was set up to help young people in Tower Hamlets to broaden their education by travel and voluntary service overseas. A blue plaque placed at Saint Katharine’s in 1990 describes him as a ‘priest and social reformer.’

Father John Groser, Rebel Priest of the East End, edited by Kenneth Brill and published last year [2015], tells the story of this heroic priest.

Today [20 November 2016] in the Calendar of the Church is the Sunday before Advent and the Feast of Christ the King. It is good this morning to remember a priest whose life was committed totally to live out the values of the Kingdom all his days.

Inside Saint George-in-the-East … the banner Saint George still hangs on the south side of the chancel arch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

No comments: