28 November 2019

Woking Mosque and
the Irish peer who almost
became King of Albania

The Shah Jahan Mosque on Oriental Road, Woking … built in 1889, it is the first purpose-built mosque on these islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Back in the 1980s, there was an old joke among journalists that it was sure sign of folly to be the pretender to the throne of Albania; it was an even greater folly to go to Albania to claim that throne.

But did you ever hear of the Irish peer and engineer who lived in Woking, who went bankrupt almost a century ago and who was offered the throne of Albania, possibly on three occasions, in the 1920s?

Lord Headley was one of the most prominent early converts to Islam in England, generations before Muslims arrived in significant numbers from India and Pakistan, and was a leading member of the mosque in Woking.

The Shah Jahan Mosque on Oriental Road is a 10 or 15 minute walk from Saint Columba’s House, where I have been staying in Woking this week. It was built in 1889, and is now one of Woking’s great architectural treasures. But it is also known as Britain’s first purpose-built mosque.

The mosque was the inspiration of the orientalist Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner (1840-1899). Leitner, who was born into a Jewish family in Budapest and died in Bonn, was a keen linguist and said to be fluent in 40 or 50 languages. At one time, he was prodigious interpreter for the British army during the Crimean War, reaching the rank of colonel at the age of 15.

He moved from Constantinople to London, and in the hope of becoming an Anglican priest and studied theology at King’s College, London. But he then then converted to Islam, and was instrumental in founding the University of Lahore and the Oriental College in Woking.

The mosque in Woking was built in the grounds of Leitner’s Oriental College, which gave its name to Oriental Road. It was funded mainly by Shahjehan, Begum of Bhopal (1868-1901), one of the four women to become the Muslim royal ruler of Bhopal between 1819 and 1926.

The mosque was designed by the architect William Isaac Chambers (1847-1924) in what was has been described as a ‘Persian-Saracenic Revival’ style and is built in Bath and Bargate stone. It has a dome, minarets, and a courtyard, and was described by the Pevsner Architectural Guides as ‘extraordinarily dignified.’

A prominent early members of the mosque in Woking was the Irish peer Rowland George Allanson Allanson-Winn (1855-1935), 5th Baron Headley, who was an early convert to Islam.

The title of Lord Headley, Baron Allanson and Winn, of Aghadoe in Co Kerry, dates back to 1797, when it was given to Sir George Allanson-Winn, a former Baron of the Court of the Exchequer and MP for Ripon, who married into the Blennerhassett family in Co Kerry. The third Lord Headley sat in the House of Lords as an Irish Representative Peer in 1868-1877, as did his son, the fourth Lord Headley (1883-1913). He was succeeded by his cousin, Rowland Allanson-Winn, as 5th Baron Headley.

Lord Headley was an Irish peer, took his title from Aghadoe, near Killarney, Co Kerry, and was once a Justice of the Peace for Co Kerry. He was born in London, and was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge. He studied for the Bar at the Middle Temple, them switched to engineering and became a civil engineer.

For many years after qualifying as an engineer, he was engaged in foreshore protection work in Ireland and used the low groyne system and extending these groynes into deep water by means of chains, cables and concrete blocks. He superintended coastal defence works at Youghal, Co Cork, and Glenbeigh, Co Kerry, and carried out similar work on the coast to the north of Bray Harbour, Co Wicklow. He stood as the Conservative and Unionist candidate in South Kerry in 1892, but received only 86 votes. Later, from 1896, he worked on building roads in India, and in 1902 and 1903 he won the Silver Medals of the Institute of Civil Engineers of Ireland.

In 1906, the Arklow Harbour Commissioners appointed him the chief engineer for extending the south breakwater of the harbour, but his plans were abandoned the following year in favour of a different scheme proposed by John Purser Griffith.

He inherited his Irish peerage when his cousin Charles died in 1913, and with the title inherited the family estates in Co Kerry. His homes in Ireland were at Inseidin, Coliemore Road, Dalkey, and Glenbeigh, Killarney. In the year he inherited his family titles and estates in Ireland, he also converted to Islam on 16 November 1913, and adopted the Muslim name Shaikh Rahmatullah al-Farooq. He set up the British Muslim Society in 1914, was the author of several books on Islam, and twice made the Hajj to Mecca.

Headley was declared bankrupt in 1922. A year later, he was offered the throne of Albania in 1923, along with $500,000 and $50,000 a year, but turned down the offer. He claimed to have been offered the throne of Albania on three occasions, but turned down each invitation, saying ‘the only thing that goes with it is trouble and the almost certainty of assassination.’

Albania became, at least nominally, a parliamentary democracy in 1924. But President Ahmed Bey Zogu proclaimed himself King of the Albanians as Zog I in 1928, and tried to establish a constitutional monarchy.

When Fascist Italy invaded Albania in 1939, Zog fled the country, and King Vittorio Emanuele of Italy was proclaimed the new King. After the collapse of Ever Hoxha’s regime, Zog’s son, Crown Prince Leka (1939-2011), was the pretender to the Albanian throne until he died in 2011.

Meanwhile, Lord Headley died on 22 June 1935, and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking. The reportof his funeral in The Times noted that his cousin, the Revd WN Manning, ‘was unavoidably prevented from being present.’ The Headley title became extinct when his younger son, Charles Allanson-Winn (1902-1994), died in 1994.

Inside the Shah Jahan Mosque on Oriental Road, Woking (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The call of Saint Andrew and
the mission of the Church

Saint Andrew the First-Called … an icon in the chapel in Saint Columba’s House, Woking (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

28 November 2019,

7.45 a.m.
, USPG Trustees residential meeting,

Saint Columba’s House, Maybury Hill, Woking, Surrey

Readings: Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 19: 1-6; Romans 10: 12-18; Matthew 4: 18-22.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

I love the football transfer window: waiting to see who is going to move where. As an Aston Villa fan, I can always live in hope.

Today, we have transferred Saint Andrew the Apostle. We ought to be celebrating him on Saturday [30 November 2019], but we have transferred him to today.

Appropriate he should get that call, for Saint Andrew is known as the first-called of the disciples.

Before he was called, Saint Andrew was a fisherman, an every-day ordinary-day commercial occupation, working on the Lake of Galilee in partnership with his brother Simon Peter. It is said that when Saint John the Baptist began to preach, Saint Andrew became one of his closest disciples.

When he heard Christ’s call by the sea to follow him, Saint Andrew hesitated for a moment, not because he had any doubts about that call, but because he wanted to bring his brother with him. He left his nets behind and went to Peter and, as Saint John’s Gospel recalls, he told him: ‘We have found the Messiah … [and] he brought Simon to Jesus’ (John 1: 41, 42).

1, My first point: The call in today’s Gospel reading – to Peter and Andrew, to James and John, the sons of Zebedee – comes to us as individuals and in groups. It is not a story of an either/or choice between proclaiming the Gospel to individuals or groups, but a both/and choice.

And this is a two-way call, as Saint Paul reminds us in the Epistle reading: God calls us, and we call to God.

2, My second point: Saint Paul’s inclusive language – ‘Lord of all’ … ‘generous to all’ … ‘Everyone who calls’ … ‘all the earth’ – is unambiguous in ruling out all discrimination: ‘For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.’

But that particular form of discrimination is already, inherently rejected in the Gospel reading. There are two brothers, one with a very Jewish name, Simon from the Hebrew שִׁמְעוֹן, meaning ‘listen’ and ‘best’; and one with a very Greek name, Andrew, Ἀνδρέας, meaning ‘manly,’ even ‘brave’ … ‘strong’ … ‘courageous.’

From the very beginning, the call of Christ rejects the most obvious discrimination between Jew and Greek. Standing against discrimination is inherently built into the mission of the Church.

3, My third point: On my way to and from trustee meetings, I try to visit one or two London churches, particularly one of the surviving Christopher Wren churches. One of these churches, Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe on Queen Victoria Street. It is two blocks south of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and close to Blackfriars station, and is the last of Wren’s city churches.

The church was destroyed by German bombs during the Blitz in World War II, but was rebuilt and rededicated in 1961.

As the bitter weather of winter takes hold, I am reminded of this prayer, appropriate for Advent and this winter weather, I found at Saint Andrew’s and which the church offers for people who have no shelter on the streets:

God of compassion,
your love for humanity was revealed in Jesus,
whose earthly life began in the poverty of a stable
and ended in the pain and isolation of the cross:
we hold before you those who are homeless and cold
especially in this bitter weather.
Draw near and comfort them in spirit
and bless those who work to provide them
with shelter, food and friendship.
We ask this in Jesus’ name.

Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe is the last of Christopher Wren’s city churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Almighty God,
who gave such grace to your apostle Saint Andrew
that he readily obeyed the call of your Son Jesus Christ
and brought his brother with him:
call us by your holy Word
and give us grace to follow without delay
and to tell the good news of your kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

may the gifts we have received at your table
keep us alert for your call
that we may always be ready to answer,
and, following the example of Saint Andrew,
always be ready to bear our witness
to our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The cloister-like colonnade on the north side of the former Saint Andrew’s Church in Suffolk Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 4: 18-22 (NRSVA)

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

There are no princesses at
Woking Palace today, and
no princes at Pizza Express

Pizza Express has become the most photographed premises in Woking (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Apart from having the most famous – or infamous – Pizza Express in England, Woking can boast it has the church with one of the oldest doors in England, along with the oldest purpose-built mosque in the country, and England’s first working crematorium.

This is a large town in north-west Surrey, on the south-west fringes of Greater London, about 24 minutes from Waterloo station. Woking town itself has a population of 62,796, but the total population is more than 105,000 in 2011.

Working claims to date back to the eighth century, when there was a monastery at a site known as Wochingas. It appears as Wochinges in the Domesday Book in 1086, when it was associated with Osbern FitzOsbern, Bishop of Exeter.

Woking has many churches, including Saint Mary’s Church in Horsell and Saint Peter’s Church in Old Woking. Saint Peter’s has the oldest door in Surrey, said to be the third oldest door in Britain.

Woking Palace is a former manor house of the Royal Manor of Woking near Old Woking and dates back to 1272. The manor was acquired by royal grant in 1466 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and her third of four husbands, Sir Henry Stafford.

Woking Manor House was converted into a palace by Henry VII in 1503 and was later remodelled by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

James I granted the estate to Sir Edward Zouch in 1620 who may well have allowed its remains to be plundered to build Hoe Bridge Place, his new mansion about a mile away. Zouch was one of the proprietors of the Plymouth Colony in America and the North Virginia Company.

Zouch was the keeper of Woking Park when he acquired Woking Palace in 1620 from a cash-strapped crown for an annual rent of £100 and the duty of serving the first dish to the king at a feast on Saint James’s Day. By the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), the palace appears to have been abandoned and virtually ruined.

Modern Woking grow up in the area to the south of the Basingstoke Canal when it opened in 1794, and it expanded rapidly after the railway lines from London to the south coast and the south-west reached here in 1838. As the town grew and expanded, Woking Crematorium at St John’s was established in 1878 and became Britain’s first crematorium. It was first tested on 17 March 1879, when the body of a horse was cremated.

Britain’s first purpose-built mosque, the Shah Jahan Mosque on Oriental Road, was built in 1889. It was commissioned by Shahjehan, Begum of Bhopal (1868-1901), one of the four female Muslim rulers of Bhopal between 1819 and 1926.

It has been described by the Pevsner Architectural Guides as ‘extraordinarily dignified.’ But perhaps I should say a little more in a posting later today about this mosque and the Irish peer who became one of its most famous members, and a little more about Lady Margaret Beaufort tomorrow.

Woking has elected Conservative MPs since the constituency was formed in 1950, and Jonathan Lord, who has been the MP since 2010, is standing for the Tories in Woking once again in next month’s general election.

Today there are no princes in Woking, Woking Palace lays in ruins, there is no sign at Pizza Express declaring ‘by appoint to HRH …’, and in this Tory heartland of Surrey I could see no signs that Britain is the middle of a deeply divisive election campaign.

There are no commemorative plaques outside Pizza Express on Goldsworth Road in Woking (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)