Twist of the Collar - Clerical Memoirs by Rev. L. E. A. Ehrmann
VI - ABBEY WOOD AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR
[p26] The Rev. F. C. Bainbridge-Bell was asked by Bishop Burge to release me as soon as possible, but being anxious to have his usual Swiss holiday, did not let me go until September, 1914. I was in that awkward position of being Curate of S. Laurence's and Vicar of Abbey Wood simultaneously, but it could not be helped for the Bishop, knowing the needs of my new parish, instituted me at Abbey Wood (which was the ecclesiastical parish of S. Michael and All Angels. Plumstead) on 21st July. My friend, Mr. Burton, acted as Chaplain to the Bishop and Archdeacon Escreet inducted me. The Rev. G. T. Charlesworth was the first Vicar of the new parish, and the Church had been built largely through the generosity of the Charlesworth family. He was now Chaplain of Guy's Hospital. Moreover, there was no house to be had until the Lady Worker evacuated her own. Mr. Charlesworth did a great work there, but his strictness over Holy Baptism only sent the parents to the neighbouring church of S. Nicholas. When I came I felt bound to relax somewhat from his custom, for it seemed difficult to obey Canon 68 otherwise, which plainly said "No minister shall refuse or delay to christen any child," but I endeavoured as far as possible to build upon the good foundations the Vicar had laid. It seems to me that the so-called Indiscriminate Baptism will continue until all clergy have the commonsense to act together.
My wife and I journeyed from Catford for the Induction, followed by a social gathering in the spacious Parish Hall. Mr. Charlesworth was there and it was evident that he would be very much missed. Many of our friends from South London were present at the service.
Our little daughter, then six years of age, was left at home, but the next morning she awoke early to see what I was like. She expected to see me look quite different, for I was now a Vicar. To her amazement and regret I appeared just the same as before, and the disappointment to the young mind was great! The Rev. A. Ellis, at the Bishop's request, officiated at the week-ends until I was able to live at Abbey Wood. As soon as I was in residence I realised how many problems lay ahead, for the first world war broke out on 4th August, 1914.
On 29th July I gave my first address to the Communicants in Church, "Let love of the brethren continue." If I remember rightly it was at this service that the electric light failed, which put us all into total darkness until the Wardens and others had lighted a number of candles, and the service proceeded.
The Church was a splendid structure and was always beautifully kept clean by a band of loyal workers, giving their time and asking for no reward, for they were fond of their Church and took a great pride in it. Year by year, the women workers scrubbed the floor, chairs, etc, throughout, whilst the men climbed up ladders and dusted the clerestory and walls and when all was done the sacred edifice smelt of nothing but cleanliness. An illustration appears amongst these pages.
My predecessor had a celebration of Holy Communion each Sunday at 8 a.m. and once a month a late one with "Music and Hymns" as he styled it.
Having seen little of me, so far, the people wondered what kind of a man I was, especially as I had a German name, and as is customary the spark of criticism at length burst into a flame. At the suggestion of the Archdeacon of Lewisham, one who knew me very well, I wrote a short paragraph for the local papers stating that my wife and I were British subjects my wife having been born at Henley-on-Thames and I at Canonbury in North London. These war-time days were times of suspicion, excitement and [p 27] anxiety, especially when disasters were occurring to our forces. Several German bakers in the neighbourhood had their windows smashed by the young folks, and I heard afterwards that these sort of people were coming one evening to Abbey Wood to do mischief. This was prevented as soldiers were despatched to the scene of trouble. My wife begged me at the time to change my name, but I assured her it would make no difference for I could not alter my personality. I wrote a paragraph in the Parish Magazine a little later on and calmly told the parishioners that they might judge me by my words and actions. Nothing more happened and firmness (if one is in the right) is always respected.
Now as to the Services, soon after the Declaration of War, very rapidly wooden houses were erected and large hostels built, so that our population of 5,000 was soon doubled. Churchpeople of all kinds became our parishioners, and I wanted to provide for them accordingly. That was my opportunity to advance a bit. I suggested to a meeting of Communicants that I was willing, partly in view of the war, to have a Choral Celebration of the Holy Communion each Sunday instead of only once a month. Matins as usual. This was unanimously agreed to, although later on I had one or two complaints, but nevertheless this Service, which I always called the "Sung Eucharist," became the chief Sunday service and was rendered simply but reverently by clergy and choir. Even those who did not see eye to eye with me regarding the services always remained most friendly. My colleague at first was the Rev. J. A. Sumner and later on the Revs. F. A. Cox and C. Hammond.
It was a dangerous place to live in, for on the north were two munitions factories and powder magazines, on the south a military camp on Bostall Heath, whilst on the east were Vickers' works and on the west the Royal Arsenal, which the Germans had told their people they had completely wrecked. Nothing of the kind happened, and it was remarkable that, while considerable damage and loss of life occurred to some Plumstead parishes, nothing occurred in ours, which I attributed to the care of the Holy Angels. We felt somewhat the terrible explosion at Silvertown.
The G.F.S. generously assisted us by organising a Girls' Club for munition workers, and for some time we had a club for soldiers in the Parish Hall. When it was possible, Parade Services were held in the Church, which I more than once placed at the disposal of the Authorities. There was also a Balloon Squadron in Abbey Wood, of which I was appointed Chaplain almost at the end of the war - things moved extremely slowly in official circles, for between the Army and Air Force (then in its infancy) there was some disagreement, which I suppose could hardly be avoided, seeing that a new organisation for the air had just come into existence. We had Scouts, Wolf Cubs, Girl Guides and Brownies, all of whom came to Church regularly.
[p 28] In 1916, the Church Authorities decided to have a National Mission, and we canvassed every house in the parish, had special services and distributed many special leaflets, but I think I am right in stating that the spiritual result generally was not great. Yet, it was an effort on the part of the Church to rouse the nation to turn to God, and as such, let us hope it did good. One can never decide for certain what such results really are - they must be left to God Himself. Our job obviously was to do our best and then to leave the issue in higher Hands. In 1917 a "Crusade" was held which helped to stir up people in war-time. An extract from Canon Daldy's letter will be found in the Appendix.
Canon Paul Petit, Secretary of the Additional Curates Society, who had for many years been a great friend of mine, spotted our difficulties, and the Bishop of Woolwich and others came down to our parish and reported our needs. it was very largely due to the magnificent grants of the A.C.S. that I was able to have one, then two, assistant priests. I must emphasise this, because I should be sorry if any reader were to think that I did all the work—that would have been impossible. For part of the time we had a Lady Worker and also a Lay Reader. The house problem for a worker was a difficulty, for almost the whole parish belonged to the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, and hence it was called "The Tin-check Estate." To secure a dwelling one had often to purchase it, which I eventually had to do for a worker. In my time we had collected £900 for a Vicarage.
Abbey Wood became a beehive of activity during the war, both by day and by night. This was occasioned by the fact that there were night and day "shifts" at the factories, and accommodation became very scarce, especially at first. I did not find many unprincipled people there, but it became a common thing for a charge of £1 per room in a house that cost altogether about 10s. to 12s. 6d. per week. One woman, however, excelled herself at the 1918 Armistice. I had known her before as she urged me (without result) to plead for her son who was a "conscientious" objector. She came to me with tears in her eyes at the cessation of hostilities, declaring how sorry she was the war was over, for she had managed to buy two houses and now was unable to secure the third! I think comment is needless, yet I am sure she left me feeling I was very unsympathetic towards her statement.
One good outcome of the war was the formation of Allotment Associations, and we had an excellent one at Abbey Wood. I soon got into touch with their chief members, and let them see that I was with them in their great work. I let them use our Parish Hall for shows and meetings and was often asked to speak at their gatherings. I well remember that stalwart Englishman, Mr. James Moss, their chairman, and Mr. J. Harvey, the latter who lived in the parish. They were kindness itself to me all along and I possess now the beautifully inscribed testimonial on vellum from [p 29] the pen of Mr. Harvey, junior. At first there was some muttering on the part of a few of our Churchpeople regarding my open hands of welcome to the Association, but I believe that all agreed in the end that I was right. To me, it seemed that the Church should show her sympathy to all who helped the community one way and another, and surely growing food when food was becoming scarce, was a good object. The members did not all live in our parish, but on certain occasions it was encouraging to see a fine body of men at a service, and I shall never forget their presence and sympathy at my departure when I preached my last sermon.
Modern warfare of this kind was entirely new to us - Zeppelins and airplanes were nasty things and we dreaded moonlight nights. I make no excuse for myself - I was exceedingly "nervy." and expected every moment to have to go out in the midst of the raids to admit bombed families to our Parish Hall for shelter. This never occurred, and I used to sit by the fire of an evening shivering. When the war was over I made a solemn resolution that I would cure myself of this nervous state if another war occurred and I am thankful I did so the remedy was "Be occupied." as Chapter 8 will relate.
Many rumours spread during the war and I will only mention one. When Paris was in danger, it was said that the "Russians" had landed in Britain and were passing through on their way to the Continent. Whether the Germans got to hear of this and took fright, we did not hear, but the real story seems to have been Scotch soldiers from Ross-shire were travelling south by train. If this story were really true it was a good one for war propaganda, and the Germans never reached Paris.
Some of the very nice members of the congregation presented me with a gold watch chain with crucifix as an act of appreciation in the difficult times I had had. At my leaving, they made me another presentation. Since I left the parish I have paid several visits to it, seeing several of the kind people.
On Bishop Burge's appointment to Oxford he was unable to preach at Reading for the South London Church Fund, for which I often preached in the Southwark Diocese. I spent a week-end at Reading at the Bishop's request, and preached both morning and evening at two Churches respectively, celebrating the Eucharist at 8 a.m. in the Parish Church.
Before I close this Chapter I ought to write something more about the early days of this parish at the extreme eastern end of the Diocese of Southwark.
Between Belvedere and S. Nicholas, Plumstead, there was no place of worship. The Rochester Diocesan Society, later the South London Church Fund, determined to start a new Mission District, which took effect in 1903. At first the parish of Belvedere came to the rescue in lending S. Mary's Mission Room for services, and [p 30] a site for a new Church and Church Flail was soon secured at a cost of £1,000. The hall is an ideal one, and after being used for services became a centre of parochial activities. In 1907, the foundation stone was laid for the complete Church. It was feared at first that only a part could be erected, but good Christians are always generous people - and an offer of £1,000 came forth as well as a loan of £2,000 free of interest. The sacred edifice is an ideal of what a Church should be - spacious, a dignified sanctuary and chairs for the congregation.
There is a good deal of oak in the Church, and there is a Lady Chapel, as well as a charming semi-enclosed Baptistery. The organ is in a loft, and the Rood Screen has the usual large Crucifix and on either side the figures of S. Mary and S. John. There was some opposition to the figures standing (which was Scriptural) and it was agreed that they should be in a kneeling posture. Zealous Protestants do sometimes depart from the Holy Scriptures! The Church took a year to build, and on 11th April, 1908, it was consecrated by the Bishop of the Diocese, the Right Rev. Edward Stuart Talbot. Many charities helped financially, and individuals made gifts of "ornaments" of the Church and other accessories.
On 1st August, 1908, the Missioner became the first Vicar he was instituted by the Bishop on 14th December, 1908. As I look back, I see more clearly than ever before the good work Mr. Charlesworth did in Plumstead. One cannot speak too highly about it. It was all laid on sure foundations.
Lastly, at my request, during the war Bishop Burge sanctioned the Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in an Aumbrey in the Lady Chapel. I purchased a small iron safe, which was let into the wall, as a wooden aumbrey did not appear sufficiently secure. This method was afterwards adopted at Catford by the Rev. G. H. Morrell. Coloured Vestments were adopted during my Vicariate, and Dr. Edith Bathurst sang sacred songs in the church on one occasion. She is an old friend of ours. Not only is she a great singer, but she is also a composer of music.