SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: In another discovery from the Croydon Minster archive, DAVID MORGAN has found the first-hand account of one of the church’s most senior lay officials which covers much of the history of the 20th Century
When Frank Butler retired from his post as verger and parish clerk at Croydon Parish Church in 1969, it really was the end of an era. His father, also named Frank William Butler, had held the same post for 26 years, until his death in December 1935.
Frank junior had been assistant to his father from 1925. On his retirement, he jotted down some of his memories of church life in Croydon covering much of the tumultuous 20th Century. This was real social history, as lived and experienced by local people.
Between them, the Butlers created almost a dynasty of public service.
Up to the time of Frank junior’s retirement, there had been only three vergers at the church in more than 100 years, a statistic which underlines the dedication and continuity offered by members of the parish.
In 1868, William Groves was appointed verger of the “new church”, after the catastrophic fire of 1867. One of the main roles of the verger then was the protection of the building. Groves would hold the position for more than 40 years. Frank Butler took over in November 1909, following the death of Groves three months earlier.
One of Frank junior’s earliest recollections as a boy was helping his father each evening when the church was locked up for the night.
In 1910 when the Suffragettes were protesting against the government’s refusal to give women the vote, a police order was sent to all places of worship to search under every pew for fire bombs or anyone hiding on the premises. Frank and his father never found anything untoward as they carried out their nightly checks.
However, in 1911 there was a fire. Frank junior remembered that it was the quick actions of his father and another member of the congregation that saved the day. Back then, baptismal services took place on Sunday afternoons and on one such occasion on November 5, just after 5pm, the switch box under the tower blew up and started what might have been a serious fire.
The wires at the back of the board, some 70 or 80, connecting into the bellringer’s room in the tower, must have shorted and caught light. His father and another man from the congregation ran to get ashes and soil to throw on the flames – water would have been no use for an electrical fire. By the time the Fire Brigade arrived, they had managed to put out the fire themselves.
Canon Leonard White-Thompson was the vicar at the time. The Sylverdale Hall had been opened just the previous day, so the vicar determined that the evening service that day should be held there, as there was no light in the church.
Among Butler’s reminiscences of the 1920s were the visits of “Woodbine Willie” to the church in 1925 for a mission week.
Rev Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, to give him his proper title, had been given the nickname “Woodbine Willie” by the soldiers in the Great War. Kennedy was a loyal and devoted chaplain to the troops, always there to minister to their needs. He won the Military Cross but his views on warfare changed because of his experiences in the trenches.
He used to give out bibles and cigarettes, hence the nickname. After the war, he became a Christian socialist and a pacifist. His poetry spoke of the travails of the private soldier and what they had to endure. Despite suffering poor health, being a severe asthmatic, he travelled up and down the country speaking to thousands of people, many of them soldiers who had returned home from the fighting and had struggled to find their place in the post-war world.
“War is only glorious,” he wrote, “when you buy it in the Daily Mail and enjoy it at the breakfast table.” The men and women, of faith or no faith, who heard him preach could relate to that.
Kennedy came for a week of services at the invitation of his friend, Rev Pat McCormick, the vicar here, who was also a decorated chaplain during World War I. Butler remembers that the services involving Kennedy were packed on every occasion.
The General Strike took place from May 4 to 12 1926. It was a turbulent time for everyone.
Butler wrote that a service was held every evening while the strike was on, from 6.30pm, to provide a space for people to pray for an end to the confrontations and for a just resolution for everyone.
One of the jobs of the verger was to be in charge of the parish records. When Frank junior took over from his father, he received letters from Germany and Austria in the years leading up to the Second World War. These were requests from people anxious to prove that they were not of Jewish descent, and therefore liable to be interned and sent off to concentration camps.
One was from a German who requested the baptismal certificate of his grandfather, which Butler was able to provide. Sadly, not all the searches came up with the desired result.
Butler wrote of an Englishwoman married to an Austrian who was on the point of imprisonment if she could not prove she was not Jewish. But the baptismal certificate she sought could not be found. Butler correctly identified the woman from the birth records – but she had never been baptised. Butler never knew what happened to her without her document.
The years of World War II, too, were imprinted on Butler’s memory. He was the fire watcher-in-chief for the Parish Church throughout the Blitz.
Every night from 1940 until the arrival of the flying bombs in 1944 – which made the fire watchers’ task too dangerous – members of the congregation would assemble and be on duty, from black-out to 7am. There was a rota involving 30 to 35 volunteers who could be called upon.
Butler wrote that he personally checked each night that the team of three, and sometimes as many as six, were in position. The watchers included the vicar and his wife, as well as the churchwardens and their other halves. The greatest concern for the watchers was the dropping of incendiary bombs on to the flat roof. Their greatest comfort was copious cups of tea.
One early raid by the Luftwaffe stayed in Butler’s mind. He recalled a night where there was a shower of incendiary bombs that just missed the church building. Of the dozen or so bombs that fell, all but one come down in the churchyard. The other one fell not so far away, on to the side of the roof of the Old Palace banqueting hall.
The sister in charge of Old Palace had been to see Butler on the very morning of the raid to hand him a key. She told him that they were going away, that the place would be unoccupied and she asked him that in the event of any trouble, he could open up and let in the wardens.
When Butler went round the church after the raid, he found part of one of the containers used to carry the incendiary bombs on the South Chapel roof and another on the grass bank outside the choir vestry. He was most grateful for the narrow escape. He went on to recall that the church didn’t suffer any damage from ordinary night raids, but that during the flying bomb attacks several windows were damaged, with the high-level Clerestory windows being blown in twice within a period of 10 days.
Later in the war, when the Germans deployed their deadly V1 and later V2 long-ranger flying bombs, five came down less than a quarter of a mile from the church, with two crashing down only a hundred yards away.
After the Normandy landings in 1944 and the Allies’ advance towards Berlin, by early 1945 the whole country was anxious for news that the war, at least in Europe, was over. The vicar, Bishop Maurice Harland, posted a note on the church door to the effect that a service of thanksgiving would be held as soon as the news came through.
Butler’s memory was that the message on VE Day came through on the radio at nine o’clock on May 8. He immediately went to unlock the church and telephone the vicar. When Butler arrived at the church, there was already dozens of people waiting to get in.
By the time the vicar got there, about 300 inside. A service was held and the church bells were rung for the first time in six years. The next day was a national holiday and there were three more services of thanksgiving, in the morning, in the afternoon and in the early evening.
Another of Butler’s official parish tasks was to arrange marriage ceremonies.
He reckoned that the total of weddings held at the Parish Church in all his years as verger was more than 5,000. Of course, they didn’t all go smoothly.
There was one wedding, during the war, when he was waiting for people to arrive but no one came. Just as he thought there would be no ceremony, a couple came into church, arm in arm. They were the bride and groom but there was no one else to see them get married. Butler ran over to a nearby shop and asked a lady to come over as a witness. He, himself, was the best man, as well as giving the bride away!
There was a problem with another wartime wedding because the groom’s mother couldn’t provide any details about the bride. It was a Saturday evening when the mother came to sort out the wedding banns for her son, who was stationed in Vienna and who was marrying an Austrian over there.
The banns had to be called on the Sunday, but the mother was unable to give any particulars concerning the bride. Butler immediately rang up the War Office and outlined the situation. He gave them full particulars of the man and asked them to contact him so that he could provide the necessary details about his future bride.
The War Office duly got all the required information in Butler’s hand by 9.30 the next morning.
In an addition to his notes, Butler intriguingly wrote, “banns taken in police car”. Did the boys in blue send a car from the War Office to the church with the information?
In all those 5,000 weddings, Butler says there was only one occasion when the best man forgot the ring, though the verger was far too discreet to give away the name of the forgetful wedding guest.
Butler’s reminiscences continued into the immediate post-war years, of rationing and austerity, through into the 1960s and a period of massive change for Croydon, offering a fascinating insight into the social history of the 20th century.
But they will be included in our next article.
Previous articles by David Morgan:
- Banker from Waddon who helped finance independent America
- How Dick Turpin’s life of crime included a hold-up in Shirley
- Pitlake’s poetic priest and his Edwardian Coronation Ode
- When Minster was the venue for an Anglo-Saxon peace treaty
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
To read all his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
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