‘Let him have it!’: the abdication, New Year revels and murder

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: When he retired as parish clerk and verger in 1969, Frank Butler left his notes of a turbulent period of the 20th Century, from world war, through to the rapid social changes of the Sixties. The verger’s memoirs also touch on one of the most controversial murder cases in British criminal history, as DAVID MORGAN explains

Century warden: Frank Butler, with his wand, verger at Croydon Parish Church from 1935 to 1969

Frank Butler, the son of a verger, was himself verger at what was then known as Croydon Parish Church for 34 years, from the death of his father in 1935 until his own retirement in 1969.

As the verger, Butler was responsible for ensuring that the services in the church were properly organised. Butler will have overseen thousands of services over his long career, and during the years when his father held the post. Among the most memorable, Butler wrote, were the church parades.

He recalled the Friendly Society and the trades unions parading through the streets of Croydon, collecting money on the way to church. During the service, the banners covered the church walls making a “splendid spectacle”.

Hospital Sunday was held in February each year and in 1931, the first Hospital Luke-Tide service took place for doctors and nurses from all over the borough. St Luke is the patron saint of physicians and surgeons.

The Boy Scouts held their first parade in 1920 and the Girl Guides followed in 1921. Butler recorded that freemasons, druids, licensed victuallers and postmen all had their special services. The Ancient Order of Druids had a Croydon Lodge, Number 458. In 1922, Mr Grainger was the chairman and was also the landlord of the Oddfellows Arms at 30, Waddon New Road.

In the 1930s, midsummer services were held in the open air. The choir and the congregation, led by the Salvation Army brass band, would process from the church to Duppas Hill. Butler used to stay behind in the church to look after everyone’s belongings.

One special service which did not fare so well was the Watch Night Service on New Year’s Eve. These began in 1910 but stopped in 1926 because the wardens and sidesmen found it increasingly difficult to deal with the New Year’s Eve revellers, who moved into the church after the pubs shut at 11 o’clock to continue their celebrations.

“Their fish and chips, their talking and smoking – and worse – destroyed the atmosphere of the service,” Butler wrote.

Front page news: the funeral of PC Sidney Miles and the trial of Derek Bentley was nationally significant

The midnight communion service for Christmas Eve began in 1948 and “had a much greater success”.

One notable service stuck in Butler’s mind.

It was in 1952: “the funeral service of the policeman shot in Tamworth Road”. This was a funeral of national significance. It was for PC Sidney Miles.

Butler remembered that the church was full of police from all over the country. The funeral took place on Thursday November 6, just five days after Miles was fatally shot when attempting to apprehend two burglars at the warehouse of Barlow and Parker.

The guard of honour was made up of a hundred Croydon police officers and they kept the vast and silent crowd back from the area around the front of the church. On PC Miles’ coffin was placed his helmet, his ceremonial belt and a wreath from his wife. The coffin was carried into the church by six colleagues in the Croydon Transport Section.

Following behind the coffin were members of his family and other colleagues from the force including Detective Constable Fairfax, who was wounded in the shooting and whose arm was still in a sling on the day of the funeral.

PC Miles’s funeral service was taken by the Archdeacon and Vicar of Croydon, the Venerable Charles Tonks.

In his address, Tonks spoke about the shock that had been felt, not only in Croydon but throughout the land about such a tragedy. He outlined PC Miles’s loyal service. “He was typical of what we and the world have come to expect and find in the unrivalled Police Force of this land.”

As to the heinous crime, which was still so raw in people’s minds, Tonks said, “This is not England, the England for which men and women have laid down their lives.” He went on to question whether everything was being done to protect its citizens.

Among the members of the congregation at the funeral were the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Harold Scott, the Mayor of Croydon, Alderman Edmund Arkell, and the town clerk, Ernest Taberner (after whom the council’s old office block was named).

Two people had been arrested at the scene of the shooting: Derek Bentley, who was 19, and the 16-year-old Christopher Craig. They were accused of the murder of PC Miles. Their trial at the Old Bailey took place in early December 1952. During the trial, much was made of the words shouted by Bentley to Craig: “Let him have it!”

Grave injustice: Derek Bentley’s last resting place in Croydon Cemetary

PC Miles had climbed up a drainpipe to the roof of the warehouse and was in the process of arresting Bentley when he was shot.

Did Bentley’s words mean that Craig should have given the policeman his weapon? Or did he, as the prosecution said, mean that Craig should shoot him?

At the trial it was disclosed that Bentley had a very low IQ and he did not give a good account of himself in the witness box. But he was adamant that Craig had fired the gun.

Despite the prosecution case containing several flaws and inconsistencies, the jury found the pair guilty. Craig was too young to be given a death sentence. He was released after 10 years in prison. But Bentley was sentenced to be hanged. The execution was carried out in Wandsworth Prison on January 28 1953. Pleas for clemency to Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary, were ignored.

Iris Bentley, Derek’s sister, always believed in his innocence, and she fought a lifetime campaign to get his conviction overturned. Derek Bentley’s body was removed from his prison grave in 1966 and moved to Croydon Cemetary.

In July 1993, Bentley was granted a royal pardon in respect of the sentence of death passed upon him and carried out. However, in English Law, this did not quash his conviction.

Eventually, in July 1998, the Court of Appeal quashed Bentley’s conviction for murder. But Iris Bentley had died of cancer in 1997, and so never got to hear the news that her brother’s name had been cleared, after a case noted as one of greatest miscarriages of justice of the 20th Century.

Well noted: Frank Butler’s records of the services and events at the church are an invaluable record

As the verger or assistant verger at Croydon Parish Church for so many years, Frank Butler attended many memorable services, including several that were broadcast by the BBC.

The first was in 1928, at 8pm on April 29, with a second in 1931.

In 1935 Bishop Woods began a regular series of broadcast services on the first Sunday of every month which continued until the war made it too dangerous to carry on.

From time to time technical issues caused some angst amongst both the BBC staff and the church’s volunteers.

On one occasion the BBC brought new equipment which would run off batteries or AC (Alternating Current) mains. When the BBC did not bring a battery, they needed to call on the church’s mains electric. The church’s electricity supply, though, was Direct Current, or DC. Verger Butler’s suggested running a long cable from the Parish Church School across the churchyard and to plug it into one of the electric light pendants. It saved the day.

Butler was again involved in a tricky situation when, shortly after the broadcast began, the main fuse in the church started overheating. There was a strong possibility that the fuse would blow and stop the broadcast. Butler’s solution was to reduce the load on the fuse as much as possible by turning off everything that was not essential. Despite ending the service in near darkness, the fuse survived and the broadcast went out as planned.

On the first Sunday of 1936, the broadcast service was transmitted “primarily for Empire listeners” via the short wave service but was also available for people in this country.

Bishop Woods, whose voice was described as “eminently suitable for broadcasting”, led the service. It was noted that it was a great honour for Croydon to be chosen as the venue for the delivery of the New Year message around the world. Parishioners “could play their part by attending the service and sending their voices swelling over the ether in the familiar hymns which will doubtless strike a chord of memory in the hearts of lonely listeners.”

Radio times: Croydon church services were broadcast throughout the Empire

The service was timed to start at 9.30 in the morning, earlier than usual, primarily to accommodate the needs of the broadcasting companies in Australia and New Zealand and go out live on Sunday evening.

Bell-ringing has held a special place in Croydon for many years. Butler appreciated everything the bell ringing team contributed to the life of the church. He made one short reference to a special service on December 12 1936, when the new bells were dedicated.

The Archbishop of Canterbury couldn’t attend, Butler noted, “Owing to the Abdication”.

Butler’s notes open a window into the life of Croydon and its Parish Church, now Croydon Minster.

As someone who lived through two world wars, he noted how much they affected everything.

One small but permanent change was caused by the blackout restrictions in World War I that changed the time of the Sunday evening service from 7pm to 6.30pm. This change remained until this year, when after more than 100 years the time was brought forward to 5.30pm.

The verger’s wand

Frank Butler and his father before him were vergers of Croydon Parish Church for more than 40 years. As our photographs show, in their ceremonial role at church services they would carry a wand. Vergers even today are equipped with such regalia of office. The wand is how vergers get their name.

Wand master: Frank Butler Snr, with his ceremonial stick

The wand is a wooden stick with a Christian symbol on the top – the symbol will vary from church to church, sometimes from verger to verger (from the pictures, it seems that Frank Butler Snr may have passed the wand on to his son).

The word “wand” derives from the Old French word verge, meaning a twig, branch or “wand of office”, and from the Latin virga, meaning a shoot, rod or slender stick.

These wands are similar to the Victorian period beadle’s pole, though smaller. The beadle’s pole could have been used for moving people and even animals out of the way of a church procession or event.

The verger’s ceremonial wand is carried today as they lead or guide clergy and others around the building during a service.

After World War I, Butler commented, “The Parish Church was never really the same again.” Many of the congregation and staff joined the forces, never to return.

Butler also remembered the Millenary celebrations of the church in 1960, based on the information of Efsie being the first name priest in AD 960. In 1960, Butler was introduced to the Queen and Prince Philip, who attended a thanksgiving service in the church.

In the afternoons during that year, at 3.30pm, there were performances of a Son et Lumière celebration; in all, 22,000 children attended these performances, listening to a story of the history of Croydon, entitled Here a Church.

Butler was a loyal and hardworking man and some 50 years or so after his death, it is invaluable to have an opportunity to read his notes and reminiscences.

Previous articles by David Morgan:

  • 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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  • ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: Croydon was named among the country’s rottenest boroughs for a SIXTH successive year in 2022 in the annual round-up of civic cock-ups in Private Eye magazine

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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1 Response to ‘Let him have it!’: the abdication, New Year revels and murder

  1. yusufaosman says:

    Thank you David for another fascinating article.

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