Chrissie was born at 57, Ber Street in Norwich, Norfolk, on 25thAugust 1908. Her parents were William and Mary Anne Manser (née Gunn). William was a watch-maker and he had his own shop on Ber Street, Norwich. His father was a shoemaker, but William did not want to follow his father and taught himself all about clocks. Chrissie remembers him sitting up all night taking clocks apart. William’s father had been married three times as he was widowed twice. William was the son from his father’s second marriage, and his mother had died in childbirth when he was born. Only he and one sister survived.
Chrissie remembers that her father was a free thinker, always interested in religion (though not organised religion) and politics. He was a Socialist. She described him as “always searching for something; a seeker”. He belonged to the Theosophical Society and also the Independent Labour Party. She remembered the shop always being full of people discussing religious and social issues, whatever the time of day. She also remembered how he would repair clocks for people who couldn’t afford to pay and surmised that was why the family was always hard up.
William and Mary Anne had nine children; only five survived. Chrissie was the youngest. When she was born she had one brother who was five years older, Allander, a sister, Enid, who was eight years older, and two older sisters, Chela and Ella Lydia, who were thirteen and twenty years of age.
Chrissie’s mother, Mary Anne, was a suffragette and as a child and young woman she attended the Salvation Army citadel in Norwich. Chrissie was named after Christabel Pankhurst, the famous British suffragette. She remembered how her mother would go away to London to demonstrate, and was one of only a few active suffragettes in Norwich. Chrissie remembered how as a child she went with her mother to “a big posh house” in Bracondale, Norwich. She may have been three years old and could only just see over the top of the table. She remembered being offered a second sweet by a lady, who insisted that she had another one, despite Chrissie protesting that she had already had one!
She described how, later on, she sometimes liked to read the account of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the book written by H.M. Balyuzi, and his meeting the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in London. Emmeline was Christabel Pankhurst’s mother. Chrissie recounted how ‘Abdu’l-Baha thought it was fine for women to want the vote, but that he wanted them to give up violence. She said that the Pankhursts did give up violence, which many other suffragettes saw as a betrayal.
Chrissie’s grandfather had been a policeman and Chrissie’s mother, Mary Anne, was one of a family of five. Her mother also died in childbirth and while very young she acquired a stepmother. Her father felt that he had to marry as he needed someone to look after his children. Mary Ann was treated badly by her stepmother.
Another early influence in Chrissie’s life was her Aunt Nellie who was a very committed Protestant. Nellie’s first marriage only lasted six weeks and she then became a lady’s maid. She later met and married a detective from Scotland Yard who visited the house where she worked. She was not a suffragette.
Chrissie briefly remembered her maternal grandfather, Horace Gunn. She remembered that he owned his own house in Reedham, as well as several others, and that he had lovely gardens and hothouses. He grew a lot of produce which he would regularly bring up to Norwich to the family. Chrissie remembered how she would wait for him to arrive at the top of Thorne Lane with his two or three bags of fruit and vegetables. He died in 1918 at the age of eighty-six. Chrissie only slightly remembered the step-grandmother.
Although very young when her mother was a suffragette, Chrissie remembered the story of how a group of women, including her mother, went to Norwich Cathedral on one occasion, and when the Bishop rose to speak, they jumped up and started shouting, “Votes for Women”, and were subsequently escorted out of the building. Chrissie had originally had a photo of the event with all the women standing in the photo, but she lent it to a City Councillor for an exhibition called “Norwich 800” that was held in The Castle Mall in 1994. Sadly, it was never returned to her. She recalled how Ann McCarthy, one of the local Bahá’ís, took her to the exhibition.
Chrissie went to the Surrey Street School in Norwich until she was fourteen years old. Her first job was in Caley’s Cracker factory for a year. She then went into the boot and shoe trade at Sexton & Everards until she was seventeen years old.
Chrissie’s older sister had gone to be the cook/housekeeper for an Admiral Fountain, who lived in Narford Hall, near Kings Lynn, and this opened up an opportunity for Chrissie. There was a job available in the kitchen and she went to stay one weekend to see if it would suit her. It did and she stayed. There she met her husband, George Robert Welham (born in June 1904), whom she married at nineteen. Robert worked on the watercress beds, and the couple lived at the hall. However, when Chrissie’s mother fell down the stairs and injured her back, Chrissie had to return to Norwich to look after her father and the house.
Every weekend she would cycle from Norwich to Narford to visit George. Following his own mother’s death at the age of 51, George moved to Norwich to live with Chrissie in her parents’ house. They began to have their own family. Patrick George was born in 1928. Alan (Tommy) was born in 1932 but following a hernia operation at nine months old, he died. This was a very painful experience for Chrissie and following the advice of their local GP they decided to have another baby. William (Billy) was born on the 25thSeptember 1933. They went on to have a fourth child, Peter John in 1935.
During the Depression George struggled to stay in work, despite which, along with a shortage of food, Chrissie recalled that ”I was quite happy anyway”. She described how nothing was wasted and she re-worked her sister’s old clothes into things for herself. Life started to look up for the family when they were allocated a council flat with a garden in 1934, and were able to keep chickens and grow vegetables.
Chrissie returned to working in a shoe factory once her youngest child Peter John was fifteen years old. During the war George went into the army and afterwards he worked for the Highways Department fixing roads. Following that he worked at Sprowston Church looking after the grounds and burials.
Chrissie described herself as “very nervous” and said that she let people dominate her. She said that she would “do anything for her children”. Her quiet personality meant that she never dominated others or forced her opinion on others. She loved to home-make and enjoyed being a mother. As a young woman, she loved dancing and music. She also enjoyed the countryside and nature. Before working at Narford Hall, she would sometimes go to help out in the kitchens, and would attend the local dances. She described how George loved to dance and described him as “a bit of a lad”, with a quiet humour. They had a “happy and contented married life”.
Chrissie described how at eighteen years old she had a “special experience”. She was waiting for George at the time and recalled it as “a gladness experience”. It was night time and “pitch black” but everything was illumined, just as George arrived on his bicycle.
She remembered having lots of dreams, and at the time said that she did not understand what they were about. Looking back later she realised that they were about the Bahá’í Faith. She remembered at three years old having a dream about a gold and red banner and later realized that this was the suffragettes’ banner. She also had a premonition of her mother-in-law’s death.
Patrick, Chrissie’s eldest son, and Evelyn Bowman (his cousin) started to attend Bahá’í meetings in Norwich in Exchange Street. Patrick used to take his younger brother Billy with him when he was home on leave from the Merchant Navy during the 1950s. Aged seventeen in 1950, Billy went to Sea Training School. Chrissie described how she thought that Patrick “read too many books, which could be a hindrance”.
Evelyn Bowman became a Bahá’í in the late 1940s. During the 1950s the Bahá’ís would rent a room over the offices of estate agents Ebbage & Sons for meetings.
George died suddenly in 1963 at the age of 59, and Chrissie described how she “was in a terrible state”, remembering feeling that she could have died too. Policemen came to tell her and she said that she was sure in her head that he had not died. She supposed she was in an extreme state of shock and any visitors she had at that time “made her feel like screaming”.
A few weeks after George’s death she went with Billy to her first Bahá’í meeting. At this time Billy had been working with his dad at Sprowston Church. Chrissie said that after attending a couple of meetings and reading a few of the Bahá’í Writings, she felt that it was true. She felt that she did not have a deep understanding of it but it had touched her heart. She said that it took her about a year, and that she “was in misery and yet something good came of it”.
“I had a dream. I dreamed about these lovely marble steps going up. I went up some of these steps. It looked like a lovely clear blue river at the bottom. There was a very clear bright light, no sunshine. Everything was so clear and in brilliant bright colours. Every little way there was a half-circular area with marble edging and seats where you could rest. I went up to the first terrace. A girl came down the steps to meet me. She was beautiful; really lovely with lovely, long dark hair. I said, ‘I think I’ll stay here’, and she said, ‘You can’t. You must go back.’ Then I woke up. But I’ve never forgotten it. I can only liken it to the building of the Arc and Terraces on Mount Carmel now. So the Arc Fund has always been very important to me.”
Chrissie became a Bahá’í in 1965 and had the dream in the 1970s. She remembers being given the book Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh by the local Bahá’ís as a welcoming gift. She said “I think the girl in the dream told me to go back because I had a lot more to learn; I still have a lot to learn”. Chrissie and Billy became Bahá’ís at the same time.
Chrissie remembered Ethel Bird telling her how she became a Bahá’í. Ethel was taught the Faith by Philip Hainsworth. She had been a spiritualist, and said that after her father died, he came to her in a dream and told her “to follow this road”. He then re-appeared in a later dream and said that he would not come again because “the cost was so high”, but that she must follow this road, so she became a Bahá’í.
Chrissie described how she and Billy used to help at the Bahá’í meetings. She said they could not give talks but they made tea and cakes, and she would always give “her very best”. Billy had a car so they would also go to meetings in Ipswich, Cambridge and Lowestoft. “Anywhere where anything was happening.” In a matter of months they were both serving on the Spiritual Assembly of Norwich, which comprised Bob Cheek, Ethel Bird, Evelyn Hardy, Evelyn Bowman, Margaret Attfield (now Appleton), Derek Holmes (who later withdrew as his wife was not supportive), Billy, Chrissie and Margaret’s husband, Jack Attfield (also known as Henry).
Chrissie was attracted to the Bahá’í Faith because of the emphasis on justice. She said, “It helped me understand what justice was. Everything seemed to be unjust.” She remembered reading John Ferraby’s book All Things Made New and David Hofman’s book Renewal of Civilisation.
She recalled how she was quite a fragile child as she suffered with bronchitis and this meant that she missed a lot of school and fell behind. Other children humiliated her, but she loved reading and books. She said, “The Bahá’í Faith just felt right for me. It seemed to make a lot of sense.” She described how one of her friends thought that the Bahá’í Faith was like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and another expressed surprise at her becoming a Bahá’í, but this did not affect the friendships.
After working in a factory for fourteen or fifteen years Chrissie then was a cleaner at a school and taught the Faith to some of the teachers there in 1963. She even sold some books to them. She remembered a teacher called Mrs Pottinger who bought a book and would talk to her about subjects like the environment. She said that some of the other cleaners were “a bit strange” about it. “I made no headway with them. They could not understand it.” She even spoke to the Headmistress about it, who could not grasp the idea of different Messengers of God, and wanted to know where Jesus fitted in.
Chrissie felt that some of the books about the early believers were very helpful “to people like me who are not well educated”. She named Juliet Thompson, and the book, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ by Hasan Balyuzi, and was lent books on the early believers by Ann McCarthy.
During the early years of being a Bahá’i, after finishing work Chrissie would go into the city and hand out leaflets. She said that she felt “ever so brave” and did not care what people thought. Another place that she would go was St. Peter Mancroft Church, a beautiful, imposing building in the centre of Norwich. She described how shoppers would go to pray at the back of the church. On one occasion she met stage stars of the day Jack Hulbert and his wife Cicely Courtneidge in the church. They were appearing at the Theatre Royal at the time (1965-6). Jack told her that “his prophet “was Billy Graham. Chrissie spoke to them about the Faith and gave them a leaflet. Chrissie also sometimes went to the Castle Museum to offer leaflets to tourists and visitors.
On another occasion Chrissie found herself giving leaflets to radio and TV personalities Barbara Kelly, Bernard Braden and Esther Rantzen. She described how she did not recognise them at first but saw them later on a programme on Anglia TV! She said Bernard was quite angry about being offered a leaflet, but Barbara was laughing and took one. They said that they thought she wanted their autographs!
Another of Chrissie’s outreach venues was Norwich Assembly House. She would go there for tea and a cake and get talking to people. She was once asked to leave for staying there too long! At one stage the Local Spiritual Assembly suggested that two of the youth, June Frere-Smith and Elaine Townson, go with Chrissie on her outreach (known then as ‘Street Teaching’) projects but that was not a success; she felt that three of them together were seen as rather threatening.
Another anecdote Chrissie shared was about Olive Stockley, a disabled Bahá’í who had originally lived in the Thetford area, but was moved to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital at one stage in her life. Chrissie visited her most evenings for nearly fourteen years until she died in Whitlingham Hospital. Billy would also visit her. Olive was a friend of Hassan Balyuzi and his wife, and Chrissie described how they would also visit Olive regularly. Olive was famous for the beautiful pillow lace that she made. When she died she bequeathed £250 to Chrissie and a smaller amount to Billy.
Chrissie lived with her son Billy until she was ninety-seven years old. She developed dementia and became difficult to manage at home. Billy recounts how she remained “quite bright” most of the time. However, during her latter years she struggled with her health and experienced several falls. Following a couple of hospital admissions she was admitted to Dussindale Park Care Home and died aged 102 on 30 December, 2010.
Recorded by Bridget Macdonald
Chrissie in later life