Editor’s note: Malcolm Lee was brought up in a Bahá’í family with his brothers and sisters. His story tells of his experiences of a Bahá’í childhood.
- My dear parents, Joe and Elsie Lee, were both Bahá’ís when I was born. In fact they were both Bahá’ís when they married. They had been members of the Manchester Bahá’í Youth Group when it formed in 1933. Thus I was born into a Bahá’í family, part of a lively, dedicated and very active community in Manchester.
I have no recollection of my first three years; but know from “oral tradition” that at the age of 10 months I attended the second British Bahá’í Summer School, at Matlock Bath, in August 1937, and I had a Bahá’í naming ceremony when I was five months old, at the Feast of Naw-Rúz, 1937.
According to a report in the Bahá’í Journal (Vol. 17, March 1939), the Lee family, which by now included Joyce, my sister, pioneered to Brighton. This was “the first time in England that believers have moved to other parts with the specific intention of establishing the Faith there”. (BJ Vol.17).
I have no clear memory of the upheaval and disruption such a move must have entailed; but I do recall a long journey by night, sitting on the back seat of a packed car, alongside my mother. She was holding Joyce in her arms, who was still just a baby of a few months. I suppose I must have been too excited or nervous to sleep.
I have clearer memories of our new home, a small flat above a shop in St. James Street, where my father began to establish a wool business. I remember the times I spent gazing out of the front window on to the busy street below, watching the passers-by and the trolley buses which fascinated me, and other times spent sitting on the pebbly beach, my eyes following the boats as they disappeared over the horizon.
This was a time of approaching war and my young mind must have understood something of the prevailing rumours and the mounting fear they engendered. I remember anxiously scanning the horizon for the appearance of dreaded German ships and planes.
Our stay in Brighton was brief. The Second World War broke out in the following Autumn. My father was called up and had to quickly sell his business and the flat and leave his family.
David and Barbara, two additional members of the family, had been born in Brighton during our short stay there (of about 18 months I reckon). It must have been towards the end of 1940 that my mother left Brighton, taking her four children to stay with our paternal grandparents in mid Wales.
At that time our grandparents lived in a small cottage in Brecon, but shortly after, they moved to assume management of a hotel on the high street of Builth Wells.
My mother was able to find employment as a teacher in a primary school in Llandrindod Wells, seven miles away. This involved a daily bus journey along a winding country road. She would take me with her, and I remember the excitement of one journey in heavy snow. This was my first experience of school and I enjoyed the company of other children. My siblings were left in the care of my grandparents. My mother would return home in the evening with marking and preparation to do for the following day, as well as giving attention to her four children. It must have been a particularly tiring and stressful period for her. Eventually, my mother was offered a post as headmistress of a village school at Garth, a few miles away. This meant living away from Builth, and so the family was split. Joyce and I stayed with my grandparents. David and Barbara lived with mum.
We lived in Builth Wells for almost the duration of the war. Of these years I have some vivid and happy memories. We lived amid the beautiful countryside of the Wye valley. We were a world away from the horror and suffering of the war.
During this time the dominant influence in my life was that of my grandmother. Mrs. Lee senior was a cheerful, caring person of Lancastrian working-class stock and firm Christian principles. She instilled into me a clear sense of right and wrong, a love for Christ, and an abiding awareness of Christian values. Above all, honesty, justice, hard work and compassion for the poor and sick were her guiding principles. Joyce and I were regularly taken to church on a Sunday morning. For this we wore our best clothes and upon returning home, we had to sit quietly for the rest of the day, perhaps engaged in drawing or reading, but certainly nothing boisterous. Sunday was the Lord’s Day, a time for rest and peace. But my grandmother, though firm, was never over strict, always kind; and we adored her.
At the age of five, I started to attend the local primary school. Here the ethos was one of harmony and joy. There was great emphasis on music, drama , dance and art; with outdoor events such as nature walks, picnics and the big annual sports day, in which the whole town seemed to be involved. I made many friends, but had one special pal by the name of Maxwell. Together we would roam the wooded hill-sides, go fishing in the river, cross fields to watch the sheepdogs at work, or spend endless hours in the park, particularly at the playground where the children of the town would gather for harmless fun. I cannot recall any unpleasantness, though I am sure there must have been arguments and maybe the occasional scrap, but the overriding mood was one of happy friendship. It seems as if we were given complete freedom to play and explore with minimum restriction.
I have little recollection of my mother during these times. She was away during the week and spent weekends doing schoolwork and looking after my siblings. I saw even less of my father during these years. Only occasionally did he come home on leave. However I do remember the excitement of receiving his letters with funny drawings, and gifts, sometimes wooden toys (presumably which he had made himself) including a splendid galleon.
It was during this time in Wales that both David and myself fell ill with glands infected with TB and had to spend a period away from home in a sanatorium at Craig-y-nos, many miles out in the country. It was difficult for my mother to come and see us, so we were very much away from family and on our own. Initially I felt very homesick and insecure. But gradually I got used to the hospital regime and began to enjoy the various activities arranged for the children, such as sing-songs, games, and making all kinds of things out of paste, paper and bits. I learnt to do crotchet there, using a cotton reel and pins. The nurses made it all seem great fun. I do remember that the treatment we had to undergo involved long periods sitting with other children under strong sun-ray lamps wearing dark goggles.
Contact with the Bahá’í Community seems to have been lost with the move from Brighton. Certainly the Faith had little direct influence on my life during these years in Wales. I was not conscious of being a Bahá’í (I am not sure if the word “Bahá’í” meant anything to me at that time); and I was not aware of any involvement with the Faith my parents might have had. Though they certainly maintained correspondence with Bahá’í friends. I do recall letters and parcels coming from various “aunties” containing little gifts for us children, particularly from “Auntie Evelyn” (Evelyn Baxter) and perhaps also from Mrs. Sugar, Lady Hornell and Claire Gung. A few years later Evelyn Baxter was to become the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh to the Channel Islands.
Towards the end of the war, we moved back to Manchester. These days too, must have been very difficult for my parents. Shortly after our return to the North, I became seriously ill with pneumonia. Bombs were still falling on the city. Air-raid sirens were still sounding from time to time. At school, we had regular visits to the air-raid shelter, and drills for putting on our gas masks. Our home had its own shelter in the garden. So there was still a prevailing sense of dread and uncertainty.
My father had been posted to Manchester, so at least the family was all together. Then my twin brothers, Peter and Ian were born. My parents now had six mouths to feed. Luckily my mother had found another teaching post; but even so, our financial situation must have been very difficult.
I felt very miserable about the move back to Manchester. Somehow my new surroundings did not seem so friendly; nor did my new classmates. The change from the rural peace, beauty and freedom of the Welsh countryside to the dull, grimy monotony of suburban Manchester; and the more aggressive, seemingly hostile behaviour of the pupils at my new school, made me terribly “home-sick”.
However, the war did come to an end and life became more settled and reassuring. I started to make friends and got accustomed to the different accents and ways of my peers.
I gradually began to join in and become part of the street life. The road outside our front gate took the place of the park and woods of Builth. Here we played a repertoire of various games suited to this environment. But the highlight was the weekly football match between Dalton Avenue and any challenging side. Luckily there was little traffic. Few people owned cars.
In fact football was the dominant past-time for the boys of Lostock, the district where we lived; played in the school yard, on any waste ground or in any street; any time of day into the night.
There were children we did not play with; Catholics from another part of the neighbourhood. They went to a different school, and they were to be avoided. If we saw any of them coming, we would cross the road to the other side, then shout insults at them as they passed. Usually such encounters did not involve any direct contact or violence.
I joined the local cub pack and enjoyed the sense of adventure and fellowship it offered. We went regularly to church and often would participate in the parades. Our Akela impressed upon us the high principles laid down by Baden-Powell (the founder of the Scout Movement) especially those of courtesy, respect and goodly deeds.
At school, also, things got better. Especially in Miss Jones’s class. Miss Jones was a young, lively teacher – enthusiastic and dedicated. She took the boys for football and told the most wonderful stories about Jesus. My knowledge of the Bible I owe mainly to her.
By now I was also learning about the Bahá’í Faith. Members of the Manchester Bahá’í community often visited our home, especially Alfred and Lucy Sugar, John Craven and Ada Williams. Occasionally, I accompanied my parents to meetings at the Manchester Bahá’í Centre, where I heard talks that captured my imagination and stirred my soul. In particular I remember talks by Alfred Sugar. I developed a tremendous love and admiration for this “elder-statesman” of the Manchester community. His long grey beard gave him the air of a prophet. But it was his knowledge, eloquence and rock-like faith, expressed in a deep rich voice, which made a lasting impression upon me. I was learning to equate my love for Christ with a growing awareness of the station of Bahá’u’lláh.
I remember walking down Derbyshire Lane (in Stretford, where we now lived), and seeing a large sign outside a church “Christ Will Return” and thinking to myself with overwhelming excitement, “But He has!”.
I was also deeply affected by the spirit of warm love and unity that prevailed among the Manchester believers. I remember the happy picnics and outings we had – to the hills of Derbyshire or the sands of Southport. In particular I recall the times when “Uncle Frank” (Frank Senior) gave me special coaching in cricket, and the hearty community sing-songs on the ride home.
I can clearly recall walking one day along the suburban streets of the neighbourhood, thinking of the future and imagining a time when the whole world would be Bahá’í and all our neighbours would greet each other with “Allah’u’Abha”, and exude the same joy and love as shown by Bahá’ís.
However, my factual knowledge of the Faith was still very limited and vague. I hadn’t read any books. The volumes on my father’s bookshelf seemed rather daunting. There was nothing suitable there for a boy of ten. I much preferred the Just William stories and the wide selection of adventure comics on offer in those days.
As yet, I had not attended any Bahá’í classes. No other Bahá’í children lived in the vicinity. Weekends were often spent in the company of cousins. The Lee and Richbell families (those of my father and mother) were quite closely-knit; and we would often take long journeys by bus or tram to visit them.
One of these visits was to someone who was not a member of the family, but one whom I knew as “Auntie Claire”. This was Claire Gung, the mother of Africa. This must have been on the eve of her departure from Manchester, to pioneer to Northampton; though at the time I was unaware of the significance of the occasion. But I do recall Auntie Claire as a warm friendly lady, and the fact that she took a special interest in me and gave me a gift, a colourfully illustrated book about Robin Hood. This became a treasured possession.
With the approach of adolescence, my interest and involvement in the Faith seems to have receded. Perhaps to some extent this was due to the demands of education. This was a time when the “Eleven Plus” played an important part in a child’s future. Success in the Eleven Plus tests meant a place at a grammar school and the prospect of going to University. Failure would mean attending the local “tech”, and for the majority, leaving school at fourteen for lowly paid work in industry. For my mother and myself, at least, this was a time of great anxiety. It involved many stressful hours of homework and coaching as preparation for the exam. I was successful. And the way ahead was to be one of nurture and instruction in the grammar school tradition.
My first day at Stretford Grammar School was one I cannot forget. My parents were both working so I arrived at the school gates alone, dressed in the unfamiliar school uniform, a bright red and black cap and blazer, white shirt and striped tie, grey trousers and long woollen socks. Though eleven years old, boys still wore short trousers in those days. Mine were several sizes too big, as was my blazer; they had to last! So all together I felt decidedly uncomfortable, as well as being extremely apprehensive about what lay in store, having heard stories at my old school of strict discipline, bullying, and dreaded initiation rites. I had also read Tom Brown’s Schooldays….so I really did not know what to expect.
Most of my fears were groundless and I soon settled down to enjoy life at my new school and the various extra-curricular activities it offered. However, together with long hours of homework, this left little time for outside interests.
Moreover, my peer group began to exert a greater influence. I had made new friends since coming to the grammar school, and it seemed important to be “one of the lads”. I joined in many of their past-times; football, tennis, cycling, hiking, youth-clubs, weekly visits to the cinema etc. There was plenty to do in Manchester.
However, in my early teens I did accompany my parents to Summer Schools; at Bangor, Harlech and Cottingham, as far as I remember. And away from my school-mates, I was able to enjoy Bahá’í community life. Looking back, these Summer Schools were an important element in my spiritual development. I was greatly affected by the overwhelming spirit of joy and unity which they generated. Talks by the like of Marion Hofman, Richard St. Barbe Baker, and Hasan Balyuzi fired my imagination with stories of the dawn-breakers, and early believers, and glimpses of the New World Order. And in the evenings, I enjoyed the music, comedy sketches, games and discussions. Moreover, I enjoyed the company of other Bahá’í children of a similar age – George and Marina Nazar, and Lois Gregory, for example.
As I grew older, I no longer went on holiday with my parents. Perhaps I felt too old and the need for independence. Instead, I went on holidays arranged by the school, to North Wales and France. And then came University, and for the next three years, I became almost completely absorbed in student life away from home, and, for a while at least, away from any direct involvement in a Bahá’í community.
In fact, it wasn’t until after I had graduated and left the university scene, that I began to read and reflect, and felt ready to declare as a Bahá’í.
On looking back over what may seem an unsettled childhood, with several major upheavals and moves involving the separation of my parents and the break-up of the family, during the terrifying years of the war and the difficult times that followed; what gave my early life its happiness and security, and laid the foundation for my spiritual development was the loving environment provided by my grandparents and the values they imparted. My identity as a Bahá’í began to develop upon our return to Manchester, with the re-uniting of the family and with my parents “back in charge”, as it were.
It must have been very difficult for my parents. They had to start from scratch to build a home and to raise and provide for six children. Both had to go out to work. My father having just been demobbed, had to begin from nothing to establish a business, starting with just a market stall. My mother worked as a schoolteacher, spending her evenings marking and preparing lessons. My grandparents, now elderly and frail, came to live with us; adding to the burden on time and resources.
Despite all this my parents still found the time and energy to become actively involved in the Bahá’í community. My father would often be out in the evenings, or away at weekends (serving on the National Assembly or National Teaching Committee). Our home was open to all, and Bahá’í guests were frequent. This hospitality was extended to any visitor, Bahá’í or not, friend or stranger, high or low. Their boundless and joyful love for people, without distinction, seemed to me what the Bahá’í Faith in essence, was all about. Beyond the home, this same love was extended to anyone in need of help, no matter what the cost. So really, it was their lives that taught me the Faith.
In my mid teens, I would often accompany my father, at weekends or during school holidays, to help him on the markets. In this way we became quite close, and he would also talk to me about the Faith, particularly relating it to Christianity and the Bible. I was also witness to his enthusiasm and method of teaching the Faith to all he met, at any opportunity. He would often put business aside in order to engage a customer in conversation about the Faith. He also taught me how to play chess and we would spend long evenings together engrossed in this. These were also priceless opportunities for conversations covering a wide range of topics, including the Faith.
In this way the seeds were sown, and though they lay dormant in a way, during my student days, they eventually began to germinate and grow.
When I returned home after graduating, prior to my departure for France (I had been offered the chance of spending a year as an “assistant anglais” giving English conversation classes in a lycee) my father gave me a copy of David Hofman’s The Renewal of Civilisation to read. This is what confirmed me and led to my “declaration”.