Early Bahá’í Years
I first heard of the Faith in 1933, very vaguely, through a friend who was a relative of Kathleen Hornell (Kathleen Brown at that time). All I was told was that the Faith was something like the Theosophists, but instead of coming from India it came from Persia. I didn’t take any notice then. But in the Spring of 1934, the same friend asked me if I would like to go to a dance. This rather surprised me because she wasn’t the dancing type – she was more interested in religion and mysticism and much more likely to go to a lecture. Anyway, I said I would go and two or three days before the dance was to take place, I asked more about it and was told that it was being run by the London Bahá’í Youth Group to celebrate their big Festival of Ridván.
Next I asked what the Bahai Faith was about and she told me very briefly the whole principle of Progressive Revelation. This fitted in almost exactly with what I had been coming to in my own thinking and I just felt it was for me. Anyway I went to the dance but I didn’t dance one single dance – I sat and talked to people the whole time! There were a lot of people there – they weren’t all youth – the youth group was there and it consisted mainly of a number of Persian students and other young Persians who were living in London and who were all Bahá’ís. There were some English girls and one or two other people and I talked mainly to Kathleen Brown the whole evening about the Faith. I had no doubts about it and accepted the Faith there and then (it was April 1934).
After that I went to all the youth group meetings and eventually I became Secretary of the London Youth Group. In either 1936 or 1937 I was elected to the London Assembly and became joint secretary with Hasan Balyuzi, who had also been in the youth group. We worked together as joint secretaries until after the War began. He gave up being a student and went to work for the BBC and was evacuated out of London to the country.
From the beginning I had accepted the Faith almost instinctively and afterwards I read as many books as I could find. Somehow I felt that I had to justify my instinctive belief so I gradually acquired more knowledge and information. My family didn’t like it and they thought I was crazy. My sister said it was blasphemous. None of them approved of it but they didn’t interfere and they didn’t try to stop me. None of them ever showed the slightest interest in the Faith.
My family was Church of England and I was christened into it but I refused to be confirmed. I more or less sorted things out for myself, trying to get to know about other religions such as Judaism and Islam, and sometimes having terrific arguments with people who said these were all heathen when I said they weren’t. So I suppose I was prepared for the Faith before I even met it.
During the War a few of us were still in London. Some were evacuated – with their jobs or their families – but quite a few of us stayed put. And we kept things going all through the war. There is one point I want to make: In the big collection of letters of Shoghi Effendi to the British Community Unfolding Destiny – there are at the back a lot of potted biographies of people who were mentioned in the letters. In mine it says that I held the Faith together through the war – this is quite wrong and absolute nonsense. This is the way history gets distorted. The most significant thing about the Faith during the war was that the administration held; the administrative bodies functioned, in spite of all the difficulties.
During the Blitz the National Assembly went on meeting quite regularly outside London. Once it was clear that the Blitz was continuing (after the first shock or two and one night when we didn’t go home at all and we had to stay together all night in London) we organised ourselves. We had assembly meetings on Sunday mornings. We held Nineteen Days Feasts quite regularly on the nearest Saturday afternoon as these were quiet times. And we kept going perfectly well – we even had a public meeting now and again on a Saturday afternoon. Nobody was hurt in London until right at the end of the war. I used to go through a bit of shrapnel now and again. I went to the Bahá’í Centre (46 Bloomsbury Street) on the way home from work every day – to make sure it was still there -and to pick up mail etc. – but I couldn’t stay as I had to rush home while there was still some transport to get home with. But after things calmed down in 1941, things became a lot easier – the Blitz didn’t go on all through the war. The only Bahá’í who was killed was a student who had stayed on in London and he was a cousin of Shoghi Effendi – a bomb hit the house in which he was living. A few of the men were called up for military service but none of them was put into a fighting unit -they were all given something else to do. You could appeal, and they did, and they were allowed to do ambulance service or some sort of office work.
We even got a few ‘declarations’ during the war – including my husband, John. He came to one of our public meetings during the Blitz and he responded immediately. In fact he `declared’ in a fortnight and the Local Assembly made him wait a month in case he changed his mind – but he didn’t! He became one of the most active Bahá’ís in the community.
In 1954 when the Guardian announced the Institution of the Auxiliary Board members, I was one of the first Board members for Europe
The first Bahá’í summer school was held in Matlock, Derbyshire in 1937. It was for just one week, and there were about 25 people present. It was all done rather on the spur of the moment, and at the last minute, but it was very nice and we all enjoyed it. The following year we went to the same place again and booked the school for a fortnight and that also went very well. The year after that we went down to a place in Kent (somewhere near Downe), and that’s when I got involved, as I was made secretary of the Summer Schools Committee – and from then onwards I was secretary of the Summer Schools Committee until I went to live in Haifa for three years (1960-63). I think these schools played a big part in welding the community together. When the first summer school took place in 1937, there were just two local Spiritual Assemblies in the whole country – London and Manchester, with a few other believers scattered around. There were less than 200 Bahá’ís in the whole country, including Ireland.
At Ridván 1940 two more local Spiritual Assemblies were formed – Torquay and Bradford, and then we were four. There had been three in the early days when the National Spiritual Assembly was formed – London, Manchester and Bournemouth – but Bournemouth had lost its assembly status as people had moved away. When we got the Six Year Plan (the first of a series of plans) we began to really build. And of course the summer schools reflected it – they got bigger and more varied and many different types of people attended.
John and I were married in August 1943. We worked together all our Bahá’í lives. I became secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly in 1941. John was also a member of the Assembly and I remained secretary until 1946 and gave it up because by then my daughter Brigitte was born and I couldn’t cope with the secretarial work as well as looking after a baby. John was then elected in my place. He remained secretary until the end of 1959. First of all he was secretary in his spare time and later on he was secretary full time – we always worked together. I remained a member of the National Assembly and during most of that time I took the minutes. I would do a draft very quickly and this helped give John the material required to take the action needed. If John had to go away I would stand in and take his place. As a Bahá’í marriage it was good. It was a marriage based not only on the personal element but on constant joint service to the Faith all the way through.
In 1957 John was appointed a Hand of the Cause and in 1959 we moved to Haifa. The decision of the Hands when they took over as Chief Stewards was that nine of them should always be in residence in Haifa. When someone dropped out for some reason (I’ve forgotten what it was) John was chosen to go and take his place. John arrived in Haifa at the end of 1959 and I arrived there in February 1960; we stayed until 1963 when the Universal House of Justice was elected. After we came back to England, he ran the secretariat for the Hands in Europe, advising the Board members and communicating with National Assemblies and I helped him with a lot of the correspondence.
I went on Pilgrimage in February 1955 when the Guardian was still living, so of course I met the Guardian and had dinner with him like western pilgrims always did. In fact I had two evenings when I was the only pilgrim there and had the Guardian more or less to myself. The only other people present were some of the people who were working in Haifa with him and of course Ruhíyyih Khánum. I could ask him questions, though I didn’t want to ask much. I liked to listen to him talking for he would talk about all sorts of things.
It is awfully hard to give memories of Shoghi Effendi. You were sort of overwhelmed. I remember my first evening on pilgrimage. There were little customs attached to meeting Shoghi Effendi. Every evening he would come over for dinner to the Western Pilgrim House with Ruhíyyih Khánum. We would wait until one of the maids came to tell us that the Guardian had arrived. Then we would go downstairs to the dining room to meet him and always the last-to-arrive pilgrim had to go in first. I was very scared as I didn’t know what I was going to say to him. But he just shook hands and said: “You are welcome, very welcome. I am very glad you have come.” Another thing I noticed was that he never greeted people with Allah’u’Abha, like the Bahá’ís do to each other. He never used it. It was always: “I am pleased to see you – How do you do?” – just general politeness. I wasn’t very conscious of what he looked like. I know that he wasn’t very tall. He had very impressive eyes and he spoke extremely good English and – well, you just listened and he talked. Sometimes you asked a question and sometimes he addressed you specifically and said: “What do you think?” or “What are you doing in your country?” or something like that, and you would answer him. Every evening after he had gone I used to hurriedly write down what he had been saying before I forgot it. I was in a sort of general daze of being tremendously impressed without registering details. It was interesting because if you wanted to ask him something, you could tell it to Ruhíyyih Khánum in advance and she would slip it in somewhere during the conversation … Mrs so and so wanted to know about this … but in general he chose his own subjects and they were very varied.
One evening, when the beginning of the digging of the foundations of the Archives Building had just begun, the Guardian showed us a drawing of how it was going to be and he discussed the possibility of the different kinds of Grecian pillars that might be used – the Corinthian, the Ionic or the Doric. Then another night he had an architect’s drawing on the wall and it was for something that hadn’t yet been built. It was the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár for Tehran in Persia, and it had been designed by one of the Bahá’í architects according to five or six ideas. He talked about architecture and said you could mix the different periods if you did it carefully – a bit of Gothic and a bit of Renaissance and a bit of so on – it could look very good. It was better than using the modern architecture because that is the product of a decadent period and it wouldn’t turn out to be very good and wouldn’t last, whereas the others had already lasted for hundreds of years and would continue to do so. He looked at me and said: “Do you recognise those pinnacles on there?” I looked at them and they looked Gothic and he said: “I have had those copied from the Palace of Westminster. They are from your Houses of Parliament and I have put them on the Persian Mashriqu’l-Adhkár.” And there they still are, and one of these days it will be built. I was secretary of the Africa Committee at the time and he talked to me about Africa quite a lot.
Passing of Shoghi Effendi
In November 1957 I was very much involved in the funeral of the Guardian because that was about a couple of months after John and Hasan Balyuzi had been appointed Hands of the Cause in England.
It was Monday, 4th November, and at about 10 o’clock in the morning John rushed up from the office to our flat and said that he was going out and didn’t know when he would be back. And I wondered what was the matter with him? He came back late in the afternoon and said that he had been with Ruhíyyih Khánum. We didn’t know she was in London but we did know that the Guardian and Ruhíyyih Khánum came there sometimes, although they never contacted us. Anyway, he said that she was in a hotel in London and that the Guardian was dead. It was a terrific shock.
The whole of that week was hectic – people arriving, people telephoning, people asking when the funeral was going to be. The Hands were gradually arriving and having to make decisions. A fleet of cars was arranged for the Saturday and everybody going to the funeral gathered at 27 Rutland Gate to ride in them to the New Southgate Cemetery.
There were crowds waiting outside the chapel and Ruhíyyih Khánum said: “Let them come down the aisle.” Even then there was an enormous number of people outside too. After the service everyone walked behind the coffin to the grave where the Guardian was to be laid. Some more chants and prayers were said and everybody crowded around. Towards the end it rained and finally everybody left.
Africa Conference – 1958
The first African Conference was unique. It was held in a tent! The Guardian said it had to be held in Kampala, Uganda, which he said was the spiritual heart of Africa. A year before the Conference there were a lot of `declarations’ quite suddenly – a little bit of mass declaration out in the villages – and there were no suitable buildings in which to hold a conference. Someone in America found us an enormous tent, which we put up in the garden of the Haziratu’l-Quds and it was very good because it was cool and had a roof and it had walls with flaps of material so there were openings in it. It was especially very nice for the Africans. It suited that particular conference perfectly. That was the first Inter-Continental Conference and we and our pioneers out there organised it and it was very exciting.
Hands of the Cause
I have many memories of Hands of the Cause because my husband, John, was appointed a Hand in 1957. At one time or another I met every Hand of the Cause who was living at the time of the Guardian’s passing (except for two old ladies – Clara Dunn and Corinne True, who died soon afterwards). When the Guardian passed away, there were 27 whom He had recently named as the Chief Stewards of the Faith and it was they who took charge of the situation after the Guardian’s passing, and who arranged to hold on to the final few years of the Ten Year Crusade and complete the Guardian’s Plan. I also knew a few earlier Hands like Dorothy Baker and Freddie Schopflocher and I also knew George Townshend very well.
I was living in Haifa when preparations were going on for the World Congress. The British National Spiritual Assembly did some of the preliminary enquiries and booked the Royal Albert Hall. There was an international committee to make all the preparations and I was appointed secretary of it. John Wade was assistant secretary. I don’t know how I could have done it without John’s help. He was a real pillar of strength and help – the other members were Mildred Mottehedeh (from New York) who came to one or two meetings, Edna True who came over for the first meeting, and David Hofman and John Long. Three months before the Congress started I came home from Haifa and lived in London. An office was set up for the Congress and I had a lot of correspondence and other things to do in connection with the running of the Congress. The Royal Albert Hall was absolutely fantastic. I had never seen anything like it before. It is circular and the corridors inside are circular, and they go round and round each floor.
The Albert Hall was full for the Congress – 6,230 people came, and we provided instantaneous translation into Persian, French, German and Spanish. There was an awful to-do on the first day because instant translation was fairly new then. We knew exactly how many headphones we had got and therefore how many we could book because we were charging for them. But when we came to handing them out, the man who had been entrusted to do it in Persia had not stopped when he got to his number and had just gone on selling them. So there were Persians turning up with tickets and Spanish people and Spanish-speaking people from Latin America competing with each other for these headphones. Poor John Wade was plunged into the middle of it and had to sort them out. In the end we had a lot of the Bahá’ís sitting in pairs, each with one ear phone on, sitting there with their heads close together – at least they did hear! All the translators were up in the top gallery. It went fairly well. They didn’t get a full translation – they got a summary, and that was about as much as could be hoped for. They were not professional translators. We just had a one day training for Bahá’ís, and they did it and everybody was quite happy. It is wonderful what Bahá’ís can do! I never actually attended anything at the World Congress – I was too busy with the organisation side – but I did manage to attend the last session. On the whole, everything went very nicely, despite hiccups along the way! Everybody was happy.
Nottingham, October 1991