This is Part 1 of Ron’s story and tells of his early life and how he found the Bahá’í Faith.
I grew up as a small boy in London during the War. I lived with my parents and younger brother in Pimlico, Victoria. Although we were working class and we lived in a block of flats, we were subservient to the system and were morally upright and law-abiding folk. My father was a London bus driver and my mother an office cleaner. My father had given up religion and lost any belief he had in God and the priesthood when he was fighting in the trenches at Ypres in the First World War. My mother was religious in a superstitious way, believing that if you went to church you would go to heaven.
As a child I was sent to Sunday School by my mother. Being brought up in a block of flats, I followed what all other boys did at my age. I joined the Cubs, then the Boy Scouts and the local church choir in succession. Although I sang in the choir and later, when my voice broke, served as an acolyte in the Church of England, and was confirmed, I understood very little about Christianity. The church I attended was High Church of England where we had confession, incense and much of the regalia of the Roman Catholic church. My interests lay in other directions such as playing with my friends – football, skates, cinema – and all the things that young working class boys did at that time.
At the outbreak of War I was evacuated from London to Sussex with all the other children in London. I returned to my home in Pimlico during the blitz and slept in the London Underground at night to escape the bombing. During the latter period of the War when Germany was sending buzz bombs known as V1s, and rockets known as V2s to rain down on London, I was at school and had a part-time job with Moyses Stevens, florists in Victoria Street. Before going to school I had to go to Covent Garden Market at 6 in the morning to help load boxes of flowers into their van. Then once a week, in the morning from 7 am until 8 am, I would clean the windows of the florist’s shop. The windows had to be cleaned on the outside as the inside of the windows were criss-crossed with sticky tape in order to prevent flying glass, as were all windows during war time. On one occasion a policeman standing close by jokingly remarked to me that I should change the water in the bucket as it was quite dirty. As I went inside the shop to change the water, I heard the buzz of an approaching buzz bomb. When the engine stopped there was a short period of silence and then there was an almighty B A N G as the buzz bomb landed in the road behind the shop. The blast from the bomb blew out the whole window which I had been cleaning just a few minutes earlier. I ran outside to see the damage that had been done and shortly afterwards I was told by somebody in the shop to sweep up the shattered glass outside before going home for my breakfast and on to school. During the War, everyone just carried on as usual.
At the age of 17 and after I had completed my schooling, I was apprenticed to a firm of structural engineers in London. It was necessary then for the working classes to go through the trades before embarking on professional training. This gave me a very good grounding to the profession I was going to enter. (These days people generally go to university but in my day there were few universities and a limited number of places. Also, working class parents were unable to afford the fees).
It then happened that before my training to be a structural engineer was finished, I was called up as a National Serviceman and served in the Royal Air Force (Photographic Unit). It was whilst serving in Egypt in the Canal Zone that I became aware of the Moslem religion and was fascinated by the fact that the Egyptians would pray five times a day. Our RAF Camp Padre dismissed all this, saying they were heathens, that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and that Christianity was the only true religion. There was a church parade held once a month when we were marched to a chapel in a nearby army camp. The vicar would say a prayer and apart from singing a few hymns, the only word we uttered was ‘Amen’! Then we were marched back to our base. I always felt hypocritical saying that and believing that because we followed Jesus Christ we would be ‘saved’ and that everyone else who believed in other religions would not be saved!
This bizarre religious episode remained in my mind for many years after I had been demobbed and had returned to England. I often wondered why there were so many religions in the world but because of my inadequate religious upbringing, I had not been encouraged to investigate religion further. I therefore considered myself as a ‘hatch, match and despatch’ Christian, attending religious services such as births, marriages and deaths but would not hesitate to refer to myself as C of E when asked to do so for religious purposes.
After I had finished my National Service, I became a freemason. As a result of being a freemason I was given the opportunity of joining a self-build group with other freemasons for the purpose of building our own houses in Leatherhead, Surrey. In my training to become a structural engineer I had served an apprenticeship as a bricklayer and plasterer before entering a Drawing and Design office, and at the age of 27 I finally became qualified.
My parents were extremely supportive. They had not only sacrificed themselves in order to provide my brother and myself with a better education, but they were now encouraging me to acquire my own property and break out of the working class environment in which I had been brought up.
Because I had been brought up in blocks of flats with hundreds of other children to play with and grow up with, I have always enjoyed the company of a great number of people and am happy and feel at ease in a crowd. I have never been a loner, whether in the flats where I grew up, as a National Serviceman, as a Freemason, and later as a Bahá’í.
It was in 1964, when I had a short week’s stay in Epsom Hospital, that I first heard of the Bahá’í Faith. It happened as follows . . . a patient in the bed opposite me, and about the same age, was suffering from a stomach ulcer. He was required to drink huge quantities of white barium meal prior to being x-rayed. During visiting hours his local vicar would visit him and bring him the ‘Reader’s Digest’, Lucozade and grapes. As none of my friends knew I was in hospital I didn’t have any visitors so, when visiting time ended, I would nip out of my bed, cross over to his bed and help myself (with his permission) to his books and grapes and drink his Lucozade. He was unable to eat or drink because of his ulcer. A student nurse on the ward used to get quite angry with me for getting out of bed, saying that if the matron came round and I was caught out of bed, or my bed was untidy as it usually was, she would get into trouble.
At the time I had never heard of the Bahá’í Faith and was not interested in religion except for having had a slight curiosity as to why so many religions existed. It was also customary then, whilst in hospital, to go to sleep at 9 pm as all the patients were woken up at about 6 am to have their temperatures taken. As I was almost ready to leave hospital I tried to rebel at having to go to sleep so early especially as it was summer and still daylight. I jokingly asked the nurse what her religion was? I said that I would join it so that her vicar could bring me in grapes, Lucozade and books like the patient opposite was receiving. This was supposed to be a joke! However, she quickly told me that in her religion there were no vicars and then said that she would bring me in a book, saying that I could read it at night. She told me she would pull the screens around me while I read it so as not to disturb others who were trying to get to sleep. Out of desperation I agreed to her suggestion! The next day she presented me with the book All Things Made New by John Ferraby. As I had nothing else to read, I was glad to have this book. I read parts of it that evening, not really understanding what I was reading.
A few days later I was discharged from hospital and I asked this student nurse if she would like to come out with me to see a film as I felt some degree of appreciation for the kindness she had shown me whilst in hospital. This student nurse, Bahiyyih Redvani, was a Persian girl. In 1964 this was unusual as there were not many foreign people living in Surrey at the time. She then asked me if I would like to attend a fireside in a friend’s house? Since it was summer I was surprised at the suggestion of a fireside but I assumed, in my ignorance, that it was all part of my recovery and I accepted her offer!
On the appropriate day she took me along to the fireside in Epsom. Upon entering the room I was surprised to see four or five elderly ladies. I can’t recall any man being there other than myself. In those days the National Health Service would send a patient to a Convalescent Home to fully recover one’s health. I therefore assumed that these elderly ladies had been patients at the hospital and were also in a state of recovery! In the ensuing conversation, they informed me that they were all Bahá’ís and that one of the purposes of this Faith was to build a New World Order. Not understanding what they were talking about I asked them when they thought they would finish it?! They told me that it would take many many years to establish. It was the first time I had ever heard this term and I amusingly thought that all these elderly people would be dead long before they were able to complete this task! I had absolutely no idea at the time that this was the first step of something that was going to change my life.
At the end of the meeting we had tea and cakes and the host also gave me some cakes to take home with me as it was obvious I had a sweet tooth. They also lent me a couple of books advising me to read them. About two weeks later Bahiyyih told me that she was going to their house for another meeting and would I like to go again? I was feeling guilty that I still had their books so it gave me an opportunity to return them (having not read them)! Upon arrival I was warmly greeted by these nice friendly people and at the end of the meeting I was given more cakes to take home and some more books to read!
Another time I was taken by Bahiyyih to the Bahá’í Centre in London where I was to meet more of these ‘strange’ but friendly people. Since I had a car I could drive her to wherever she wanted and I felt happy to act as her chauffeur on these occasions. She also took me to the Guardian’s Resting Place at the New Southgate Cemetery. Little did I know then that this sacred spot would, in later years, play a very important part in my Bahá’í life.
In the 1960s there were regular public meetings held on Thursday evenings at the Bahá’í Centre in London and a speaker would give a 45 minute talk, leaving 15 minutes at the end for questions. I found these talks fascinating and illuminating but I could never remember anything about them once I had left the building. As I had given my name and office telephone number to a Bahá’í, Ron Stee, he would phone me up every Tuesday or Wednesday to invite me to a talk at the Bahá’í Centre on the Thursday. To begin with, I didn’t want to be drawn in so wouldn’t go along. However, as I was up in London anyway on a Thursday evening attending life-saving classes at the Civil Service Sailing Association Swimming Club, it was actually quite convenient just to drop in at the Bahá’í Centre afterwards.
When I first started attending meetings there I was a bit surprised and embarrassed when Bahá’ís hugged me, especially in the street outside the front door. In the 1960s it was not the custom to go around hugging people! There was one instance when I was going up the stairs to attend a meeting at 27 Rutland Gate when I saw Charles Macdonald standing on a stair one step higher. He welcomed me with a hug, at which point I began to topple backwards down the stairs. Clinging on to Charles to avoid falling, I began to pull him with me. Fortunately, somebody climbing up the stairs behind me was able to push me upright again, thus avoiding the embarrassment of both me and Charles falling down the stairs together! I quickly learned to avoid hugging anyone else on the stairs after that!
I attended the Thursday evening meetings on and off for about a year before being asked if I would like to join a Bahá’í group going to an international youth summer school in Berlin (July 1965). At first I said I didn’t want to go but throughout the following weeks I was asked several times if I had written off to Derek Cockshut, a Bahá’í in Burnley, asking for my name to be included in the group he was organising to go to Berlin. Betty Reed was the NSA secretary at the time and she would make a point of sitting next to me at the meetings so that she could be close by to answer any questions that I might ask the speaker after the talk was over. When I was asked once again by Valerie and Irene Jones if I would like to go to Berlin, Betty Reed interrupted us by saying, “Mr Batchelor does not want to go”! I took offence at this remark and to demonstrate that I had a mind of my own, I said that I would be delighted to attend this international youth school. I then signed up to go, thus inviting fate to step in!
The arrangement was to meet up with the Bahá’í group by standing under the clock at Liverpool Street Station. I had no idea that Bahá’ís were the world’s worst time-keepers. Nobody was there at the agreed time (I think it was 8 am); no Bahá’ís were to be seen! Since I had already paid for my ticket and sent the money to Derek, I began to feel that I had been duped and it was just a ploy! However, in due course, about 10 minutes before the train was due to leave, the group eventually turned up in ones and twos and we had to rush to catch the train. Knowing that it would take us all day to reach our destination, I had prepared myself well for the journey. I had brought with me a packed lunch and a large flask of coffee for the long train journey. We travelled from Liverpool Street to Harwich by train, then by boat to the Hook of Holland, and from there we took the train to Berlin. When it was lunch time I opened my holdall, and took out the chicken I had cooked and my flask of coffee. I was surprised that most of the Bahá’ís did not appear to have brought any food with them to eat. They just sat and watched me eat my lunch and drink my coffee. Later I drank my tea, thinking they would soon bring out their food but few had brought anything with them! It never occurred to me that the nice thing to do would have been to have offered to share what I had with them!
Arriving at the venue in Berlin it was discovered that there was insufficient accommodation available at the summer school. Some of the English group had to be accommodated in East Berlin and so I was surprised to find that we had to sleep in poor accommodation the other side of the Berlin Wall, in what seemed to be a prison camp! Every day, in order to attend the daily summer school sessions, some of us had to travel from East Berlin into West Berlin. However, when we arrived at the school each morning we were provided with breakfast.
At meal times I was surprised when, having been told that we should sit six to a table in the dining room where the food had all been laid out, the tables were always over-crowded as the English Bahá’ís always wanted to sit together. I and a couple of others would sit on a table for six but then others would crowd around the table and consequently we would have less food to eat! Everyone was always happy just to muddle along!
Most of the talks and lectures at the summer school were over my head but I dutifully attended each session. As is customary at summer schools, in the evenings and after the last talk we would have some prayers followed by a social event. On one particular occasion, after some prayers and chanting, I remember well that one of the German friends brought in a record and played what to me, and to other English Bahá’ís, appeared to be more chanting. We kept our eyes closed and bent forward in a prayerful manner. After some time I became aware of a rustling movement and on opening my eyes I found that a Persian dance was taking place before me on the floor and that Persian Bahá’ís were dancing to it! I tried to attract the attention of some of the Bahá’ís next to me but they refused to open their eyes, preferring to continue in a state of prayer! I have to say that I found the whole event rather amusing, as we all did (the English at least)!
Memories of this particular evening have remained with me ever since and so sometimes now when I listen to a chant my mind goes back to those days some 45 years ago when I couldn’t tell the difference between a chant and a Persian song (I have to admit I’m afraid I still can’t)!
During the week of summer school I got to know some of the Bahá’ís better. One trip I especially remember was on the afternoon when a group of us British Bahá’ís decided to go to the Zoo. Derek Cockshut, who made out he was our leader, collected money from the group in advance to purchase our tickets for the zoo. We walked to the nearby underground station and waited for the appropriate train. As one train pulled into the station, Derek called out “not this one” but unfortunately two Bahá’ís, deep in conversation with each other, boarded the train – disappearing from the group. When the right train came to the station, Derek said that this was the one so we all climbed aboard with the exception of one poor person who was trying to get some chocolate out of a machine on the platform. She was left behind! After going through several stations, Derek told us to be prepared to get off at the next but one station. At the stop before the zoo, two or three people got out by mistake, thus we lost three more! When we finally arrived at the correct station, clearly marked ‘Zoo’, Derek shouted out “This is the station!” Most of us got out but, lo and behold, we lost a few others who were sitting further away from us and who, deep in conversation, remained seated. At the exit, Derek surrendered about 18 tickets, but only about eight or nine of the friends were there with him. He told the ticket collector that the others were following. I have to admit at this point I was surprised how disorganised the Bahá’ís were and, in my ego, I decided that if I ever were to join this Faith I would be able to assume the post of being their leader as they seemed to need one!
As the week drew to a close, there arose the possibility of a visit to the newly constructed Bahá’í House of Worship in Langenhain, near Frankfurt. Separating ourselves from the rest of the group travelling home to England, I and a few others took a coach in the direction of Frankfurt for the purpose of visiting the Temple. I wanted to look at it from a structural engineer’s viewpoint. At the time I didn’t know that there was only one other English Bahá’í from the group going in that direction. After visiting the Temple, my intention was to take the train from Frankfurt back to Ostend and eventually home to Leatherhead.
Upon arrival at the House of Worship (dedicated in 1964) I inspected the outside with the eyes of a structural engineer and then went inside before some of the others. Since I did not think of saying any prayers in the Temple, I walked around outside again and waited for the remainder of the group to exit. They came out one by one. It was at this point that Thelma (Halbert) came out and asked me if I had said any prayers while I was inside the Temple? I said that I hadn’t. She suggested that as I had come all this way, I should perhaps go in again and this time say some prayers and she offered me her prayer book. I took the prayer book and went inside. I flicked through the pages to find what I thought might be an appropriate prayer. There were prayers for Forgiveness but, as I felt that I had done nothing wrong, that wasn’t the one for me! There were prayers for Healing (I wasn’t ill), there were prayers for the departed (I didn’t know anyone in this state) and there were prayers for Teaching, for which I had no inclination at that time! Steadfastness – I didn’t even know what that meant. So I just opened the prayer book and said one or two prayers at random.
Since I had been brought up as a Christian, I only prayed when I really wanted something! So, to fulfil my wish to pray, I prayed for guidance in understanding this new faith which I had encountered and had not really understood. Also I prayed for a nice girlfriend as I was unattached at the time. Upon coming out of the Temple I discovered the others in the group had disappeared with the exception of Thelma who was waiting for me to return her prayer book to her. Before embarking on the trip home, we discussed our travel plans and I discovered that Thelma intended to hitch-hike back across Europe while my intention was to take the train. I felt I couldn’t leave her to hitchhike on her own as for some reason I felt some sense of responsibility for her. In conversation we discovered that we lived only a few miles from each other in Surrey. This was quite a coincidence as almost all the others in the group came from Burnley and Northern Ireland and just one or two from London.
Up until the time Thelma lent me her prayer book I had hardly noticed her at the summer school. She was from an upper middle class family and I was from a working class family in London. She only spoke to me because she realised that as a Bahá’í she needed to be friendly towards everyone, and that included even a London Cockney! Also, at this time she was considering returning to San Francisco, where she had been living and working the previous year (there was a Persian male Bahá’í on the scene).
The hitchhiking home was uneventful. We travelled from Frankfurt to Liege and on to Ostend. This trip brought us quite close together and Thelma began to untangle my confused understanding about the Bahá’í Faith. Upon reaching home we continued to see each other and during the course of the next few months she painstakingly taught me more about the Faith. If I had not gone to Berlin, if I had not gone to Frankfurt, and if I had not said that prayer in the House of Worship, my whole life would have been totally different.
Over the next two to three years we continued to see each other even though Thelma homefront pioneered to Salisbury for six months, and we eventually married in February 1970. During those years she had decided not to return to California but instead moved to Epsom where there was a small community of Bahá’ís and most meetings took place at the home of Ronald and Geertrui Bates in Chantry Hurst, Epsom. My home was in Leatherhead, just a few miles away.
Although still not a declared Bahá’í I very much believed in the Faith but felt somewhat inadequate to meet the challenges in obeying the laws. However, I practised fasting and saying prayers. With Thelma I regularly attended the Harlech Summer Schools in North Wales and numerous other Bahá’í activities. Many of the Bahá’ís at that time considered that I was already a Bahá’í and were surprised that I had not signed my card. Although I knew in my heart that this was the religion I believed in, I realised from the time I first uttered those words to the Persian nurse, “What religion are you?” that this was my spiritual quest in life and that it was the beginning of a life-long search.
Having spent time in Egypt and witnessing at first hand a totally different religion, and in addition recognising the sincerity of the Moslem Faith – it was difficult for me with my upbringing of attending a Church of England school in Pimlico, and believing that Christianity was the only proper religion – to untangle my previous built-in prejudices and ignorance of spiritual matters.
I had severed my ties from Freemasonry and the final straw in my quest towards becoming a Bahá’í was whether I could leave my job in England and pioneer to another country, which was something that Thelma badly wanted to do. This I achieved when I secured a position with the Crown Agents in London to work as a structural engineer for two years in the British Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.
On our way out to the Solomon Islands we were able to visit Haifa for three days. Our very dear friends Ron and Geertrui Bates, whom we had known so well in Epsom, had only recently moved to serve at the Bahá’í World Centre (Ronald worked with John Wade as liaison with the Department of Israeli Affairs). At that time, other than the House of Justice members and their families, there were only 14 members of staff resident in Haifa. It was my first visit to the Bahá’í World Centre and in the Shrine of the Báb I asked Thelma for the declaration card she had so patiently been carrying around in her handbag all the years we had been going out together, and I signed it there!
Some people become Bahá’ís on first hearing about the Faith and some take longer. I was one that took longer. I was questioning and querying everything about the Faith on my spiritual journey. I could not believe that this new found faith was really everything that it professed to be, and more. I was constantly searching for the loopholes and its failings but I couldn’t find them.
At summer schools I had learned about the importance of prayer and fasting and during the 1960s much emphasis was also placed on the importance of pioneering. Until I felt I could pray, fast and pioneer, I didn’t feel I could sign my card and become a Bahá’í. Now, looking back on those six years between first hearing of the Faith and signing my card in the Shrine of the Báb, I realise that during all that time I was slowly and gradually becoming a Bahá’í. It wasn’t something that happened suddenly. I had served my apprenticeship as a ‘Bahá’í in the making’ and my time had come to make my declaration as a Bahá’í (en route to my pioneering post in the Solomon Islands).
At this point I must give a lot of the credit to my becoming a Bahá’í to my two ‘gurus’ Ronald Bates who lived in Epsom at the time and also to Sydney Barrett who lived in Weybridge. They both patiently, and with great love and understanding, slowly taught me the essence of the Faith and how to live the life, through their many firesides and other gatherings. Also to Thelma who patiently and lovingly guided me through the various aspects of understanding the Faith and what it stood for.
Had I not asked the student nurse what religion she was, had I not given my telephone number (reluctantly) to Ron Stee at the Bahá’í Centre, had I not been asked to go to the Summer School in Berlin, had I not gone to the Frankfurt Temple and met Thelma, I think I would have drifted away from the Bahá’í Faith. However, each time I considered giving up the quest to learn more about this unusual religion but a religion that made so much sense, I was given another avenue to travel along. I am now forever grateful that somehow I stuck with it and that I have been given so many opportunities of serving this wonderful faith.
Surrey, May 2012
Part 2 deals with Ron’s life since becoming a Bahá’í and includes the pioneering years in the Solomon Islands (1970-1973) and Nepal (1976-1985).