It was in 1923 that I first heard the word Bahá’í mentioned. My friend Dr Entwaite and myself had returned from South Africa the previous autumn and owing to the great slump and the necessity to find jobs for demobilised soldiers after World War I, we could not get back into office life in London. We decided to take a small drapery business as I had some knowledge of the trade and in the spring of 1923 found what we were looking for in the three small villages of West Moors, East Dorset. Close by was an empty house called Ferndown Lodge, and after we had been a few months at the shop, it was taken as a small private Nursing Home for TB patients. One or two patients who were well enough came in and out of the shop; but no one mentioned the religion of which the owner of the Home, Grace Challis, was a member.
One Saturday evening a man I knew came into the shop and asked me if I knew what a Bahá’í meeting was and went on to say that one of these meetings was to be held at Ferndown Lodge next day and a special train was to bring Bournemouth people to it. When I discredited the idea of the Southern Railway receiving a special train for this meeting my disgruntled friend rushed off to bring me the late edition of the Bournemouth Echo in which there was a small paragraph which ran:
“The usual Sunday meeting of the Bournemouth Bahá’ís will this week take place at Ferndown Lodge W. Moors, and a convenient train leaves Bournemouth West at 4 o’clock. Tea 4.30 Meeting 5 p.m. All Welcome.”
Any passengers coming for the meeting on that train would have to pass our house and we were curious enough to watch – one lady passed and as we strolled up the road we saw Grace Challis welcome the lone lady (Miss Cheesman) with a kiss before they went into the house. I should not have thought any more about it had not Sister Challis come into our shop the next day and I asked her what the name Bahá’í stood for. She was in a hurry so told me very little, but she invited me to come to the next Sunday meeting at her house. I did not go, but in the course of a week or so she sent me a card of invitation to attend a meeting at which Dr Esslemont was to be the speaker. I accepted and went. I found myself one of a company of eight or ten people and the atmosphere was a warm friendly one. Sister Challis served tea, her sweet face and gentle manner made me feel at ease. Dr Esslemont gave me the impression of a man who had found a great spiritual treasure, so radiant and so utterly confident as he was in the truth of the Bahá’í Cause as it was then spoken of.
To go back a little – before I left Cape Town, a friend in London sent me a book by a Belgian writer, Eduard Schem, entitled The Great Initiates. From it I got the idea of progressive revelation and my mind grasped dimly the patterns of the revelation of God’s plan for mankind.
The last chapter of The Great Initiates was headed “Jesus the Last Great Initiate”, and I pondered a great deal as to whether the writer meant the final Initiate or the last to date? The later parables of Jesus which began with the words “Then shall the kingdom of Heaven be likened unto …” came to my mind and I found myself toying with the idea that we might be living in the day of yet another Great Initiate. Such was the trend of my thoughts when, to my utter amazement, Dr Esslemont poured out the story of the coming of Bahá’u’lláh, proceeded by the Báb. I went back to my house in a daze. Dr Esslemont was so completely convinced of the truth of his story that I felt compelled to find out more about it. I could hardly credit that such a wonderful thing had come my way without my lifting a finger to find it. So I became a regular attendant at those simple and yet lovely gatherings on a Sunday afternoon at Ferndown Lodge. Sometimes Dr Esslemont was there and spoke in his gentle but assured manner. At other times Sister Challis gave the talk or read one given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London or Paris, but always I came away feeling more and more convinced that this Bahá’í Cause was the answer to my heart’s response to the words in the prayer of St. Christendom in the Church of England prayer book “… granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting”.
After eighteen months of study and prayer I became a Bahá’í. I saw a great deal of Dr Esslemont during the months preceding his departure to Haifa. He would slip into my shop and talk to me about the Faith; he never talked about anything else. He had advanced TB but, however ill he felt, he was always radiant and always quoting from The Hidden Words “My calamity is my Providence …”, and his joy knew no bounds when the beloved Guardian asked him to go to Haifa to help with translations.
During the early days at West Moors, Sister Challis had many wonderful Bahá’í visitors and as her bedrooms were taken up by patients she often made use of the spare room in our house. Amongst the most beloved of these was dear Martha Root and her secretary Dulcie Turnbull. I shall always feel blessed that dear Martha slept under my roof. Two of Sister Challis’ patients were Bahá’ís, one known to everyone as “Golly” because of her mop of dark curly hair; she was only 24 when she passed away, such a bright, radiant soul, always happy even though she knew her time was short. The other was a Miss Williams always called “Billy” – she also was a lovely soul in spite of all her suffering.
I remember the local clergyman calling on me when Sister Challis first opened her Nursing Home. He was very fussed and annoyed because she had some “queer religion”. I was not a Bahá’í at the time but had seen enough of Grace Challis to know that whatever her religion might be, she lived it every day of her life. Her home was full of joy and happiness in spite of all the suffering being borne by her patients. Years later I met that clergyman again and he said “I don’t care what her religious views are, Sister Challis is one of God’s saints.”
In my early days as a Bahá’í my health began to fail, chiefly through worry over the business, and I was very ill in a Bournemouth nursing home for some time. When at last I came home it was to find the business on its last legs and we had to sell out at a great loss, leaving me very short of money, still very far from well but with a caravan to live in. Sister Challis moved to a larger house at Broadstone and offered me to put my caravan in her extensive grounds. Just as I was about to take a post in Bucks, Sister had a blind and TB gentleman come as a patient and she begged me to take him over and act as his secretary nurse companion. This I did, and in trying to make this poor broken man happy I regained my own health thanks to the loving care of Sister Challis. It was my great privilege to remain at “Rizwan” for five years looking after this blind patient until his death in 1932.
During those years many distinguished Bahá’í visitors stayed at “Rizwan” the name given to her Home at Broadstone by Shoghi Effendi. As Sister was always very busy with her patients it fell to me to entertain her visitors to a great extent and I learned a great deal about the wider aspects of the Faith from such wonderful teachers and lecturers as Mrs Mary Hanford Ford of New York, Miss Louise Drake Wright of Bastore, USA, Mrs Elizabeth Cowles of Montreal, Miss Effie Baker of Haifa who kept the European Pilgrim House on Mount Carmel until the Guardian’s marriage, and many others. The Bournemouth group at that time consisted of Sister Challis – Secretary; Mr King – Treasurer; Mr Lane, Mr and Mrs Forrest, Mrs King, Miss Pinchon, Miss Cheesman, and myself. Sunday meetings were held at “Rizwan” Broadstone and Local Spiritual Assembly meetings at Mr King’s house in Bournemouth. Public Meetings were held at the Town Hall, Bournemouth when such speakers as Mrs Mary Hanford Ford drew large audiences. Of this Bournemouth Assembly, the only members still living at the time of writing (January 1963) are the last three mentioned above. Miss Pinchon still in Bournemouth, Miss Cheesman in London, and myself in Winchester. Mrs St John George of London was often at “Rizwan” and was much loved and liked as a speaker at Sunday meetings held in summer on Sister’s large lawn. Mr Charles Stewart Cole of London was also a frequent Bahá’í visitor. At that time he was the engineer in charge of the building of the Great West Road out of London and was presented to King George V at the opening ceremony. He used to come down to Broadstone at weekends and gave much pleasure to patients and visitors by taking them for drives round the beauty spots of Dorset and parts of Hampshire.
On the death of my blind patient I had to find another post, and after two months went to London to Mechlenberg Square to a Danish family as house-keeper. I stayed five months and then had to give it up for health reasons. I went back to my caravan at “Rizwan” and was recalled to London to nurse a dear lady, Miss Alice Maude, who was dying of cancer. I stayed a year with her till she died. Then came a series of quite impossible posts which discouraged me very much, the last of which I gave up in order to voluntarily nurse dear Mrs Romer and subsequently take her back to her house in America after her dear husband Harry Romer died rather suddenly in London.
Here I should like to say something about Mr and Mrs Romer and their great contribution to the Bahá’í work in this country. Mr Romer was for 26 years a foreign news editor with the Associated American Press; the last nine years he was in an office with their London Branch. He was on duty in New York when the news of the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá came through. Although not then a Bahá’í himself, he set to work to contact as many Bahá’ís as possible to save them the shock of seeing it in print next day. Amongst those he alerted were dear Horace Holley, Mountford Mills, Roy Wilhelm and Hooper Harris, all of whom (except Hooper Harris) I met when in New York myself. Annie and Harry Romer devoted themselves wholly to the Bahá’í Faith and when Harry was taken from her, Annie carried on alone doing wonderful work in different parts of America for twenty years until she died in 1955. As a fellow Bahá’í from the USA said of her to me not long ago “There was only one Annie Romer.” Dear Harry Romer often used to say to me “You will have to come out to the States to stay with us little Killie when we go back”. We little thought that I should go to take his broken-hearted widow back to her own family. I was five months in America and Canada, a wonderful five months during which I received the warmest welcome wherever I went. After leaving Mrs Romer with her friends, I made the journey by coach to Montreal where I was frequently in the house of Mr and Mrs Maxwell on Pine Avenue, where all Bahá’í meetings were held at that time, and which is now known as the Bahá’í Shrine. There I renewed my friendship with Elizabeth Cowles, and made friends with dear Ann Savage, Emeric and Rosemary Sala, and dear Eddy Elliott. Such a warm and loving group in Montreal where I stayed two nights at Buffalo, where I met Frances Esty and where the Bahá’ís gave a dinner party and reception in my honour – a very happy time.
Later I started on the 1,000 mile journey from New York to Chicago and Wilmette in her car – a lot nicer than going on alone by coach. My cousins were deeply impressed by the joyous meeting between Mrs Dale Cole and myself, and could hardly believe we had never met before. I stayed with Ruth Moffatt in Chicago and went out to Wilmette by electric railway. I shall never forget my first glimpse of the Temple. As the train rounded a curve, we saw the Temple through the trees with the sun shining on the overlay of quartz on the delicate tracing making it look like beautiful old ivory. We attended the two day Congress in the Foundation Hall of the Temple, which began with a Thanksgiving Service on the completion of the clerestory and ended with a public meeting on the Sunday afternoon, the speaker being Ruhi Effendi on the Bahá’í Conception of God. The Foundation Hall was packed and over 150 people could not get in at all. During our session of the Congress on Saturday a reference was made to the subject of meditation and Mrs Nellie French of Pasadena said that in all her travels as a Bahá’í she had only found one Centre where prayer and meditation was a real thing – and that was at the London Centre in Grosvenor Place. I was thrilled to hear her say so because at that time we did not think we amounted to much in London. Her remark made the Chairman (Horace Holley) remember that I was somewhere in that vast audience and to my horror he announced that Miss Kilford of London would now speak about progress in England. I was quite unprepared and very tired from such a long journey (1,000 miles by road) and all the excitement of meeting such a lot of people, that I took as long as possible to get out of my row of seats and up to the front, saying the Greatest Name over and over to give me the power to speak and say the right thing. I think I was the first British Bahá’í to speak in that lovely Temple.
Wherever I went in America I was invited to the homes of Bahá’ís and invariably the invitation was to lunch and prayer or to tea and prayer, even to breakfast and prayer. We always took a Prayer Book with us as a matter of course. One such was to the home of a coloured judge in Harlem, NY. The quiet dignity of his beautiful wife, the lovely old house and our host and hostesses’ warm hospitality I would not have missed for worlds. Annie Romer and I spent Thanksgiving in New England at Hartford, Connecticut, with Annie’s sister and family, with whom I still have loving correspondence. Here was a placid backwater after the rush of the big cities. The New England people keep up the manners and traditions of the Pilgrim Fathers, and I felt as if I was living in one of George Eliot’s books. That delightful visit to Annie Romer’s family for Thanksgiving brought to an end my most enjoyable and interesting five months in the United States and Canada.
Before leaving England for the USA, I met Mrs Peter Hammond MBE. She had lost her husband a few years before and was living in rooms pending the finding of someone to live with her on more or less equal terms. We were drawn to each other right away and Mrs Hammond arranged to find a flat and take her furniture out of store by the time I returned from America. This plan was carried out and we lived happily in St. Mary’s Mansions, London W2 from 6 January 1936 till 6 February 1949 except for a period of eighteen months when Mrs Hammond and I went down to Lyndhurst to be out of the London air raids for a time. During the 13 years at St Mary’s Mansions I was able to serve on the London Spiritual Assembly and on various committees, and also to take my turn to look after the Centre which was open to enquiries of visiting Bahá’ís, every day from 3 to 6 p.m. Mrs Hammond was not at first interested in the Bahá’í Faith but always anxious for me to be free to serve in any way and to attend meetings. Before she died she had pasted a photograph of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on the front leaf of her Bible and always had the book Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era by her bedside.
During the summer of 1948 dear Grace Challis was brought to BromptonHospital in a very advanced state of TB. When war broke out in 1939 her staff had been absorbed in war duties, so with a house and huts full of patients Grace was left to carry on more or less alone. The strain of that awful five years undermined her health and her last hope was that at Brompton she might see something of her family and old friends, but she was far too ill for anything to be done and she died in October 1948 and the Bahá’í funeral took place in the cemetery at Bromley-By Bow, conducted by Mrs Slade and Dr Lotfullah Hakim, the latter having just arrived by air from Persia. As before stated, I had lived five years in the Nursing Home of Grace Challis and in all that time I knew her for the saintly woman she was. She lived her life day and night for her patients and drew her strength day by day from God to enable her to carry on. She was the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly for some years, and the NSA of that time used to meet roughly once a month. All the week before all NSA meetings Grace would be arranging the work of the Home so as to give the nurses the least trouble during her day in London. If everything was in order by the time the taxi came to take her to Poole Railway Station she would go off quite happy in the faith that as she was going on the business of Bahá’u’lláh, He would take care of her patients daring her absence. Nothing ever went awry while she was gone, but once she was prevented from going by an upset of hysteria of a patient and the taxi was sent away. Grace was quite calm and said that for some reason Bahá’u’lláh did not wish her to go. She was right – later in the day another patient had a fatal haemorrhage and died in ten minutes. The example of the selfless life of Grace Challis is ever before me. She lived her life in the service of God, in her devotion to those suffering patients and when anyone died (as so many did) she took them to the very gate of the Other Side. (“Blessed are they who are kind and serve with love.” Bahá’u’lláh. )
Mrs Hammond died four months after Grace Challis – her flat was given up in June, 1949. It was a great sorrow to lose her. She had always treated me as a daughter and there was a deep affection and mutual understanding between us. She kindly left me enough furniture for a little flat, also a legacy of £300. The housing situation was very bad in 1949 but just as we were giving up the flat in St Mary’s Mansions I got a small flat in a nice house in Southfields, London SW18. The house was owned and lived in by a dear lady, Mrs Isabel Cronk, and her kindness to me during the six years I lived there was never ending and when I left to come to Winchester, she told me always to look on her house as my home and to come back at any time and I would always be welcome. This, over the eight years of living in Winchester has been put to the test any number of times and always there has been the warm welcome and the feeling of coming home.
I did some ‘after care’ work for Moorfield Hospital while at Southfields and the Almoner there wrote a paragraph in The Almoner about my work, with the result that I was soon ‘on call’ for six London Hospitals, all of whom were short of beds and staff. I would take a patient home from hospital and look after them until they were well enough to be left alone. This work lasted several years, and then the beloved Guardian in 1954 stressed, in a series of letters, the importance of having believers go to settle in cathedral cities. Each time his letters were read at Feasts I felt a prod to my conscience because, although I was over seventy, this was something I could do to obey the Guardian – but I did not want to leave London where I had a very comfortable little flat at a reasonable rent in the house of very nice people. I wriggled for some time, but I knew that I would have to go and I kept asking myself which cathedral city should I choose. No one else made a move, and each time I thought about it something seemed to say “Winchester”. So my furniture was packed and on a pouring wet day, 29 November 1954, I moved to Winchester (40 Tower Street) feeling very forlorn and lonely. Here I worked alone for some two or three years, cheered and helped by visits from Bahá’ís from Reading and Portsmouth. We held Public Meetings, put a number of books in the Library, entertained enquirers at my flat and I made friends wherever possible. Then I was joined by Philippe Victorien from Mauritius for whom I was able to secure a post with a first class firm of stone masons. A few weeks after the arrival of Philippe, Mrs Momen from Persia joined us. Soon after, Linda Petty of Winchester became a youth member and married Philippe Victorien.
The early spring of 1960 saw me very ill with phlebitis and complications. Weeks of illness at home ended in a long tedious time in hospital and many months of indifferent health and lameness. However, Bahá’u’lláh took care of the needs of the Winchester Bahá’ís by sending Captain Dermod Knox to us and we became a Local Spiritual Assembly at Ridván 1962.
SUSAN GOLDEN KILFORD