Margaret Watkins

Margaret Watkins

I was born in Fulham, London, on 19th May 1928. My father was in the Navy and away most of the time, so I really didn’t get to know him very well. My mother was on and off work during my childhood. She was a catering manageress and during the war she used to drive an ambulance. I was christened in the Church of England and my parents used to send me to Sunday School but I don’t remember either of them ever going to church.

I was evacuated on 1st September 1939. At the time we were living in Kent and there were thousands of us children with labels tied to us. When we actually got on the train we didn’t know where we were going to. We finished up in Whitstable, Kent, and I found myself in a tiny terraced house with three other girls, the four of us sharing one bedroom. I was lucky as we four girls already knew each other. The house was so small that we were not allowed to stay indoors during the day time and could only come home at meal times. It was a very sad house for the son had been sent off to the war on the day war was declared, and the father in the house had been gassed during the First World War and was in a state of panic all the time. It was a very nervous atmosphere for us four girls to live in.

We used to go to church (C of E) on Sundays and I will always remember being in church on September 3rd when War was declared and the first air raid warning was sounded. We all rushed out of church and back to our digs. Because the father had been gassed in the last war, he was terrified, as he thought gas bombs were going to be dropped. The whole family was crowded into one room and we literally had to paste ourselves into this room. We got strips and strips of wallpaper and lots of glue and we sealed all the cracks round the windows and doors and then we all finished up inside this room together. We could hardly breathe! When the all-clear rang, we then had to scrape all the paste and paper off the doors and windows and the paint came off as well. We stayed in this atmosphere for about nine months but there was a big problem about going to school for there were not enough schools in the area. We would spend half a day in the Scouts hall and half a day on the beaches and maybe another half day at school

Being an only child, I was getting used to living with groups of people. The highlight of my week was going to church every Sunday – listening to beautiful music (and seeing the choir boys!). I remember one night when the air raid warning went, we were all sitting under the table (I had felt inspired to lead the singing in the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee”) and a land mine was washed up on the beach, making a great explosion, which frightened everybody. The next day when we went to school we were told we were all going to be moving to Wales. We were taken on this very long trip with our poor over-worked teachers and we finished up in Gilfach Goch, in the Rhondda Valley. We were ushered into a very big workman’s institute and there was the billeting officer, who was headmaster of the school, with the vicar and a pharmacist, and between the three of them they decided where we should go and live. I finished up with two other girls, living with two maiden ladies for a short period. All the evacuees had to go to church, and once again I was really knocked back when I heard the wonderful singing in the church, along with the choir and the organ.

My next move was to a house with a Welsh witch of a woman who told fortunes to make money (she wasn’t very religious) and who made faggots and peas for a living. Once she asked me to make some faggots for her and as I had been handling oil lamps, all the faggots tasted of oil. So everybody brought the faggots back that week and I was very unpopular! One of the teachers noticed I was looking ill so I was moved to another family. The mother of the lady I was staying with was the church warden and I would go to church four times on Sundays. I finished up being a Sunday school teacher at the age of 14 and once again the music really inspired me. How I ever had the nerve to teach, I don’t know, but I must have got my inspiration from somewhere. I do recall a vicar there, who was a very inspiring speaker, and I remember one day, after listening to one of his sermons, going home and looking at myself in a mirror. Suddenly I could see a body but I could also see a spirit looking out through my body, which I found a very disturbing experience. This made me realise that I wasn’t just my body but that I was something spiritual as well.

I knew at this stage that I definitely believed in God, but I noticed that the people who went to church gossiped about each other and were rather hypocritical and I didn’t think this could be real religion. I left this Welsh Valley and returned to London during the doodle bug time (1943-44) when many people were being killed. I felt there was a God and I wanted to know more about this God because sometimes I had felt very close to death. I felt there was something out there protecting me, and I think this was the beginning of a spiritual awareness.

Then I became career minded. I had finished school and was trying my hand at many jobs. For 14 years I worked in the cosmetic business, starting from the bottom and working my way to the very top selling cosmetics. I spent two and a half years working both in France and Italy and I became more and more aware that the world was one country. I was mixing with many different nationalities and I kept on looking for something that could help bring people together. I didn’t know it was a religion I was looking for but I knew there must be ‘something’. When I returned to England I threw myself back into my career – I was still on the cosmetic ladder – and I began to want to find out more about religion. Somebody had left a book about Buddhism in my flat in London, “Concentration and Meditation” by Christmas Humphreys, and this aroused my curiosity. I started going to the Buddhist Society once or twice a week, but I soon started feeling dissatisfied because there appeared to be an inner group and an outer group and I thought that religion should be for everybody.

In 1960 I joined a Philosophy group in Hampstead (held in a private home). We paid per course and according to our income, and it was individual tuition for the first year. Then in the second year we met the others who had been studying by themselves, and then we started getting together in groups. The course lasted three years, and there I met many stimulating people. The course leader was Ian Avenall. There I met Earl Cameron, the actor from Bermuda, who wasn’t a Bahá’í at that time. We all seemed to be stimulated by the course, all trying to find a spiritual outlet. We operated on many different levels, but the relationship with God was one of the important things of the group. I became very friendly early on with Earl, who was married to Audrey; at the time they had four children. One day Earl took me back to his home to meet Audrey and we all became such good friends that I decided to move into the block of flats where they lived, in Richmond.

It was 1963 and Earl, Audrey and I used to sit every night talking about how to put the world to rights and about world unity but without doing anything about it! Then a friend of Earl’s, Roy Stines, turned up from Bermuda. He had come to London to attend the Bahá’í World Congress and, as he sat listening to the three of us, he said: “The three of you sound like Bahá’ís.” We asked what Bahá’í was, and when he said it was a religion, we just said: “Is it?” Earl was extremely impressed with his friend for apparently his life had changed a lot. He looked so happy and Earl wanted to know why. There was a public meeting being held for non-Bahá’ís on the last day of the World Congress at the Royal Albert Hall and Earl went along. When he came back he couldn’t stop talking about this wonderful Bahá’í event; “It’s the greatest thing – love, unity, all races and religions, this is for me.” Anyway, when Roy went back to Barbados, Earl started going to the Bahá’í Centre at Rutland Gate and he invited Audrey and myself to go along. I wouldn’t go but Audrey started to attend.

Eventually one night I happened to come home from work feeling very tired and fed up with the cosmetic business, and Earl said “Why don’t you come with us?” I just jumped in the car, didn’t even go into my flat first, and off I went with Earl and Audrey to the Bahá’í Centre at 27 Rutland Gate for one of the Thursday night firesides. The first person I saw was Meherangiz Munsiff, wearing a sari and looking very glamorous, and I was bowled over by her. I looked around the room and everybody looked very happy – all different nationalities, all friendly, all nice, and I couldn’t believe this atmosphere. Phillip Hinton was one of the Bahá’ís there that evening. He must have been in his early twenties at the time. He became very friendly with Earl and we realised this was fantastic because he was from South Africa. I started going back to Rutland Gate every Thursday. Phillip began bringing his girl friend Ann (later his wife) and we used to sit and look after each other as we didn’t want the Bahá’ís to get at us! We sat there asking question upon question and everybody was so polite in answering everything that Ann and I couldn’t believe it. We kept trying to trip the speakers up, thinking they wouldn’t have answers to all our questions.

In particular, I remember Hugh McKinley, Dr Mustapha, Betty Reed and a Canadian, Ron Stee. This was 1963. There was always somebody different at Rutland Gate but they all had something that I wanted and I didn’t quite know what. I remember once Phillip Hinton inviting me to his bed-sit in Chelsea during the Fast. He could see I had a lot of problems on my mind and I think he was hoping to make me feel relaxed and that I would unburden my soul. He made coffee, produced cake and biscuits and made a great fuss of me. I was so unhappy I couldn’t stop crying. He was trying to talk to me about the Faith and I kept saying to him “Aren’t you going to eat or drink anything?” and he told me he was fasting. I thought, what a funny young man; he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t eat during the day, but he looks so healthy and happy. Phillip was very patient with me, and with Ann too; we became very good friends during those days.

Around that time (1964) I met and married Bob and drifted away from investigating the Faith. I remember once I took both Bob and Derek Atkinson to a meeting at the Bahá’í Centre. I had known Derek long before I met Bob because he was the boyfriend of a girl who lived next to me in Hampstead, and I encouraged Derek to go along to the Philosophy group. Seven years later Derek became a Bahá’í. Bob wasn’t interested in the Faith. We were married, I became pregnant, and one of the Bahá’ís invited me back to the Bahá’í Centre. I could now see and feel that the Bahá’í Faith was right for me so I went back to Bob and told him I was thinking of becoming a Bahá’í. He said to me: “My dear, you are pregnant, you’re not yourself at the moment. Why don’t you wait?” By this time I had left the competitive world of the cosmetic business.   Earl and Audrey had become Bahá’ís and I began to steer clear of them because I thought they were getting fanatical about the Bahá’í Faith!

Our son Paul was born in 1965 and Meherangiz invited me to her house in Wimbledon. I took Paul along with me and she pushed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament in front of me … I hadn’t a clue what it meant. I didn’t sign the declaration card she put in front of me but took it home to think about. Then I went to a meeting for the celebration of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh and everybody was so nice to Paul and myself that I said: This is it, this is for me, and I went home and told Bob I wanted to become a Bahá’í. I said “I have just been in a roomful of people – all different nationalities, from different racial backgrounds – some Bahá’ís and some not Bahá’ís. The love and the unity in that room was amazing, especially with the children who were of all different nationalities”. I told Bob that was the environment and the group of people I wanted our son to be involved with. He said it was ok by him and I could bring Paul up in the Bahá’í Faith, but he didn’t want to be bothered with it; this was 12th November 1965.

I sent my declaration card to Betty Reed who was NSA Secretary at the time, and I wrote: “Dear Madam, Please find enclosed my completed application form. Please advise me of all future meetings. Yours faithfully,”   I had no idea what I was joining! Then I got this most loving letter back from her – “Welcome to the Bahá’í community. With lots of love and best wishes”, so I said to Bob, “I’m a Bahá’í, I’m a Bahá’í” and he said “Oh, that leaves me with a problem” and I asked him what. “How do I bury you?” he said. He had no idea what I had joined and wondered whether he should float me down the Ganges or have a bonfire in the back garden.

Meherangiz invited me to my first 19 Day Feast at Rutland Gate. She had asked me what Bob had said when I told him I was a Bahá’í. I told her Bob’s comments and Meherangiz shouted out “Chairman (Iraj Munsiff was chairman at the time), Margaret has something to say! I nearly died as I had to stand up in front of all those people at the Feast and tell them what Bob’s remarks were and how he wanted to know how to bury me. They fell about laughing so much, and then I realised how funny it was too, so that was my introduction to a very large group of Bahá’ís at Rutland Gate.

When London divided into different assemblies in 1966 I found myself part of the first Barnet Assembly along with John and Rose Wade, their son-in-law Ranjit Appa, Wendy Ayoub, Marie and Roxy Edwards, Mr Nazar and Mr Dixon. I became Public Relations Officer for the Local Spiritual Assembly and in 1968, UN Human Rights Year, I represented the Barnet Assembly and made many new contacts. I helped to organise a meeting for Lord Soper and Richard St. Barbe Baker. There were eighteen Bahá’ís in Barnet and we were very active.

First Local Spiritual Assembly of Barnet (1966) Standing: Roxie Edwards, John Wade, Ranjit Appa. Seated: Mr Nazar, Wendy Ayoub, Rose Wade, Margaret Watkins.  (Missing members: Marie Edwards, Mr Dixon)

First Local Spiritual Assembly of Barnet (1966)
Standing: Roxie Edwards, John Wade, Ranjit Appa.
Seated: Mr Nazar, Wendy Ayoub, Rose Wade, Margaret Watkins.
(Missing members: Marie Edwards, Mr Dixon)

At Freda Nazar’s wedding in our community 1968, when Bob still was not a Bahá’í, I met Hassan Sabri. He said “Aren’t you going to Haifa for the centenary commemoration of Bahá’u’lláh’s visit there?” I said we were heading to a health farm! Hassan said we should go to Haifa, to which I replied “We can’t go to Haifa because Bob isn’t a Bahá’í”. He said he thought we could go but that I should phone the NSA to make sure. Bob was very keen to go to Haifa, which I couldn’t understand. It so happened that Ray and Mahin Humphrey and their family had cancelled going because one of their sons was sick. Consequently there were four tickets waiting at Rutland Gate for someone to buy so Bob, Paul (who was three years old at the time) and I took three tickets and off we went, travelling as ‘Humphrey’ all the way there and all the way back. Our party numbering 197 left London, just two of them not Baha’is – one, the nursemaid of the O’Brien family in Ireland, the other being Bob. All the friends were praying for the two non Bahá’ís so it was quite likely at least one of them would become a Bahá’í in Haifa, and that one was Bob.

John Wade was working at the Bahá’í World Centre then in Haifa, August 1968. He and Hassan Afnan managed to get permission for Bob to go into the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, and the next day he decided to become a Bahá’í.

Before Bob was a Bahá’í, we used to host feasts in our lounge, which was on the ground floor. We had another room on the first floor where Bob used to stay. At tea and coffee time Bob would descend and happily prepare up to twenty-eight hot drinks and all the cakes. The social side of the Faith was just up my street in those days, being used to group activity in the cosmetic business. I was one of the first ‘Avon’ managers in Britain and was used to going out into the streets, dragging people in and getting them to join ‘Avon’. As for finding people to attend firesides, to me it was just an extension of the ‘Avon job. We used to have very large firesides, sometimes over 20 guests; some Bahá’ís would even complain that our firesides were too big. In Hampstead, and again in Finchley, I used to gather crowds together, but I became so upset about complaints of too many people attending that I went to the other extreme. I stopped having firesides, but later at an Irish Summer School I understood what the Faith was all about. We took in foreign students during those days.   A Finnish girl, Maggy Lindman, became a Bahá’í in about 1970.   After sixteen years of pioneering to Aland, Finland, she moved to China and taught English there.

In 1969 I attended the second Irish Summer School and realised what I had joined, having had no idea before then of the spirit and magnitude of the Faith. Adib Taherzadeh and George Bowers chaired the summer school and I remember George saying, “I’m the practical one and Adib’s the spiritual one.”

I served for a time on the Home Front Pioneer Committee, busily sending Bahá’ís around the country, but I hadn’t thought of sending myself. I was asked if we could go to Reading but didn’t think we could possibly move there. For me to leave London and move forty-five miles away just wasn’t on. Mary Kouchekzadeh had visited the community and had encouraged the Bahá’ís to leave London. I had thought it all right for others to go but not us, then Bob’s company relocated out of London and we just had to move. We looked for a modern house in a country lane and finished up with a 250-year-old house on a main road in Reading, which in the event was excellent for our firesides, as we were next door to Reading University. Lots of students visited us; one student in particular, Falai-Riva Taafaki, brought along many overseas friends. Our house was a marvellous place. It wasn’t too far from the airport and we had hundreds of visitors and lots of firesides during our time there. I became Chairman of the International Women’s Year Committee for the UN, which was a wonderful way to get to know a lot of people. I had given up my cosmetic work and had trained as a reflexologist. We had eleven declarations in our home during the seven years we were there (Brian and Cathy Stone, Mrs Green, David Boubier and Robert McLaren among them). We were very fortunate, being not too far from Henley and able to help the Bahá’ís both there and in Crowthorne. There was a wonderful spirit around in those days.

We had come to know Norman Bailey, the international opera singer, when we were in the London community, and managed to organise an inspiring service in the Unitarian Church at Golders Green in 1970. Eight other religions were invited to join us. The highlight of the service was Norman singing the Lord’s Prayer and “Blessed is the Spot”. During our pioneer move to Reading, the Bahá’ís were able to organise a concert there, to which Norman Bailey came, with Sylvia Schulman as his accompanist. Norman did a lot of singing for the Faith in those days and he supported many communities up and down the country.

I was appointed to the International Goals Committee (originally the Overseas Goals Committee) and served with Joe Jameson, Anne Munro, Ray Humphrey, Hassan Afnan and Roohieh Afnan. Very sadly, Joe Jameson died during that time. Ray and I used to travel together from Reading to London about once a month and we used to talk all the way there and all the way back; we were always toying with the idea of pioneering somewhere. I had planned to go to Ghana, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Africa and Nigeria, so every time I arrived back in the house, Bob didn’t know which national costume to put on because he didn’t know which country he was expected to leave for.

 

South Africa

We decided to move to South Africa, and went there on a travel-teaching trip in 1978, when Pat and Chris Beer were living near Johannesburg. We visited the Coloured townships with Christine Beer; their younger son David was a very small child at the time. I remember on one of these occasions we went out for four or five hours and Chris forgot to pack our sandwiches. The Africans were very poor so we couldn’t expect them to give us any food. Young Simon Beer said to his mother: “`Abdu’l-Bahá said you have to wait till you’re fifteen before you fast, not ten!”.

Back in England Bob was offered a job in Nigeria but the day he was going to sign the contract I was rushed into hospital for a gall bladder removal. The job was kept open for six weeks but I wasn’t fit enough to travel so we lost that opportunity to pioneer but we never gave up. We tried for Guyana and we couldn’t get there and finally we decided to home pioneer in England, so we left Reading and moved to Totnes in Devon where we opened a vegetarian restaurant. The only other Bahá’ís in the area were Pam and Micky Coombe (who soon were to move away to the Isles of Scilly) and Anne McAlpine. Opening the restaurant was a very good experience. We worked very hard for three and a half years and made friends with numerous people from all over the country, and many showed an interest in the Faith. We would talk to lots of people about the Faith, particularly in the winter months when we weren’t so busy. There was one lady of about eighty who wanted to become a Bahá’í but just as she was about to declare she fell in love, married her beau and went off to Blackpool.

We went on our first pilgrimage in 1978, taking Paul with us. We went to many summer schools, to Harlech, to Winnersh, and to the Republic of Ireland twice.

In 1984 I was asked to become Floor Manager of the Teaching Conference in Blackpool where I met the personnel officer from the Bahá’í World Centre, who was looking for staff to work at the Bahá’í World Centre. I had recently taken a management course at Aston University and mentioned that I was used to dealing with people, but that whatever happened I didn’t want a boring office job. We said that Bob, with all his skills, could do many things. Within a month I was asked to be the Manager of the Seat of the Universal House of Justice and Bob was asked if he could be in charge of the Electricians and Plumbers Section. On 1st May 1985 we arrived in Haifa ready to start work.

 

Haifa

I was overwhelmed by the sight of the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, and the thought of the responsibility of looking after it. We almost wanted to turn around and go back home!

During our two and a half years working in Haifa there were some major highlights. One was on 21st March 1987 when the youth at the World Centre put on a two-and-a-half-hour concert in memory of Mr. Charles Walcott. It was also the day on which Peter Khan was elected to the House of Justice. The spirit on that occasion was absolutely incredible. There were twenty-eight acts, representative of so many different backgrounds and different types of music. Conrad Lambert had written a musical; Roger White recited his poetry. The spirit released that day was quite extraordinary.

We left the Bahá’í World Centre in 1988 due to family health problems. On returning home we became involved in lots of Bahá’í activities back in Totnes, Devon. Our itchy feet took us on holiday to Yugoslavia and we ended up pioneering to Belgrade for the following four years.

 

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Margaret Watkins

Totnes, Devon, June 1993

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Editor’s Note:

Margaret suffered a severe stroke in 2008 and was seriously ill from then until she passed away on 25 September 2014. Bob passed away in Devon in January 2007.

For further information about Margaret and Bob’s pioneering years in Belgrade, read their story in Stories from Pioneer Post compiled by Thelma Batchelor, published by George Ronald in 2010.

Jan Mughrabi (L) with Bob and Margaret in 2005

Jan Mughrabi (L) with Bob and Margaret in 2005

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