All through my life I have been interested in religion. As a boy, I used to go to Sunday school and I used to like going into the church. When I was too young to go there by myself I used to sneak in with my two elder sisters and in this way I got a very early education about what happened in church. I used to love to sing in church and I would sing “Georgie Porgie”! I was about 4 or 5 years old at this time. I gradually came to really love this old country church at Southend, which included a modern section, but I loved to be in the old part. It was supposed to go back to at least the medieval period; it marked my introduction to religion.
Of course in my youth there was scripture every day at school. We used to have Assembly and 10 minutes reading every morning but I can’t say I was particularly interested in that because we were all shuffling around and nobody was really paying much attention. When I was 8 or 9 years old I suddenly became fascinated by religion. I was then at an ordinary council school. It was at this time that the choir master where I used to sing at church suggested to my parents that I try for Westminster Abbey School. About 72 boys tried for the two vacancies – and I was awarded one of them so I was very very lucky. You had to be able to sing and to play a musical instrument (I played the violin), and you were given a music test.
So that was my introduction to both church and music at a very early age. I was a boarder at the Abbey where there were approximately 50 boys at that time – 30 boarders and 20 day boys ranging in age from 9 to about 14. You would be very lucky if your voice lasted longer than about 14½ years of age. We were given a pretty good education and we would attend functions in Westminster Abbey where we would experience a lot of the ritual of the Church of England. There were all the wonderful services to which sometimes judges or peers of the realm would come – and occasions when the Sovereign (King George V) or the Prince of Wales would attend some big function or other; being choir boys we used to have front seats and were in privileged positions as we could see everything that was going on. We weren’t allowed to step out of line because, if we did, we would forfeit our time off on Saturday afternoon. It was quite a hard life for young boys but very enjoyable.
At the Abbey there was much talk about religion. I became interested in some sort of religion but the ritual side held no attraction. I couldn’t relate to the performances of the canons or whatever they were performing on the high altar or going up three steps and coming down three steps but I was drawn by the prayers and that side of religion, and then in Christianity because as far as we were concerned then there was only the Christian Faith. We were brought up with the idea that anyone believing anything else was a heathen!
Unlike some of the boys who went on to theological college, I didn’t think I was good enough, although my mother would have loved me to have done so; I didn’t feel I had a calling for it.
After I left school I obtained an engineering education and then started factory work in the motor industry. It was hard work, but work which I enjoyed.
I first heard about the Bahá’í Faith when I was about 8 or 9 years old because I remember one day I and my two sisters were in the kitchen and my father, who was an inveterate newspaper reader, started to `tut tut’ profusely (which was his habit when he used to disagree with something he was reading) and we said anxiously “What’s the matter Dad?” “Silly young fool” said my father, “He has left Oxford to take up a place in the Holy Land with a few believers.” The year was 1921.
So initially I heard about the Bahá’í Faith through my father, and it was many years afterwards, after I had become a Bahá’í, that I heard about the episode of the Guardian’s leaving Oxford to take up his position in Palestine as the Head of the Bahá’í Faith. It appears to me that in some way you are drawn towards these things and gradually elbowed into position, so to speak.
I actually heard about the Bahá’í Faith later, in 1945, in Northampton, through David Hofman. His fiancée, Marion Holley, whom we got to know well, had come over from America and they were about to be married. We were all together in Northampton for about six months and David talked about the Faith at that time to Gladys and myself but it really didn’t mean an awful lot because the Bahá’ís would speak about Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and then of the Guardian and I didn’t really know what they were talking about! I couldn’t connect the two or three people together.
The Hofmans pioneered to Birmingham in October 1946 and we were left in Northampton. Then Alma Gregory arrived as a pioneer, and I became a Bahá’í soon after meeting her in 1946. I hadn’t been able to piece the Faith together up until then but gradually Alma sorted me out and I began to understand what it was all about. I would ask all sorts of awkward questions and she would be very patient with me! Alma stayed in Northampton for several years. We would go to Alma’s house where we would discuss the Faith and gradually she was able to answer my questions concerning the central figures of the faith and the future Universal House of Justice, and gradually I was able to put it all together and make sense of it.
The first Spiritual Assembly of Northampton was formed in 1947. It was the time of the first Six Year Plan of the British Bahá’í Community and Alma worked very hard to pull us all together and she really taught us the Faith. I was actually registered as a Bahá’í in 1948 (registration no. 371). Some of the Bahá’ís I remember from my time in Northampton were Una Coward, John Shortland and his mother Mrs Shortland, Angela Stevens, Betty Reed, Ethelreda Nutt, Eric Manton and Claire Gung.
Before I was a Bahá’í, I had been a Freemason and had enjoyed its rituals. For a long time I couldn’t understand why you had to give up Freemasonry in order to become a Bahá’í. In the end it happened that I left the town where I was in a Freemasons ‘lodge’ and I never took up another one, so it was a natural break. Freemasonry is a secret society and thus is not acceptable to the Bahá’í Faith
When I was in Northampton we British Bahá’ís would receive letters from the Guardian urging us to get up and do things. Sometimes I used to feel a little irritated, wondering what all the hurry was about but we didn’t know what was going to happen and the Guardian did. He would warn us for example, about future catastrophes, things going wrong, riots, insurrection, and we would think, “not in this country”.
We were taught that this Faith was to last for thousands of years and the Bahá’ís would say: “Well hurry up and do this and hurry up and do that – the Guardian wants this, the Guardian wants us to do that” and I used to think that if this Faith were going to last that long, what would another day or two matter?! We didn’t realise what was going to happen to the world. Looking back upon it all now, I realise we should have hurried and taken more notice of what the Guardian said, but then a lot of us just didn’t understand what he was saying.
I met my wife Gladys at a youth club in North London. We were married in 1936 and initially lived in Harringey, moving the following year to Northampton where we remained throughout the war. There had been some bombing but mostly planes passing overhead dropped their bombs on Coventry and Rugby. Life was quite difficult during the blackout and if you didn’t know the way generally there was nobody to ask.
About three years after the end of the war and everything still higgledy piggledy everywhere, two Persian girls arrived from Iran wearing their pretty filigree jewellery, lambswool coats and lovely clothes, while we had virtually no clothes at all! These girls were like a breath of fresh air – Shomais Ala’i (later Afnan) was one of them, and the other was Nura Faridian, who later pioneered to Africa. Both girls were pioneers to Northampton and nurses in the local hospital.
We met George Townshend (later appointed Hand of the Cause) when he came to talk to us in Northampton. He was a lovely man, just like the man next door; no airs and graces, yet a remarkable author. His books are wonderful. He was a real master and a most unassuming man.
Around 1947-48, National Convention was held in Birmingham and about 150 believers attended. The great majority of the Bahá’ís in England at that time attended. I used to go to National Convention every year and saw them gradually increase in size. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t recognise the truth of the Bahá’í Faith – I still don’t.
In 1952 we made both a business and a pioneer move from Northampton to Pontefract, near Leeds where we understood there were two Bahá’ís, only to find both had withdrawn. Gladys was not to declare for another fifteen years, so I was the only Bahá’í in Pontefract. Dick Backwell used to come over from Birmingham and teach and we five or six Bahá’ís would meet in a church hall in Leeds. Occasionally a member of the public would come along. No one became a Bahá’í whilst we were there, although shortly after I left there were one or two declarations in Leeds. There were very few believers in the whole of England in those days. If you believed in a “non Christian” religion, you were considered an oddity.
The passing of Shoghi Effendi
It was an unfortunate time for me because I had just changed my job and was living in Devonshire. Gladys telephoned me from Pontefract where she was still living to say there was an important letter for me about the Guardian and that she would send it on to me; that was the first intimation I had that the Guardian was seriously ill. About a week later there was another letter saying that the Guardian had passed away and that the funeral was being arranged in London. My request to have time off work was refused. I had only been in the job a week and if I took time off I would be dismissed, so unfortunately I couldn’t go to the funeral.
Next we went to live in Brechin, Scotland, where there were no Bahá’ís. Once again we were isolated, and nobody declared during our four years there. In 1956 we left Scotland for Exeter where the Lee family were living. I teamed up with them and we used to have Feasts together.
World Congress – Royal Albert Hall – 1963
I was `postman’ there and placed hundreds of letters into a letter rack for other believers to come and collect. Someone came along and asked if I had put all these letters there and I replied that I had. I was then told that the letters, all written in Persian, had been placed upside down! It was great fun seeing so many people from all around the world. After we helpers had discharged our duties, we would creep into the Hall where there was a little pew from where we could hear and view the proceedings. I remember listening to Rúhíyyih Khánum and William Sears and other Hands of the Cause. Non-Bahá’ís came to the Public Meeting and I was thus joined there by my wife Gladys.
Many overseas visitors attended at the Royal Albert Hall, wearing their national dress. They came from all over the world. It was a colourful sight but the event didn’t attract much attention from the general public apart perhaps from passengers in the double-decker buses. Sometimes the Congress was referred to as a hugging and kissing religion – but it was only natural to greet people with hugs if you hadn’t seen them for a long time or if someone had come from the other side of the world. Having come up from Devon we stayed in my sister’s house in Surrey, travelling every day to the Congress.
Gladys became a Bahá’í in 1967 after our Bahá’í friend Thelma Batchelor (née Halbert) showed slides of her Pilgrimage (February 1967) at the home of Ronald and Geertrui Bates in Epsom. Gladys had always been too busy with the family, bringing up our two daughters Anne and Jean, to investigate the Faith in much depth. However she always supported me as a Bahá’í and the moment she signed her card, we applied for pilgrimage and a year later we went to Haifa together.
In 1967 we travelled to Persia to visit some of the Holy places. We went to Bahá’u’lláh’s house in Tehran and the House of The Báb in Shiraz. I remember the staircase going up, crossing the landing and coming down the other side. In those days they made the stairs uneven so that a burglar wouldn’t be able to run up and down them quickly; we had to tread carefully! The House of The Báb had a beautiful atmosphere – unfortunately it has since been razed to the ground.
Pilgrimage – January 1968
I had looked forward a long time to going on pilgrimage. I didn’t know what to expect and I found it was really the fulfilment of a lifetime’s desire because it seemed to answer every question. The atmosphere there was like heaven for the 9 days we were in Haifa.
Bahá’í World Centre – Haifa – 1978
When I retired I wrote offering our services at the Bahá’í World Centre, and worked there as Purchasing Agent for two years before our return to England.
I have been a Bahá’í for forty-six years. In retrospect there has been tremendous growth though it has appeared to be very slow. I always thought that if you told people the truth they were bound to believe you and do something about it, but this does not seem to be the case. You have to learn to be patient and things do happen, but slowly. Building The New World Order will not happen overnight, and I feel we Bahá’ís tend to get a bit fanatical and want things done immediately. When looked at logically, we cannot build a world order on flimsy foundations, but they will be solid when we thoroughly follow the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.
Becoming a Bahá’í can be a big wrench for anybody from a Christian background. Sometimes people think they have got to give up their Christian Faith but this is not exactly the situation; it is really a matter of adding on rather than taking away, and when you get used to this concept you realise that what you have in fact done is to widen your spiritual knowledge rather than detract from it. Rather than turning one’s back on Jesus, the promises which He made to us have been fulfilled.
When I became a Bahá’í in 1946, there were approximately 125 Bahá’ís in the UK. That number has now risen to somewhere in the region of five or six thousand.
Weybridge, Surrey, September 1991 (recorded by Ron Batchelor)
A Tribute to our beloved parents Gladys and Sydney Barrett
Gladys (1910-1997) Sydney (1912-1998)
My parents met at a youth club in North London during the ‘30s, not far from where they lived, and they remained together for over 61 years. Theirs was a loving, thoughtful partnership complementing their personalities to face the ‘highs and lows’ of marriage.
Their war years were spent in Northampton where Gladys packed parcels for the Red Cross; Sydney joined the National Defence Unit (Dad’s Army). In 1941 my father was one of the many volunteers to join the crew of a small boat sent to rescue servicemen from the beaches at Dunkirk.
My earliest memory is of being held up to the bedroom window by dad, looking for any searchlight, moon, stars and Germans. One evening the Germans were forgotten, so I reminded him of this omission only to be told, “We must love our enemies”. Our doors at home were always open – to evacuees, relatives, neighbours, and later on Baha’is and seekers.
This community kinship fixed their search for the deeper spirituality to be found in the Bahá’í Writings. Always dedicated believers, they pioneered for the faith on the home front whenever a suitable job opportunity arose.
Sydney was first and foremost a mechanical engineer but he had to adapt to different situations during his working life. After retirement, for a period of two years he and my mother served at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, enjoying the experience of Israel. Instead of telling us at home of the weather, which was predictable out there, conversation often focused on family and food!
They were proud grandparents to six grandchildren and one great grandchild, who brought more laughter and happiness into their lives.
Having grown old gracefully together, they passed into the higher realms within six months of each other in 1997 and 1998.
Written by Anne Frampton (Barrett) on behalf of herself and her sister Jean