I was born in 1944 to Bahá’í parents Joseph and Elsie Lee in Stretford, Manchester.
My twin brother and I completed a total of six siblings, four boys and two girls. This was always a busy household, father running his own drapery business, and mother teaching in St Clements Primary School in Salford.
My earliest memories of Bahá’í activity comprise a constant stream of visitors. Names such as John Ferraby, Hasan Balyuzi, David Hofman, come to mind, and I recall visiting a very elderly gentleman called Mr Sugar living in a small terrace house (in Sale I believe). The house was dark and musty-smelling and Mr Sugar sported a large white beard, a Dickensian character! Mr Habibi had arrived in Manchester, and I know that my father tried to help him find business premises for his wholesale textile trade.
Another clear memory is of having parties (Naw-Rúz most likely) in the warehouse of the Joseph family, somewhere in the centre of Manchester, itself the centre of the textile trade.
The larger Manchester Bahá’í community used to arrange coach trips on a Sunday to the Lake District, Peak District and Blackpool. I can still remember the coach resounding to the sounds of the occupants singing “Ten Green Bottles”, and “One Man and his dog went to mow a meadow”. A favourite place to visit was “Lime Park”, somewhere past Stockport. It had deer, a miniature railway and an Orangery. This must have been around the early 1950s when I was aged about eight or nine. I also remember we had a visiting German Bahá’í youth stay with us briefly, whose name, I think, was Hans. This was quite a brave move at the time, being so soon after the war.
When I was eleven, around 1955, my parents pioneered to Sussex, first settling in Southwick, near Brighton. This change was quite traumatic for my brother and me. We were bullied at the new school because of our strange northern accent and felt a loss at leaving our friends behind in Stretford. The plus side was that it was a great place to live after the “satanic mills” of Manchester. The sea was within walking distance and the South Downs close by. During this time in Southwick, my twin brother Ian and I were made to attend Bahá’í classes on a Sunday afternoon, taken by a Persian gentleman whose name eludes me. Although we learnt a lot about the early history of the Faith and its basic teachings, we resented having to stay in whilst our peers were out playing, especially during the summer months.
There was always a constant stream of Bahá’í visitors in our house, and my father also became a guardian to at least two Iranian students, one being a Ghobad Amiri who attended the same school as I did (Caius School, Shoreham-by-Sea). We didn’t get on well, and I remember feeling relieved when he left. Perhaps that was because by then I was becoming very conscious that I was something different (as a Bahá’í) and beginning to resent the responsibility.
During this time news came of the passing of the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, and I was solemnly told by the school head (and proprietor) Mr Lewis that “I had to go home as the leader of my religion had died”. The funeral of the Guardian was of great significance to me. I clearly remember the lining up of the cavalcade of cars in Kensington, leaving from Rutland Gate, the arrival at the Chapel in the New Southgate Cemetery and, above all, the wailing and crying and chanting of prayers that seemed to me, as a young lad, to go on forever. And finally the interment, more chanting and then kneeling down and kissing the ground (or a shrub) at the foot of the grave.
Not long afterwards my parents decided to move to Hove (I think to fulfil a request for more Bahá’ís in the Brighton area). Dad by then had a retail shop in Hove selling fabrics and he employed a Bahá’í, Rene Aldridge, who later pioneered to Malta.
It was at this time that the era of teenage rebellion and rock ‘n’ roll embraced Britain, and Brighton in particular was for me a ‘great place to be’. I became increasingly embroiled in the coffee bar scene, eventually being seen standing in the “Whisky-A-Go-Go” coffee bar on local television news during the making of a documentary film ‘Living for Kicks’. In the actual footage I am wearing a black leather-look jacket, my back to the camera, beside the pin ball machine. The next day I was promptly expelled from school, thus ending my formal education until much later in life (see further on).
I don’t know if there was any connection, but my parents suddenly decided to move to Devon as home front pioneers. As far as I was concerned they may as well have been taking me to Outer Siberia! By then I was the only one of the six siblings still with our parents. My twin brother Ian was left behind in Brighton working for Times Furnishing in Hove, though he later joined us in Torquay. The other four had flown the nest so to speak.
Dad and I went to Torquay alone to do a ‘recce’, staying in the home of May White above a shop in St. Marychurch. May had been a member of the original Torquay Local Spiritual Assembly, formed in 1939. Shoghi Effendi may well have stayed there when he visited Babbacombe in earlier years.
Eventually my parents decided to move into an apartment in Bank Street, Newton Abbot, Devon, where Dad was selling fabrics on the local market and mother was teaching in nearby Ashburton. I got a job as a potter’s assistant in the New Devon Pottery, Newton Abbot, which didn’t last long as I got in with a bad lot, worse than in Brighton, eventually falling foul of the law and getting put on probation. I then went to work in a gents’ outfitters in Paignton, and then worked with Dad in his fabric business, travelling to various local markets such as Plymouth and Holsworthy.
Just before my parents pioneered again, this time to Torquay, a Canadian Bahá’í couple and small child Diane arrived in the area, having been shipwrecked on the South Coast. Gerry and Naomi (known then as Frankie Long) had arrived like a tornado. The first I saw of Gerry was when my bedroom door was flung open one night as I was settling down, and I heard “So this is the problem eh? We’ll soon sort him out!”. He then disappeared. Obviously my parents had been sharing their concerns about me.
This was a turning point. Gerry and Frankie were great at organising young people and soon I was very engaged in lots of Bahá’í activity in Torquay and I became a Bahá’í youth, much to the delight of my parents and also my probation officer who decided I no longer needed to see him. Very soon after this we moved to Torquay, joining other Bahá’ís such as Muriel Matthews and, I think, a gentleman called Joe Povey, a member of a society called Toc H, an international Christian movement.
At the same time a young man, Alan Carter, arrived from Croydon, searching for truth. He met up with Frankie and Gerry and became a Bahá’í. Thus started a most amazing period of dynamic teaching, often on Torquay harbour side in a cafe called Macaris, which up until very recently was still being run by the same family. Here the likes of Carole Huxtable (now Lulham), Bryan Huxtable, Mick Coombe, Pauline Potter, Margaret Metcalf, Brian Corvin, Larry George and many others were introduced to the Bahá’í Faith.
During this period Frankie (Naomi) and Gerry organised an International Club at the Bahá’í Centre in Market Street, Torquay. There would be anywhere from 15 to 25 international students attending once a week, mainly coming from the nearby language school. Frankie also gave lessons on public speaking to the Baha’i youth at the Centre, including myself and, I think, Pauline Potter amongst others. These lessons equipped me for my future career as a sales representative in helping to break down my extreme shyness.
I remember Gerry and myself organising the local leather-jacketed bikers to run down through Torquay High Street raising funds for United Nations. This was of course in the early sixties and at the height of tensions with such regions as the Soviet Block and Cuba.
Soon after, Alan and I went down to St. Agnes in Cornwall to share the Faith. Alan purchased a run-down miner’s house called ‘Spain Cottage’, for purposes of restoration, and we lived in a caravan alongside the main building. There was no running water or electricity. Eventually Frankie, who became known as Naomi, came to live nearby in a place called Primrose Cottage.
In order to try and sustain a living, Alan purchased a mobile fish and chips van – a converted ex-war-department vehicle. We had to start it with a handle and boy, what a kick that handle had! It nearly broke my wrist more than once. My job was to peel potatoes and drive the van. Alan used to be frying as we drove round the country lanes. What a sight it must have been! Steam was coming out of the split windscreen that I had to have open in order to see where we were going! I was told by passers-by that at night it looked like a fiery dragon, the steam swirling around the headlights.
We used to go to a Nissen hut camp site on the top of St Agnes Beacon known as Cameron Estate. This was where all the problem families were dumped by the local council. I used to feel sorry for the little kids running around with no shoes, and when Alan wasn’t looking I would give them free bags of chips. No wonder we never made any money! One night a mist came down and after driving around in circles for a while we gave up and kipped down for the night. To our horror, when we woke up in the morning we saw that we were perilously close to the cliff edge! During this time we did a lot of teaching, especially with local youth and some Jehovah’s Witnesses who used to come by.
I returned to Torquay, working with Dad again for a while, and it was during this time that the first election of the Universal House of Justice took place just days before the Bahá’í World Congress held in London in 1963. I volunteered for service on this momentous occasion and I found myself standing on duty at the entrance to the New Southgate Cemetery, which contains the Guardian’s resting place. Imagine my surprise to be suddenly presented with a coach pulling up at the entrance to disgorge the entire ensemble of the Hands of the Cause, accompanied by Rúhíyyih Khánum. On the way back from visiting this sacred spot Mr Ferraby stopped and spoke to me. He knew my parents well. He then introduced me to an elderly gentleman, Hand of the Cause Mr Samandari. I think I was told he was the last believer alive to have known Bahá’u’lláh. He was a skilled calligrapher and he presented me with a print of The Greatest Name, signed by him. I carried that around with me for many years, and now have it in a frame to preserve it.
It was around this time that Mrs Meherangiz Munsiff, with her husband Eruch and daughter Jyoti, came to stay with us in Torquay. Meherangiz gave a lively and charismatic public talk to a large audience at the Torbay Hotel.
In June 1963 my eldest brother Malcolm married Parvin in a parish hall in Shiphay, Torquay, Devon. Not long after, I was offered a chance to go with another newly enrolled Bahá’í in Torquay, Reg Smith, and his new wife Cynthia, to work for the summer season on the paddle steamer, ‘Princess Elizabeth’, joining it in Poole, Dorset, but eventually working out of Weymouth. This was a most amazing experience and will live in my memory forever. Reg was First Mate and I was a deckhand. Somehow I was enlisted to steer the vessel most of the time over to the Isle of Wight, and around Portland Harbour, and out to the Shambles lightship where we would exchange cigarettes and chocolate for freshly caught fish. Very frequently the skipper, Captain Hollyoak would get the worse for wear on barley wine whilst on the bridge and I, an inexperienced sailor, would be left in charge of this large vessel (400 passengers) steering it through anchored Royal Navy ships, submarines and Fleet Auxiliary in Portland Harbour.
During this time in Weymouth I often visited the “Agnes Weston Seamen’s Mission” and on Sunday evenings got into lots of debate with the young Christians. I once had a copy of William Sears book Thief in the Night and when I said it was about the return of Christ, two members started grabbing at it trying to get ownership. At the end of the season I returned to Torquay, then joined a coaster as a merchant seaman travelling around the British and Scottish coasts and also over to France.
The following New Year I returned home to find that my father’s business had failed and my parents had sold up in Torquay and were now living in an apartment in Totnes. Unable to live with them I found accommodation with my dear sister Barbara in a rented farmhouse just outside Newton Abbot. I got a job as a van driver for a local dry cleaning firm, and it was there that Bahá’u’lláh blessed me with meeting up with my dear wife Sheila, who was working in the office as a clerk. We were soon married and we moved to Exeter where my parents were already living, along with my elder sister Joyce.
These were extremely happy days with a truly united Bahá’í community – Mr and Mrs Shogian, Mrs Dowlatshahi and family, and Alma Gregory and her daughter Lois. Later came Barney Leith and Erica Lewis (later Leith), my sister Barbara (Anderson) and her family, and Pamela Coombe (née Mallet). We held lots of meetings and I remember Mrs Dowlatshahi playing the “Tar” to a large audience of youth in Exeter College. Also there was a visit from Hand of the Cause Bill Sears, a great orator. He spoke at the Rougemont Hotel (now the Thistle Hotel). Adib Taherzadeh also gave a talk, at the Royal Clarence Hotel on Cathedral Green, Exeter.
Eventually I found a career as a Sales Representative in the haberdashery and knitting yarn industry, covering most of the South West and South Wales. During this time I met many Bahá’ís on my travels, and could tell many stories. We lived in Eastbourne for two years (1974-1976) during which time we visited an elderly Baha’i lady called Elizabeth Coffman. She died whilst we were living there and is buried in Eastbourne. I was asked to officiate at her funeral and the directors insisted on paying me a fee! I made frequent visits to the Channel Islands over a long period. Here, in both Jersey and Guernsey, I was always made most welcome and felt part of those lovely small communities. On one trip in particular I held an exhibition of my work in the antiques shop of Kathy Le-Carre, a Guernsey resident (now sadly passed away). At the same time I was interviewed on local radio and visited schools on the Island to talk about my work and faith. On another visit both Malcolm, my eldest brother, and I were asked to demonstrate our work, Malcolm his cartoon drawings and me my pottery, to an invited audience in a large village hall. Parvin supplied scrumptious Persian rice meals. All this was organised by dear Pauline Senior and her daughter Adele, both stalwart pioneers to Guernsey; Pauline is buried on the island. This was the only time that Malcolm and I worked together and I shall always cherish the memory.
Most notable, and of great influence was my getting to know Trudi Scott, assistant to Bernard Leach, Trudi having known my parents many years before in Manchester, and in turn meeting and staying with Bernard. This re-ignited my interest in Studio Pottery, and was to have a profound influence on me, eventually leading to a major career change, which leads me to my current life as a Studio Potter. I was also blessed from 1990 onwards with some amazing opportunities such as being able to present workshops at several Bahá’í Academies for the Arts, which took place at both Sidcot School and Wellington College. Again, these times were especially uplifting and spiritually rewarding for me. This change in direction in 1997 led to my obtaining a Certificate in Education F.E. via Plymouth University, enabling me to teach pottery to adults.
I currently represent the Bahá’ís on the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy team at the University of Exeter, where I am blessed with many opportunities to talk about the Bahá’í Faith and to serve my fellow man. I also love to express my understanding of the spiritual message of Bahá’u’lláh through the creation of the Studio Pottery that I now produce; all with the support of my long-suffering dear wife Sheila.
Both my parents, Joe and Elsie Lee, are buried in Higher Cemetery, Heavitree, Exeter. Dad died at the age of 55, after many years of selfless and devoted service to the Faith, often to the detriment of his business. Mum died aged 63 also serving the Faith to the end.
My dear elder brother Malcolm sadly passed away on 6 April 2013, and is buried in Bedford. His art was a great inspiration to me.
My sister Barbara passed away suddenly on 23 April 2005 whilst living in Porthowan, near St Agnes, and is buried in St Agnes Cemetery. She taught the Faith constantly.
My sister Joyce lives in Exeter with her husband Nusrat, and son Ramon. Their daughter Erika lives nearby in Exmouth with her husband.
My twin brother Iain currently lives in Exeter and my elder brother David and his wife Elaine resettled in Hove, Sussex.
My son Anthony and his wife Sarah live in Exeter, as does my grandson Jacob. My daughter Vanessa lives in Eastbourne with her husband Stephen, son Jack and daughter Leah.
Alan Carter, sadly, died in an accident off the cliffs at St Agnes, a couple of years after I left the area, and is buried in Tywardreath Cemetery, Cornwall.
Reg Smith is buried at Rame Head, a coastal headland near Plymouth, on what was his private land. Cynthia later remarried.
Naomi Long lived in Cornwall for some years and then moved to Manchester to be caretaker at the Bahá’í Centre. She is buried in Southern Cemetery, Manchester.
Gerry Long returned to live in Canada.
Mick and Pamela Coombe pioneered to the Isles of Scilly for many years and then moved to Newton Abbot with their family. Sadly Pamela passed away in February 2014 after a long illness and is buried in the Quaker Cemetery, Sticklepath, Devon.
Larry George, a local artist, became a Bahá’í in 1963. He mostly painted Brixham Harbour. He was a larger than life character and was well remembered for turning up at 19 Day Feasts with a trayful of cream cakes. He passed away in April 1990 and is buried in Torbay.
Carole Lulham (née Huxtable) now lives in Seattle, U.S.A. with her second husband George. They visit the indigenous Indians, teaching the faith.
Bryan Huxtable lives in Newton Abbot, Devon.
Brian Corvin and his wife Ann and family live in Dublin, Eire.
Pauline Bray (née Potter) lives in Delabole, North Cornwall, with her husband Ian and family.
Exeter, Devon, October 2014