Conrad Noël, the 'Red Vicar' of Thaxted - and influences on the East End

Mention Thaxted to clergy and laypeople of a certain age and tradition and they will immediately think of the heady mix of bold left-wing politics, self-consciously 'English' liturgy (with a nostalgia for 'merrie England' - and St George - expressed through morris and maypole dancing), and high-quality arts and crafts and music (including plainsong) that was the legacy of Conrad le Despenser Roden Noël (1869-1942), son of poet Roden Noël, who came from London to be the Vicar of St John the Baptist, St Mary & St Laurence Thaxted in 1910, remaining until his death in 1942. (The writer of this page recalls visiting as a student, and seeing his former study, still with its red walls and telephone.) But younger church folk have little awareness of any of this - even though it is all well-documented. We include this material on our site because Thaxted was the 'mecca' for a number of the clergy of this parish in the mid-20th century - notably Fathers Groser, Boggis and Cuthbertson - who sought to create urban equivalents.

The patron of the parish was the Countess of Warwick, an aristocratic socialist and feminist, admirer and biographer of William Morris, who perhaps imagined that Noël would use Thaxted as a base for his speaking engagements around the country, but he had other ideas. He put this small Essex town firmly on the ecclesiastical map, and people flocked from far and wide. Here politics and aesthetics were all of a piece. According to The Friend, Conrad fought passionately against hypocrisy and oppression, against the Philistine and the Puritan, particularly the Puritan. He sought tranquillity, but it eluded one so militant. His temperament urged him to battle even for the beauty which he so prized in worship, no less than for the Church Socialist League. The story of his life has much charm and contains many echoes of his characteristic laughter. [Right: old print of the church; interior in the 1920s, and today.]

Paycockes: an Arts and Crafts setting
For some years before moving into Thaxted, Noël and his wife Miriam lived (rent free) at Paycockes, near Coggeshall, which his cousin Lord Noel Buxton had bought in 1904 from previous Buxton owners, and who oversaw its restoration for the next six years.
Outbuildings were demolished, to open up views of the garden, and local craftsman E.W. Beckwith created period-style furniture and two carvings over the front door, with other artists making additions, including the family motto 'do it with thy might' in the plasterwork above the garden room. This work took twenty years, and in Conrad Noël; an autobiography, edited with a foreword by Sidney Dark (Dent 1945) he said: It had exciting disadvantages ... we lived in an atmosphere of dust and white-wash and broken plaster ... the cold was so intense that we sometimes sat over the fire in the hall with its wrought-iron basket and logs of wood surrounded by a tent of screens ... in the breakfast-room the pigeons, and ever robin-redbreasts, and other cheeky little fellows would insist on sharing our meals, hopping about the table and pecking at the butter and carrying off other titbits.

Miriam [left in her workshop; right is Noël with their daughter Barbara] was a keen gardener, and set out the garden in Arts and Crafts style with stepped terraces, a writing shelter and a dovecote - and also a tennis court. The yard was covered in herringbone brickwork. In 1923 Noël's friend Gustav Holst recuperated there after an injury; his daughter Imogen, then 16, wrote to a school friend This house is absolutely too wonderful for words ... it is a dream. And it is great fun living in a dream ...The house is supposed to be the best example of the period in the whole of England, and artists and architects make pilgrimages from all over the country to see it. We are tremendously proud of it, and as it isn’t our own we can swank about it to our heart’s content.

Politics: the battle of the flags
Noël had been one of the founders of the Church Socialist League in 1906 (it lasted until 1923), and together with Percy Dearmer a
dissident left-winger in the more moderate Guild of St Matthew and the Christian Social Union, bringing consternation to Stewart Headlam and to Scott Holland respectively, though as noted below he honoured their contribution to the Christian socialist cause (the tale of its organisations is a complex one, charted by Ken Leech). He left the CSL in 1918 to found the more radical Catholic Crusade. Never modest in its objectives, the Catholic Crusade of the Servants of the Precious Blood aimed, among other things (see here for its Creed):
To create the demand for the Catholic Faith, the whole Catholic Faith, and nothing but the Catholic Faith.
To encourage the rising of the people in the might of the Risen Christ and the Saints,
mingling Heaven and earth that we may shatter this greedy world to bits.

See his Socialism in Church History (1909). Noël had little use for the gradualism of the Fabians or the opportunism of the British Liberal and Labour Parties. He saw through the hollow promises of post-war 'reconstruction' made by the ruling classes to secure the cooperation of labour during the First World War, and warned his congregation:
We must mark the sinister proposals that are being made in high places for such social reconstruction as will inevitably forbid the restoration to the poor of hard-won liberties willingly surrendered during the war ... Reconstruction without revolution is evil, for Reconstruction must be the outcome of Revolution. In the Battles that will have to be fought against the forces of death, whether frankly reactionary or masquerading as State Socialism and Social Reform, we must ally ourselves with the forces of life, and with St. Ambrose of Milan, with St. Thomas of Canterbury, with Our Lady of the Magnificat. And in the coming rebellion against the Prussians in England, Catholics will need such fiery allies to save them from the tame surrender of Nonconformist and Agnostic labour leaders, and to steel our spirits in these days when 'whoseover killeth us will think that he doeth God a service'.

And in 1919 he told a Church Socialist League meeting:
Heaven forbid that Trade Unions should trust the leaders they elect, but Heaven forbid that they should continue to elect such leaders! Much better that the rank and file should kick over the traces than follow placemen, gas bags, puritans and lobby worms who misrepresent them, but if the rank and file had been more creative it would have produced leaders it could have followed.

In secular politics, he was a member of the Independent Labour Party - like some other anglo-catholic priests - and in 1911 became a founding member of the British Socialist Party. When the British Communist Party was formed in 1920 the Catholic Crusade explored possible affiliation with the Third International. As Reg Groves comments, It was quickly evident that the Third International would have rejected the request; and that if they had accepted it, the relationship would have been a brief one. Later on, Noel became loosely supportive of the 'Left Opposition' grouped around Leon Trotsky. Finding the membership of the Crusade too uncritical of Stalinism, Noel split it to found the Order of the Church Militant. But back to 1921:

During the War
he arranged flags of the allied powers around an engraving of St George in the south aisle, and later added the red flag ‘of the world’s workers’, and then the Irish tricolour. In May 1921 the red flag – now repositioned with the tricolour and a Cross of St George against the chancel arch – was processed around the church. (The previous week, defying Archbishop Davidson’s call to give thanks for the decision by the leaders of the Triple Industrial Alliance - miners, rail-waymen and transport workers’ unions - not to come out in sympathy with the striking miners, a blackboard at the church door had announced
The rich and their toadies KILLED CHRIST. Our Rulers, the Empire, the Rich, and those who surround them Kill Him NOW.
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these (the IRISH AND THE MINERS), Ye have done it unto Me.
 By the following week the red flag had vanished, and the ‘Battle of the Flags’ was under way.

Cambridge students stole a replacement flag and the tricolour and sent them to the bishop of Chelmsford. Cricketers from Braintree tussled with Noël's curate, Jack Bucknall (Fr Groser's brother-in-law), and Noël erected a noticeboard proclaiming Stolen! Two flags from Thaxted church and two Universities (Oxford and Cambridge) from the people by the rich. Posters in the town declared No Bolshevism for Thaxted and urged people to protest on Empire Day (24 May) - hitherto little observed locally - by flying union flags and attending a meeting at the Guildhall. Motorcyclists garlanded the churchyard wall with union flags, which Noël promptly replaced with larger versions omitting St Patrick’s cross. These were later torn down by a crowd of protesters that swelled to several thousand, many carrying their own union flags. The church’s defence was headed by a small party of former policemen dismissed for striking in 1919 (described by Reg Groves as ‘Lansbury’s Lambs’) who, according to some accounts, drove away a lorry loaded with stones for window-breaking. The Guildhall meeting began with a resolution – proposed by Hugh Morris, former president of the Cambridge Union Society, and seconded by a serving army officer and three locals (estate-agent Captain John Oliver Barbrook, nonconformist draper William Tanner and builder Percy Ratcliff) – in favour of the British Empire and demanding that Noël stop preaching treasonable doctrines or any political themes. A call to doff hats for the national anthem provoked scuffles. With the vicarage now appearing vulnerable, neighbours set out to evacuate Noël. But not even H.G. Wells, who appeared in a Rolls Royce, could persuade him to leave home. The mob gathering there was successfully disrupted by the Lambs, but it was midnight before the last of those serenading the vicar with Three Cheers for the Red White and Blue departed, while there had been rumours of guns being seen on both sides. Noël wrote the next morning to reassure Miriam (who had not stayed at home) We are still alive – it was a most exciting evening ... Jack and I nearly got done in earlier in trying to get the union jacks down from the churchyard. Some Cork Black and Tans say they are on their way to England to murder me at night. About murdering, I will put it in the hands of the police, but of course they could not protect so open a place as the vicarage. It may be bluff, but – Best love, darling. The flags of our religion are still flying. More skirmishes followed. The flags were hung high up on the chancel arch [right: postcard of the Red Flag by Noël's sister Frances], but a consistory court ruled against his display, and he obeyed. Questions were asked in Parliament - he was accused of sedition. Though actually Vicar, the press dubbed him 'the Red Rector'. See further Arthur Burns  Beyond the 'Red Vicar': Community and Christian Socialism in Thaxted, Essex, 1910-84 (History Workshop Journal 75, Spring 2013, pp101-124).

Why these three flags? The Red Flag speaks for itself. The Irish flag reflected solidarity with the cause of those who sought to break away from the Union (but was yet to become a republic), which also resonated with the particular, idealised, notion of 'Englishness' which some held, and which the George confirmed - for except in churches (such as our own) dedicated to St George it was more usual to show the Union flag rather then the George inside the church (as opposed to from the tower, where flag protocol dictates the reverse!) as a sign of the established church's protestant credentials: the George was regarded as somehow 'anglo-catholic'. Maurice ReckittIt commented: The 'Battle of the Flags' at Thaxted Church in the early twenties, whatever may be thought of the validity of the issues or the wisdom of entering on such a conflict, was the sort of tussle that only such a man as Noël could have inspired and so long sustained.

Colour, ritual and folk arts

Noël sought to make his church a centre for the English crafts movement. An early acquisition (in 1910) was the Stella [two views left], a star-shaped candelabrum hanging at the aisle crossing, designed by Randall Wells for St Mary the Virgin Primrose Hill but never installed there. Based on Matthew's birth narrative (1.1-17) it has 42 lights, in three groups: for the 14 generations from Abraham to King David, for the 14 generations from King David to the Flight into Egypt, and for the 14 generations from the Flight into Egypt to the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, with a ball symbolising the world to which Christ brings light.
When Arthur Mee visited in the 1940s he found the church hung and carpeted with colour - tapestries, banners and vestments. Some items had been exhibited at the 1921 Wembley Exhibition. Few of these original pieces remain, but one is the banner [right] whose text is the last four lines of William Blake's poem Jerusalem - I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.

Mercifully, Noël was not squeamish (as some clergy are today) about the implied theology of these verses; nor about the secular, and possibly semi-pagan, associations of morris and maypole dancing. At a time when folk arts were undergoing a revival, he positively welcomed them into church. The Thaxted Morris was founded in 1911, and the national Morris Ring was set up there in 1934 and still regards Thaxted as its home - and some of its members were lifelong Tory voters! Left are two scenes in Thaxted from the 1950s plus the 75th anniversary of the Ring in 2009. Right are children from Thaxted and Great Dunmow schools maypole dancing in church for St George's Day 2010, at which they sang I vow to thee, my country to Holst's tune Thaxted, of course). By a nice touch, one of the Thaxted church bells bears the inscription I ring for the general dance.

Liturgy and Worship: the legacy of Percy Dearmer
A close friend and associate, and fellow Christian Socialist radical, was the liturgist and musicologist Percy Dearmer [left at various stages in his life and right in 'clerical streetwear' - see below]. In 1899 he published The Parson's Handbook, which went through many editions over the next half-century and more. (The first edition, and other of his works, can be read here.) It presented in great (and at times spurious) detail the case for a 'catholic' style of worship which he believed was faithful to - and indeed required by - the Book of Common Prayer, and its predecessors: a distinctively English style rather than the aping of continental Roman Catholic patterns. It came to be termed 'Sarum use' - or, by its detractors, 'British Museum religion' - and was widely copied. He put this programme into action at St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill in north London where he was Vicar.  Every detail of how to run a parish and its worship along these lines was spelt out: the layout and furnishings of the (whitewashed) church, the timing of services, the use of gas, service sheets, the apparel of the clergy and other ministers, the ritual of every service, even down to the best dimensions for cupboards and drawers in the vestry and recipes for blending incense.

Right are some of the plates from the 1909 edition showing this style of ritual - a procession before the eucharist (from a painting of 1906) - and the 'correct' vesure of clergy and other ministers: a server in alb with apparelled amice; a clerk in a tunicle (crucifer); the sleeveless rochet (which he recommended for those who were too lazy or inept to wear alb and amice); a priest graduate in choir habit; and a clerk in surplice and stole for a wedding. All these robes should be long and full: he abhorred the rage for cheapness. Before vestments became a commercial article, they remained full, on the Continent as well as here. Now the worship of Mammon has so far intrenched on the honour due to God that the sweater has his own way with us, and it is considered seemly for a minister to appear in church in the garment called a 'sausage-skin', a so-called surplice that is not only short, but is entirely deprived of gathers, so that a few extra half-pence may be saved from the cost of worship. Here his Christian Socialist principles kicked in; for, as he wrote in the introduction, vulgarity in the long-run always means cheapness, and cheapness means the tyranny of the sweater. It has been pointed out that a modern preacher often stands in a sweated pulpit, wearing a sweated surplice over a suit of clothes that were not produced under fair conditions, and, holding a sweated book in one hand, with the other he points to the machine-made cross at the jerry-built altar, and appeals to the sacred principles of mutual sacrifice and love. Right is 'the priest in outdoor habit' - cassock, gown, scarf, Canterbury cap. The cassock is double-breasted ('Sarum') - this was the English style, looked better and also, as he pointed out, removed the possibility of the priest painfully kneeling on a button in a cassock with buttons down the front. He advocated wearing knickerbockers underneath, for comfort.

All these principles were put into effect at Thaxted. Left is the litany procession in the 1920s. (Right are more pictures of Sarum-style ritual.) However, his processions were not as solemn as they looked, for everyone joined in, including dancers if present, carrying flowers and banners, as Noël explained in his autobiography:

The revolutionary teaching at Thaxted may be studied in books and pamphlets on sale in the church, but the Thaxted experiment is by no means only concerned with the pulpit and the press, but just as much with the life of a group and the expression of that life in worship. Thaxted is becoming a place of pilgrimage for those who are tired of the sluggish routine and conventionalism of much modern Nonconformity and of the 'C. of E.' We are proud to claim membership in the Church of England for she is the Church of Anselm, of Becket, of those such as Langton and John Ball who fought for the freedom of the people, the Church of Laud in his fight against a narrow Calvinism and the oppression of the poor, and in still more modern times, the Church of Maurice and Kingsley, of Scott Holland and Stewart Headlam. All this the 'Church of England' calls to mind, but the 'C. of E.' is only another name for the Establishment, and the Establishment is the religion of the ratepayer, and the religion of the ratepayer is not a religion but a disease.

Now what is there in the Thaxted worship which scandalizes the 'ratepayer' and attracts many in the town itself and many pilgrims from all quarters? Perhaps it is the homeliness and unconventionality which many people appreciate. The organ and surpliced choir no longer predominate. The processions on High Days and Holidays include not only the ceremonial group in bright vestments, but the people themselves, children with flowers and branches, women in gay veils, men with torches and banners, all this colour and movement centering round the Lord Christ present in the Eucharist. We preach the Christ Who all through His life stressed the value of the common meal, the bread and wine joyously shared among His people, the Mass as prelude to the New World Order in which all would be justly produced and distributed. The Lord thus chose the human things of everyday life, the useful bread and the genial wine, to be the perpetual vehicles of his presence among us till His kingdom should come on earth as in Heaven. But all this involves politics, and we are often rebuked for mixing politics with religion. Well! the blind following of any political party, the politics of the party hack, these are certainly not the business of the pulpit; but politics, in the wider sense of social justice, are part and parcel of the gospel of Christ and to ignore them is to be false to His teaching. Worship and beauty are not to be despised, but worship divorced from social righteousness is an abomination to God.

Percy Dearmer's other major contribution was as a hymnologist. He collected, translated and wrote a large number of hymns, many of them excellent and still sung.  He was the motive force of the English Hymnal (1906) with Vaughan Williams as musical editor, and Songs of Praise (1926, enlarged 1931 - a more 'liberal' production [once described by Professor Geoffrey Lampe as 'the neo-Platonist hymnbook'] intended for schools and Sunday schools rather than for parish use, though a few churches adopted it) with Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw - see below, and of the Oxford Book of Carols (1928), which popularised traditional carols and melodies (and some new ones) for all seasons of the year, and remains widely influential.

After Primrose Hill he served as a chaplain in the First World War (in 1915 his first wife Mabel died serving with an ambulance unit in Serbia, and his son Christopher of battle wounds), and for some years held no ecclesiastical appointment, concentrating on lecturing (including as professor of ecclesiastical at Kings College London) and writing; in 1931 he became a Canon of Westminster Abbey, where he ran a canteen for the unemployed. He died in 1936. See further Donald Gray (one of his successors at the Abbey) Percy Dearmer - A Parson's Pilgrimage (Canterbury Press 2000). His other son Geoffrey Dearmer LVO also served in the war [right in 1918] and was a distinguished poet (and also a hymn writer - as few remain in use). Between the wars he worked as a censor of plays for the Lord Chamberlain (despite being uncensorious by nature), and for the BBC as talent scout for religious programmes, and editor of Children's Hour, broadcasting until the 1950s as 'Uncle Geoffrey'. He lived to the age of 103 and died in 1996.

Musicians: Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) had a house in or around Thaxted from 1914, and became a close friend of Noël. He regularly played the organ for the Sunday Mass (and his daughter Imogen - right in their cottage - the cello), and they put on Whitsuntide concerts which were the origin of the Thaxted Festival. It was here that he wrote his 'Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra' which later became known as the Planets Suite. The melody from 'Jupiter' became the hymn-tune Thaxted, for I vow to thee, my country (and various less-nationalistic rewrites): when the BBC used it for the Rugby World Cup as 'World in Union' the royalties went to the church. His other famous hymn tune is Cranham, for Christina Rossetti's in the bleak mid-winter (a strong rival to Harold Darke's peerless choral setting)Here are more details of his Thaxted connections. 

Two other musicians who regularly visited Thaxted were Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - left -  who also regularly played the organ [currently in restoration], and collaborated with Holst on the collection of folksongs, and Martin Shaw (1875-1958) - right. As noted above, Vaughan Williams and Shaw collaborated with Percy Dearmer on hymnals. Martin Shaw is perhaps best remembered for his fine Anglican Folk Mass ('founded on native hymn melodies') which he wrote in 1918 for St Mary Primrose Hill and was widely sung (it adapts readily to contemporary-langugage texts); he also adapted the old melody Bunessan (for Eleanor Farjeon's words Morning has broken) and wrote Little Cornard [a nearby village] for Hills of the north rejoice, and Marching for Through the night of doubt and sorrow.

Joseph Needham
A regular visitor from Cambridge and supporter of the 'Thaxted project' was Professor Joseph Needham CH FRS FBA (1900-95 - right in 1937), a much-honoured biochemist who became the leading world authority on Chinese science and medicine; he espoused a particular style of Christian socialism and was a communist sympathiser. He and his wife Dorothy (he also had a long-term relationship with Lu Gwei-Djen) were devotees of gymnosophy - naked exercising in the tradition of Hindu 'naked philosophers', which was taken up in Germany and elsewhere between the wars - but this does not appear to have been added to the Thaxted programme...  The Needham Research Institute has more on his life and achievements.

[Compare this 'Building on History' case study of Thaxted]

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