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The war years

The following extracts from the minutes of meetings of the Governors illustrate some of the concerns those responsible for Wesley House had in war time. 

Not everything at this time was about the war. Students continued in their studies and took degrees at Cambridge and London and the minutes record the academic achievements of Wesley House men with some pride noting, for example, that "the Gibson New Testament prize had gone for a seventh time to a Wesley House man or that "One of the board of examiners described Mr JW Evans' marks as quite indecent" and that "For the third time Wesley House has a winner of the Crosse Studentship in the person of CK Barrett BA. This is the blue riband of Cambridge Theology". The Tutor reported in 1942 that although the number of men in the college was smaller, the actual amount of work was larger.

The students were provided with a full complement of visitors for weekly addresses including, Rev HJ Jenkin of Bombay and Punjab District, Dr Hildebrandt of the German Confessional Church, Rev Ronald Rees speaking on China, Mr Swidenbank on 'Organists and how ministers might cooperate with them' and Dr Burgin on Religion in the Houses of Parliament. In May 1944 Rev R Talbot Watkins, the senior Methodist parachute padre spoke. At the following meeting it was noted that he had been awarded the MC for gallantry at Arnhem and the Governors sent their congratulations.

Throughout the war the students were busy preaching locally (eg "Quy village chapel has been kept alive by students") and took part in evangelistic campaigns in Birmingham and Norwich.

Other matters discussed by the Govenors included raising £300 to set up the Dr Henry Maldwyn Hughes Prize in Systematic Theology, recording the achievements of Wesley House men in publishing and broadcasting, receiving Mrs Hughes' manuscript which "should become valuable 'Q' document for future historians" and noting with pleasure that Dr Flew was invited to preach at St Mary's Oxford in 1941 and that Mr Flemington had been invited to preach the University Sermon in Cambridge in 1944.

24 February 1939

With regard to arrangements to be made in connection with any national emergency Dr Flew said he had been in touch with the Principal of Westminster College and Cheshunt College and they had prepared a statement with regard to the relationship between Wesley House men and the University. This had been submitted for approval to the Vice Chancellor. He felt that as accepted ordinands the first duty  of the students was to the Church, but did not doubt that if they desired to render service as Chaplains in the Navy, Army or Air Force the Church would set them free for such service.

24 May 1939

All the students are taking the A.R.P. course.

31 October 1939

Dr Flew described the main events since the outbreak of war. What had seemed likely to become most dangerous history had been averted by the help of the Vice Chancellor, and the theological colleges were now safe from requisitioning. Jesus College occupied Block A. The A.R.P. arrangements had resulted in a perfect “blackout”.



On September 20th at an Emergency meeting of the Divinity Board Dr Flew’s offer of  Wesley House lecture rooms was accepted. All the theological faculty lectures were now held at Wesley House. The London School of Economics also used the lecture rooms. Men came up on September 29th and took a fortnight’s first aid and anti-gas courses…. A suggestion was made that if Wesley House closes down we should preserve it for the use of a Methodist Church organisation from London.


Blackout of the College Chapel

It was reported that although papistical candlelight had been found soothing in the Chapel, it was unsatisfactory and the window will be screened. A.R.P. costs had been lower than in any other college in Methodism – and as Cambridge was a military objective, three gas proof rooms had been provided.

19 February 1940

Jesus College would occupy eight sets of rooms until June.

22 May 1940

Three men had joined the Local Defence Force.

It was noted that the Divinity Schools had again opened for lectures.

19 February 1941

The Principal reported on the work of the House, including reference to the lectures which have been given in Sunday School work, social subjects and anti-semitism.

17 June 1941

The financial outlay to provide firewatching during the vacation is to be met without charge to the College funds. One month’s service was being given by each student.

5 November 1941

The Principal recounted the help with the authorities of Jesus College had been in the matter of retaining the Head Porter and also in averting the danger of the College being requisitioned.

18 February 1942

The Principal read a letter from the Revd RJ Watkins an old student who is now a Chaplain in the Royal Air Force.

27th May 1942

The Principal reported letter from American and Chipping Norton on the good work done by old Wesley House men.

28 October 1942

It seems that the date of the savage aerial attach on Cambridge was on July 28th, 1942 and the weight of the bombing fell on Jesus Lane and its neighbourhood. Though only five people were killed, a great deal of damage was done, the Union Library being set ablaze and Wesley House itself being in peril for some time. The fire, however, was subdued before any serious damage could reach our property. The roof was pierced, it seems, in three places but the cost of repair did not reach £5.


The Principal passed to the serious question of the future of the College. The continuation of the war had involved the closing, one by one, of the Colleges until only two were left, and the question had resolutely to be faced. At the moment there were ten theological students studying at the House, though other men were in residence and under our influence who were pursuing other studies, but there was a possibility that, with the opening of the new Methodist year, only three theological students - and possibly only one – would remain. What was in the mind of the Governors concerning this?


It was pointed out that there was at least a possibility that the Ministry of Labour would be willing to transfer fifteen accepted candidates for the Ministry from the category of Lay Agent to the category of Theological Student, and these men might be drafted to Wesley House, not for the full degree course, but for normal preparation for the Ministry, a task to which, of course, the Principal and the Tutor would give themselves with zest. The Governors were reminded that the salary of the Principal and the Tutor not coming from the Ministerial Training Fund, the maintenance of Wesley House as a college was less expensive than that of other of the Colleges. It was explained also that, owing to one of the minsters in the Cambridge circuit offering himself to the chaplaincy department, the Principal and the Tutor had willingly undertaken the supply of all of his appointments from January to July – a fine gesture deeply appreciated by the people in the circuit. The Principal explained how ready he and his colleague were to go to circuit work if that was the will of the Church and their guided way but felt it incumbent upon him to mention that certain difficult things were pendent upon this: (1) Who would care for the property if the College were closed and he and his colleague went into circuit work? (2) He was Chairman of the International Commission of Theologians appointed by the Continuation Committee of the World Conference on Faith and Order to Investigate the Doctrine of the Church, and he was anxious, if possible, to continue this piece of work. (3) He had promised to go and serve the Church in Australia before 1944 and therefore hoped, if the seas were open, to deliver the Cato Lecture.


After the discussion, the Governors passed the following resolution:-


"The Governors deem it desirable to place on record their unshaken conviction that it is of the highest importance to Methodism that Wesley House be maintained as a College and that the Principal and the Tutor be retained in their respective offices. The Governors feel it impossible to contemplate that the closing of Wesley House should seriously be suggested. They approve the course adopted hitherto and empower their spokesmen to put forward their case at every convenient opportunity."

17 February 1943

The Principal gave an account of the work of the ex-Wesley House men who are serving in the Armed Forces as Chaplains. He pointed out that some of these men had peculiar gifts for the work, but what had given him such solid satisfaction was the fact that others, not moulded by nature for work of this kind, had applied themselves to it with great seriousness and keenness and were shaping exceptionally well in a difficult task.


The Governors indulged in some desultory conversation on the future of Wesley House in the event of the number of students being very few, but they had nothing futher to add to their strongly-expressed resolution with which the previous Minutes closed.

16 June 1943

The Principal set out a provisional list of residents for the year 1943-44. It seems probable that there will be eight “official” students, several of whom, alas, have had their college course strangely broken by the exigencies of the war and some of whom will have had no more than one year at each of several colleges. The eager hope is that, despite this difficulty, it may be possible to make their time at Wesley House a full preparation for the ministry to which God and the Church have called them. It was pointed out that other residents would probably bring the number of those resident in college up to the capacity total of twenty-six.


The Principal pointed out that one in five of the Wesley House men are serving as chaplains in the Armed Forces.

3 November 1943

The Principal read extracts from a letter received from the Chief Technical Advisor of the Easter Regional Office concerning the placing of a static water-tank in front of Wesley House, approval for which was given by the Governors, it being clear that the tank was to be of a special and not unsightly character. The great convenience of having water immediately at hand in the event of incendiary bombs falling on the college was lost on no-one.


The Principal gave his report..explaining just who were now resident in College and the Governors noted with interest that we have, in the only theological college now open in Methodism, 4 continuing students, 5 students from Headingley, 6 permanent residents on work of national importance, and 8 graduates from Jesus College and other colleges…. For the first time in the history of the College not a single man was taking the Theological Tripos, but the actual needs of the men in preparation for their work as ministers were well covered, and gratitude was expressed to the staff of Westminster College for their help in this work.


The Principal concluded by saying that the Wesley House men in the Chaplaincy Service were doing excellent work, though he did not propose to speak on that in detail; and he insisted again that whatever could, or could not, be said about the men who passed through the house, it was not open to question that the sons of this College, wheresoever they were, preached the Gospel.

16 February 1944

The prospects of the College for the year 1944-45 were surveyed by the Principal, who sadly reported that owing to the inability of our Church authorities to get the accepted candidates either released from the Army for ministerial training or, whilst still remaining in the Army, to have six months of training for further chaplaincy service as fully ordained ministers, he did not see how the College could remain open. A theological college cannot continue – obviously – without students, and the methods by which we had continued to serve through the war years no longer answered the need. The Governors were not satisfied to accept the War Office ruling on the matter of the 1940 candidates without further enquiry, and asked the Principal to consult with Mr Firth and Mr Brumwell to see if any change of this ruling could be obtained. Mr Guy Chester expressed the opinion that the Church of the future would have to find a larger place for the ministry of women and wondered if, during this desertion by the men, Wesley House might be used for that purpose.

Mr Flemington then gave the Tutor’s Report playfully reminding us that there was no Tutor but * a circuit minister who once held that office and continued to do the work. [* the word ‘merely’ has been crossed out here]

31 May 1944

The Principal reported on the matter mentioned in the minutes concerning the War Office’s attitude to the 1940 candidates. Dr Flew explained that, together with the Rev Joseph Firth and the Rev P Middleton Brumwell, he had been well receive at the War Office, and a patient and understanding hearing was given to the viewpoint of the Governors. The deputation left convinced that the matter would receive serious attention. A letter followed, in due course, which reminded the Methodist Church that there was no actual shortage of Methodist chaplains at present (there are, indeed, twelve in reserve) and, while that remained the case, the War Office did not feel that it was right to release the men involved. It was felt, however, that if the situation gravely changed, and there were any considerable casualties among our chaplains, the application could be renewed.


Dr Flew began [his report] with a solemn comment on the fact that this year would see the end of our students and the first break in the already distinguished traditions of Wesley House. It did not seem possible to pass that over without expressing some pain, and it was a pain shared by the Governors….The Principal went on to remind the Governors that there are six official students in theology at Wesley House; two of whom are going as chaplains, two into the service of our Church overseas, and only two into circuit work at home.


The use of the College property during the coming year exercised the mind of the Governors next. They were happy to know that the College was to be kept open, and that its use for academic purposes could be maintained if its use for theological purposes had to cease for the time being. Some pleasure was expressed that the property would be less liable to damage by this use than it would be by some others.


The Governors expressed concern lest the Principal, in his expressed desire to go into circuit work, would find that his circuit work, the care of the College property and the guidance of West African students who might be coming to Wesley House, more than any one man could maintain.

8 November 1944

Mr Flemington reminded the Governors that there had been no candidates for the Tripos this year but that two other students at Wesley House had been reading for the London Final B.D. Both took their degree. The only student now at Wesley House is a West African minister reading for the London Final B.D.


Commenting on the fact that the only student now at Wesley House is a West African minister, the Principal remarked that the continuity of theological training through this year was maintained by a ‘fine black thread’. The Governors were delighted to know that the continuity was maintained at all.

The language used here & in the following minute to describe the one African student who was the only student resident in Wesley House through part of the war, though respectful in its historical context, would not be used today.  It seemed important, though, not to redact the text, but to let the original testament to this student stand. His name, as recorded in the next meeting's minutes, was Mr de Graft Johnson.

2 March 1945

The Rev Thomas Naylor, BA, rose to express the heartfelt thanks of the Governors to Almighty God for the almost miraculous deliverance of the Principal of the College from death by enemy action at the head-quarters of the Presbyterian Church of England in Regent Square on Friday, February 9th. Dr Workman spoke also to the same effect, and coupled with it the deep sympathy of the Governors with the Presbyterian Church in its irreparable loss. The Principal acknowledged with thankfulness the congratulations of the Governors, assuring them that he was almost recovered from the serious shock.


There was only one student now in the college, a West African minister reading for the London BD. Morning and evening prayers in the college chapel were attended by the Principal and by this single coloured student, both of them feeling, in their different ways, that they were privileged to maintain the life of the college during these strange war years.


The student – Mr de Graft Johnson – had been instructed in his African colony by missionaries who had gone out from Wesley House and whose names he mentioned in honoured appreciation and gratitude for many kindnesses shown to him. His presence in Cambridge at all was in itself a wonderful indication that the years were going by and the fruit of Wesley House was appearing in the distance places of the earth.

11 February 1946

The Rev WF Flemington expressed the hearty congratulations of the Governors to the Principal on being elected President of the Methodist Conference.


Mr Flemington reported that there were eight theological students now at the House and one chaplain. Of the eight theological students, two were reading for the London BD and the other six for the Cambridge Theological Tripos. He hinted at the strange experiences these men had had during their time in the Services, but was happy to say that they were applying themselves to their studies with assiduity.

7 May 1946

Mr Flemington spoke of the great variety of students who were now in residence: two West Africans, three men demobilized from the RAF, one from the Royal Navy, and three ex-Army officers. The civilian services were represented too: one member of the House had served in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, another had been on the land, and a third had served in a chemical factory. He was not able to say, speaking with entire candour, that they were brilliant academically, but he was quite confident that good work was being done.


Illustrating the strangeness of the times, and the quality of the men now in residence, the Principal mentioned the case of Mr Anthony Pepper who, in one and the same week, received the French Croix de Guerre, the Belgian decoration, Chevalier of the Order of Leopald II, and made top score in the University Freshers’ cricket match!!

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