“PEACE FOR OUR TIME”
WITHIN TWENTY YEARS AFTER THE First World War—the “War to End All Wars” as it was called—the world moved toward yet another global conflict. A failed painter named Adolf Hitler rose through the political ranks in Germany by spouting an extreme nationalism that sought to reestablish Germany’s preeminence among the European nations. In defiance of the peace treaties established at the end of World War I, Hitler rebuilt Germany’s military might. Through the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, Hitler confounded his critics with shrewd political maneuvering, rising to the highest position of power. He became aggressive, establishing a totalitarian regime within his country and looking outward to reclaim territory Germany had lost after the last war. He demanded that the German “Aryan master race” be united, regardless of where the Aryans lived geographically. If Hitler had to invade other countries to make that happen, then he would.
The more aggressive Hitler became, the more passively the leaders in the surrounding countries seemed to respond to him. Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was an idealist and was convinced that reason would prevail over tyranny. Certainly no one wanted a repeat of the Great War. Chamberlain believed everyone, including Hitler, truly wanted peace.
Only one voice—the “lone, unheeded prophet in the British land”—consistently warned the British people of the dangers Hitler posed: the pudgy, round-faced, sixty-four-year-old Winston Churchill. But few wanted to hear his wisdom such as this given on October 16: “Alexander the Great remarked that the people of Asia were slaves because they had not learned to pronounce the word ‘No.’ Let that not be the epitaph of the English-speaking peoples, or of Parliamentary democracy, or of France, or of the many surviving liberal States of Europe.”
In the fall of 1938, Adolf Hitler laid claim to sections of Czechoslovakia that were filled with Germans. He stated that war was inevitable if these Germans weren’t given proper autonomy. Prime Minister Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier met with Hitler. Two weeks of tense negotiations followed.
The outcome was the Munich agreement, which allowed Nazi Germany to annex areas of the Czechoslovak state called the Sudetenland. The agreement was dated September 29, 1938, though it was signed in the early hours of September 30.
Prime Minister Chamberlain returned to England and, after stepping from his plane, waved the agreement victoriously to cheering crowds and announced that Britain and Germany desired never to go to war again. Later, from his official residence at 10 Downing Street, Chamberlain said the now-famous words: “I believe it is peace for our time.”
To this, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons:
No one from the democratic Czech Republic had been involved in drafting the Munich agreement—and the Czechs paid a heavy price for the so-called victory. Over the next six months, Hitler broke every term of the agreement and sliced and diced the Czechoslovak state as it suited him. By March 1939, the Nazis occupied the sections that hadn’t already been taken by Hungary and Poland.
By the summer of 1939, hope for a lasting peace faded fast. The British government reluctantly mobilized its military and put stringent civil-defense measures in place throughout the country.
Government leaflets were shoved through every letter box, warning of the imminent threat of gas attacks and air raids. The catchall acronym for civil preparedness, the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), soon became as well known as the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). ARP handled the administration of defense plans, departments, volunteer organizations, medical services, fire, gas, lighting, air-raid protection, and “food defence.” Every part of civilian life would be affected by the government. Nighttime would include “blacking-out” all windows so that no internal lighting would guide enemy aircraft to a village or city. And the absolute control of all “foodstuffs” by the government meant the rationing of the most basic supplies.
Bomb shelters were constructed by the government beneath existing buildings. Deep trenches, covered with steel or concrete, scarred the many parks. Mandatory sandbags and fire buckets appeared in homes, hotels, and offices.
Helium-filled barrage balloons—sixty-two feet long, twenty-five feet in diameter, and attached to the ground by cables—appeared in the skies over London. Floating at five thousand feet, they would force German bombardiers to fly their planes higher, thus bombing with less accuracy.
The situation in Europe intensified. On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. On the surface it seemed like a proactive effort at peace, keeping two major powers of conflicting ideologies from fighting one another. But astute observers knew it was an act of collusion. The two countries were making peace only so they could amicably divide Poland when the time was right.
It’s easy to imagine the anxiety and apprehension Jack Lewis and his entire generation felt about a return to war.
The Last Normal Day
September 1, 1939, began normally enough in Britain. It was a Friday. The weather forecast for the day and the coming weekend predicted sunshine and pleasant temperatures. Men and women went to work, hung out the laundry, saw to the children, and chatted with neighbors. Commuters walked, biked, bused, and trained into the capital city of London. It was a normal day. There was nothing to hint at how quickly everything would change for everyone.
At Broadcasting House, the BBC’s formidable headquarters in central London, the Reverend James Welch was in studio 3E. Welch was the director of religious broadcasting and often spent time behind the microphone. On this occasion, at 10:15 a.m., he was leading the Daily Service—a fifteen-minute, live program of worship.
A message was passed to him: “Germany invaded Poland early this morning.”
Welch immediately broke the news to his listeners and then thoughtfully led them in prayer for Poland, for the people of Britain, and for trust in God.
* * *
Everyone tuned in to their radios—the “wireless,” as everyone called it—establishing the critical role broadcasting would play in the future of the nation. The news came in bits and pieces from newsreaders who spoke in educated accents, using the King’s English. The announcer betrayed no emotion as he told how German tanks, infantry, and cavalry—a total of 1.5 million troops—had penetrated Polish territory on several fronts. German planes bombed the cities. Incendiary bombs were dropped on the cities of Kraków, Katowice, Tczew, and Tunel. By 9:00 a.m., the air raids had reached Warsaw.
As the day unfolded, it became clear that there had been no warning or declaration of war from Germany, though a German radio broadcast stated that the government had presented a list of demands to Polish authorities. The Polish government officials claimed they had never received them.
Prime Minister Chamberlain met with his cabinet in the morning. In the afternoon, as a matter of protocol and duty, Chamberlain met with King George. Though the role of a monarch was mostly as a figurehead by that point in Britain’s history, the king still had the authority to approve the government’s plans on the mobilization of the Naval Service, British army, and Royal Air Force.
Chamberlain addressed Parliament later in the evening. The BBC told the nation to expect a statement from Prime Minister Chamberlain.
C. S. Lewis, Shakespeare, and Poland
Jack Lewis had come a long way since being wounded in France. By 1939 he was a tutor (teaching assistant) and lecturer at Magdalen (pronounced “Maudlin”) College in Oxford, a published essayist and critic, and the author of several books ranging from poetry and literary studies to science fiction and even an allegorical defense of his book The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism (1933). His reputation as an engaging lecturer led to invitations for him to give talks and present academic papers around the country.
On the day Germany invaded Poland, Jack was away from his home in Oxford to lecture in the town of William Shakespeare’s birth, Stratford-upon-Avon. The town, a major tourist stop boasting Shakespeare’s home and a museum and filled with theaters dedicated to performances of Shakespeare’s plays, was in the final days of its annual summer-long festival dedicated to the Bard of Avon. Jack was asked to present two talks.
The first lecture, delivered the day before the invasion, was titled “The Renaissance and Shakespeare: Imaginary Influences.” Lewis claimed it could have been titled “How the Renaissance Didn’t Happen and Why Shakespeare Was Not Affected by It.” The lecture went well enough to be reported in the London Times the next day. The second lecture, about The Taming of the Shrew, was canceled because of the news from Europe.
In all, Jack had a “pretty ghastly time,” as he was stuck in a nearly empty hotel with a radio “blaring away all the time and hours and hours to get through without work.” For him, it was the “worst possible background to a crisis.”
The only positive experience was the chance to see two Shakespearean plays—Richard III and Much Ado About Nothing (“the latter was really very good”).
Jack returned to Oxford by train, narrowly missing Warnie at the railway station. Though Warnie had retired from active military duty in 1932, he had remained a member of the Regular Army Reserve of Officers. With the news from Poland, Warnie was sent immediately to a base in Catterick, North Yorkshire. Within two weeks he would be sent to France, where his experience in the distribution of military supplies and dealing with troop transports would become vital.
All of this was worrisome to Warnie. By this time he was forty-four, physically unfit, a heavy drinker, and, at heart, fearful of his ability to serve with the same vigor he had in the First World War. He admitted in his diary that he felt confused and frightened. Yet he was determined to do his duty.
Jack knew his brother well. They had been as close as two brothers could ever be—their bonds of affection going back to childhood as playmates, surviving their mother’s early death, and drawing strength from each other while living with a distant father. And while Warnie nearly idolized Jack, Jack agonized over his brother’s excessive drinking. To know that Warnie might be thrown back in the thick of battle after all those years was an understandable source of anxiety. Jack wrote to Warnie immediately and regularly thereafter. “God save you, brother” he offered as a poignant closing to a letter written on September 2, 1939.
Yet if Jack was worried for his brother, he was also worried for himself. He was still within the age for military enlistment—he wouldn’t turn forty-one until November 29. Like Warnie, he wanted to do his duty, but he questioned his usefulness or ability to serve in the way the government might require.
He proactively met with the president of Magdalen College, George Stuart Gordon. Jack had known Gordon for years, referring to him in various letters as “Gentleman George” or “Smoothboots.” Gordon laughed “to scorn” Jack’s worries and assured him it would all work out. There was little Jack could do but hope Gordon was right.
Emergency at the BBC
The BBC was in a frenzy of activity on September 1, 1939, as its long-standing emergency war plans were quickly implemented. Sealed orders were opened at every transmitter station in the country, requiring each transmitter to synchronize with all the others on a single wavelength (rather than the variety of wavelengths the BBC had been using). This allowed the other transmitters to carry on if one transmitter were to be damaged by German bombers. Listeners would hear no more than a slight decrease in volume. Listeners were instructed throughout the day regarding which wavelength they should adjust their radios to. By 8:15 that evening, listeners heard the new on-air identification for the first time: “This is the BBC Home Service.”
The new television service, only two years old but already broadcasting to ten thousand viewers, was suddenly unplugged. The government feared that the transmitter at the famous Alexandra Palace in London would serve as a powerful direction-finder for enemy aircraft. The last thing viewers saw was the Walt Disney cartoon Mickey’s Gala Premiere.
Many of the program departments moved away from London, as everyone was sure that the city would be the primary target of German attacks. Reverend Welch and the Religious Broadcasting department were sent to Bristol, approximately 120 miles west of London.
Amid all this internal activity, a much greater and more heart-wrenching plan was enacted for the people of London. That same evening, the BBC announced the government’s instructions for evacuating the city’s children.
THE KILNS AT WAR
ALMOST A MILLION YOUNG MEN from the British Empire were killed or wounded in World War I. The survivors became the “Lost Generation,” now older and understandably fearful of another war—and an immediate German attack. Not surprisingly, the government was motivated to do all it could to protect the next generation. Plans were implemented for the evacuation of roughly two million children from Britain’s major cities.
Though the evacuations were entirely voluntary, the government exerted as much pressure as possible on reluctant parents. “Mothers—send them out of London” one poster proclaimed, with a picture of worried-looking children gazing pathetically at the camera. Another poster, anticipating the temptation to bring evacuated children back, used a drawing of a ghostlike Hitler leaning toward the ear of a mother sitting under a tree with her children and whispering, “Take them back,” while the headline begged mothers, “Leave the children where they are.”
The majority of parents, anxious and frightened, agreed with the government’s plan. Estimates vary, but approximately 1.5 million children were removed from the largest cities in England, with most from London. Some left with their mothers or fathers. Many left alone, and parents had to trust their children to strangers while they remained in the cities to work.
On paper, the plan seemed sensible. In reality, the ministries of health and transport and the board of education weren’t ready for the logistical nightmare that followed. Children were taken to schools, city halls, churches, and bus and railway stations with little more than a change of undergarments, a sack lunch, and a gas mask. Some were accompanied by their heartbroken mothers. Where a parent couldn’t accompany a child, one hundred thousand teachers were tasked with the job. It still wasn’t enough. Only through the intervention of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, when an additional seventeen thousand women stepped into the fray, was the traumatic process eased.
The rural authorities on the receiving end were also overwhelmed. Bedding, medical supplies, water, and food were in short supply. The villagers also received a shock when they encountered the lice, scabies, rickets, and malnutrition afflicting many of the inner-city children. Some of the children had never used a proper toilet. Some had never slept in a bed. And when they did, bedwetting wasn’t uncommon (a third of the children suffered from this problem). As a result, the government had to increase the laundry allowance for the host families.
These physical manifestations of emotional trauma should not have been a surprise. Torn from their families, the children had to cope with deep emotional loss, if not of their mothers, then of their fathers, who had to remain back in the city, possibly to die. Adding to the trauma, not all of the villagers were willing recipients of these urban strangers. Many of the hosts resented the fact that war hadn’t been officially declared or might still be avoided. It was possibly a lot of unnecessary effort. Some begrudgingly took in evacuees, only to make the children’s lives miserable. One woman demanded that an evacuee mother keep her small children quiet at all times. Another woman refused to allow the evacuees to use the kitchen or hang up washing to dry in the house. In a few cases, evacuee families were required to leave their hosts’ houses during the day and wander the countryside until they were allowed to return in the evening.
Not all of the conditions were the stuff of nightmares. Many evacuee children wound up with kind and generous families in homes with better accommodations than their city dwellings. For them, life in the countryside, as a contrast to the cities, proved blissfully quiet and almost heavenly, with green fields and fresh air.
On September 2, 1939, three anxious evacuee girls arrived at Jack Lewis’s house and entered an atmosphere that would undoubtedly have been a source of blessed relief—even if an unusual one.
History of The Kilns
Though English homes are numbered, it’s a quaint tradition to name one’s home. The practice began in the early days of Britain’s history as the wealthy named their mansions, castles, and halls. The lower classes embraced the idea, giving their homes names like Rose Cottage or Patchings or, in the case of Jack’s house, The Kilns.
The Kilns was as much a description as it was a name. Built in an area called Headington Quarry, about three miles outside of Oxford, the house sat on nine acres at the base of Shotover Hill, with woods and a large pond that had once been a pit from which clay was taken for brick making. The actual kilns, which had been used to bake the bricks, still stood on the property, abandoned and covered in ivy.
The ground floor of The Kilns contained two sitting rooms, two bedrooms, a kitchen and scullery, and a very small maid’s bedroom. Two rooms were later added—a workroom for Jack and another for Warnie. Upstairs were another three bedrooms, though one—Jack’s—could be entered only through an adjoining bedroom or an outside entrance with its own stairs.
The estate also contained a greenhouse, tennis court, garden, orchard, and a couple of small bungalows that occasionally served as storage or temporary living quarters (even though they lacked plumbing or heat).
The property had been purchased in 1930 by Jack, Warnie, and Mrs. Janie Moore and was placed legally in Mrs. Moore’s name. She was, in most respects, the matriarch of The Kilns until her death in 1951.
A reasonable question for the three evacuees might have been this: Why was Jack Lewis living with a woman named Mrs. Moore?
In 1917 Jack was a student at University College, Oxford. The First World War raged across the English Channel, and Jack was quickly enlisted to participate in the University Officer Training Corps (UOTC). Within a month he was transferred to Keble College as a cadet, with the expectation of a commission.
Jack’s roommate at Keble was a young man named Paddy Moore. Jack initially viewed Paddy as a “good fellow,” perhaps “a little too childish,” but then revised his opinion a few days later and decided he was a “very decent sort of man.”
Paddy’s mother was Mrs. Janie Moore, an Irish woman who’d moved to Oxford with her eleven-year-old daughter, Maureen, to be close to Paddy before he was sent off to France.
With Warnie—his only sibling—serving in France and his father back in Ireland, Jack took to the Moores as a surrogate family. They certainly welcomed him into the fold. Within a month Jack wrote to his father, Albert Lewis, that he liked Mrs. Moore immensely. More than that, Jack had become infatuated with her.
Mrs. Moore was then forty-five and had been separated from her husband since 1907 after she left him in Ireland; they never divorced. For Jack to be attracted to an Irish woman who was willing to mother him wasn’t surprising considering the loss of his own mother when he was nine. Jack would call her “Minto” or “mother,” and she called him “Boysie.”
Upon completing officer’s training in September 1917, Jack became a second lieutenant in the Third Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry. He was given a month’s leave before going off to France. Instead of going straight home to his father, he spent half of the leave with Mrs. Moore in Bristol. His father was hurt by Jack’s choice. Their relationship, volatile during the best of times, became strained—even more so when a series of telegram miscommunications caused Albert to miss seeing his son one last time before Jack was sent to France.
Paddy wasn’t in the same battalion as Jack, winding up instead with the Rifle Brigade. Paddy began his tour of duty in France at the beginning of October 1917. At their final meeting, each young man promised to take care of the other’s family if the worst happened in battle—a promise that became pivotal in Jack’s life.
Wounds That Won’t Heal
Jack arrived in France in mid-November 1917. His battalion was ordered to the front. He celebrated his nineteenth birthday in the trenches, where, for a long time, all was water and weariness. There was little engagement with the enemy, as both sides remained in a military stalemate. The following February, Jack was hospitalized for three weeks with trench fever, an illness suffered by many soldiers during this war. He was released in time to join his battalion for Germany’s final attack on the western front that spring.
Meanwhile, Paddy Moore’s war experience and whereabouts became a mystery. He was last seen during a battle at Pargny, France, on March 24, 1918. Witnesses said he went to heroic efforts to fight “against infinitely superior numbers of the enemy.” His death was confirmed in April—but not to Mrs. Moore. She didn’t learn her son’s fate until the following September, in part because the information had been sent to her estranged husband in Ireland. He failed to let her know.
“They tell me he was taken a prisoner,” Mrs. Moore explained to Albert Lewis in an October 1 letter. “[Then he] overthrew his guards, got back to our lines to be sent over again, was wounded in the leg, and as his man was bandaging him up, was shot through the head and killed instantaneously.”
The spring offensive by the German army in March continued into April. The Germans attacked the French city of Arras, where Lewis was posted. Jack’s battalion then led a counterattack on Riez du Vinage. There are conflicting reports about what happened exactly. Without dispute, it was during the evening of April 15 that a shell exploded, killing Sergeant Harry Ayres and wounding Jack in three places. Jack fell to the ground with the wind knocked out of him. His face slammed into the mud, causing one eye to swell shut and giving the impression he’d also been wounded in the face. He recovered enough to drag himself back to his battalion, where stretcher bearers took him to a field hospital. Warnie, on hearing the news, borrowed a motorbike and rode fifty miles to see Jack.
Toward the end of May, Jack was relocated to a hospital in London. He wrote to his father begging him to come visit, but for unknown reasons, Albert didn’t. Mrs. Moore did. Often.
Given the chance to transfer to a convalescent home, Jack requested one in Ireland but was denied. He then chose another in Bristol to be nearer to Mrs. Moore. In the ensuing months, their relationship became fixed. Mrs. Moore had a replacement for her dead son. Jack, who was by nature loyal and dutiful, took seriously his promise to Paddy and committed himself to her care.
From that point on, Jack, Mrs. Moore, Maureen, and, later, Warnie were a family. The arrangement would impact Jack’s life and writing in ways he could not have imagined.
Life with the Three Evacuees
Little is known about the first three evacuee girls. One, according to Jack, was a “Rose Macaulay child—pure boy in everything except anatomy and a reader of Henty,” a popular writer of fiction for boys.
Mrs. Moore instantly established ground rules for the newcomers. They were expected to help around the house and garden; they would all share a single room; and they would not be eating at the table with the family.
Presumably Jack didn’t challenge Mrs. Moore on some of the rules in order to keep the peace with her. But he often smuggled food up to the girls’ room or, when possible, permitted them to sneak down to the kitchen for a bite to eat. While out for walks, he treated them to an occasional meal at the local fish-and-chip shop. They would eat quickly before arriving home.
Mrs. Moore also insisted that Jack was not to be bothered in his study. Jack himself broke this rule, inviting the girls in to listen to classical music or simply to chat. He also encouraged their learning by buying them books and discussing what they’d read. Some nights, after Mrs. Moore had gone to sleep, the girls would slip out of their bedroom window, onto the roof of Jack’s study, and in through another window to talk with him.
For his part, Jack observed the girls with a certain bemusement. In letters to his brother he recounted how, when war was declared, one of the girls jumped up and down with joy, while another added, “Perhaps there’ll be an air raid to-night!”
The girls were allowed to swim in the pond, but it had to be done in two shifts because there weren’t enough bathing suits for all three girls. Watching them, Jack was amused to see them employ a stall tactic. He stood on the pond’s edge “bawling ‘Time to come out’ and a head disappearing and then emerging ten yards further away to say ‘What?’, and then twenty yards further away still to say ‘I can’t hear what you say.’”
He also noted how modern children were “poor creatures” because they were constantly bored and nagging their caretakers for things to do. He’d send the evacuees off to play tennis or mend stockings or write home, and as soon as that was done, they were back again with the same questions. “Shades of our own childhood!” Jack exclaimed. He conceded that his father “had a great deal more patience than we boys thought.”
The revolving-door existence of the evacuees became clear rather quickly when, after only a couple of weeks, “the nicest of our evacuated girls (the Rose Macaulay one) [had] been taken away by a peripatetic lip-sticked mother who . . . changed her mind.” In the girl’s place came an “Austrian Jewess” (about the age of sixteen), whom the school said was “difficult.”
In a letter she wrote to Wheaton College historian Clyde Kilby, evacuee Patricia Heidelberger recalled her years at The Kilns as “two of the happiest of my school life.” She wrote,
The evacuees in the Oxford area created problems for Jack in unexpected ways. Suddenly it was difficult to find a seat in church because “every local family, apparently [took] the view that whether they go or not, at any rate their evacuees shall.” He took exception to being surrounded by a “writhing mass of bored urchins” who obviously had no idea what was going on or why. It confirmed Jack’s view that the people in what had once been considered a Christian country now knew little about the faith.
The presence of so many children during the war years deeply affected Jack. Friend and biographer George Sayer concluded that, without the presence of the evacuees, Jack may not have had the same depth of childlike insight or creative inspiration with the Narnia stories.
* * *
In one day Jack’s world had changed. Europe seemed headed for another war. Mrs. Moore and her daughter, Maureen, now had three strangers in the house to worry over. Warnie had gone off to war, and Jack was still within the age range to follow.
Any hope of averting war now rested with Prime Minister Chamberlain. On the evening of September 1, 1939, in a packed House of Commons, he announced that two ambassadors in Berlin—the British and the French—had given German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop an ultimatum: Unless the Nazis withdrew immediately from Poland, Britain and France would fulfill their promise to support the Polish people and go to war.
Von Ribbentrop promised only that he would pass the message on to Adolf Hitler.
REPORTING FOR DUTY
IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL SUNDAY morning, September 3, 1939, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain took to the airwaves at eleven fifteen. He spoke in a sober, melancholy tone.
“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street,” he began. Then he informed the country:
Chamberlain then confessed:
Within half an hour after this announcement, as if to persuade the nation that their worst fears were now realized, the air-raid sirens sounded.
The sirens were triggered by a French fighter plane, which had inadvertently flown into British airspace and set off the hyperattentive alarms. The average person couldn’t have known that. Chamberlain’s announcement was like a shot from a starting pistol for a race between raw nerves and fear. Germany would invade. Everyone knew it. But so soon? they wondered. The sirens told them yes.
Families scrambled for the shelters. Some people rushed from churches in the middle of services. Others rushed toward churches for shelter or prayer or both. Half-dressed men and women dashed into the streets to see what was happening in the sky above. Some reached places of safety only to be dismayed that the gas masks they’d been given weren’t accessible, having been buried in a box somewhere in a closet back home.
Few were prepared. Most were panicked.
At the BBC, the internal alarm system went off. Joseph Macleod, a newsreader, described it as “the loudest, most ear-tearing, most soul-lacerating things I had ever heard.” Horrible bangs and bumps left him believing the entire building was being bombed to smithereens. When he later emerged and found everything intact and peaceful, he had to assume the noises were merely slamming doors as employees had raced to the concert hall, which now served as the air-raid shelter.
In other parts of London, rumors spread that the entire East End had been devastated, killing thousands. In fact, no one had been hurt.
The same couldn’t be said for British citizens elsewhere. Two hundred miles west of Scotland, the German submarine U-30 torpedoed the British liner Athenia. It sank, killing 112 passengers, including at least 28 Americans.
And so, for the people of Great Britain, the Second World War of the twentieth century began.
* * *
Reverend James Welch understood why the Religious Broadcasting department had to relocate from London to Bristol, but he wasn’t happy about it. He believed Religious Broadcasting needed to be relevant to the BBC’s listeners, and to be relevant meant experiencing what many of them would experience. He had a difficult time believing they could do that from Bristol, so far away from London.
Relevance was a key concept for Welch. He wanted “the people of the country to realise that the Church was more than just a pious institution but had something to say to the . . . life of the nation as a whole.”
These weren’t simply words for Welch; these were the convictions of a well-educated, passionate clergyman. An astute and thoughtful man, Welch viewed every job he’d ever taken as a mission to further the cause of Christ. To look at a photo of him, one sees the narrow face and intelligent eyes of an English vicar, the kind one might have seen in a 1930s film as played by a Leslie Howard or, in a more contemporary visual translation, a Hugh Laurie.
Joining Welch at the BBC was forty-year-old assistant director Eric Fenn, also an ecumenicalist and a minister in the English Presbyterian Church (though he wasn’t fully licensed until 1943).
Together, Welch and Fenn found themselves at the forefront of a new age in broadcasting in general and religious broadcasting in particular. The outbreak of war, they both believed, meant the gospel should be more important than ever to the people of Britain. Welch asked, “How can we be true to the word of the living God of all the nations, and at the same time meet the needs and terrible anxieties of a nation responding to the demands of a total war?”
To answer that question in what might have been considered a “Christian” nation would have been difficult enough. But Britain had changed in the years leading up to the war—and so had the BBC.
The Faith of the Nation
Welch, in his foreword to Dorothy Sayers’s published version of The Man Born to Be King, a radio play about the life of Christ, suggested that listeners in Britain were divided into three groups: “Those who approved of religious broadcasts, those who were indifferent but not unfriendly, and those who were positively hostile. The first group asked little more than the traditional presentation of the Christian religion through services and talks, though they asked that these should be good.” He determined that “the other groups were unmoved” and generally “unreached” by this traditional presentation. He concluded several things:
- The “dimension we call ‘God’” had disappeared from people’s lives, allowing them to live without faith or needing any sense of God in their decision making. God was an irrelevance.
- The “language of religion” had lost its meaning, especially when it used the Shakespearean language of the King James Version.
- Most people were ignorant of the Christian faith. For example, “[Of] a group of men entering the Army only 23 per cent knew the meaning of Easter,” and one young man thought Mark’s gospel was written by Karl Marx.
- In spite of all this, a “widespread dissatisfaction with materialism” still drove people to spiritual yearnings, with the “consensus of opinion” that Jesus still provided the “key to many of the riddles of life.”
“There is no need to elaborate this analysis,” Welch wrote. “Anyone who moves outside Church circles knows it to be substantially true.”
It’s astonishing to remember that Welch was describing Great Britain in the early days of the Second World War—not post-atomic-bomb baby boomers or the later alphabetized generations.
This secularized culture was the audience Welch hoped could be reached in the name of Jesus Christ. With the declaration of war, he felt an urgency to demonstrate that the church and religious broadcasting could meet the needs of the people.
What he may not have appreciated was just how far the war would take the BBC itself from its founding principles.
The Founding of the BBC
The BBC was founded in 1922 as a private company, started by a group of wireless manufacturers who needed to give people a reason to buy their products. In 1927 it was given a royal charter and incorporated. Income was generated by selling licenses to listeners—sometimes as many as a thousand per day. It quickly became a core feature of British life.
The visionary behind the BBC’s success was a thirty-three-year-old Scottish engineer named John Reith. His zeal, religious convictions, and undaunted determination were so formidable that the phrase Reithian values became synonymous for quality and integrity.
Reith believed the power of broadcasting as a scientific invention shouldn’t be used for entertainment alone. Such a thing would have been “a prostitution of its powers and an insult to the character and intelligence of the people.” To ensure the BBC would be used in the best possible way, he established three pillars set firmly on the foundation of Reith’s Christian faith: education, information, and entertainment.
It might surprise modern readers that in prewar Britain, religious programming accounted for more broadcasting hours than other types of programming. Sundays were treated as the Sabbath, with all broadcasting dedicated to religious services, allowing only brief interruptions for the weather forecast or the news.
But the war would significantly change the BBC’s views about religious programming, much to Reverend Welch’s alarm. Proving that his department was relevant and that religion could meet this crisis head-on became imperative.
His first opportunity arrived—and went terribly wrong.
The Archbishop’s Speech
The archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, was seventy-four on September 3, 1939. He had been one of the appeasers, along with Chamberlain, who believed peace would prevail. When Poland was invaded, Lang begrudgingly returned to London from his retreat in the Highlands of Scotland. He was despondent, physically ill, and, according to one biographer, unsure of how he might cope with the coming conflict.
At 8:00 p.m. on September 3, Lang took to the microphone at the BBC’s studios in Bristol. These were the first words the nation would hear from the head of its church. Welch was anxious that they would be encouraging and meaningful.
Few remember what Lang actually said. No written speech exists. But the general consensus seems to agree with Fenn’s description: the speech was “vapid and totally irrelevant.” Fenn’s secretary, listening as the talk was delivered, turned to him and asked, “What on earth does that man think he’s for?”
The Times and the Church Times only acknowledged that a speech had been made but didn’t bother to quote the archbishop at all.
Welch and Fenn were deeply disappointed.
Knowing that something needed to be done to rectify the situation, Welch insisted that Fenn take a broadcast slot to deliver the message they wished the archbishop had given. Fenn agreed, though he felt impertinent to attempt it, and delivered a speech that caught the tone Welch wanted. Fenn began by admitting that with the start of the war, the British people might believe that God had disappointed them—that faith was in vain. He also reflected on the reality of death and how it might come to them on a large scale in the days ahead. One way or another, everyone must “come to terms with death,” he said. Finally he expressed his belief that Christians could span the most “awful division of war” by uniting together.
Fenn spoke in terms the average listener could understand. He empathized with their feelings and offered hope. In many ways his broadcast was a hint at the direction to come for religious broadcasting.
But it would take a long time to get there.