The Dearmers: Three pilgrim generations
Percy Dearmer (1867-1936) was an inventive and creative churchman. His son, Geoffrey Dearmer (1893-1996), was a fine WW1 poet who was re-discovered when he was aged 100. His grand-daughter, Juliet Woollcombe, now in her 80s, fulfilled the ambition of his feminist circle: she was ordained a priest in 1994. There is much more to be said about this remarkable family, and not least about its women. I attempt to tell some of that story, which I characterise as a pilgrimage, below the fold.
This essay is prefaced by some 2022 remarks by a very much living Dearmer, Geoffrey Dearmer’s daughter Juliet, now in her 80s. She endorses the idea of three generations of Dearmer pilgrims, with fascinating distinctions between them. The Dearmer women were an acknowledged force, too. Juliet Dearmer in 1980 would become the second wife, and in 2008 the widow, of the distinguished ecumenical Anglican, the Right Reverend Kenneth Woollcombe. She became a priest in the Anglican church.
Juliet Woollcombe note…
Juliet Woollcombe recalls that at 27 she joined her father in 1965 to see the sole performance of his Tides of Invasion, a pageant about Selsey, West Sussex, and the Manhood Peninsula, of which it is the tip. In a phone conversation (November 2022), she said:
“We may have made the trip in a day, though my dad may have been staying with Mabel Constanduros [a Chichester-based actress and writer who often worked with him]: he often did. I think the performance was in the open air, and the audience was seated. It was very long. A bit too long, really, as I think my father realized. Helen Lowry [a noted London-based pageant and play producer and director, who often worked with St Mary’s, Primrose Hill, a hot-bed of Anglo-Catholic creativity] was in charge. There was a lot of movement of the cast, from place to place and on and off-stage.
“…. I had enjoyed performing in pageants in my boarding school after the War. Patriotic pageants were very popular and basically the content was a celebration of victory after World War Two. As a Brownie, we had much marching and singing to do toillustrate the celebratory spirit of the time! I remember it as being good fun… By the time of the mid-60s, and the Selsey pageant, I think there was a sort of feeling that it was all bit dated. My father had been very influenced by his mother. She had enjoyed being in the famous 1909 English Church Pageant, which her husband Percy had partly written and driven. But by the 1960s people were beginning to think pageants weren’t very sophisticated.
“… Geoffrey’s religion was different to Percy’s. For Percy it was important that that worship appealed to the senses, He loved colour, as in the vestments which symbolize the changing seasons of the church and felt the smell and rising smoke of incense could symbolise prayers ascending. He also liked churches to be full of light. When he went to St Mary’s, Primrose Hill he white-washed the entire interior! I think he felt the appearance, sounds and so on, helped communicate the heart and message of the service and the God it was trying to proclaim.
“Geoffrey, my father, went to church and was a spiritual person. But he was not a Churchman in the way Percy was. Geoffrey was a ‘Kingdom’ person rather than a ‘Church’ person. His sense of the Spirit was perhaps more private or personal and less institutional …
“Like a lot of people of my generation, I started out very High Church. But the older I get, the more loosely I find myself bound to the institution of the Church. But of course, everybody needs a vehicle, an institution, however imperfect. A dean of Westminster once said that the Church partly reveals and partly conceals God and I very much understand that. But you know, Percy evolved too, and when he was a Canon of Westminster, he came to see a lot of the vestments as just dressing up.”
End of JW note, start of RDN essay
There are three famous 19th and 20th Century Dearmers – a married couple (Percy and Mabel) and a son (Geoffrey). Perhaps one should add a fourth: Percy and Mabel’s youngest child, Christopher, of whom a little more later. But it is Percy, Mabel and Geoffrey we can easily read a good deal about and maybe come to understand a little.
The Dearmer story is powerful if tantalising evidence of the long-tail of the counter-intuitive 19th Century religious revival. Our country is littered with vast, costly Anglo-catholic churches and cathedrals which testify to the strength of this well-funded anti-materialist, Medievalist urge. It is a wonder to see a revival of traditional religion in these new, and in much older, churches, and in the hearts and minds of the modern people. Just as medievalist Arts & Crafts showed a passion or longing for creativity endorsed by past centuries was, so religious revivalism was, I presume, a modern attempt to find continuity amongst breathtaking, thrusting futurism. This was religion reacting to the shock of The Enlightenment, Darwinism, and the scepticism about the literal truth of the Bible stories which had been gathering force since the 16th Century. It only looks like a denial of the modern: I much prefer to see it is as a desire to link past and present.
To bring this down to earth and up-to-date: the thousands of nativity plays, involving tens of thousands of youngsters as they retell Bible stories in the run-up mostly to Disney Christmases, deserve an explanation. The Dearmers, in a way, provide one.
Percy (1876-1936), Mabel (1872-1915) and Geoffrey (1893-1996) were all theatricals. Percy Dearmer was an important low-, and later, middle-rank, clergyman of very wide influence. Even as a parish priest he was deeply concerned with the liturgical round of the church’s seasons. He endorsed the ceremony – one might say, the performance – which he felt was part of church services. It may have helped that he had remarkable looks: he would make a good stand-in for Laurence Olivier. He believed that in music, vestments and liturgy, a church service could better reach human souls. His was the “smells and bells” High Anglicanism which persists today, bordering on the camp to its critics, but deeply moving to those who warm to it. Percy energetically promoted various of these themes, perhaps most famously in the various hymnals he helped edit. Percy’s role is easily pursued in books and online. His was an impressive life of campaigning, as much progressive as traditional, as much restless as rooted. Delve into the story, and one finds evidence that Percy Dearmer’s views became less formulaic as he went on: his mind was not designed for doctrine. It doesn’t do to clamp any of the Dearmers into neat categories.
It is illuminating, I think, to see that Percy Dearmer is probably best known today for his espousal of the 17th Century John Bunyan hymn, “To Be a Pilgrim”. Percy re-wrote the Bunyan original, even, one might say, bowdlerizing it slightly. He made it less folksy, and less punchy. However, Ralph Vaughan Williams was recruited to set it to music, and deployed a West Sussex folk tune for the purpose. So here we have a socialist and pacifist High Churchman reviving interest in a Puritan anthem and a country tune, which have as it happens brought many a public school assembly to life and been adopted by the SAS as a house song. But he worked on a big scale: he edited Songs of Praise, The English Hymnal and the Oxford Book of Carols. In the early years of the 20th Century Dearmer and Vaughan Williams’ English Hymnal (first published in 1906) and Hymns Ancient and Modern (first published in 1861) were often pitted against each other, though revisions (especially to the latter) eased tensions eventually.
Percy’s first wife Mabel was as extraordinary as her husband. She was a successful children’s writer and illustrator and an important contributor to the household’s funds. She was an emerging adult novel writer. She was interested in Miracle and Mystery plays, and effective in promoting the form, to which she contributed her own, not least The Soul of the World: A Mystery play (1911, three episodes from the beginning, middle and end of Jesus’s sojourn on earth) and The Dreamer: A drama of the life of Joseph (1912). It is fascinating to note that one of Mabel Dearmer’s religious plays came a legal cropper when the Lord Chancellor’s censorship office noticed that one venue, King’s College, London, had no legal right to host religious performances. The show was shut down, and re-staged elsewhere. (Equally extraordinary to note that Mabel’s son Geoffrey – not a censorious man – did a stint in the self-same office years later.) Mabel’s plays and performances were in a hybrid form, part theatre but with an avowed religious, even worshipful, dimension. Mabel brought social entrepreneurship to her work, forming a Miracle and Mystery theatre society (there would soon be several) to give structure to her efforts and those of others.
Mabel was something of a trail blazer. June D Ottaway in her typescript 1952 MA thesis, The Development of Religious Drama in England in the Twentieth Century notes that Continental passion plays were popular with the English, and that, for instance, Bernard Shaw in 1897 wanted to see such works in London. Indeed, in 1911 a curious and vast semi-Continental production, The Miracle, was mounted in the Olympia Hall, London. For the next 30 or so years, especially between the end of WW1 and the beginning of WW2, homegrown Bible story plays were to be a startling feature of British (and French) church and theatrical life, attracting plays (in England’s case) from TS Eliot, Dorothy L Sayers, John Drinkwater, John Masefield and Laurence Housman, and drawing audiences as much from arty types from Chelsea and Bloomsbury as from the clergy and ordinary faithful. Ottaway cites one of the societies which promoted these works as believing that 800 had come to its attention in the period.
Geoffrey Dearmer’s parents had two very important ventures together, one of them theatrical. In 1909, Percy wrote much, perhaps, most of the large scale English Church Pageant, performed at Fulham Palace. It was, in effect, a High Church reading of Anglican history. Mabel took the part of Queen Bertha, the Kentish figure who supposedly enabled St Augustine’s Romish mission to gain traction in benighted or anyway paganish Kent. (GK Chesterton, just one of many powerful fans of the pageant form, played Samuel Johnson, almost an ecumenical High Anglican and – it was noted at the time – a rather incongruous figure for a church pageant.)
In 1915, Percy suddenly announced he was to become a frontline British Red Cross chaplain in Serbia. Mabel, immediately it seems, volunteered to accompany him as a nursing auxiliary. Three months later, in July 1915, having fulfilled this hazardous mission in spades, she died of enteric fever. Arriving for his own service in Gallipoli as an army officer, her son Geoffrey Dearmer was well-placed to eulogise in poetry the life and death of his younger brother Christopher, a Navy pilot who had been killed after 10 days of active service in the Dardenelles in October 1915.
We have a fine account of Mabel’s pre-war life as a writer and producer, which had widened to include something like small-holding. Her Letters From a Field Hospital, addressed mostly to the poet and Ireland specialist, Stephen Gwynn, and with a short memoir by him, speak of a woman who was thoughtful, energetic, and inspiring. She could mount large productions of plays (her own and others’) not least because people volunteered themselves to the causes. In her Serbian tented hospital, she ran – virtually alone – the linen service for several hundred people, by turns in soaking rain and searing heat.
Mabel Dearmer’s account of her enduring pacificism, and her acceptance of, and anxiety over, her sons’ determination to fight, are perhaps to be expected. What is remarkable is the uplifted tone with which she writes of the worst of war, including her sense that even her sons’ deaths, should the worst happen, would be ennobled by their having understood and chosen the cause in which they knew very well they might die. When she knew enteric fever had her in its grip and that she was likely to die, she did so with something like relief as she – in her words – “sank back on God”.
The Dearmers were people of faith. But Stephen Gwynn, who knew Mabel extraordinarily well, was, I think, expressing a related thought when he wrote of her death:
“… certain powers in human beings have a potency not limited by death, so that men and women who never heard her name may yet, in a different world, be reached by some far-off transmitted ray of her fortitude, her wisdom and her courage”.
I hold the view that, if there is anything like a mass human consciousness, this is what it looks like and how it works. I can’t believe in a non-materialist spirit world, whether divine or human. But I take great comfort that much religious practice is not really at odds with this secular view. To articulate the ineffable in terms given by Bible stories seems to me an entirely respectable sleight of hand. Indeed, to deny the metaphorical and psychological power of the Bible stories seems unnecessarily unimaginative.
A mark of Percy Dearmer’s cultural and religious entrepreneurship is seen in his establishment of the non-denominational Guildhouse in Kensington, not least with his second wife, Nan, at his elbow. In this experiment in religious community (carefully stated and operated so as not to compete with church practice) he collaborated with Maude Royden (key to feminist ambitions for the church), Martin Shaw (the composer and his collaborator at St Mary’s), and Cecil Sharp of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. (We meet Sharp in connection with Stanley and Helen Kennedy North.)
To come to Percy and Mabel’s son, Geofrey Dearmer. First World War poetry has been back-loaded with much freight over the years. In the fog of peace, it is lost to sight that most of the famous poets were a good deal more interesting – more complicated – than most academics, and school teachers could quite bother with. Nonetheless, Geoffrey Dearmer’s war poetry leaps out as more uplifting in message than is expected of warrior poetry of that time. It is also strikingly low-key. It is direct in speech and thought, as in Edward Thomas’s poetry, say. Dearmer resists allowing the horror of war to predominate. He insists that self-sacrifice can be noble. And in the midst of battle, he reminds himself that in a blink of history’s eye, these fields of terror would again be ripe in crops and wild-flowers. He understands the futility, absurdity, and waste of war. But I think he feels they are simply inevitable: what we can do, if we are lucky, is see, live and die in the realization that they are also temporary. And that the human enterprise can make something of them and see beyond them.
It is fascinating that Geoffrey Dearmer went on, after 1918, at first to be celebrated for his war poetry, and then in his own peaceable right as an English ruralist poet, and as a novelist. In the 1930s he joined the BBC, where for a while – by serendipity or cunning plan – he fulfilled his father Percy’s ambition that good church music and services should be at the heart of the modern phenomenon of broadcasting, not least for the young. Geoffrey went on to be a founding force in “Children’s Hour”, and, for instance, in the long success story of Wurzell Gummidge. Latterly, though I am not at all sure when most of it was written, Dearmer wrote and his Tides of Invasion: The Selsey story. It is an extraordinary piece, and, so far as I know, lost to view until I found my father’s typescript copy of it.
Dearmer’s epic work was performed in 1965 in fields around Church Norton, near Selsey on West Sussex’s Manhood Peninsula. It was organized by cosmopolitan devotees of the pageant form but involved tens and perhaps even low-hundreds of locals. It opens in fairly familiar “religion pageant” terms, with the story of St Wilfrid (and he was a great force, even granted the hagiography which we have of him). Fairly swiftly it moves on to be a more conventional “history pageant”, but is throughout larded with mainstream religious feeling. And yet, Dearmer deploys in the pageant two rather mystical poets: Francis Thompson (1859-1907), and James Elroy Flecker (1884-1919). More obviously – or more overtly – than himself, these men of a previous generation were on a complicated religious journey, but he carries a torch for them. I think it is at least fair to speculate, partly from evidence in his own poems, that Geoffrey Dearmer could resonate powerfully with people whose lifelong religious pilgrimages were fraught. Indeed, it is possible that Dearmer’s Selsey pageant was a little unadventurous and simplistic only because it was above all a dutiful fund-raiser for Chichester Cathedral and the diocese.
It is very tempting to see Geoffrey Dearmer’s thought and work, importantly in his poetry and his latter work in religious broadcasting and his pageant, as echoing that of his parents. Like them, he was happy to be seen as a conventional Christian, though like many others may well have been fashioning his own responses to church services and the literal truth of the Bible stories. In very much of Geoffrey’s poetry, right from the beginning, at war, one hears a voice insisting on the value of what humans must say for themselves. God and Jesus are often mentioned, and they sound like the literal, historic figures of religious tradition, but the degree to which they are useful as powerful and empowering metaphors is left moot.
The word “metaphor” won’t quite do. Geoffrey Dearmer’s late poem, “A Pilgrim’s Song” is a call to Jesus to be allowed “to walk, dear Lord, with thee”. We must all make what we will of such writing. But in Dearmer’s case, we can also see the many quietly beautiful lines in which he stresses what human minds, hands and spirit can make. Dearmer himself insisted that a small 1993 collection of his poems should bear the title, “A Pilgrim’s Song”. This might be an old man’s filial piety, or an expression of what really mattered to the poet, or both. As a secular person, I don’t find it remotely off-putting. We are all pilgrims, and religious or secular, often in much the same way. The Dearmers make spectacular figures in the religious history we have inherited, and it is working itself out in those primary school kids’ nativity performances.