Vicar of mirth who died with a smile

George Balleine made his name as a historian but before that, he was a pioneering social reformer in South London – as vicar of St James’s Church, Bermondsey. The poverty he saw there inspired him to join the social reform campaigns of his friends Ada and Alfred Salter – a couple who were respectively London’s first woman mayor and a pioneering Labour MP. George wrote extensively during his time in Southwark, – and lived to see the New Jerusalem he fought so hard for, after the end of the Second World War, writes another historian, GRAHAM TAYLOR.

What everybody remembered about George Balleine, the vicar of St James’ Church in Bermondsey, was that he came from Jersey and was a champion of the poor.

In fact he was born in 1873 near Oxford, where his father was a distinguished scholar.

When his father was appointed Dean of Jersey in 1888, his life turned was upside down.

He spent his final years at school in virtually a foreign country, where the main language was French.

Nonetheless he won a place at Oxford and there studied modern history.

He later said the turning-point in his life was hearing a charismatic American evangelist, Dwight Moody.

Moody preached that now was the moment to take the Word of Christ to the poverty-stricken masses in the slums of the great cities.

St James’ Church

Balleine was convinced but he had to study theology, which he found boring. Impatient to change the world, he said: “the only Authorised Version of the Bible is the “take-action’ version”.

In 1896 Balleine entered the slums of Whitechapel, in order to become a true Christian and ‘take action’.

Balleine was also keen on the latest technology and visited Bermondsey to try out a new invention called film.

His idea was to highlight the horrors of the slums but instead he fell in love with Bermondsey, and in 1908 became vicar of St James Church.

Before he took up his duties, George had time to write a book called A History of the Evangelical Party in the Anglican Church.

The success of this book was phenomenal. It became a classic of church history and even today is still referred to by scholars.

George Ballleine

In Bermondsey, he encountered a couple with similar ideas to himself – Ada and Alfred Salter.

Balleine warmed to the Salters, joined the Independent Labour Party, and even stood as a council candidate.

Some in the church raised their eyebrows but for Balleine politics was just an earthly means to a moral and spiritual end.

His parishioners were suffering from bad health, poor housing, and severe unemployment. This damaged them spiritually, and the test of a ‘true Christian’ was to ‘take action’.

Balleine was not elected, but his main job was being a good vicar and at that he was a spectacular success.

George Ballleine with Ada Salter

Tall, imposing, and with a powerful voice, he created an electric atmosphere whenever he spoke.

His love of technology brought lots of fun to St James. He filled the church with magic lantern shows, films, music, and plays he wrote himself.

To transform St James’ churchyard he worked with Ada Salter, head of the Council’s Beautification Committee.

Ada made part of it a play area because for her ‘beautification’ included play, music and sport as well as flowers and trees. But she and Balleine also covered the churchyard with thousands of tulips.

Ada, a gardening expert, selected every known type of tulip and every known shade of colour.

Connoisseurs came to Bermondsey from all over London to witness this amazing display.

Balleine’s most endearing aspect was his sense of humour, for which he earned the nickname, ‘vicar of mirth’.

For example, in the parish magazine he once wrote about fashion in the naming of children.

Boys baptised years ago, he wrote, used to have royal names – Harold, William, Richard and George – but now they had all sorts of names.

The latest favourite, he complained, was Derek, “a name which a few months ago I wasn’t sure how to spell”.

Then there was Brian, Ronald and Kenneth. Where did they come from? he asked.

The girls were no better. Suddenly all of them had to have a name ending in ‘a’: Diana, Rita, Patricia, Pamela, Sylvia or Sheila.

Another amusing article was about nicknames. Wesley hated the nickname of ‘Methodist’ and Quakers disliked the nickname of ‘Quakers’.

And ‘Southwark Park’, why was it called that? It should be called ‘Rotherhithe Park’.

And why was there a fashion in Bermondsey for buying canaries? He could find no explanation.

There was, he said, not even a coal-mine in the area.

Balleine even mocked his friend, Alfred Salter, the local MP, for his antiquated bike.

At Parliament, wrote Balleine, “when the Rolls Royces glide into Palace Yard to deposit our MPs there comes too a pushbike of prehistoric make – nothing like it is to be found outside the London Museum. It is Alfred Salter’s.”

The good times came to an end in the late 1930s as the country headed for war.

He had disagreements even with the Salters, and St James Church lost attendance despite his best efforts.

When he fell ill in 1938 he resigned as vicar of St James and retired to his family home in Jersey.

Even this decision turned out badly. In 1939 war broke out, and soon German bombs rained down upon Jersey’s port, Nazi troops invaded the island, and Balleine found he had fallen into Nazi hands.

Balleine, as ever, found positives in his situation. He spent his time writing a history of Jersey, finally published in 1951.

It become a classic, just like his history of the church.

This is a remarkable achievement. Most authors don’t even write one classic, but Balleine wrote two.

Yet for him books were secondary. After 1945 he felt the Christian values of compassion and equality had spread throughout the population.

Britain was more Christian than it was in the 19th century because everyone was now a sort of Christian, even if they called themselves ‘atheists’.

His daughter told St James church, on a visit after her father’s death, that when the ‘vicar of mirth’ died he died as he had lived, with a smile on his lips.


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