Wartime perspective on BRF's Bible notes
Updated: May 14
As a reader of BRF's Bible notes over many decades, I was fascinated to read about the challenges of getting copies dispatched safely during World War II. Over the past few days, as we've had the VE Day 75 celebrations much in mind, The Bible Reading Fellowship has been sharing all sorts of reminiscences from the archive.
The archives reveal a treasure trove of memories: from a brief move out of London to a wing of the Dean of Gloucester’s house, to battles with the 'Paper Controller,' to the devastating bombing that left an entire mailing of Bible reading notes scattered in the wreckage… Follow the stories as told by our founder, Leslie Mannering, and assistant, Margery Sykes.
Armed Services notes
‘By the summer of 1939 BRF had 238,000 members,' recalled Leslie Mannering. In the words of the Secretary’s report, “the work goes forward with great promise in every direction”. Meanwhile the clouds of war were gathering over Europe. Then the storm broke. The office staff moved to Gloucester, where the Dean most kindly accommodated us, until its return to London in April 1940.
One of the first measures taken by the Fellowship was the production of the Service Notes for the use of men and women in the Forces.’
Those Service Notes were one of the key initiatives of BRF’s war years, meeting ‘a special need of the times’. Margery Sykes adds:
‘… the fact of having the Bible passage printed in the Notes greatly added to its practical use, as may be illustrated by quoting from one of the many letters received from men and women in the Services during the war. The writer in this instance was a stoker in one of our battleships, and he wrote: “It’s good to have the Bible part printed. I keep the little book under my cap, and so can read it whenever I get the chance, without having to rootle in my locker for my Bible.”
Miss Latford and the Paper Controller
Margery Sykes recalls:
‘Soon B.R.F. was facing the serious problem of paper-rationing, and during 1940 supplies were cut down to one-third of the quantity used before the war. No quota was allowed for the Service Notes, as these had not been issued before the war. In view of this the other Notes had to be reduced to 24 pages.’
The procurement of adequate paper supplies was a constant battle, fought for the most part by Miss Violet Latford:
‘The difficulties of producing the Notes under wartime conditions tended to increase, and Violet Latford was responsible for anticipating what quantity of paper would be necessary six months ahead or even more. In this she faced many dilemmas in negotiation with the 'Paper Controller.' At one time the situation became so serious that our Chairman, then Bishop of Ripon, together with one of the editors, called personally on the Government Department dealing with paper allocations, and effected their purpose of obtaining the minimum increase necessary to meet the growing demand for the Notes. Even when the allowance was authorized, the next problem was to obtain it from the paper merchants who were, for most of the war, deep in their own predicaments.’
The bombs fell
BRF moved back to its offices in London’s Victoria Street in April 1940, shortly before enemy bombing began ‘with a vengeance’. As Margery Sykes recalls:
‘One of the first catastrophes from which we suffered was when our main printers (and packers), Messrs. G.F. Skinner & Co., had a direct hit on their works. Miss Wright, the first B.R.F. group secretary at St Matthew’s, Brixton, wrote of that time:
“On my way to business one morning during the dreadful air-raids over London, I had to pass through Camberwell, and as I reached the firm who had the printing of the Fellowship leaflets I found them scattered all over the road and pavements, mixed up with the belongings of the poor unfortunate people who had suffered to shockingly the previous night. The Notes had obviously been packed up ready for delivery. It was a distressing sight.”
It certainly was a serious matter, and 244,000 Notes were destroyed in that one night to the value of £835.
Keep carrying on…
The sudden loss of so many Notes in the bombing of the printers, just when they were due for dispatch was a major crisis but BRF staff rose to the occasion magnificently, as Margery Sykes recalls:
‘ A printer had to be found to deal with an emergency re-print, and arrangements made for the packing of the parcels which numbered thousands.
'Headquarters staff had to work at tremendous pressure to deal all over again with the addressing of labels and a considerable amount of packing, but in spite of all this the Notes were re-printed and sent out just in time for the scheduled date, so that none of our readers suffered any inconvenience.’
This ‘can do’ commitment of BRF staff was demonstrated time after time through the darkest days of the war.
‘A cellar at No. 171 Victoria Street was put at our disposal as an air-raid shelter, and often during the Battle of Britain a daylight raid would have started by the time the office was due to open. Those who reached it first would wait anxiously for those who had been delayed in train or bus, and some of the juniors would arrive for work weary and sleepy-eyed after being up all night in a shelter. So we put a camp-bed in my office where, during one of the lulls, they could take it in turns to snatch an hour’s sleep in order to carry on their work more efficiently. We were most fortunate in that there were no casualties among the staff, and although bombs were dropped on both sides of the office building, it only suffered from that unpredictable element – blast.’
Meanwhile in Europe…
Several translations of BRF Bible Notes were, of necessity, suspended during the war years, including the Japanese one, and many of our keenest members in Occupied countries were unable to receive their Notes. But even this didn’t daunt some of them. Here is part of a letter written by a member in Haarlem soon after the release of Holland, recorded by Margery Sykes:
‘When in May 1940 the Germans took possession of this country, a small group of members of the Church of England at Haarlem – mostly British wives of Dutch husbands – were left here without a padre, a Church or anything, and by the end of the month those of us who were of the B.R.F., some six or seven, realized that no more leaflets would be coming either. We set to work and had a meeting every fortnight in turns at our houses, and put together all the old B.R.F. Notes we had (one of us even had them from 1933), and made a sort of ‘circulating library’, using the months of bygone years for our meetings and at home, e.g. my family always read them at Family Prayers. So we kept going, and thank God the Germans never discovered our meetings. By 1945 we were very much at the end of this circulating library, and when at the liberation the first Canadian Army Chaplain gave us a handful of the green ‘For Those on Service’ leaflets, we were very pleased, and now we can join again since January. Last year we still depended on friends getting them for us because we couldn’t pay for them. So when you are together presently to give thanks for the many blessings of BRF, our thanksgivings will be with you in spirit, for a fellowship which meant so much in the hard time we had.’
It seemed nothing short of a miracle to us and to our distant branches in Australia, Africa and India, that during the whole of the war the number of parcels that failed to reach their destination abroad totalled under ten.
An ending, and a beginning …
As BRF emerged from its war years the task changed, but the vision remained, as Founder Leslie Mannering records:
‘In our own country we are being warned that the pulse of the nation’s life has run dangerously low. Many are planning and striving to find the remedy. But national recovery depends on spiritual recovery; and spiritual recovery in its turn, depends on the rediscovery of the Bible. The scriptures are not out of date, but man is out of tune. He must turn to them afresh, he must understand them anew; for there are depths of meaning in the Bible that man has not fathomed yet. The Bible is ahead of the times.
‘What, then, does the Lord require of us? Out of the distant past a voice speaks to us, bidding us ‘walk humbly with our God’. And we know that the prophet Micah is right. All the more is it required of us because God has so signally blessed our Fellowship. We must be ready to learn, and unlearn, and relearn; pressing forward to the fulfilment of Christ’s promise: ‘the Spirit of truth shall guide into all truth’.
For the next two years the focus was the 25th Anniversary Service which would be attended by Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. Today, as we begin to focus on the new post-lock down world we turn our attention to BRF’s Centenary celebrations in 2022. Our founder Leslie Mannering’s words are as relevant now as the day he wrote them:
‘We must be ready to learn, and unlearn, and relearn; pressing forward to the fulfillment of Christ’s promise: ‘the Spirit of truth shall guide you into all truth’ (John 16:13).
See how the journey continues… on our new BRF website.