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Dick Sheppard



The founder of the Peace Pledge Union was Hugh Richard Lawrie Sheppard, popularly known as Dick Sheppard. He was a charismatic figure, a pioneer in a number of ventures, but always in touch with ordinary people.

Surprisingly, perhaps, for someone so popular and down to earth, he was born at Windsor Castle on 2 September 1880. His father was one of the clergy of the castle's St George's Chapel, and Dick's early years were spent in the castle and St James' Palace. His father wanted Dick to follow him into the priesthood of the Anglican Church, but Dick was unsure whether he had such a vocation.

Whilst pondering his career, Dick volunteered at the age of 18 for the Militia, the then equivalent of the Territorial Army, in which he was commissioned as a junior officer. Soon afterwards Britain went to war with the Boer (Dutch) people in South Africa, in what became known as the Boer War, and in early 1900 Dick decided to enlist in the Imperial Yeomanry for South African service. As he set out one frosty morning to join his unit, the horse of his hansom cab slipped on the ice, and in the ensuing crash Dick's leg was so badly injured that he had a slight limp until the end of his life. So ended the military career of the future famous pacifist.

Instead, he went to Cambridge University, and began voluntary vacation work in social activity centres, run by university people and known as 'settlements', for the poor and socially deprived in the East End of London. He became so interested in this that after graduating he began full-time work in one of the best known settlements, Oxford House, Bethnal Green. One of his main responsibilities was running boys' clubs, and it was here that his popular name 'Dick' really began, in preference to the formal 'Mr Sheppard'. Years later a friend wrote, "I can see Dick now standing in a bend of the dingy crowded stairs of the Webbe Institute with lads in drab clothes and chokers thronging up and down. He was greeting his pals by name." After a year the Bishop of Stepney, Cosmo Gordon Lang (later Archbishop of Canterbury), invited Dick to become his personal secretary. This close contact with the ministry of the Church, still in the East End, led Dick to accept that he did have a priestly vocation, and after training he was ordained in 1907, returning to Oxford House as Chaplain and then as Head of the House, until a bout of asthmatic ill-health, which was recurrently to affect him all his life, forced him to resign in 1910.

On recovery Dick served at various churches in the West End of London until in July 1914 he accepted the post of Vicar of St Martin-in-the Fields, Trafalgar Square. Before he could take it up, however, the First World War had been declared, and Dick accepted an invitation to be chaplain of a military hospital in France. Less than a week after arriving, the one time would-be soldier was writing home, "War is awful. More awful than I supposed possible". One of the doctors described how Dick "would identify himself with every dying man...sit there, just because he had promised the dying man that he would, just because he thought it might somehow comfort the poor fellow, who was long past any comfort really... "

After two months Dick's health broke again, and he returned to London to be inducted to St Martin's in November, before a congregation of eleven people - so far removed from mainstream church life had St Martin's become. In his twelve years as Vicar, Dick not only filled the Church for Sunday services but made it a centre for social care which survives to this day. He opened up the crypt (cellar) for down-and-outs and played scratch games of cricket with young people in the courtyard. The church itself was kept open all night for soldiers waiting for trains and anyone else in need of spiritual or physical shelter. One human story relates how one night Dick found a young woman crying in the church. She had been turned out of her home in a northern town, after a quarrel with her parents, but was desperately homesick. Dick sensed the possibility of reconciliation, and there and then took her to the station and travelled home with her, returning to London wearily but happily after seeing the family reunited.

Another pioneering venture came in 1924, when the BBC decided to experiment with broadcasting a religious service and chose St Martin's as the venue. This soon became a regular monthly feature, with Dick, 'the radio parson', sharing his pulpit with other clergy. Through such broadcasting Dick's increasing popularity in London spread throughout the country.

Meanwhile, Dick's direct experience of war had not been without effect. In 1937 he mentioned that he had become a pacifist eighteen years before, that is in 1919, although he left no overt record at that time. He had, however, allowed his pulpit to be used for sermons critical of the war, and had mentioned conscientious objectors alongside soldiers and sailors in public prayers.

On Armistice Day in 1923 Dick organised a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square as a National Call to Righteousness, which, although without official sanction, was broadcast. In 1925 he famously wrote to The Times in protest against a Victory Ball in the Albert Hall planned for the evening of Armistice Day: "A fancy dress ball on a vast scale as a tribute to the Great Deliverance which followed on the unspeakable agony of 1914-1918 seems to me not so much irreligious as indecent". Such a stir was created that the Ball was postponed for a day and Dick was asked in its stead to lead a simple service, In Memory, at the Hall, in the presence of the King, the Prime Minister and other national figures. Later he scribbled on his own copy of the programme, "Of course Pacifism must be written into this". That is the origin of the Festival of Remembrance now held on the evening before Remembrance Sunday but, with its drills and displays, it regrettably seems to have more of militarism than pacifism written into it.

Ill-health having necessitated Dick's resignation from St Martin's in 1926, he turned to completing a book on what he felt was wrong with the Church of England. Amongst many other points, The Impatience of a Parson (1927) argued that the Church should be "obliged to outlaw all war and to demand from its members that they should refuse to kill their brethren". The controversial nature of the best-selling book, together with his radio fame, led to writing columns in popular newspapers. On the recommendation of the Prime Minister, the King had already made him a Companion of Honour. Along with the down-and-outs, George V was actually a parishioner of St Martin's and came to a few services. Dick had been an Honorary Chaplain to the King since 1916.

In 1929 Dick acknowledged in a letter to the writer Laurence Housman, "I am now a pacifist. I do not think a Christian can take part in any work of killing, or do anything he cannot believe that Christ would have done". He was, nevertheless, "a trifle reluctant to make pacifism my only love". So it was that Dick's next appointment came later in the year, as Dean of Canterbury, heading the staff of the Cathedral, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, where Cosmo Lang had recently become the Archbishop.

Dick had just begun to make his mark in this influential post when ill-health once again forced a resignation in 1931. From this time on, Dick showed himself more and more as an active pacifist. On the night before Armistice Day 1931 he spoke at a No More War Movement meeting in the Albert Hall, along with the new Leader of the Labour Party, George Lansbury, who had campaigned against the Boer War whilst Dick was trying to join it. Dick made one of his best speeches and then, as was to happen frequently, collapsed on the platform.

By February 1932 he was anxious about the war raging in China after the Japanese invasion. He joined with Maude Royden and Herbert Gray, both ministers in the Congregational Church, in writing a letter to the Press inviting volunteers to stand between the enemy firing lines and calling upon the League of Nations to make use of such a 'Peace Army'. Dick privately acknowledged that, "Most of those who read it will laugh at us", but felt compelled by the urgency of the time.

Although there were a number of volunteers, including the Methodist minister Donald Soper, nothing substantive came of this venture. Aware that the Great 'War to end war' had far from ended war, and that the vaunted world Disarmament Conference in Geneva was breaking up in failure whilst states rapidly rearmed, Dick searched and searched for a real peace initiative. He went to The Hague in the Netherlands to hear the famous scientist Albert Einstein "appeal to all men and women that they will refuse to give any further assistance to war or the preparations for war. I ask them to tell their governments this in writing".

As the international situation worsened, with the coming to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1933, Dick heard of a sermon preached on Armistice Sunday that year in Riverside Church, New York, by Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Free Church minister who, like Dick, had served as a military chaplain in the First World War. Dr Fosdick ended by pledging to "do the best I can to settle my account with the Unknown Soldier.

"I renounce war. I renounce war because of what it does to our own men...I renounce war because of what it compels us to do to our enemies...I renounce war for its consequences, for the lies it lives on and propagates, for the undying hatreds it arouses, for the dictatorships it puts in place of democracy, for the starvation that stalks after it. I renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will I sanction or support another."

This text so moved Dick that, after much thought and consultation, he decided to use it as the basis for yet one more letter to the Press. In this letter, which the Times refused to publish, but which did appear in the (then Manchester) Guardian and other papers on 16 October 1934, Dick wrote of "the almost universally acknowledged lunacy of the manner in which nations are pursuing peace...It seems essential to discover whether or not it be true, as we are told, that the majority of thoughtful men in this country are convinced that war of any kind or for any cause, is not only a denial of Christianity, but a crime against humanity which is not to be permitted by civilised people". He invited those who would be willing to join a public demonstration renouncing war, in the terms of the last sentence quoted from Dr Fosdick's sermon, to send him a postcard.

For the first few days there was nothing. Then the local postmaster rang to inquire whether someone would be at home to receive sacks full of postcards. In a few weeks there were thirty thousand replies, and still they came. Dick called his demonstration in the Albert Hall on 14 July 1935, which inaugurated the Sheppard Peace Movement. In September Dick published We Say "NO" - The Plain Man's Guide to Pacifism. In May 1936, with the help of other notable figures such as George Lansbury and Donald Soper, the organisation became The Peace Pledge Union. The fuller story of it is told in a companion information sheet, but it should be emphasised here that, although Dick never made a speech or wrote an article without mentioning his own strongly Christian motivation, the PPU was to be open to "men and women of very divergent philosophic, religious and political opinions".

In the meantime, Dick had accepted his final Church appointment, as a Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, London, in the autumn of 1934. He devoted all his spare time to the pacifist movement, and travelled the country speaking at meetings organised by the thousand local PPU groups springing up. He contemplated resigning his canonry to go full-time for peace, being ever more critical of "the attempts made at the Church Assembly to reconcile the teaching of Christ with the practice of war". In April 1937 he led a deputation in torchlit procession to hand in a statement of pacifist conviction by clergy and laity at Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, still a dearly loved friend, but the closer the friend, the more freely he should speak. That demonstration led to the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, still the main witness for pacifism within the Church of England.

Also in 1937 Dick planned with others the first ceremony as a direct alternative to the official Armistice Day event at the Cenotaph. He invited those "who do not care to be present at the military parades now generally associated with that day" to go to Regent's Park for simple readings and singing as well as a solemn silence.

The event was held, but without Dick. The last week of October was a period of high elation followed by deep sadness. On 23 October, after a hectic campaign, Dick had been elected by the students of Glasgow University as their Rector (an honorary post), in preference to Winston Churchill and other notables of the time. "This definitely puts pacifism on the map", said Dick; "I'm almost weeping with happiness".

A week later his many friends wept. On 31 October Dick was found dead at his desk, having finally succumbed to perennial illness. The news made the headlines the next day, queues formed to pass his coffin as he lay in his beloved St Martin's, and crowds lined the streets to watch the funeral procession from there to St Paul's. Afterwards he was buried in the comparative quietness of Canterbury, where a memorial window shows him with St Martin, the soldier turned bishop, commemorated always on Armistice Day. There is also a Dick Sheppard Chapel in the crypt of St Martin's.





"A fancy dress ball on a vast scale as a tribute to the Great Deliverance which followed on the unspeakable agony of 1914-1918 seems to me not so much irreligious as indecent".


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