Author and journalist Robert Nurden’s rollercoaster journey following his grandfather Stanley’s footsteps led from Wales to Canada to Walthamstow…
Three months after publishing Between Heaven and Earth – my biography of my grandfather Stanley James, the unorthodox minister of Trinity Church, Walthamstow – I felt it was time to reflect.
So, with a mix of excitement and trepidation, I retraced my steps to the place where my mother’s father had rocked the boat with his passionate pulpit sermons in the early years of the 20th century.
I found his house – 118 Grove Road – where he lived with my grandmother, Jess, and their seven children between 1906 and 1917. I located Trinity Church on Orford Road, then the house they later moved to in Poppleton Road, Leytonstone. I stood and let my mind wander back to those Edwardian streets, redolent with rumour and recrimination. If only stones could speak.
For me personally, following in the footsteps of grandfather – whose turbulent life overlapped mine by just seven months – had been a rollercoaster in itself. It had taken me to Wales to dig out the roots of the James family of farmers and ministers; to his lodgings in Richmond where he’d bumped into Friedrich Engels; to the Canadian Rockies, where he worked as a cowboy, bridge-builder, shepherd, newspaper reporter and playwright – before turning hobo to ride the trains the 2,000 miles to Toronto.
Out there, I met ranchers whose grandfathers had worked alongside mine. I found the ranch where he’d herded cattle, hunted coyotes and written romantic poems to the Prairie girls. I stood with tears in my eyes as I gazed at the railway track where – by now a penniless vagrant after being sacked from the paper – he’d walked non-stop for a day and a night too afraid to lie down because of the rattlesnakes. Finally, he enlisted in the United States Army and fought in the 1898 war against the Spanish in Puerto Rico.
Back in England and now married, he found his way to Walthamstow, where he relished the challenge of being in charge of a vibrant church in a buzzing London suburb from 1906 to 1916. In a series of uncompromising addresses, he alienated older worshippers with his communism, suffragism and pacifism, delivered even as the Battle of the Somme raged. Younger progressives occupied those vacant pews, but that only turned out to be a trigger for more scandal.
Enter three beautiful local women: Eva, Ruth and Minna. Each of them loved Stanley in their own way, and he them. Minna became his mistress. In the Women’s Library of the London School of Economics, I unearthed their intimate letters and diaries that showed my grandfather in a different light. It was clear that the man I’d grown up to believe was a paragon of virtue was an adulterer who abused the trust placed in him as a minister.
Stanley resigned and found work with various pacifist organisations where he shared an office with the philosopher Bertrand Russell. In 1923, he converted to Catholicism and turned himself into one of the world’s leading Catholic commentators with nine books to his name, counting G.K. Chesterton among his closest friends. He died in 1951.
Between Heaven and Earth: A Journey With My Grandfather is available to buy on Amazon now