It was in the late summer of 1923 that I first met Brother Douglas. He had recently taken charge of the little Franciscan community of volunteers and vagrant ‘wayfarers’ travelling the country in search of work. He was wearing a boiler suit with a red cross on the breast pocket. There was no unemployment benefit in those days and he told us of life on the roads, staying in the sordid casual wards. With the little community at Flowers Farm the men worked in the garden or at handicrafts.
Brother Douglas was keen not only to help them find jobs, but also to give them some spiritual reinforcement. There were services for the two or three brothers, but also prayers and talks every evening and a Bible class on Sundays. Over the door of the recreation room there was a sign: “Abandon rank all you who enter here”. The wayfarers, as well as the staff members, were called ‘brother’.
Brother Douglas was of Methodist origin, but became an Anglican at school. In 1906 he went to Corpus Christi, Oxford to read modern history. While there he helped with services for vagrants in a lodging house in the town. After training at Wycliffe, Brother Douglas was ordained and served as Curate, first at Walthamstow and then at Lambeth,
In 1908, he went to India as Vice Principal of the St Peter’s College at Trickinopola, until the First World War started in 1914. He served in Egypt as an Army Chaplain, ministering at a hospital to soldiers with venereal disease. At the end of the war, he joined the Oxford Evangelical Pastorate and was Chaplain first at University College and then at Worcester College.
Douglas was in his forties when he came to Hilfield. Lord Sandwich of Hinchinbrook, who owned the property, assisted with generous loans until the farm closed down in 1926, so they now had to rely on prayer, market gardening, weaving, basket making and woodcarving. A local landowner gave them a printing press and, when they needed a new car for taking their produce to market, they prayed and one arrived from an anonymous donor. When they were short of food or other things, similar gifts arrived. But Brother Douglas had a genius for making something out of nothing, whether it was men of things.
When Douglas went on the roads, he at first wore his boiler suit. Having been accustomed to evangelical ways, he was not familiar with catholic customs, but having a somewhat red nose, he was sometimes mistaken for a drunk, so he yielded to Brother Arthur’s advice that he wear the Franciscan habit.
Douglas was deeply concerned with the bad conditions of the casual wards. in June 1925, with to friends, he founded the Vagrancy Reform Society. As a result of this, reforms in the casual wards were introduced in 1930.
When war came again in 1940, Brother Douglas became Chaplain to the Old Westminster Hospital, now to be used to offer hospitality to the many servicemen passing through London. He was given a small room with a glass roof (not much protection from air raids). Responding to the call to “Dig for Victory’, he persuaded some young soldiers to help him haul sacks of soil, given to him by the head gardner of St James park, so he could grow tomatoes. Hens supplied the manure, but sometimes descended from the roof to the crowded street below. During the mornings, he would act as an Abbey guide to servicemen, many from overseas, with a patter more racey than the guidebooks followed by the Abbey Vergers.
In the evenings, he would invite servicemen and others to coffee and buns, after which he would go into the chapel and accompany popular hymns on a grand piano. On Sunday evenings he would sometimes take parties of men to Westminster Abbey ot to the Central Hall Westminster for Evensong, or the more informal atmostphere of St Christostom Peckham which was being serviced by SSF Friars. Once he took a dozen men to help the Abbey fire watchers to put out the flames during an air raid.
In the summer of 1943, Douglas was asked to go to the Canadian Diocese of Victoria. So he set out for the long wartime journey by sea and train to Vancouver where he taught for a short time at a school. After preaching at a school service, a member of the congregation suggested working among the loggers in the north of British Columbia. So he moved into a tiny bungalow with a large verandah and began a ministry among loggers of every race and language. There he started an Esperanto class, using St John’s gospel as a textbook. For two days of the week he held school in an open-air chapel. While there one of the boys brought him a young fawn named “Bambi”, who became his pet. He was instrumental in establishing a community of the loggers.
But his time in Canada was to come to an end when a cable arrived from Brother Algy: “YMCA wants you in Northern Europe”. Whilst returning to England the ship on which he was travelling was pursued by German U-boats until they received news of Germany’s surrender.
By the spring of 1946, Douglas was established in a YMCA hostel in Hamburg, Germany, He was shocked at the devastation caused by the allied bombings. Almost 20,000 people lived in cellars or dugouts. To the Church Times he wrote, “Let those who think that Germany had not sufficient suffering for her sins visit any of her flattened cities and spend a day with some of those who live in the ruins”. Douglas helped in courses for young Germans who had been trained in the Hitler Youth Movement. Some were badly injured in the war. Living in a tiny Nissen hut, he got handicrafts going, and his door was open to visiting servicemen, providing soup for them in the evening and food sent from England.
By Christmas 1948 things in Germany had improved and Douglas felt it was time to move on. Receiving an invitation to become Chaplain to the YMCA Services Hostel in Portsmouth, he returned to England. But in the autumn of 1951 he had a serious operation in the Portsmouth General Hospital. He had so many friends coming to visit him, the matron complained that he was the most troublesome patient she had ever had!
After recovering, he became concerned about ex-servicemen who suffered mental trouble from the war and decided to reopen an old wayfarer’s home in Andover for them, much to the alarm of the local population. After repairing the old building, he began to collect an odd selection of men who needed help. But he again became very ill and had to have another operation.
Finally, the day came when he was told that he had an incurable cancer at the base of his spine and Brother Charles came to look after him. His illness had a remarkable affect on the men in the home. Many of them began to attend Evensong daily and to the Eucharist when it was celebrated. He finally ended his days with the Sisters of St Margaret in their Hostel of God for the Dying. He passed away on 7 September 1957.
by Brother Francis SSF