Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Eulogy for James Petty: Anarchist & Anglican

by Susan Ewens

MOST of you here today will know Jim only in his incarnation as a priest of the Anglican Catholic Church.  Some of us have known him longer and are aware of the extraordinarily wide extent of his other interests and pursuits that made him such a very special person.  I am going to tell you about a few of the aspects of Jim’s life and interests that you may not have been aware of. 

When Jim died he was still full of life and had he been living in a city with a decent Teaching hospital and higher standards of GP care I am sure he would still be alive today and would have received care appropriate to his health needs. But that is all water on the under the bridge and we all have to learn to do without his companionship, his passionate interests and his lively mind.

Jim was born in 1933, in Burnley, the year that Hitler came to power in Germany.  Burnley was then one of the biggest cotton spinning towns in the world and, like much of Lancashire, had a large Roman Catholic population thanks  to the Irish immigration of the 19th and early 20th century. There was also a  strong strain of Anglican partisanship in the region thanks to leading lights of the County having sided with King Charles I in the Civil War and subsequently supported the Jacobite cause as the Stuarts tried to regain the British throne from the  Hanoverians.   So, in a relatively small town there was a considerable level of religious polarisation both between Anglicans and Roman Catholics and between the non-conformist Protestants and the rest.  Jim could not help but be influenced by this local religious culture. He was educated in Church of England Primary schools.  In fact nearly all Burnley’s children were and still ARE educated in Church Primary Schools either Roman Catholic or Anglican and many of them in church run Secondary Schools, too.

Tragedy hit Jim’s family when he was only 7 years old in July 1940. His beloved father, Morris, a Lance-Sergeant in the East Lancs Regiment, was killed in an accident.  He would often speak with feeling of the upheaval in his young life as his widowed mother embarked upon a series of house moves round the town with him and his younger sister Barbara, as she slowly came to terms with the loss of her husband, at the same time fending off proposals from her husband’s family to "adopt" Jim.  The in-laws were relatively well-off and thought it was obvious that they could give Jim a better upbringing than his now single mother.  Their pressures were however resisted by Mona.  Jim, surprisingly perhaps, called his mother by her fist name, Mona!  I don’t know at what stage in his life this habit started!  I met Jim when he was 40 years old and what soon became noticeable  to me was the frequency with which he mentioned the early trauma of losing his father and the subsequent trail round Burnley from rented house to house with his widowed mother with the good quality family furniture being sold along the way.  It was a miserable time for Jim, the child, and he was indelibly marked by it.

If Mona had given in to her in-laws’ pressures it is possible that Jim would have had a different life after the tragedy of his father’s early death.  He would probably have gone to a grammar school and stayed on to take the school certificate leaving exam at age 16.  He could have stayed on into the sixth form and gone to university if he was lucky.  He may even have been a part of the emigration of part of his father’s family to Australia and we could have been deprived of his presence here in the North of England altogether! But as things turned out he did none of these things and his life took an altogether different trajectory. 
Jim’s mother remarried after the war a man called Ben Wright who had been, if I remember correctly, a professional soldier in both the First and Second World wars. Later another sister, Christine, was added to the family. Jim was not keen on his new stepfather at first but eventually, and I cannot say how many years it took, he became very attached to him and never ceased to praise him for the way he behaved towards his ready-made family.  Jim remained the apple of his mother’s eye,  a matter which did not go unnoticed by his sisters! Not that he was spoilt by his mother, far from it, she was apparently a rather severe parent!

Jim’s schooling ended when he was 15 despite his intellectual promise being recognised by his teachers and his being top of the class in nearly every subject.  Nevertheless, the process of self education via his voracious reading habit aided by his wonderful memory for detail never ceased throughout his life and served him well.

So, instead of the Grammar school and the university Jim’s intellectual life proceeded via the Anglican Church ( he was already a Church Warden in his teens) the Independent Labour Party, the Trade Union Movement (where he was a shop steward already in his teens and subsequently a member of Burnley Trades Council), and via various political clubs and evening classes. His intellectual ability as a competent self-taught seeker after knowledge with all the makings of a true historian was not lost on his evening class tutors and I think I am correct in saying that he was offered adult University entrance to an Oxford College in spite of lacking formal qualification.  This he turned down because by then he was married and he considered the financial insecurity and upheaval of such a change too risky.  

It was an awfully wrong decision!  Jim was made for academe and would have loved the life of a scholar with the cut and thrust of debate in the Senior Common Room and the life of a Don.  If he had grasped this opportunity when it was presented to him it may have been James Petty and not David Starkey presenting riveting TV programmes about the Tudors and Stuarts!  And you can be sure the message would have been altogether more complex than the version usually presented. I don’t understand what sort of inhibition prevented him from taking up this marvellous offer.  Perhaps the same stubbornness and sense of duty that led him to insist on leaving school at age 15 when he could have stayed on longer and matriculated.

His interests, apart from the history of Christianity, the English Reformation and Working Class politics encompassed MANY other fields of study. One was the American Revolution.  Here, his voracious reading and capacity for absorbing detail led him to a different perspective from that we usually hear about militant colonial patriots against the tyrannical British Crown.  In fact, Jim called the American Revolution 'The First American Civil War' because  the colonial population loyal to the Crown were equally balanced against those who wanted independence. 

Many loyalists returned to England after the war impoverished by the loss of their property and livelihoods in America and many others trekked north into Canada to join the British colonies there.  I cannot tell you what joy Jim experienced a few years ago when, quite by chance, when exploring a church in Chester, we came upon an 18th century stone memorial  plaque set high on an interior wall detailing the return of the unfortunate deceased from New York, where he was a prosperous merchant and member of the colonial government, to poverty back home in England as a result of the loss of the American colonies. Today we would call him a refugee.   Jim was always able to cast a necessarily sceptical light on the distortions and omissions of the historical record in those fields in which he had taken a deep interest.  His take on the North American 'Loyalists' was particularly of interest to correspondents of his in the United States, developed courtesy of the Internet, who find the “authorised version” of their own nation’s history sadly deficient in the background details that Jim loved.  Well, the devil is always in the detail, isn’t it?  Jim was a master of the details which often escape notice when historians and popularisers generalise about the broad sweeps of events.

From the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and Peace Pledge Union Jim developed into an Anarcho-Syndicalist and was thus fascinated by the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War in which Anarchists played a part.  In the study of these two 20th century revolutions Jim acquired his scepticism of the Marxist version of history and Marxist political tactics.  He was never starry-eyed about the Hard Left’s totalitarian, anti-democratic tendencies. 

Jim’s Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism was never just an intellectual, historical study.  It informed all his practical politics, too.  There were no working class causes in Burnley or the country at large that Jim was not involved in - from the formation of Residents Associations in areas proposed for 'slum clearance' in Burnley, to the Anti motorway Action Group opposing the route of the M65 motorway through North East Lancs; from  the opposition to the SPUC campaign against abortion, to the North East Lancs Campaign Against Racism supporting the growing Pakistani population in North East Lancs, and, of renewed topicality today,  the 'Get Britain Out' campaign of the First Referendum against Common Market Membership in 1975.   He was also busy writing political pamphlets and journal articles and often delivering them door to door while being a regular seller of the Anarchist Journal 'Freedom' and 'Peace News' in Burnley Town Centre.  He inspired the launch of 'The Burnley Voice' magazine in the 1970s written and produced by Burnley Anarchist Group, which ran to SIX editions before folding!  

After the fall of Franco and the restoration of constitutional government in Spain Jim led the British contingent of the International Workers Association convened in Madrid in the Spring of 1984. He also later visited Catalonia and Barcelona with fellow British Anarchists to make contact with Spanish Anarcho Syndicalists campaigning to regain control of the substantial property confiscated from their trade unions by the Franco regime.  

He was also active in the solidarity campaign that surrounded the long running series of disputes involving miners which culminated in the year long Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.  And he was involved in supporting the struggle of the print unions against the Murdoch press and the move of newspaper production to Wapping in 1986.  He was also involved in the anti-Poll Tax agitation that galvanised the country in 1990 when the Thatcher government tried to extend the Property Tax,  previously paid by householders only,  to the whole adult population. It was deemed particularly unfair on young adults of 18 years and over.   This was probably the only national campaign that Jim was involved in that was actually a resounding popular success.  The Poll Tax was repealed! 

 Here is what  an anarchist comrade wrote about Jim in 2004:

'The other major figure, who we may call the "FATHER OF NORTHERN ANARCHO-SYNDICALISM", was and is Jim Petty from BURNLEY.  He was National Secretary of the Direct Action Movement in the 1980s at the time of the miners' strike in which he was very active and he was on the DAM Policy Committee which met in Rochdale in the early 1980s.  He never missed an opportunity to get involved in disputes both local and national: like the Grundwick dispute and the campaign against the attempts to set up anti-trade union newspapers.  He helped to develop anarchism in Burnley over many years with John, Judith, Eileen, Reg and others: organising meetings and campaigns for local workers and immigrant labour.  He was prominent in the campaign against the Poll Tax in the 1990s.  Now he is on the Editorial Panel of NORTHERN VOICES and wrote a remarkable essay in the magazine entitled 'Burnley: the architects of squalor'.  
Jim detested the uninspiring local political class of all parties that had permitted Burnley to decline to such a state.

Another historical passion of Jim’s was the South African Anglo-Zulu Wars of 1879.  In the 1990s he visited South Africa twice with Jennifer Taylor and spent several weeks visiting the sites of the battles where the Zulus massacred the British Army’s redcoats.  Jim demonstrated himself as such an expert on the Anglo Zulu Wars that he was subsequently awarded honorary membership of the Royal Geographical Society after displaying his unparalleled knowledge of the Zulu campaigns under the leadership of General Buller to groups of fellow enthusiasts also visiting the historical battle sites and equally  passionate about the history as he was himself.  

Surprisingly, Jim had enrolled as a boy soldier in the Army soon after leaving school.  I do not know how or why this came about.   But he was such a bookworm as a child that the past was more real to him than the present and he admitted that he had fondly imagined himself either in the Palestine Police or  General  Buller’s Fontier Light Horse fighting Zulus in South Africa or on the Indian North West Frontier!  I think the prospect of being shipped off to Korea in 1951 concentrated his mind, however,  and he found that the reality of Army life was not nearly as exciting or as interesting as the books of derring-do he devoured so avidly all his life and well into old age. Anyway, one of his aunts bought him out of his military service contract and, like most Burnley folk in the 1950s he went to work in the mill where, perhaps surprisingly, he was apprenticed to a well-paid skilled trade as a 'stripper and grinder', an engineering job maintaining textile machinery.  

This was probably the only time in his life that Jim enjoyed a reasonable level of remuneration for his labour. He was part of the skilled 'aristocracy of labour'.  Alas, it was in an industry that was in terminal decline in Lancashire and his prosperity was short lived. After he left the textile industry it was pretty mediocre remuneration for the rest of his working life.  Though the wages were poor satisfaction for Jim was in being part of the Labour Movement trying create a more just society. He was a shop steward nearly all his working life until his retirement from Lucas Aerospace in ...?.  

But he had other jobs, along the way, too.  For example at the Burnley Street Lighting Department.  This involved long periods out doors on foot checking and maintaining the street lamps which must have been mainly gas then and he was pretty much his own boss for much of the time.  I recall him telling me about being asked by an old lady in a rural area if he wouldn’t mind cleaning her windows  to which he agreed and he kept on cleaning them for her whenever he was in the vicinity, and all for free!  Then there was the time he was sent to disconnect a lamp that would not turn itself on and off as required.  When he got there to do the job he was begged NOT to disconnect it by a nearby housewife  who told him her husband was paralysed in bed and liked to watch the shadows cast by the flickering gas light on the walls and ceiling of his room at night.  This was before there was a TV in every room.  Of course, Jim complied.

Then he had a job at  Dunn and Co, Gentleman’s Outfitters in Burnley. He really enjoyed selling quality clothes and was offered the job of manager despite his youth. He himself always wore good tweed jackets, handsome waistcoats, “interesting” hats and the best shoes he could afford.  The first time I saw him he was wearing a mustard and brown check hacking jacket and a deer stalker hat.  His ambition lately was to obtain a Sherlock Holmes style caped Inverness overcoat and I did try to get one for him for Christmas last year but unfortunately I was outbid on ebay.  Jim was very disappointed about that failure, I’m sorry to say.  I wish I had managed to win the bidding because I know it would have given him much joy!  

For a year in the mid-1970s Jim joined me in setting up and running a small cafe in Burnley’s St James’s Street.  Catering is very hard, demanding work and requires practical skills apart from chatting to the customers which was Jim’s forte and the prospect which had beguiled him into proposing the scheme in the first place.  So, after a year of meagre wages for him and no wages for me Jim decided to back out of the project with the insightful words that it was “keeping us both in poverty”.  Jim was accepted back into his former job at Lucas which he picked up where he had left off and was altogether much happier in his own office with the essential outside telephone line where he could plan and execute his political campaigns virtually at his leisure. Jim was happy at Lucas.  It was Burnley’s main employer with several different factory sites round the town and a big workforce which was almost like a large squabbling family.  He was full of stories about it as well as about the machinations between various political groupings in and around the Trade Union movement.

Something else I have not mentioned yet is that for several years Jim was also National President of the Jacobite Society an organisation devoted to the memory and cause of the Stuart  pretenders to the  British throne.  Extraordinary, you might think, for an anarchist  also to be an upholder of the rights of a dynastic line.  But Jim was able to trace the Stuart line down to the present day through generations of European royalty and aristocracy.  Of course, his abiding interest centred on Charles I, the defender of Anglicanism and the Church of England against the takeover of the church and state by Puritans and Protestants which ended in the Civil War and the Dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell.  King Charles the Martyr is an Anglican saint as you all know!  Jim was an expert in the whole of the very long English Reformation from Henry VIII, through the reigns of Edward, Bloody Mary and Elizabeth, James I, Charles I, the English Civil War, The Restoration and the subsequent takeover by Dutch William and his English Stuart cousin Mary, AKA “The Glorious Revolution”.  It lasted well into the Hanoverian period with the two 18th century Jacobite Risings in favour of the Stuarts.  

The Scottish connection of the Stuart monarchs and Pretenders may account for Jim’s attraction to Scotland. He often spent a week’s holiday in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival in August with his longtime friend and member of the Burnley Labour Party Les Marsden.  Everything was done on the cheap. They camped in a small tent.  The mind boggles!

Alongside this rich intellectual and political life, the younger Jim had also found time to go courting and to get married to Mary in 19..(?).  It was not easy getting married to Mary because she was from a staunch Roman Catholic family and her mother, who Jim always called Mrs Richardson (?), took exception to Jim’s political activities.  It cannot have helped that Mary was a music teacher at one of Burnley’s Roman Catholic high schools and was herself somewhat in the public eye just as Jim was.  Back in the 1950s it was a big step for a Roman Catholic to get permission to marry a non-catholic. The non-catholic spouse had to promise to raise the children as Roman Catholics and also had to attend classes with a Roman Catholic priest prior to the marriage in order to learn the essentials of the religion they were marrying into.

Well, as an Anglican Church Warden at St Catherine’s, Jim was a rather slippery fish for Burnley’s Roman Catholic priesthood to land I think we can all easily imagine what these pre-marital lessons in the Roman faith must have been like!  surely the RC’s will have learnt more from Jim than he from them?  He will have delighted in pointing out to them in the politest of possible ways their misunderstanding of both the history of the English Reformation and of the relationship between the Anglican Church and their 'New Church of Trent' as he delighted in calling it.  But as the appointed day of the wedding approached (Easter?) with the cake baked and the dresses made the RC clergy had still not conceded that Jim had jumped over the required hoops to marry Mary in their church.  Jim’s version of events was that he made an ultimatum!  If they were not married on the appointed day in a Roman Church they would be married in an Anglican one so the priests had better get a move on and give their consent!  

 When his son Iain came along in 1960 he was duly baptised and educated in the Roman Catholic faith which must have been a bit of a challenge for Jim, but as far as I can tell he accepted it in good faith!  I guess he would have some satisfaction though in knowing that Iain is now a ‘lapsed’ Roman Catholic with no time for “papsts”.  Iain followed Mary’s interests into a career in music but he cannot have failed to reap the educational and intellectual benefit in his schooldays from his father’s bookish, intellectual pursuits.  While Mary and Iain made music in the music room where Mary’s grand piano held pride of place, Jim read his books in the lounge or printed out  political leaflets on an old duplicating machine in the spare bedrooms upstairs.

Jim was not an ideal parent, I’m afraid and after Mary’s sudden death in 1989 the older he got the worse and more remote his relationship with his son became.  Jim kept his life compartmentalised to a great extent and I don’t think anyone, except Iain himself, realised just how dire Jim’s performance as a father became.  If he had been something of an absentee father courtesy of his political activism during Iain’s childhood and adolescence Iain subsequently became an absentee son especially after he moved to live in The Netherlands.  He did return to visit friends in London but Burnley was not on his itinerary.

When he was offered redundancy from Lucas before reaching retirement age Jim accepted it with alacrity and took the opportunity to become a priest of the Church of England and was ordained in 19...?.  When the Synod voted in favour of ordaining women Jim left the Church of England and helped to set up the Anglican Catholic Church in England and it was to this 'project' that Jim devoted much of the rest of his life while still keeping in touch with Anarchist politics. 

The internet is a great thing, isn’t it?  As soon as Jim became computer literate he started participating on various religion and history message boards and spreading the benefits of his learning amongst people who were largely unaware of the Petty interpretation of the historical relations between the Roman and Anglican Churches as well as other wider historical controversies.  Jim obtained enormous satisfaction from these intellectual disputes which provoked him constantly to renew his own knowledge from his marvelous personal library.

You may not have taken Jim for a horseman but he was.  I am not sure how he acquired the skill to ride a horse but he did and he owned three horses over the years - Seamus, a grey gelding, Carina a mare and finally Angus, a pony for whom Jim aspired to obtain a small cart so he could do a little “light carting” and take people for rides on high days and holidays.  Sadly this ambition did not come to pass because of the need for a licence and insurance but it remained a fond dream that Jim liked to toy with.  

Jim had loads of stories to tell about his experiences and adventures while out riding - like confrontations with motorcar owners who thought they had the right of way over horses on the road, and property owners who denied that the path outside their house or across their field was a bridle way when Jim knew it was.  And like the adventures of the 'Cliviger Light Horse', as Jim called them, a gang of rather wild local children on ponies, for whom Jim somehow  became the responsible adult with the duty of protecting them from harm while galloping round the countryside!  Iain was a member of the Cliviger Light Horse and Jim recalls, despite Mary’s injunction to look after him, turning round to see young Iain cantering along with the reins in his teeth while searching for something in his pocket.  Looking after the horses and riding was one of the few things that brought Jim and Iain together. 

Then there was the time when Carina was in season and attracted the attentions of a nearby stallion who broke away from his irate owner, jumped a gate and proceeded to chase and try to mount Carina while Jim was still in the saddle!  That was both frightening and funny in retrospect!  There was a time when Seamus was moved from his grazing in Stoneyholme to another field the other side of town nearer to where Jim lived. Seamus, was lonely though, and missed his horse companions back in Stoneyholme.  One Saturday afternoon Jim received a phone call from the Police about a large grey horse walking unaccompanied through Burnley town centre and did he know anything about it?  On another occasion Jim was riding down a street where a baker was delivering bread and cakes on wooden trays balanced on his head.  Seamus just helped himself to a few teacakes as he passed.

At the same time that he had Angus the pony Jim also acquired two goats and some hens all of which lived on a piece of land land near to Jim’s home in Hollin Hill.  Strangely, he could not bring himself to drink the goat milk or eat the hen’s eggs himself but he liked to keep the animals anyway. He was also suffering from the worst stage of his Meuniere’s Disease at the time and recalled waking up from a dizzy spell lying on the grass with the pail of goat milk spilled on the ground and the goat licking his face! 

Jim was a great lover of dogs and from his childhood to his death there was always a dog or dogs in his home.  His walks with his dogs were an important part of his recreation and it was a trial for him when his mobility problems prevented him from walking as far and as fast as he would have liked.  A lovely story he had heard that Jim liked to repeat was about a dying man who had a “near death” experience in which all the dogs he had ever owned appeared to him in a dream and they all went walking in the fields together.  Jim certainly hoped that this was true and that he too would be reunited with all his doggie pals.  He had no doubt that dogs have souls and will be waiting for us in heaven.    
In hindsight, Jim’s life looks like an ongoing series of battles against the odds and often against the tide of history. Running through it like the main colour in a tapestry is his Anarchism and Trade Unionism and life-long fight against injustice.  But there is also his passion for the minutiae of history alongside Boy’s Own tales of adventure and his championing of lost causes like that of the American Empire Loyalists,  the Martyred King Charles I and the Jacobites, and his defence of the disgraced General Buller who was scapegoated for the debacle of the Zulu Wars.  Jim had a commemorative plate with Buller’s face on it on his China rack!  Then there was his abiding passion for Anglicanism which culminated in his ordination and his support for the cause of traditional Anglican teaching in the face of the modernising neo-Anglicans who now dominate the Church of England.  Though he believed in social justice Jim did not hold that Equal Opportunities Legislation had any role to play in modifying centuries' old religious teaching or practice.

So I guess we have to assume that he was temperamentally disposed heart and soul to defense of the underdog and defence of his principles.  He enjoyed being part of a 'cause', a 'movement' and a 'struggle' and did enjoy occasional victories.  Yes, Dear Jim, you will be remembered for all your passionate battles against the odds, at least for as long as your friends and supporters survive and historians of the future delve into the treasury of paper and internet archives to which you have contributed.

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