To the End of the Line

Ferdinand Mount

  • The Red Dean of Canterbury: The Public and Private Faces of Hewlett Johnson by John Butler
    Scala, 292 pp, £16.95, September 2011, ISBN 978 1 85759 736 3

In his prime, Dr Hewlett Johnson was one of the most famous men in the world. Almost from the moment he was made dean of Canterbury in 1931, he became instantly recognisable everywhere as the Red Dean. His faith in the Communist Party, and in Stalin in particular, was unshakeable. Purges and famines, executions and persecutions passed him by. Though he never saw the need actually to join the Party, he remained a tankie to the last, until he was finally winkled out of the deanery in 1963, when he was pushing ninety.

Dr Hewlett Johnson

The only occasion in his whole life when he admitted to experiencing doubt was in the early 1890s, when he was an engineering student at Owens College, the forerunner of Manchester University. He had retained the biblical certainties of childhood, and was knocked sideways by a lecture given by Professor Dawkins, the eminent Darwinian: ‘I turned from the lecture room with a passive face and a calm voice. But within there was tumult and utter darkness. The evolution theory was true – of this I was convinced. And it made the story of Genesis and the Bible false.’

We have barely recovered from this delicious coincidence of surname – the Dawkins in question was the geologist and palaeontologist Sir William Boyd Dawkins, not a direct ancestor, if ancestor at all, of the present carrier of the Darwin meme – before Johnson has recovered from his spiritual despond. In a twinkling he has reconciled God and Darwin. Thereafter his magnificent self-confidence never flags, his melodious voice booms on, wowing sympathetic audiences all over the world. In 1946, already into his seventies, he gave a prizefighter’s salute to a crowd of thirty thousand inside and outside Madison Square Garden, eclipsing Paul Robeson and Dean Acheson. An awestruck young Alistair Cooke reported in the Guardian that ‘he looks like a divinity and he looks like the portrait on every dollar bill.’ The resemblance to George Washington is undeniable, although there is a creepy hint of Alastair Sim too.

Never one to underestimate his own impact, he reported to his second wife, Nowell, that a colleague had said he was ‘one of three English public men who could command the greatest audiences everywhere.’ ‘I know it is true,’ he added, while dutifully sharing the credit between the Almighty and the Communist cause. He recorded in his autobiography that when he and the Marxist scientist J.D. Bernal were in an exuberant crowd at the World Peace Conference in Rome in 1959, Bernal turned to him and said: ‘Did you hear that, dean? They are shouting: “An honest priest, he should be our Pope.”’ It’s a thought that might well have crossed the dean’s own mind, feeling as strongly as he did about the imperfections of the Catholic Church, certainly as compared with the unimpeachable performance of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the CPs of China and Cuba too.

His self-assurance was anchored in a happy family, where untroubled faith went hand in hand with an untroubled income from Johnson’s Wire Works of Manchester. The firm was founded in 1791 and continues to this day as AstenJohnson, exporting papermaking machinery to 56 countries. Hewlett, born in 1874, felt quite at home with the paternalism which could flourish within a firm that remained in the hands of a single family, though he deplored ‘the harder and less human atmosphere’ which came with technological change. He didn’t disdain the Johnson’s dividends he received, or the settlement from his first wife’s father which came to him on her death.

During the General Strike, his sympathies were of course with the miners, though one of his uncles, Alfred Hewlett, was chairman of the Mining Owners’ Federation and another, William Hewlett, was chairman of the Wigan Coal Company. I am not sure whether the Hewlett brothers were included in Lord Birkenhead’s celebrated comment that ‘it would be possible to say without exaggeration that the miners’ leaders were the stupidest men in England if we had not had frequent occasion to meet the owners.’

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