The Fisherman

By Steve Smith

Fifty years ago today, at All Hallows by the Tower, the Reverend Gualter de Mello, a chaplain in Toc H, joined John Urban Burgess and Marolyn Joy White in Holy Matrimony. I know many people reading this blog today will know John and Marolyn and will join me in wishing them a very Happy Anniversary.

Today’s blog is short tribute to John. You see, and I’m not sorry to make this personal, but I wouldn’t know most of the people reading this blog if it hadn’t been for John; I wouldn’t know Toc H at all if it wasn’t for John; and I wouldn’t know a part of myself that John has helped me develop over the years. So thank you John Burgess. Oh, and, well done!

I suspect it was not a coincidence that this joyous event took place on Tubby’s 85th birthday. By 1970 John already had Toc H firmly ingrained in him and he knew Tubby well. Let me tell you how that came about.

John’s parents, Harold and Margaret were both staunch members of the Movement in Essex and it was perhaps inevitable that John would join them, being inducted into the Colchester branch on the 21st September 1961.

Just three days later he struck out for Tower Hill for the annual clash between the Romans (Marksmen) and Boadicea’s gang (East Anglian Scouts). What happened that day would become pivotal a few months later. In John’s own words:

“I was stepping off the pavement looking down at the deep kerb, and a photographer took a photo of Tubby. A good portrait. Just three quarters of my face was visible. Tubby was sent a copy of the photo and he asked who the young man was. Next I had a letter from him inviting me to spend a weekend with him on Tower Hill.”

That weekend John was given small tasks to perform most notably walking Chippie in the precincts of the Tower. This led to him becoming a part-time ADC whose jobs included sending Tubby to change his clerical collar and bib which were constantly covered in tobacco, ash, custard and gravy.

He travelled to Belgium with Tubby in 1962 along with the Winant Volunteers. Tubby led them around the battlefields and cemeteries telling his stories all the way. John’s been going back ever since and has many friends in Flanders.

Tubby liked to keep detailed records of people he met and it was John’s job to interrogate them for all their personal details and record it all. It’s no wonder he has such an encyclopaedic knowledge of Toc H people to this day.

In March 1967 John was sent to Paderborn to work in one of the BAOR Service Clubs run by Toc H. He would remain in Germany for four years serving briefly in Munster and Verden as well as Paderborn.

On his return to the UK he moved into Mark III (Prideaux House) in Hackney. It was the first Mark to admit women alongside men, and Marolyn White was also staying there. They met, fell in love and in December 1970 were married at All Hallows by Gualter, who was Warden of Prideaux House.

Marolyn worked, most of her career, for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and John was now entrenched in Toc H. He was firstly working on Tower Hill at Crutched Friars but in 1973 when Gualter left, John became Warden and remained in that position until the spring of 1977. During his time the Youth Club opened behind the house and the Summer Playschemes went from strength to strength.

He left Hackney in the spring of 1977 to join the field staff for Beds and Herts. Though John’s role was wide and varied he became a specialist in the Project Scene – the work of Toc H that was pumping new life into the Movement

John was constantly encouraging branches in his remit to arrange or sponsor projects. He would help them find the resources they needed. That is how he came to Cuffley Youth Centre in 1988. The centre had previously done some work with Toc H but that was under a previous manager and with Toc H branch members now gone. But on 2 Nov 1988 John Burgess met with Richard Gentle for the first time. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship for the Youth Club, for Toc H, and for many individuals, not least me.

Though I wasn’t there the day Richard and John met, I was a volunteer at the Youth Club and that’s how in July 1990 I found myself sitting in the Upper Room listening to Jacques Ryckebosch unfold the tales of Talbot House. That was when I first tried the bait of Toc H and from that moment John slowly reeled me in. That is how he works.

Over the next few years I observed John’s prodigious but understated body of work for Toc H. Even a bad accident in 1997 couldn’t stop him though it slowed him down a little. John continued to give his life to the Movement, though sadly, elements of the Movement didn’t show the same loyalty to John when the chips were down and his long career ended in redundancy. Not that that stopped John being heavily involved in Toc H. He has continued to give his all, not least with the incredible work he put into the archives. He has kept up regular contact with all the various Toc H folks he as befriended over the years and continues to nurture, inspire and enthuse a whole family of Toc H people.  

Let one of his oldest friends in Toc H tell us

He has befriended, affirmed, encouraged and lovingly challenged them, and there must be many people out there who first discovered, to their surprise, that they could do things they thought were beyond them, because John trusted them to do so.   Many, young and old, have gone to meetings totally unaware that, an hour or so later, they would have been ‘volunteered’  by John for some task – and then found themselves to be an important, and valued, member of a team.

John Mitchell

So well done that man and well done Marolyn too. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you have done for me and may you bask in the glory of all you have achieved.

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