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  • Beyond the ‘Red Vicar’: Community and Christian Socialism in Thaxted, Essex, 1910–84
  • Arthur Burns (bio)

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Fig. 1.

The red flag (for this photograph rehung from the stella in the crossing at Thaxted) in the 1920s. Photo: postcard by Frances Noel (Conrad’s sister).

Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the blue-blooded vicar of Thaxted in Essex, Conrad Le Despenser Roden Noel, arranged flags of the allied powers around an engraving of St George in his church’s south aisle. Later, Noel added the red flag ‘of the World’s workers’ to the assemblage; then, as a gesture of support for Irish nationalism, the Sinn Fein tricolour. On 1 May 1921, the red flag – now repositioned with the tricolour and a Cross of St George against the chancel arch – was processed around the [End Page 101] church. A week before, defying Archbishop Davidson’s call to give thanks for the decision by the leaders of the Triple Industrial Alliance (miners, rail-waymen and transport workers’ unions) not to come out in sympathy with the striking miners, a blackboard at the church door had announced that

The rich and their toadies KILLED CHRIST. Our Rulers, the Empire, the Rich, and those who surround them Kill Him NOW. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these (the IRISH AND THE MINERS), Ye have done it unto Me.1

By the morning of 2 May the red flag had vanished, and the celebrated Thaxted ‘Battle of the Flags’ was underway.

Cambridge students stole a replacement flag and the tricolour on 19 May and sent them to the bishop of Chelmsford. On the 21st, cricketers from Braintree were seen off in a physical confrontation by Noel’s curate, Jack Bucknall, while Noel erected a noticeboard proclaiming ‘Stolen! Two flags from Thaxted church and two Universities (Oxford and Cambridge) from the people by the rich’. Meanwhile, posters declaring ‘No Bolshevism for Thaxted’ encouraged Thaxtedians to protest against their vicar on Empire Day (24 May) by flying union flags and attending a meeting at the Guildhall.

Come Empire Day, hitherto little observed in Thaxted, some duly hung out bunting or flags. A party of motorcyclists garlanded the churchyard wall with union flags, which Noel promptly replaced with larger ‘mutilated’ versions omitting St Patrick’s cross. These were later torn down by a crowd of protestors that swelled to several thousand, many carrying their own union flags. The church’s defence was headed by a small party of former policemen dismissed for striking in 1919 (described by Reg Groves as ‘Lansbury’s Lambs’) who, according to some accounts, drove away a lorry loaded with stones for window-breaking.2 The Guildhall meeting began with a resolution – proposed by Hugh Morris, former president of the Cambridge Union Society, and seconded by a serving army officer and three locals (estate-agent Captain John Oliver Barbrook, nonconformist draper William Tanner and builder Percy Ratcliff) – in favour of the British empire and demanding that Noel stop preaching ‘treasonable doctrines or any political themes’. A call to doff hats for the national anthem provoked scuffles. With the vicarage now appearing vulnerable, neighbours set out to evacuate Noel. Not even H. G. Wells in a Rolls Royce, however, could persuade him to leave home. The mob gathering there was successfully disrupted by the Lambs, but it was midnight before the last of those serenading the vicar with ‘Three Cheers for the Red White and Blue’ departed, while there had been rumours of guns being seen on both sides. Noel wrote the next morning to reassure his wife, Miriam, perhaps not coincidentally away from home: [End Page 102]

We are still alive – it was a most exciting evening. ... Jack and I nearly got done in earlier in trying to get the union jacks down from the churchyard. Some Cork Black and Tans say they are on their way to England to murder me at night. About murdering, I will put it in the hands of the police, but of course they could not protect so open a place as the vicarage. It may be bluff, but – Best love, darling. The...