This is the title of an article published on April 15th 1933 in the John Bull magazine. It was very kindly lent to me by Mr Peter Cooper and was reproduced in its entirety over three issues of the village magazine. I hope that you will find it of interest.
A motor car with its window-blinds drawn emerged a few days ago from the grounds of the lovely rectory of Feltwell in Norfolk. It flashed through Feltwell at ever increasing pace and went no one knows where.
People came to the doors of houses and shops to watch the disappearing car.
"Its the Rector! Hes gone!" The exclamations travelled from door to door in the cars wake.
The onlookers were right. The concealed passenger in the car was the Rector of Feltwell, the Rev. Alfred Henry Phillips. And, as events proved he had gone - never likely to return to the delightful parish in which he has ministered for the past eight years.
Never, surely, has there been a stranger leave-taking of his people and parish by any priest. There has been no public announcement of the rectors resignation or retirement, no valedictory service, none of the events usually associated with the withdrawal of a worthy pastor from his field or labour.
All the circumstances of the Rev. Alfred Phillips sudden departure have indeed been swathed in mystery, made more tantalising by the outright refusal of those responsible for it to shed any light upon the facts.
It has been left to JOHN BULL to un-ravel the mystery and disclose the extraordinary reasons for the strange fade-out of Feltwells Rector. The case is one of more than mere local interest, because the living of Feltwell, one of the best in the country, is even a gift of the Lord Chancellor of England, and appointments of the kind are presented normally only to men of merit or who can command high influence.
So formidable has been the wall of silence and secrecy built round the affair that even the ordinary people in the neighbourhood have only been told that the Rector has resigned "on the grounds of health." As invariably happens in such circumstances, a riot of rumour has started and spread far beyond the Eastern counties.
The story that JOHN BULL is able to reveal of the vanished Rector is one of sublime vanity and imposture that has come crashing in grief. For, as we shall show, there was nothing in his previous history to justify the amazing events that have been taking place in Feltwell.
The earliest information available concerning him is that thirty-two years ago he went to India as a lay missionary of the Church of England and remained there until 1909, when he came home to undergo a brief course in divinity at the Church Missionary Societys college in Islington.
A year later, after being ordained as a deacon and priest for the Colonies by the Bishop of London, he returned to India and was in charge of both the evangelistic work and the Mohammedan high school at the Garden Reach of the Hooglie River in the suburbs of Calcutta.
A fever ended this work within twelve months and, back again in England, he was appointed in the first year of the Great War to the curacy of Christ Church at Ramsgate, Kent.
In 1915 India again called him, this time as a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and either at home or abroad he continued to serve that organisation or the Church of England Zenana Mission until 1925.
The grand air
It was then, when he was just over fifty, that the Lord Chancellor presented him with the living of Feltwell - a desirable change indeed, with a magnificent rectory of thirty rooms and beautiful grounds.
For a time Feltwell looked with awe upon its new Rector. Tall and very broad chested, with the clothes of a prince and the manners of a diplomat, he dominated not only his church but the whole community by his splendid presence.
His distinction was enhanced by his crown of shimmering silver hair, rising backwards from his forehead in elegant waves which were kept meticulously set.
People wondered what could be the size of the Rectors wardrobe. New clothes, always perfectly cut, were apparently his joy; and even when on sunny days he would appear in shorts and a loose coat over an open-necked silk shirt, this elderly clergyman, even with his bare knees, still looked impressive. His grand air quelled criticism and evoked admiration.
Came his first Armistice Sunday in the parish. When he ascended to his pulpit he negligently hitched the collar of his robe so as to reveal a splash of colour upon his breast.
A row of war medal ribbons! The members of the congregation glanced at each other. They had learned something new about their Rector.
This imposing man was, then, a war veteran. Why had they not guessed the fact before? It was obvious that a man so noble and stalwart in his bearing would have been bound to give himself to the service of his King and country in the hour of need.
From that moment he won the hearts of his people. In the region of the border of Norfolk and Suffolk, where Feltwell is situated - the breeding ground of the true English yeoman - they respect the soldier. In conquest or peril, Britain has never been failed by the men of East Anglia. The directories of the district teem with the names of former soldiers whose decorations testify to gallantry in battle.
A little confusing . . .
What more appropriate then, or what more likely to gain the esteem of such a community than that its Rector should have combined the professions of religion and arms?
True, some people in the county were certainly perplexed when they began to study the official record of Mr Phillips clerical work. They observed, for instance, that in the later issues of Crockfords Directory, the clergy list of the Church of England, the date of his ordination as a priest was shown as a year earlier than it was in the previous volumes.
Curiously, also, in that very year, four years before the outbreak of War, Mr Phillips was shown as having been appointed Garrison Chaplain to the military station of Fort William at Calcutta. In conjunction with the difference in the dates of ordination, this fact was interesting because it had been omitted completely form the records of at least the previous thirteen years.
It should be explained that the particulars of service given in Crockford are supplied or corrected by the clergymen themselves.
But what matter a trifling confusion of the kind! In any case, it was indisputable that Mr. Phillips had at some time or other officiated as chaplain to the Fort William garrison. When he did so, however, it was only for a very short period in the temporary absence of the military chaplain, and in no sense did he belong in the Army at that time.
His line of war medals was the apparent evidence that the Rector had a subsequent military career.
Often after the first exhibition of them eight years ago were the people of Feltwell privileged to gaze upon these decorations. They were worn upon every possible and appropriate occasion. They were displayed at funerals, even the funerals of women.
Soon the county learned still more about Mr Phillips war history. He had been wounded, and when he went away on a number of occasions to recuperate from bouts of ill-health it was understood that these were the consequences of or had been aggravated by his wounds.
It is true that there was some dubiety as to the location of those wounds. Some had gathered from conversation with him that they were in the lags, others that they were in the abdomen or about the head. One fact was definite - that they had been caused by shrapnel.
On the Armistice anniversaries Mr Phillips stood in his proper place with ex-Service men before the war memorial to pay homage to the names on the long and melancholy roll of honour.
Then he was instrumental in forming a branch of the British Legion, and with Lord Walsingham, D.S.O., a very fine soldier, as its president, he automatically became the Legion chairman.
With reverent ceremonial he also dedicated the Legions standard and took it and the other flags of the movement into his personal custody.
On last Armistice Sunday, the beribboned Rector preached a magnificent sermon, with ex-Service men paraded in church, upon the heroisms and the dignities of the War as he had himself witnessed them.
He had been so blessed by God, he said, that he had been privileged even to celebrate Communion at Talbot House in Poperinghe, Flanders, the birth-place of the great Toc H brotherhood.
The celebrants at one Communion service, he added, were a British general, a Pathan, and a sailor. He admitted, as if in after-thought, that he could not explain the presence of a sailor in the military war area.
It was necessary, the Rector informed the congregation, to administer Communion to the Pathan in his own language, and he had accordingly given it in the Pushtoo tongue. The general, he mentioned dramatically, was so impressed by the beauty of this language that he pleaded to have it used for him.
Mr Phillips spared no pathos when he described how the men, mud and blood stained, came to receive these Communions from his hands.
It was noticed at this service that the Rector was wearing full-size medals. In previous years he had appeared only with their ribbons or with miniature replicas of the decorations.
He also wore on this occasion a new stole with the letters C.F. embroidered below the Royal Crown, indicating that he has been a Chaplain in the Forces.
It was not until recently that strange rumours began to be whispered in Feltwell. And it was with the sole purpose of dispelling them that Captain H. D. Briggs, C.M.G., R.N., who was commander of the Bellerophon in the War and later a general in the Royal Air Force, approached the War Office in London.
The sequel was a special meeting of the British Legion at which Mr. Phillips resigned his chairmanship and membership.
Following representations made to him in person by the churchwardens of Feltwell, the Bishop of Ely directed the Rector to summon a meeting of the Church Council.
It took place in a schoolroom, attended by the schoolmaster and business men of the locality and farmers from the countryside. Mr Phillips insisted upon presiding himself.
Quietly, but pertinently and persistently, questions were fired at the Rector.
There had been misunderstanding, he said in reply, as to his supposed war wounds. He had, he said, undergone an operation after typhoid fever, and the scar "resembled" one caused by shrapnel wounding.
He was asked to revive his memory about his celebration of Communion at Toc H in Flanders to men just emerged from the trenches.
That again, Mr Phillips explained, was a misapprehension. It was in London that he had performed these services. But why soldiers in London should have come to him stained with mud and blood ho could not explain.
Cross-examined as to his general military service, the Rector stated that when he was a curate at Ramsgate in the first year of the War, he had drilled a thousand men. A strange duty for a curate, thought his hearers!
In addition, Mr Phillips went on, he had been responsible for arduous and extensive recruiting work when he returned to India in 1915. Again, remarked his interrogators, peculiar work for a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel!
Next came questions regarding his medals. The possession of these, said Mr Phillip, could be satisfactorily explained.
Just after the War, when he was residing in the South of England, he received one day by post a box containing four decorations - the 1914-15, the General Service, the Victory, and the Indian Frontier medals.
He presumed, of course, that the box had been sent to him by the War Office, but observed that although the name inscribed on the medals was "Phillips," the initials were not his. He disregarded that detail, however, believing that a simple mistake had been made.
Unfortunately, these medals were lost, and it was for that reason he had for so long worn only the ribbons or miniatures.
What about the full-size medals he had been wearing recently? He was asked. All he would state was that he had "procured" them.
Whose medals were these? The decorations of some soldier who is dead or who pawned them in distress? Only Mr Phillips can tell.
A woman member of the Church Council, a war widow, trounced the Rector with burning words. For eight years, she told him, he had worn with deceit the same medals for which her husband gave his life.
Never seen again
For deceit and sham it had been. This battle-scared, bemedalled padre had never been any nearer to a war front than the holiday town of Ramsgate in Kent.
As chairman of the meeting, the Rector had to put to it a resolution that his explanations were satisfactory and acceptable. He called for a show of hands. Not one went up.
The Church Council arranged to send its report next day to the Bishop of Ely.
But the Rector forestalled them. He bowed his silver head before the representatives of the parish, retired to his study, and wrote a letter to the Bishop resigning his living on account of ill-health.
To the British Legion he returned its standard and flags without a word or message of any kind.
The picturesque Rector was never seen again by his parishioners, The blinds were drawn when the car bearing him to an unknown destination was driven out from the rectory grounds the other day.
Back to Times Remembered
Back to Basil Vincent's account of this story