The Reverend Jane speaks about her life: wartime, on a farm, horses, working for the church, and being ordained as one of the first Church of England women priests.
Early life and the War
I was born in Southern Rhodesia. My father had fought in the First World War and all soldiers could have some land in Rhodesia to farm so he and his bride went out there to marry and build a farm and farm it. I don’t know much about what it was like. We did have one friend that stayed on, so I still have a finger in Rhodesia, but nobody now can tell me how awful it is.
The West had a slump when everything slowed down and it affected us badly because we sold what we grew on the farm to the ships in Beira. The ships stopped coming and there was no-one to buy our produce. Our grandparents in Ayrshire were willing to pay our journey home, which was by ship at that time. They sent the money and we went home and left everything behind. I like to think that some of the people who’d been good to us before we left had a bonanza with our wedding presents, because they were all left. We were lucky to get out, or rather, get down to Beira for the boat and return home.
I was disabled and so they sent me to St Mary’s School in Sussex, and the last thing I remember my father doing before he went back into hospital to die was to take me down to school. Then he went into one hospital and mother went into another. She had T.B. and he had been badly gassed in the First War. I don’t know how he managed to work, but he did. We were in Rhodesia for at least four years before we came back. That was about 1935.
The wartime farm
In Wartime Britain, we’d come home to granny and granddad after we left Southern Rhodesia. There were three men living on the farm: the man who did all the gardening, the man who worked the horses and the man who did all the farming, and when there was work to be done they would all come and help. There were three elderly sisters on the farm as well – I’m not quite sure who they had been married to. They were elderly, but they were still able to stand on top of the straw stack and build it.
They used horses and the only time they had a tractor was for the combine because it takes the guts out of the horses to pull the big combine harvester. So we had a tractor just for the combine.
I remember walking behind the plough in a line, straight as a die – the land wasn’t flat so it took some doing. There were three horses and they were bought within two years of each other, so one was always older and one was just young and learning. I never saw the sowing but I remember watching the ploughing. Then the harvester would come – presumably hired – and it cut the wheat and it came out as sheaves.
Then you made little tents out of the sheaves; if it was wheat you put four pairs together and if it was oats you put three together. After they had dried you gathered them up and put them on a cart and took them to the stack yard. The cart wasn’t very large and one horse would pull it down to the stack yard where they were put in such a way that when the threshing machine came it could be pulled between them. The wheat was always one shape and the oats were always in a round shape. Don’t ask me why! That was how it was.
I was allowed to lead the horse down the field because they sometimes thought I was better on that front than the boys. The threshing was done at Christmas and it was a case of all hands on deck! It would come down from the top of the stack into the machine and the straw came out at one end and the wheat or oats came out the other. We never had barley, just oats and wheat.
The thing that upset me was the horses. I think they worked for six years and were then sent to feed the kennel dogs. I was really heartbroken. I felt they ought to have a tombstone. I was allowed to go and talk to them in bare feet! They were Clydesdale and enormous. Oh, I was fond of the Clydesdales. I loved them dearly. The horses were in three stalls and I used to try and imagine Bethlehem at Christmas time with three enormous Clydesdales. And they were so gentle. I would take them down to be harnessed and they never frightened me. I used to talk to them – at the front end – and when you think how near their feet were!
During the War the rough grass in front of the house was cut and gathered. I presume it went to the horses for hay. When they cut the hay and tossed it a bit they used to have a thing called a slipe. It was a wooden board which they pulled under the haycock in order to move it. You had to make your haycock where the hay was and you couldn’t wait until it had dried. I remember them going and gathering them in. We had in the farm a round building which was called a Mill Rink. I never managed to work out how it threshed the corn. It must have been old. They may have thrown the hay on the ground and walked the horses on it. I never found anyone who could tell me. Mind you they were usually too busy to satisfy a child’s curiosity.
We were in Wales VE Day and had fun and games and then we decided there wouldn’t be any more bombs – although it was doodlebugs at that point that we were anxious about – and we went home to Sussex. My school was in a mess after the Army so we moved again and my next school was in Bexhill. I did all right and got my A levels and was accepted by Bedford College, in Regent’s Park.
Neighbourhood and parish work
I left at the end of three years and heard of a position with a Settlement in London and I did a bit for a neighbourhood project as a Neigh-bourhood Worker, which was the only thing I was qualified for! I ended up at the Time and Talent Settlement. I got a post with them in Bermondsey Street. There were a whole lot of Settlements, mainly in the East End which helped their area.
Time and Talents had always worked with women. They had a house in Bermondsey Street which was their headquarters. The work was very like the work within a parish… that’s presumably why I thought I’d be all right. That was the first time that I met women who were doing neighbourhood work or parish work – neighbourhood work because it wasn’t within the church. We would visit homes and try and be helpful.
From the beginning I was paid as a neighbourhood worker. But then I did more training at Gilmore House, Clapham Common, and I did a degree in sociology. I did three years there, because you did so much which was general training, and then if you had some brains they expected you to do theology. When I graduated I got a job in a parish.
I ran a big Sunday School in Beaconsfield. You endeavoured to build a bond with your children then you used it to go places. It really turned on you being able to get the children to engage happily with you.
The Rector had a Queen Anne Rectory which had four big rooms on each floor. I lived on the top floor which obviously had been the servants’ rooms at one point. I had a big room and another lady had a room opposite and we had a third room that was a sitting room and then a kitchen and bathroom.
The other tenants were working. Clergy never have enough and they needed the money. My room was paid by the treasurer but the other people on the top floor rented. It had a way out that went down and out the back door, so you could come in and go out and you weren’t walking through their quarters. It was like a hole in the wall, you went through and you came out in what had been the servants’ quarters, then you went down another length and you came out the back door. That was very nice.
Becoming a real parish worker
Then I was able to move to a lovely old house which was quite separate from the Rectory, so when the new man came he didn’t have me rattling in his eaves and he couldn’t very well say ‘Out!’ His reputation then was anti-women and he asked, I think it was Diocesan House, what I should do!
He’d never had any first-hand experience of lady parish workers. However, He was sufficiently game and he said, ‘Right, come along, we’ll have you busy’ and it was great! When he came I’d thought I was on my way out but instead I became a proper parish worker. I preached, I led the worship, I obviously couldn’t do anything the priest should do, but apart from that I did everything. And it was really good – for me! Peter Nott has been a great friend of mine ever since.
The pastoral work was mainly with the children. I was responsible for Sunday School and the teaching and so on, but you also spent your time discovering why they hadn’t appeared last time and trying to be helpful and so on.
At some point, pay was hitched officially to the curate’s pay level. I think it was related to how many years they’d served. Women were included in the system which was really good and meant that you were part of the diocesan pay structure. It was interesting that until that point each parish worker had a different agreed amount and it didn’t follow consecutively through, but by the time I was in Beaconsfield there was a proper rate and you got it and it went into your pension too.
I went to the annual meeting for women and so I knew when everybody was brought into the system. There was a lady who used to run MOW – Movement for the Ordination of Women – she could have told you all about this. But I just got what I was given! I was satisfied with that. It was good and I loved my little house in Beaconsfield.
I can’t remember how long I was there but it was a long time, and as part of the modernisation they put a bath in my bit. There was a downstairs kitchen, an eating area and I had an area where I could work. It was really very nice.
Each year I took the children away for a week, and it may seem extraordinary, but many of those children had never left Beaconsfield and so even going on the train to London was a great excitement! It was no distance.
We used to go in a coach down to Kent for our holiday and we got one big room with many beds in it and two little rooms at the end for the leaders. Very Spartan. But the great thing was that I got in touch with Billy Butlin, who had a soft heart, and he let us go for very little. Of course then we had four to a chalet – it was so nice. We went every year until we gave up. Because of Billy Butlin all we really had to raise was their fare for the coach. We had our own coach, it was great!
On Sunday morning in Sunday School we ran parallel with what the adults were doing, and then we used to go to church sometimes and sit just below the choir. We used to sit all together.
I enjoyed working with the children. It’s strange, isn’t it? Because not being married I haven’t had any of my own, but I fostered two, and I always say to them that they have taught me more about what you can’t do with children.
Ordination and after
They decided that deaconesses should be made deacons. I had to become a deacon in order to be priested a year later. There were those who couldn’t accept that I was going to be made a priest. I don’t remember exactly how the argument went, but anyhow, I was made a deacon and then a year later, in 1994, I was made a priest. And there were 20 of us from the Oxford diocese. It was lovely. We were all different ages! None of us were young. I was ordained in Oxford.
I think some folk felt it because, particularly in Beaconsfield, you were who you were and you weren’t a ‘nearly priested’ – it just wasn’t on the horizon. Everyone was in the same boat. It was lovely to be one of the first 20 women to be ordained.
After ordination, because I had already retired I helped in the parish that I’d been in all along, Beaconsfield. Everyone was pleased. I think it was more difficult for some people if their parish wasn’t so accepting, because there was quite a backwash against women ordination, it was hard. I didn’t experience any prejudice. I don’t think I was ever in a position where I was demanding people to allow me to do what they weren’t happy with, so they didn’t have to say, ‘Yes, but…’
I took services when asked, but there were some difficulties with marriages. You had to be so careful because of the law – not Church law. One parish wanted me to conduct marriages but then decided l shouldn’t. I don’t remember all the ins and outs, but you had to be so careful because it involved civil law. I’m pretty sure I never married anybody. I did funerals obviously, which is where you often had people that you knew, and you were able to minister to them in a different way.
To sum up my working life …
I feel because I began low and ended high, it was all good. If I’d had a more important job to start with I might well have been much more frustrated!
The Reverend Jane Durell (1932-2018) talking to WISEArchive at Corton House, Norwich on 11th August 2015. This is an edited version. She also wrote the contribution “Slowly, slowly does it … women become priests”.
Many thanks to Margaret Duncom for supplying us with the following note about Jane.
Jane came to us [at St Mary Magdalene on Silver Street, Norwich] as a deacon and, alhough retired, was priested in 1994 in Norwich by Bishop Peter Knott, together with Gill Bridges, Heather Wright and others.
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