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Groser, St John Beverley (1890–1966), Church of England clergyman and Christian socialist, was born on 23 June 1890 at Beverley, Western Australia, the youngest son of Thomas Eaton Groser and his wife, Phoebe Wainwright. His parents were missionaries and Groser was sent to school in England at Ellesmere College in Shropshire, a Woodard foundation, and high Anglican in ethos. After studying at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, he was ordained deacon and priest in the Church of England. He became a socialist while a curate in Newcastle during the First World War. After a wartime chaplaincy in France, he undertook a further curacy in Cornwall. In December 1917 he married Mary Agnes (1893–1970), the daughter of the priest of that parish, the Revd M. A. Bucknall. They had two sons and two daughters. In 1922 Groser became curate of St Michael's, Poplar, east London. These were troubled years, and in 1927 he was dismissed, along with his colleague and brother-in-law Jack Bucknall, from his curacy. His involvement with Conrad Noel and the Catholic Crusade was a key element in his dismissal, though his role in the general strike (when he was beaten by police batons) did not help his relations with the hierarchy. His licence to officiate was removed for some time in this period.

In 1928 Groser became priest-in-charge of Christ Church, Watney Street, Stepney, where he built up a lively, socially involved community. During these years rent strikes occurred, and the battle of Cable Street (when the British Union of Fascists was prevented from marching through the Jewish area of Whitechapel) took place in October 1936. Groser played a major role both in the housing conflicts, as chair of Stepney Tenants' Defence League, and in the resistance to fascism. He opposed means testing and the use of police powers over ‘loitering with intent’ against unemployed people. He was a member of the London county council's committee on poor relief applications and chair of the local public assistance committee. In 1941 Christ Church was destroyed, and he and his congregation moved to St George-in-the-East, where he remained until 1948.

Groser was profoundly influenced by Noel and the Catholic Crusade, and the Stepney chapter of the crusade was based at Watney Street. Like Noel, he saw the importance of festivity, of colour, music, and dancing, in the creation of a Christian social consciousness. The Watney Street church was an urban representation of what Thaxted was struggling to manifest in the countryside, with joyful festivals, folk-dancing, and processions. Here too was a democratic Christian community, and a strong sense of the liturgy as a sacramental prefiguring of a liberated world.

In 1948 Groser became warden, and later master, of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, a community of medieval origin, newly located at the Limehouse end of Cable Street, and it was there that he spent the last years of his active life. Supported by colleagues such as Ethel Upton and Dorothy Halsall, he made St Katharine's a centre for Christian discourse, and a power-house of debate and discussion about the future of east London. Here dockers and trade unionists, Christians and Jews, elderly people, and a wide range of social and political groups would meet, making the centre a kind of early ‘think-tank’ and centre of commitment to the health and welfare of the East End. He was a key figure in the founding of Stepney Old People's Welfare Association and Stepney Coloured People's Association. He retained some outside commitments, playing the part of Becket in the film Murder in the Cathedral in 1951.

Politically Groser was one of the first generation of clergy to take Marxism and class-struggle politics seriously. He saw the racial dimensions of Mussolini's fascism at an early stage. Some claimed that he never came to terms with the post-war political settlement in Britain and was more at home amid struggle. Certainly it is his work in the 1930s and 1940s which is most remembered. Theologically, Groser was a traditional Catholic Christian. He saw God, and orthodox faith in God, as subversive. In a sermon at St Paul's Cathedral in 1934 he claimed that ‘nothing but the religion of the Incarnation fearlessly taught and worked out in practice in a new social ethic can save the situation’ (Halsall). His commitment was to a ‘rebel church’. Yet one of the best summaries of his significance came from the former chief rabbi Sir Israel Brodie. Groser, he said, ‘embodied the characteristics of the saint’, with his ‘Amos-like indignation at the grinding of the faces of the poor and his desire for radical social change’ (Brill, 102). Groser was undoubtedly one of the most significant Christian socialist figures in twentieth-century Britain. Hannen Swaffer, writing in the Daily Herald in 1936, said that he was the best-known priest in the East End of London (19 Oct 1936). Yet he figures hardly at all in the histories of Christian socialism, with the exception of the studies by Chris Bryant and Alan Wilkinson, and he is ignored in lives of George Lansbury and other political figures in East London on whom he had an important influence. He wrote only one book. Yet the impact of Groser, not only on the Church of England and the labour movement, but also, through the Student Christian Movement and numerous student missions, on the wider Christian community, and, locally, on struggles around housing, fascism, and the care of the elderly, was enormous. He died on 19 March 1966 at the Churchill Hospital, Oxford, and was buried in the churchyard at Watlington on 25 March.

His eldest child, Michael Groser (1918–2009), sculptor and musician, was born on 1 October 1918 at the vicarage, St Winnow, Cornwall. He was educated at Mercers School, Holborn, London, and the University of Leeds, where he was awarded first-class honours in English. He began to train for the priesthood at the College of the Resurrection at Mirfield, but left when he realized he did not have a vocation. During the Second World War, as a conscientious objector, he worked in a West Yorkshire coal mine, living with a miner's family: sketches he made were later used to illustrate E. R. Manley's Meet the Miner (1947). He also studied sculpture part-time at Leeds School of Art. Later in the war he moved to London and worked in a pacifist service unit, helping people who had been bombed out of their homes. After the war he studied sculpture at St Martin's School of Art, where he was taught by Leon Underwood, earning a living by singing as a lay vicar in the choir of Westminster Abbey (1948–9) and vicar choral at St Paul's Cathedral (1950–55). He also appeared as Third Priest in the film of Murder in the Cathedral (1951), in which his father was cast as Becket. On 16 July 1951 he married Eileen Jean Harris (b. 1930), daughter of Percival Edward Harris, steelworker; they had one son and three daughters.

In 1955 Michael Groser was invited to become an alto lay clerk at New College, Oxford. He sang there until 1982, while building up his career as a sculptor. He worked mainly in and around Oxford: perhaps the most famous of his sculptures were the carved heads representing the Seven Virtues and the Seven Deadly Sins on the Bell Tower in New College. He also made many stone carvings at Magdalen College, including caricatures of members of the company responsible for the restoration of the tower; at All Souls College; on the tower of the church of St Peter in the East, which was restored and turned into the library for St Edmund Hall; and Queen's College, where he replaced the seventeenth-century carvings in the tympanum over the entrance to the North Quad. In all of these he displayed his imagination and sense of humour. At the Norman church of St Mary's in Iffley, Oxford, he carved animals and angels on the tower, and fantastic heads on the doorway, and his ‘Jacob and the Angel’ is in the church of St Michael and All Angels in New Marston, Oxford. He also made the huge cross of Christ in Majesty (1960) for the chapel of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine's, Limehouse, carved out of Burmese teak, his only major work in wood. He was an accomplished viol player: musicians and musical instruments were among his favourite subjects for his carvings. In 2004 he and his wife moved to Ballydehob, co. Cork, Ireland, to be nearer to their children. He died on 23 September 2009 in Bantry General Hospital, of a gastrointestinal haemorrhage.

Kenneth Leech, rev.

Sources  

D. Halsall, ‘Record of talks, sermons, and writings of St John Beverley Groser, 1926–1961’, LPL [also in LPL] · ‘Black Sunday tension in the East End’, The Star (2 Oct 1936) · J. Boggis, ‘John Groser: some memories’, Cosmos (summer 1966), 7–10 · D. Barker, ‘Father Groser probes East End's unrest’, Evening Standard (3 Nov 1936) · K. Brill, ed., John Groser, east London priest (1971) · K. Brill and M. 'Espinasse, ‘Groser, St John Beverley’, DLB, vol. 6 · C. Bryant, Possible dreams: a personal history of the British Christian socialists (1996) · St J. B. Groser, Politics and persons (1949) · St J. B. Groser, ‘Loitering with intent’, Daily Herald (13 March 1935) · St J. B. Groser, ‘The Church of England and politics’, Mirfield Gazette, 13 (Dec 1926), 5–8 · St J. B. Groser, Does socialism need religion? (1951) · H. Swaffer, ‘Here is a bold priest’, Daily Herald (3 April 1936) · H. Swaffer, ‘East End in fear’, Daily Herald (19 Oct 1936) · A. Wilkinson, Christian socialism: Scott Holland to Tony Blair (1998) · The Times (26 March 1966) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1966) · d. cert. · J. Blackwood, Oxford's gargoyles and grotesques (1986) · New College Choir Association Newsletter (June 2010), 14–15 · www.groserfamilies.com, accessed on 1 Sept 2012 · b. cert. [M. Groser] · m. cert. [M. Groser] · d. cert. [M. Groser]

Archives  

Bancroft Road Library, Tower Hamlets, London, collection of sermons, talks, etc.; working papers relating to life of Dorothy Halsall · LPL, corresp. and MSS  

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage


Likenesses  

portrait (Michael Groser), repro. in Blackwood, Oxford's gargoyles and grotesques, 30 ·

Wealth at death  

£999: probate, 23 May 1966, CGPLA Eng. & Wales