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Putterill, John Cyril [Jack] (1892–1980), Church of England clergyman, was born at 28 Wray Crescent, Islington, London, on 27 September 1892, the son of John Harry Putterill (1855–1909), a graduate of King's College, London, who spurned ordination in the Church of England to become executive secretary of the YMCA, and his wife, Amy, née Powell. He grew up in Bedford Park, west London, where with his three sisters and one brother he attended Kensington House School, going on to Latymer Upper School, Hammersmith. He developed keen interests in music—learning the piano and organ and singing in the choir at Christ Church, Turnham Green—and chemistry, in which he studied to win an exhibition at Cambridge. His father's death closed off this avenue and instead, aged fifteen, he found a place on the branch counter and then in the clearing house of the London, City, and Midland Bank at 5 Threadneedle Street, London. Here he was converted to socialism partly by socialists in the bank's head office and partly through studying economics and banking for the Bankers' Institute examinations. He took part in meetings that led to the formation of the Bank Officers' Guild.

Putterill later claimed that rejection on medical grounds when he volunteered for military service in the First World War convinced him that he should seek ‘positive work to end all wars and bring in a sensible socialist system’ (Putterill, 13). He suffered a near nervous breakdown when the YMCA and the Society of the Divine Compassion (indicating a high-church departure from his father's low-church Anglicanism) proved unable to accommodate this ambition. Although he returned to become second man in his bank's Chiswick branch, he convalesced in a rented cottage in Bardfield End Green near Thaxted, Essex, discovered on a walking tour in 1914. He befriended the ‘Red Vicar’ of Thaxted, Conrad Noel, and sometimes substituted for Gustav Holst as church organist. Putterill found Noel's brand of Christian socialism attractive, and joined the Catholic Crusade. His involvement with Thaxted was cemented by his marriage to Noel's daughter Barbara (1897–1991) on 17 September 1921. The couple had two daughters, Sylvia (b. 1922) and Cecilia Rosemary (b. 1929); a son, Christopher, died when an infant.

Noel's curate Harold Mason persuaded Putterill to study for ordination, which he did via a correspondence course from Wolsey Hall, Oxford. He was ordained deacon in 1920 as curate to Edward Brice at Coleford, Gloucestershire, taking responsibility for the chapel at Scowles. The relationship with Brice soured when, at a public meeting, Putterill spoke in favour of state support for the unemployed in preference to intervention in Russia. He sought and found another curacy, assisting Father Hiram Smyth Rees at St Michael's, Abertillery, in 1922–3. Here he came into contact with the mining community, his response provoking a churchwarden to move at the parochial church council that the curate be forbidden to preach and describe the miners as slaves. Putterill then moved to St Peter's, Coventry, to assist Paul Stacy, a Christian socialist in the mould of Charles Marson, whom he joined in street preaching accompanied by a red flag bearing a cross and—like that at the centre of Thaxted's ‘battle of the flags’ of 1921–2—the slogan ‘He hath made of one blood all nations’.

A final assistant curacy summoned Putterill back to Thaxted in 1925, where Noel was often incapacitated by diabetes or depression. He became Noel's right-hand man, for more than a decade sharing the preaching duties and in particular overseeing the plainsong and other music in the church. He trained up a small orchestra to accompany the mixed choir which was such a distinctive feature of what was becoming the ‘Thaxted tradition’ of worship. Putterill also became deeply involved in weaving, printing, and in the Morris tradition at Thaxted, which was closely associated with the church, both dancing and learning the accordion and the pipe and drum, which he is seen playing in the Boulting brothers' documentary Ripe Earth (1937).

Putterill's socialism was nurtured by Noel's religious circle and a visit to Russia in 1930 which made a great impression (probably only his Christianity prevented his joining the Communist Party). He also became involved in Essex Labour activism, giving a practical local expression to Thaxted politics more often articulated in responses to international affairs or in political ‘stunts’. Elected to the rural district council, Putterill worked to improve local housing and, joining the committee of guardians, struggled to raise unemployment allowances. He was elected to the Essex county council as a Labour candidate for the traditionally tory seats of Finchingfield in 1937 and then Thaxted in 1946. At the end of the war he finally realized his long-held aim of organizing local agricultural labourers, and for many years chaired the resulting branch of the National Union of Agricultural Workers.

Relations with Noel came under strain in the mid-1930s when a local businessman, John Romanes, brought Noel temporarily under the influence of Frank Buchman's Oxford Group. Perhaps this encouraged Putterill's decision to accept the East End vicarage of St Andrew's, Plaistow, in 1937, where he developed an effective ministry drawing on his Thaxted experience. With his fellow socialist curate Stanley Evans, he both tended his congregation through the trials of the blitz and promoted fellowship with Soviet Russia.

When Noel died in 1942, Putterill was appointed vicar of Thaxted, a post he held until his retirement in 1973. In sustaining the Thaxted tradition, and the church as a focal point of English Christian socialism, he was assisted by a committed band of supporters, including his wife, Stanley Wilson and Mark Arman as churchwardens, and Joseph Needham, regular worshipper and close confidant. His ministry was distinct from Noel's: Putterill's publications were confined mainly to short pamphlets and music for Thaxted church. But like Noel he did much to integrate church, politics, and community in Thaxted, with a particular emphasis on the young, forming a church youth club which for fifteen years he took on annual youth hostelling expeditions.

Putterill could be mistaken for a classic eccentric vicar—as when in 1961 British Pathé filmed the home-built observatory from which he photographed the moon and the Andromeda nebula. But politics in the church remained uncompromising. Putterill provoked some parishioners to walk out in 1953 when he led prayers for the soul of Stalin, and later he supported the Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. His unrelenting support for Russia needs to be balanced by acknowledgement of his pastoral gifts and committed involvement in mainstream Labour Party and progressive politics. Parochial church council minutes record regular discussion of pressing issues including South Africa, Cyprus, the Suez crisis, and disarmament, which were also fully aired in the parish magazine. Putterill told the council ‘to ensure that our worship and religion applies itself to our everyday living and the problems of the world in general’, attributing religious decline to the churches' ‘failure to relate the Christian religion to the problems of the world, to the problems of war and want, and to warn of dangers ahead’ (Essex RO, Thaxted PCC minutes, 18 March 1967). Connections with the wider Christian socialist tradition were maintained by the wide repute of the Thaxted liturgy (which he adapted to allow more congregational involvement) and preaching, and the support of figures such as Tom Driberg, with whose gatherings of Christian socialists at The Lamb in Bloomsbury he was associated.

On his retirement Putterill moved to Saffron Walden, where his last years were saddened by his disappointment in the turn taken by Thaxted under his successor, Peter Elers, who downplayed the political tradition while becoming a leading figure in the emerging gay Christian movement. Putterill lamented to the more sympathetic Needham that ‘we all seem to have been let down and the work in Thaxted Church for the last 69 years reduced to nought and abandoned’ (Putterill to Needham, 9 June 1976, CUL, Needham papers L395), and he was closely associated with Wilson and Arman's open dissent from Elers's ministry. Putterill died of bronchopneumonia at Radwinter Road Hospital, Saffron Walden, on 18 November 1980. His ashes were interred in Thaxted church, which, under his stewardship, had remained a remarkable and vibrant example of the exercise of Christian socialist ministry in a parochial setting, with an important place in the affections of an international body of admirers and sympathizers.

Arthur Burns

Sources  

Thaxted quest for social justice: the autobiography of Fr. Jack Putterill, turbulent priest and rebel (1977) · A. Burns, Preserving the Thaxted tradition (2010) · A. Burns, ‘Church and state in the Essex countryside’, History Workshop Journal [forthcoming] · R. Groves, Conrad Noel and the Thaxted tradition: an adventure in Christian socialism (1967) · R. Heisler, ‘The Thaxted tales: Trotskyists versus Stalinist pilgrims on the Anglo-Catholic path’, Revolutionary History, 10/2 (2010), 286–322 · S. Wilson, The mayor and the matron (1971) · Ripe earth, film, directed by R. Boulting, produced by J. Boulting, Charter Films, 1937 · Village observatory, British Pathé film, 1961, id. 139.03 · Tom Driberg papers, Christ Church Oxf. · Thaxted PCC minutes, Essex RO, D/P/16/8/5B, D/P/16/2/9/3 · Conrad Noel papers, Hull History Centre · Joseph Needham papers, CUL · Manchester Guardian (9 March 1953) · The Times (17 Sept 1956); (21 Nov 1980) · private information (2012) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

CUL, Needham papers, corresp. with Joseph Needham · Saffron Walden town library, sermon notes


Likenesses  

J. Gay, photograph, c.1950, Mary Evans Picture Library, London · photographs, repro. in Putterill, Thaxted quest for social justice

Wealth at death  

£8747: probate, 10 Feb 1981, CGPLA Eng. & Wales