This article was written by Jane Barker. With thanks to Sheila Hart for sharing information and photographs with us.
Bessie was a lively, independent woman who held a unique leadership role in the Church of England long before women could be ordained. She was licenced by the Bishop of Oxford in 1917 as a Women’s Messenger which in effect enabled her (as a lay preacher) to run the Church at St Georges in Tyler’s Hill for the next 50 years. She was granted special permission in 1969 to help administer Holy Communion. Her role was unique, and she was the longest serving and last of the Bishop’s Women’s messengers from World War One.
Childhood and early years
Bessie and her twin sister Evie were born in 1889 in Lyme Regis. Their father, Richard, came from a poor farm labouring family in Norfolk and had worked hard to gain an education and to become a GP. Her mother was the daughter of a wealthy Lancashire cotton mill owner, whom Richard had married as his second wife after treating her as a patient. The move to Dorset was to support her health. They lived in a grand house called Belmont (currently owned by the Landmark Trust and former home of the writer John Fowles) and were at the centre of the local social scene. The twins had 4 older siblings. They were educated at home and had a privileged childhood, although their father held strong socialist views.
By the time the twins were 11, Richard was retired, and the family had left Lyme Regis. They moved several times over the next few years in contrast to the stability of their early childhood. Bessie’s mother died in 1907, when Bessie was 18.
Settling in Chesham
Bessie and her twin sister moved to Tilehurst Cottage, on White Hill in Chesham in 1910 when they were 21. The house was a gift from their father, and they were comfortably off. In October Bessie started to help at the Sunday School at St Georges in Tyler’s Hill. It was the start of her long and highly productive association with the Church. Though she had no experience of teaching, she set about making a success of the Sunday School. At first she found that the children threw things when her back was turned and felt nervous and shy, but her character quickly won them over and the Sunday school soon expanded under her leadership. She made good use of the training provided. By 1913 there were 18 boys and 21 girls, aged 4-14.
Diocesan Order of Women Messengers
WWI brought change and challenge. The Sunday School continued to operate until Easter 1916; following this Bessie corresponded with the 11 boys from her class who were enlisted. Not all of them survived the war.
WWI saw a shortage of clergy and in response the Church of England decided to license female lay readers to make good the shortage of male clergy. This was an opportunity for Bessie and in September 1917, she was licensed by the Bishop Gore, the Bishop of Oxford in a ceremony at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, as one of 22 women, into the Diocesan Order of Women’s Messengers. No more female lay readers were then appointed until 1969. Bessie was able to run the church congregation at St Georges, a role she continued after the war ended.
A lifetime of dedication to the community
Following WWI, Bessie became involved in Parochial missions across Buckinghamshire villages. This involved her in learning another new skill – public speaking. The Sunday School restarted in 1919 and continued to grow in popularity. A second Sunday school class was added in 1930 and additional teachers appointed under Bessie’s leadership.
Evie and Bessie worked together and supported each other. They were keen cyclists, kept and won prizes for cocks/cockerels, won a best garden event, grew produce for local shows, joined the Chiltern Arts Society and generally filled their time with good causes and fun. Bessie set up the Ley Hill Women’s Institute (one of the oldest WI in Buckinghamshire; motto- perseverance). From 1937 Bessie is also assisted by Margaret Blye, who becomes a great friend having moved to the area as a District nurse.
Bessie’s contribution to the Church was unique and very successful. She was a pro-active member of the local community, using her enthusiasm, desire to give things a go and leadership skills to set up new clubs and organisations over the next twenty years and more. At the Church Bessie set up a Ladies cricket team, a Young Wives’ group, a Mother’s Union and a Senior Citizen Club. She started a series of activities and clubs for girls and women in a new hut behind the Black Cat pub in Lye Green, to save them the two and half mile walk to Church. She became interested in drama and put on nativity plays each year. In 1934. “Eager Heart” was performed in Amersham and described as “one of the best plays given in the Hall” in the Bucks Herald. In 1955 Bessie attended the National School for Religious Drama. It’s not all plain sailing for the drama group – one year her sister used Copydex to attach beards to the adult male performers -ouch!
In the 1960s Bessie and Evie moved to Church Cottage in Tyler’s Hill, just opposite the St George’s Church. They continued their good works well into old age, eventually retiring to a nursing home in Aylesbury in 1985. Bessie died in 1987, when she was 97 and Evie, her twin, the following year.
Bessie and Evie are buried in the Churchyard at St Georges and a memorial coloured glass window commemorates Bessie’s long service to the Church. She left her money to St Georges’, and it was used to create the Bangay Rooms – a modern meeting space for Church and community activities.
While Bessie will be best remembered for her extraordinary and unique work with the Church, her life story reveals a woman of great drive and enthusiasm with a real talent for both involving the local community in new projects and playing a central role in the local community. Her love of life shines through her achievements.