The Reverend George Potter initially served his title under the Rev. Faithfull-Davies and subsequently under the Rev. George Hammond Torrance. He was later to find fame as Father Potter of Peckham – founder of the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross. In the foreword to his book, “Father Potter of Peckham”, the then Bishop of Southwark writes of how “after a stern struggle to secure ordination, and two curacies in what were then really “slum” parishes, Father Potter was appointed Vicar of the derelict church of S. Chrysostom, Peckham, where he had to improvise in all sorts of ways to meet the needs of his neighbours, both physical and spiritual. From that experience was born the idea of a group of like-minded men bound together by a simple rule of life, but utterly devoted to the service of ordinary people.” The roots of this community go back not only to George Potter’s childhood, but to the early years of his priesthood spent amongst the people of South Wimbledon – in one of those “slum” parishes. He describes All Saints’ as a “very poor parish” with only three bathrooms, of which the clergy had two! His experiences, especially amongst the gypsies, make interesting reading. For instance, he tells of one occasion when, on hearing shrieks from a group of caravans rending the peace of the night, he forced his way into the vehicle from which the sounds came, only to find himself confronted with a man holding onto a woman’s hair as he slashed her with his belt. Asking the woman if she was hurt, he was a little nonplussed to find that she pushed him away, saying: “You git out of it; he’s my man! Let him do what he likes!” The gypsy ways were different, and he was to learn a lot more of them during the five years he spent in the parish.
Another story tells of him setting out one night to visit a sick man in the parish only to find him alone and dead in his darkened house. Shocked as he was by the initial discovery, there was worse to come. As he searched the property seeking help he tripped over a second corpse in the passage. It transpired that this was the bodily remains of a relative who had also set out to visit the deceased. For him however, the shock of discovering a dead body proved an intolerable burden on his heart, and the two were presumably re-united a little earlier than might have been expected!
There were other challenges that came the way of Father Potter, however, not least in the guise of the Boy’s Club which had closed at the end of 1912 due to an influx of members wholly disinterested in church attendance. It was decided that the best solution to the problem was to reform the club with boys of a younger age, and to place them under Father Potter’s care and supervision. It was an inspired move. In time this work became his specialisation and, in later years, when he was asked how he became so involved with boy’s work, Father Potter cited the years spent at All Saints’. Here, he said, he came to realise that often, all a boy required to keep him on the straight and narrow was some affection and discipline.
On the outbreak of war in 1914, Father Potter and a group of about twenty scouts were on a camping holiday and only learnt of the commencement of hostilities whilst at Totland Bay on the Isle of Wight. Their tents and equipment had failed to arrive and they were forced to seek refuge for the night in a loft near AlumBay, where they shared the accommodation with a selection of onions and other vegetables. Leaving the boys stretched out, Father Potter sauntered out onto the clifftop to ponder the grim situation in which the country now found itself. Nervous gunners fired on a stricken schooner as it limped across the bay and, suddenly in the darkness, the Reverend gentleman found himself confronted by two soldiers armed with bayonets, demanding to know why he was there. Only convincing them to return with him via the barn, and the subsequent intervention of the boys, saved him from arrest. Subsequently Father Potter served for a time as a chaplain with the armed forces in the Dardanelles before returning in 1915 to South Wimbledon.
Almost immediately he took the ‘Band of Hope’ under his wing delighting the juveniles of the group with his performance of the ‘Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe’, in which the “Old Woman” was played by Reverend Potter himself. It was a witty and enormously enjoyable piece of theatre that attracted large and enthusiastic audiences at every performance – 500 children attended the first night – 200 adults the evening after, and a large mixed crowd laughed and applauded their way through the final performance.
He left a large void in the Parish on his departure, but went on to do great work elsewhere caring for sick and homeless children. On his arrival at his new parish he had nowhere to stay so set up his vicarage in what had been The Eagle, an old corner pub. He put a sign on the front: “This establishment is under entirely new management!” He and his small community of brothers were soon engaged upon what they called “an experiment in religion”. In 1917, the first boy came to the home he founded, to be followed by a further nine hundred. In later years a brother Priest wrote this of Father Potter:-
“A superior stood at the Golden Gate; His head was bent so low:
He meekly asked the man of fate Which way he must go.
“What have you done,” St. Peter said, “That you seek admission here?”
“I ran a Delinquent’s Home on earth For many and many a year.”
St. Peter opened wide the gate, And gently pressed the bell.
“Come in,” he said, “and choose your harp, You’ve had your share of hell!”
Two books on his work – ‘Father Potter of Peckham’ and its sequel ‘More Father Potter of Peckham’ make interesting and enlightening reading.
As a postscript you will find below some more pictures of Fr. Potter and of S. Martin’s House kindly sent to us by Mr. John Reeves who knew him as a boy.