Category Archives: History

How we became Bahá’is – Mary, Gwen and Bill Prince

From an interview  with Joan Birch – June 1995

Mary: My brother Bill was born in 1912. I was born in Leicester (1919) and moved to Syston where Gwen was born in 1925. 

Father was an architect in a private practice; it was the oldest practice in Leicester. 

I first heard about the Baha’i Faith in 1 953. 

I had been brought up in the Church of England but I became very disillusioned during the War. I became interested in politics (Labour).

I went to see a friend of mine (Norman Tanner), who had been a friend long before the war. He told me he was going to a meeting the coming Sunday in Leicester which he thought I might be interested in. He said he was thinking of joining some Faith called the Baha’i Faith. What I had been planning to do had fallen through so I went along to the meeting to see what my friend had got into.

The speaker at that meeting was Hasan Balyuzi.

It took me two years to accept the Faith.

At that time I was in a small company whose chairman (Lord Hungarton), use to go with Lord Boyd Orr, who was involved with organizing United Nations. (He went in as an adviser on farming methods and was given his peerage for the work he did during the war). He was very depressed because of what the scientists were doing with things like altering the weather and said there was nothing they could do to put it back again. 

From that I became disillusioned with politics and their idea of world government.

Then Hasan Balyuzi spoke about World Government and that aspect of the Faith and I became interested in studying the Faith. I met John and Vera Long at that first meeting at the Y.M.C.A. 

We would meet on Saturday nights at the Bell Hotel in Leicester.  

There were not many books available to read at that time.  I went to a series of four meetings at which Philip Hainsworth spoke. They had come from Northampton with some books and I bought the Gleanings. 

I had a lot of business worries and I used to suffer from insomnia so I used to read at night. One night I was reading the Gleanings and I knew that was Christ speaking again.

I accepted the Faith in 1 955.

Mother and Father were sympathetic but Bill and Gwen were not, especially Bill; they were antagonistic.

Gwen: Bill was assistant organist at the church and I was in the choir. We were hearing Christ’s teachings all the time and we thought that was enough.  We were prejudiced. I didn’t become a Baha’i for another few years but when I was going to sing a solo in church I used to say the prayer The Remover of Difficulties even though I was not a Baha’i. My mother died in 1963 and there were certain questions in my mind and I seemed to have lost God. I couldn’t understand where my mother had gone and I asked everybody in the church and they all gave me the wrong answer. I went to Mary and all she said was: Read my books and that was it. Gradually the Faith became clear. 

There was a deciding point for me, however. Our vicar, who was Archdeacon at the church did it. It happened the last time Bill and I went to the Harvest Festival Service. Bill was recording it and while we were setting up all the equipment, the vicar came in and went up to the altar where all the people had given things in the afternoon for the harvest. He came down with an ever so silly expression on his face and carrying a great big box of Black Magic chocolates and he says, Wouldn’t you realise that black people would give a thing like this.”  When we came out of church and the vicar had gone, Bill and I had a word and Bill said, Well that’s a thing isn’t it?” and I said, Yes, isn’t he prejudiced“!  And that decided me.

I went to sing in the choir that night. I didn’t see Bill again as he was recording the service. We had a choir practice for the concert. When I came out of the choir practice two of the girls offered me a lift home. I said, all right, thank you“. I sat in the car coming home and all of a sudden I said, I shan’t be coming again. I’m going to become a Baha’i, like Mary,” and one of them said,Oh, I was afraid of that!”  So I must have been talking about it a lot without knowing it. When we got home that night I told Bill and he said that he had decided to become a Baha’i too. 

He said, Things have been working up and I can’t satisfy myself with the church any more. I keep reading Mary’s books and I’ll join the same time as you.”

Mary: 1956. I met Ethel Revell when she came to Leicester one Sunday afternoon.  There was this little old lady with a big bag filled with rose petals for the new Bahá’is who had declared during the 10 Year Crusade. She was going all around the country on behalf of the Guardian.

We had a National Convention in Leicester (1956). There was only myself and Vera Long and Pat and Ian Sinclair and we had to arrange everything.  This was before John Long was a Baha’i. There were not all that many Bahá’is around at that time. When I became a Baha’i my registration card number was 709.

February 1957: John and Vera Long bought a house on New Walk which became the first Bahai Centre in Leicester.  The opening was a very special occasion.  Quite a big do then, for that time. It was a two day event and Hasan Balyuzi came to open it and the speakers on the Saturday were Ian Semple, Dorothy Ferraby and Ernest Gregory and on the Sunday  the speakers were Betty Reed and Dorothy Ferraby again. The evening meeting was a public meeting. We formed our first LSA that year

November  1957

Mary: I was at home in the morning just before I went out to work. Vera Long rang  and she gave me the news and said The Guardian’s dead, your’re not to tell anybody. Hasan Balyuzi was going to announce it on the foreign news and than it will be public then. It was a terrible shock and yet a few months before that Shoghi Effendi had appointed nine more Hands of the Cause and everybody was excited and said that some great thing was going to happen but something inside me said ‘no’ 

In the last batch of Hands to be announced there was John Ferraby and Hasan Balyuzi who at the time were secretary and chairman of the NSA.

Gwen: I wasn’t a Baha’i at that time. When Mary told me, I knew the news upset her but she seemed to have been waiting for it and had had a premonition. She did not go to the Guardian’s funeral.  John and Vera Long went and Pat and Ian Sinclair.

GwenOur Assembly ‘s idea was to acquire a new Baha’i Centre for the centenary of Baha’ullah’s arrival in  the Holy Land. (1868). The house we found had 1868 inscribed on it and it was one of the reasons we bought it!  We moved into the Leicester (Baha’i) Centre in 1967 to get it ready.  It was a busy time for us.

Just over a year later the Publishing Trust trade counter stopped trading and they had to move the books. John Long asked if we knew of anywhere in Leicester where the books could be stored. I said that we had some rooms upstairs on the top floor and we could store a lot up there. John asked us if we could keep on sending out the pamphlets and the leaflets for the Publishing Trust. We agreed to do that and we soon became the trade counter and were sending out the books as well. We used to despatch the slides for the 1963 Convention. 

We had the books in our h.ouse for 4 years. Bill, an architect, was worried about the weight of the books in the house so we kept them all around the walls and not in the middle of the floor. We packed and despatched books from our house each day almost a full time job. We sent books out all over the world. Our turnover approximately at the end of 3 years was 10,000 orders. We had the job of sending out the many copies of “The Priceless Pearl” for the Iceland Conference. We had a postbox on the corner of the road near the house (for small orders) which was convenient for us, and a large post office near by where we took the parcels.  It was really a labour of love!

During those days (1967-71), we used to have some kind of meeting almost every night i n the Baha’i Centre. Bill and Mary went out to work but I was at home all the while and so was able to set things up ready for them. We used to feel that we got divine help during this time.

Quite a few Hands of the Cause visited Leicester. Vera and I and Mrs Shuster used to hold meetings in our homes before we were Bahá’is!

Dr Grossman came and Mr Furutan came twice because his daughter Parvine had become a nurse at the Loughborough Hospital. 

When we had the Centre on London Road, Dr Muschlegel came and stayed with us. Bill Sears stayed two nights  and  two days. John Robarts stayed at the hotel up the road and he used to come in for a meal now and again. They were all  moments to treasure!

 Teaching Conferences were held in Leicester in January 1964, January 1968 and December 1974.

Two summer schools took place in Leicestershire at which Hands of the Cause were present. 1975 at Scraptoft and 1977 at Loughborough University. 

Dr Giachery came to tea one afternoon.(Scraptoft) Mr Haney and Mr Faizi came the first week and the second week Mr Furutan and Dr. Muhajir. 

All the Hands had such different personalities. Dr. Muschlegel gave us a lovely safe feeling. 

John Ferraby used to give really deep study classes. 

In 1970 we  heard Ruhiyyih  Khanum speak when she came to England for a meeting  i n London.

We all pioneered to Wales together in September 1978, first to Colwyn, and then in the early 1980s to Aberconwy. Bill died 31 March 1993.

We have been Bahá’is now a long time and have had many experiences and seen many changes.

Mary: A message we would like to pass on to all Bahá’is is that we should read the actual Writings again and again and again. It is so important to go to the source.

Gwen: Dont be disappointed if the Faith doesn’t develop as we expect. Things can happen in different ways. We don’t always understand God’s plans. Don’t expect things to happen too quickly! Once you become a Baha’i you get excited and think everything is going to happen next year but things seem to move a lot more slowly than expected.  Have patience!

Mary and Gwen Prince.

22 Hafod Road West, Penrhyn-Bay, Llandudno LL30 3PN

History of Leicester Bahá’í Community.

From a talk given by John Long

When the Guardian, the head of the Bahá’i Faith, launched his Ten Year Crusade in 1953 he gave many goals to be achieved by the National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles. They had to achieve some new Local Spiritual Assemblies during that period and one place chosen was Leicester. There were no Baha’is in Leicester and no meetings had taken place here and so they asked Dr John Mitchell to help. He was a surgeon in the hospital in Northampton and later the first Baha’i in Malta and after his passing he was buried in Leicester. At that time he was treasurer of the National Spiritual Assembly. The National Assembly also asked Betty Reed, who had also recently become a member of the National Spiritual Assembly and lived in Northampton as well as Olive Sutton who lived in Nottingham and an elderly Baha’i, one of three sisters, Emily Eastgate, who lived in Birmingham.

Largely under the guidance Betty Reed they decided to hold a public meeting to get things started here. They booked the YMCA, they invited Hasan Balyuzi to be a speaker. For many years he had been chairman of the National Assembly. Later he became an eminent scholar and author with the title Hand of the Cause. Then they had to plan how to attract an audience. Nobody in Leicester had heard the word Baha’i. Betty at that time was in charge of the education department for the British Boot and Shoe Institution. As such she had access to the membership list for the whole country so she sorted out all those that lived in Leicester and Leicestershire and that was her mailing for this first meeting at the YMCA. I had been in contact with her because I had been active in BBSI nationally for many years and as a matter of courtesy, because we both knew her, Vera knew her as well, we decided that we should have to go to that meeting. A few others among the shoe people in the city, and county for exactly the same reason which is what Betty counted on, decided well let’s be polite and see what this is about. So in fact about a couple of dozen or so turned up at that meeting.

The talk interested Vera and right away. One who had accepted an invitation to that meeting who was nothing to do with the shoe trade was Mary Prince. She used to have her hair done by a hairdresser out at Birstall and this lad (Norman Tanner) was a Baha’i. He didn’t remain very long because he went off to Canada. Because both Mary and Vera had been noticeably affected by Hasan’s talk they agreed, again, probably with quite a bit of prompting from Betty Reed to allow an occasional meeting to be held in their homes. Not very easy for Mary because she had a brother and a sister who had no interest in it whatsoever and a father and a mother who may have been nervous of her getting involved in something so unknown to them.. During the next few months firesides were held intermittently and alternately at Mary’s home which was in Kingsway Road and at ours, which was in Stoneygate Road. Eminent Baha’is came to speak in our home before we were Baha’is ourselves. They also arranged a few public meetings at the Bell Hotel. It was situated where the Haymarket Centre is now. About two years later in 1955 the secretary of the Baha’i National Teaching Committee, a young girl named Pat Holden, was persuaded to come and live in Leicester to assist in forming a Baha’i community here. She found a little terraced house which was where the tower of the polytechnic (De Montfort University) is now. There were many little Victorian streets there. She decided that she would hold a fireside there every week on a regular night, advertised it in the Mercury and in the Mail which was still running then.  For twelve months she sat there each week and nobody knocked on the door.

At the end of the twelve months there was a knock at the door. It wasn’t an enquirer, it was Ethel Revel from Haifa. One of the members of the International Baha’i Council, in fact the treasurer. From then, perhaps that was the seed, things began to move a little bit. One of the young men who started attending the firesides that were being held still by Mary and by Vera, who were still not Baha’is, was called Ian Sinclair. Later Ian and Pat were to get married. Ian wasn’t a Baha’i yet and there were no other Baha’is. During this period of time Nuri Sabet would come over from Loughborough and another student from Nottingham, Dariush Mehrabi.

The early part of 1956 saw the first declaration in Leicester, that of Mary Prince. Three weeks later Vera declared. Vera and I had attended the Baha’i summer school in Wales the previous summer, persuaded by Betty Reed. On the way there on Bangor station we met Adib Taherzadeh and his wife and a little baby. (Adib was a Baha’i Pioneer in Dublin for many years and prominent author of Baha’i books. He was to become a member of the ruling body of the Baha’is, the Universal House of Justice) We learned a lot at the summer school and no doubt that influenced the timing of Vera becoming a Baha’i.  Mary having set the precedent which she would follow. That year the NSA decided that convention would be held in Leicester and Pat Holden was to make all the arrangements. About three weeks before convention was due Pat came to Stoneygate Road quite distressed because she hadn’t been able to get any of the arrangements done. So as a non-Baha’i I offered to try and get some of these things done. I pulled a few strings and got Bourne College for the venue, found caterers, had to go and hire chairs and we got it lined up. So a week before convention I after doing all this I thought perhaps it was about time I became one myself and a week before convention I signed a declaration card.

That meant Mary, Vera and I were the first local Leicester Baha’is. In between Vera and myself Ian declared. There was another Baha’i at that time called Mrs Schuster who lived in Saxby Street. Almost a year after I declared Betty Reed started encouraging us to put our names down for pilgrimage. She said it will take four years before you get called. My first answer was that I can’t raise the money. The furthest I had been before that was France and that was an adventure. We put our names down and got a reply from the Guardian because you wrote to the Guardian in those days for pilgrimage and at that the time the Suez Crisis broke. The Persian government said nobody should go to Israel and the bulk of pilgrims were from Iran. The American government, where the next biggest community resided, also said no one can go to Israel. That meant nine tenths of the normal pilgrim group couldn’t go.  Unexpectedly I got a cable from the Guardian, ‘Come on the fifteenth of March which was about a fortnight ahead. I promptly went and saw the principle and said I want some time off. He said, ‘You can’t have it.’ We argued a bit, I was about the only member of staff who dared argue with him because I was on the education committee. We agreed if I could get it changed I could have the last week of term and combine it with the first week of Easter. I cabled the Guardian to ask if it was alright and another cable came saying, ‘Yes’. So thanks to the Suez crisis we went out in 1957, the Easter period and were fortunate enough to actually meet the Guardian. While we were there Vera told the Guardian that we were trying to get an assembly and we had got eight members. The Guardian just smiled and said, ‘You will have it’. Sure enough, while we were away there was another declaration and by the time we got back there was just enough of us to form that first assembly, Ridvan 1957.

At one NSA meeting I rang Vera to see if she was alright and she said to me, ‘I’ve found a house for the Baha’i Centre’, because we had been laying plans to have a Baha’i Centre. ‘Where’s this?’ I asked. She said, ‘New Walk. I’ve been round to see it today. It’s got a very nice room at the front that will make a centre and I’ve decided we are going to buy it.’ I said, ‘What with?’ and she said, ‘Something will turn up.’  I was on the executive of the Association of Technical Teachers and there was a man from the British Mercantile Insurance Company came every year to our convention to try and sell policies and I wondered if I could raise something from the insurance people. When I got back on the Monday I got in touch with him and he agreed. Then, believe it or not, one of the NSA members said ‘My aunt died a few months ago and I’ve just been told I have got £2000 legacy coming. I was going to invest it but you can have it to make the rest of it.’ Between the two of them we were able to buy 126 New Walk. We were able to get that opened as an official Baha’i centre with Hasan Balyuzi addressing the opening ceremony. It got a good write up in the Leicester Mercury, unlike the one of the first meeting in the YMCA when Hasan came to speak. Then they tried to pour ridicule on the idea under the Headline, ‘The Baha’is are Coming’. The centre was opened on Saturday February 15th 1958. We had many wonderful meetings and people visiting.

Image of the opening of the Bahá'í centre on New Walk in Leicester.
Opening Baha’i Centre 1958

The floor above had a very big room and we have had as many as a 100 people in that room. We had regular weekly meetings in the downstairs room. On the 19th October in 1959 we had the first Baha’i wedding in Leicester take place there.  Ultimately it became a burden to maintain as there was insufficient help to prepare and clear up after meetings. Vera’s mother, who came to live there, was a great help with running the centre. One man turned up once who said he was from the Falkland Islands and looked like he wanted to stay there for quite some while. Three days later he was all packed up with his knap sack on his back and said, ‘I’m off.’ We said, ‘OK if you have to go so soon.’ He said, ‘Yes, my wife’s found out where I am.’

The Baha’is had a great big poster which was displayed in many parts of the British Isles at that time, it was on the bridge part of the London Road station. It was a huge poster, as big as a door and wider, and a rabbi came to the door. He had seen the poster and as he had an hour or two to spare he thought he’d come round and learn something about the Baha’i Faith. After an hour and a half he said I must go to catch my train. He was just filling in time but who knows? A kindly word may do some good somewhere or other. It was in December 1964 our connection ceased with it because we moved out to pioneer to Oakham to open a new county as it was then in Rutland. It was one of the goals of the Nine year Plan. NSA members felt we should show an example and get moving around. Vera and I decided we could move there and I could commute backwards and forwards.

Image of the graves of John and Vera Long
Graves of John and Vera Long

(NB. Mary Prince’s brother and sister, Bill and Gwen, did declare and they turned the large front room of their house on London Road, into an official Baha’i Centre for some time, before they retired to North Wales ).