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.
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.
(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 ).