Stanley James: Cowboy, Preacher & Friend to the Famous. A talk by his grandson, writer Robert Nurden.
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Before coming to Walthamstow, as a young man in the Canadian West, Stanley was by turns a cowboy, shepherd, navvy, hobo and newspaper reporter, soldier in the Spanish-American war, poet, playwright and actor. Returning to his native England, he married and became a Nonconformist minister who both charmed and alienated his Walthamstow congregation with his socialism, support for women’s emancipation and pacifism. Shoppers in Hoe Street became used to hearing his impassioned speeches delivered from a soap box. After resigning from Trinity he set up a breakaway socialist church at Burghley Hall, Leytonstone.
In 1923 he converted and reinvented himself as one of the best-known Catholic writers of the English-speaking world, with nine books to his name. He later became deputy editor of the “Catholic Herald”. Widely respected for his knowledge, passion and insight, he worked alongside Bertrand Russell and counted G.K. Chesterton among his friends.
Yet the chance discovery years later of hundreds of secret letters and the diaries of three radical young women – from Leytonstone, Walthamstow and Manor Park – shattered the image. These documents, now housed in the Women’s Library of the LSE, show in intriguing and often explicit detail that, as a husband and father of seven, he had an affair and liaisons with female members of his congregation. One particularly revealing letter was featured in the 1994 edition of The Virago Book of Love Letters. Plays by the Women’s Theatre Group and Radio 4 also focused on these domestic dramas which were played out in 1916 even as the Battle of the Somme raged.
But just how much did Robert’s mother’s family know?
Robert was born seven months before Stanley died and was determined to find out what drove his complex and contradictory grandfather, trapped Between Heaven and Earth.
Robert Nurden is a writer and journalist who has worked on the Guardian, Independent on Sunday and Daily Telegraph, as well as many other national newspapers and magazines. He has reported on worker exploitation in the international garment trade, reindeer herding in the Arctic, racial stereotyping by the Western media and cider-making in Herefordshire. He lives in East London, not far from where his grandfather was minister.
Robert Nurden’s book ‘Heaven and Earth ‘will be published on 2 November.