The Monty Python Bishop and the Suez Crisis in Cambridge – 1956

If you’re not familiar with the crisis and have a bit of time, watch this documentary in full. Note the footage here (TW: racism) and here (TW: possible war crimes) are particularly sobering given how little is known by the general public.

You may not be familiar with the name Mervyn Stockwood, but you might be familiar with the video footage below:

From the show Friday Night, Saturday Morning, in 1979.

The cleric in the video is the Rt Rev Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark (in office 1959-80). Before taking up that appointment, he was the Canon of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge. And caused quite a storm in his time here. A more youthful-looking Bishop Mervyn Stockwood can be seen in this 1961 video, where he took the ordained in his diocese to ‘a big gay holiday camp in Bognor’. (The British Pathe commentary is beautiful). Some writers and biographers have commented on his sexuality, others have omitted it.

Leftwing firebrand returns to the place of his conversion – to socialism

Rev Stockwood’s wikipage is here. He moved to Cambridge in the early 1930s, joining Christ’s College, Cambridge. He stayed in Cambridge to study for ordination at Westcott House, one of the theological colleges in Cambridge. Although Cambridge was a Conservative-run town in the 1930s (see here), it had an active left-wing movement epitomised in one part by the leader of Cambridge Labour, the Rev Dr Alex Wood, something of an elder statesman by that time, and the young, heroic anti-fascist fighter John Cornford, who would become the first Englishman to die fighting the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Although I’m still yet to read biographies of Stockwood, I would not be surprised if the archives show him as engaging in the peace and anti-fascist campaigns of that decade in Cambridge.

Election to the People’s Republic of Romsey Town, Cambridge

You can even get the t-shirts. In the 1930s, Romsey Town was a solid working class neighbourhood of Cambridge that was so left wing it was falling off the pavement into the shop fronts of Mill Road. This is the same Romsey Town that re-elected Clara Rackham for the best part of a quarter of a century.

The next bit of research I’ve got is working out how as Canon of Great St Mary’s – the University Church in Cambridge – he got dispensation to join a political party, stand for election, and having won his election, be allowed to serve as a councillor. Or elsewhere for that matter – he was a councillor on Bristol City Council prior to his return to Cambridge. He was one of the instrumental figures behind Tony Benn’s attempt to get the law changed to allow hereditary peers to relinquish their titles and allow them to stand for election to the House of Commons.

190614 Tony Benn Mervyn Stockwood Bristol City Council

From Tony Benn, a biography, by Jad Adams. p116.

Stockwood arrives at Great St Mary’s, and Suez kicks off.

And it was just as divisive to the country as the Iraq War of 2003 was.

The conflict would ultimately force the Prime Minister Anthony Eden, Churchill’s protege, to resign due to ill-health from the stress it caused. The Labour Party, then in opposition, immediately responded with protests against what they saw as old-fashioned imperialism, and a breach of international law.

561102 Cambridge Labour Poster Suez Crisis Poster.jpg

And the letters to the editor of the Cambridge Daily News started arriving.

561102 Labour against Suez Protest planned 1956.jpg

Ambitious – Cambridge Labour call upon the whole of Cambridge to join a big protest against the invasion of the Suez Canal zone by UK, French and Israeli forces in 1956.

Tony Benn MP visits Cambridge for a debate at the Cambridge Union 

561103 Cambridge Union Tony Benn Suez.jpeg

Turns out it was the Conservative supporters of the Prime Minister who were responsible for the noise and disruption of Mr Benn’s speech. (Just over 50 years later I’d meet Tony Benn on my way back from work at Cambridge Railway Station during my civil service days in London!)

The protests were ***so noisy*** that the ADC Theatre received complaints from their audiences from what was happening next door.

561103 Cambridge Union Tony Benn Suez Too much noise

Making that amount of noise takes some doing!

Cambridge Labour march on Parker’s Piece

561105 CDN Anti-Suez War March Labour.jpg

A number of local elder statespeople were on this march, including only the second person to serve as Cambridge’s MP from the Labour Party, Robert Davies (then a local councillor), and Suffragist Clara Rackham, who by then had become well known for her work with, and marches for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Imagine having been active with Millicent Garrett Fawcett early in your career, and then with the CND at the end of it, and covering everything else in between.

Cambridge Tory thugs throw smoke bombs at old ladies!

….could have been an alternative headline to the article, as pro-war protesters ambushed the march.

561105 Clara Rackham against Suez war 1956.jpg

One of the people who took part in that march was a young medical student called David Owen, who talked about his experiences in a chapter for a book on Great St Mary’s. This is the same David Owen who became Labour’s Foreign Secretary in James Callaghan’s Government that preceded Thatcher and the SDP split.

Around the same time, Councillor the Rev’d Canon Mervyn Stockwood was preparing a service where he planned to preach about the Suez Crisis. Given how politically divisive the topic was already proving, and given that he was a serving councillor for one of the most left-wing neighbourhoods in Cambridge, this was always going to be controversial. Local Conservatives advised their members to remain on their best behaviour.

561105 Mervyn Stockwood vs Tories GreatStMarys Suez 1956

Above – Cambridge Daily News 05 Nov 1956, from the Cambs Collection.

“What was the reaction?”



Anarchy. There were letters to the editor, threats of boycotting the Remembrance Parade, councillors refusing to go to church the following Sunday… all hell broke loose!

561107 Readers boycott church service Suez Mervyn Stockton 1956

Aldermen (sort of like ‘senior councillors’ with permanent seats on the local council – a role scrapped in the 1970s) Henry Langdon and William James express their outrage at the ‘Red Rector’ of Great St Mary’s.

Speaking truth to power

Rev’d Stockwood had his defenders too – many stating that on issues as serious as war and peace, it was his duty as a Christian in a position of influence to speak the truth to power.

561109 More Suez Letters defending Stockwood

One very interesting figure who wrote in support of Rev’d Stockwood was a local musician and school teacher called Miss Dorothy Hurst.

561107 Dorothy Hurst Morley letter on Suez Crisis.jpeg

A longstanding member of the Cambridge University Music Society, Miss Hurst would become well known in South Cambridge as the headmistress of one of the local primary schools where she taught for the best part of half a century.

Stockwood became the Bishop of Southwark in 1959, and was one of the co-founders of the Christian Socialist Movement – today Christians on the Left, the following year. As an organisation it is affiliated to the Labour Party and sends delegates to its annual conference.

Socialist Stockwood squares up to communist cleric from Canterbury

At the end of 1956 came an astonishing set of exchanges between Rev’d Stockwood, and a cleric who was even more left wing than him – Dr Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral.

561115Mervyn Stockwood vs Communist cleric 1956.jpg

Above – the astonishing confrontation at The Cambridge Union.

That wasn’t the end of it. They would exchange hostile letters over the pages of the Cambridge Daily News later that month.

561129 Stockwood to Red Dean 1956

While all this was happening, the Soviet Union was engaged in a war of words with Yugoslavia and whether the latter was communist enough for the former.

561119 Pravda vs Tito 1956 name calling.jpg

….while remembering that this was also the time of the Hungarian uprising and the subsequent Soviet intervention to put it down – all of which was reported in the media. There was a huge fund-raising campaign from town and gown alike. Below is one letter from Stockwood appealing for funds in a very-well-supported campaign to support refugees from Hungary fleeing the communists – of whom we’ve seen Stockwood had no time for.

561108 Hungary appeal Mervyn Stockwood 1956

Interestingly, in the letter just below it, there’s a letter from an A.I. Roughton stating that a depot to collect items for the Hungarian Relief Fund had been set up at her house on Adams Road. This is Prof Alice Roughton, a psychiatrist, peace campaigner and conservationist who qualified at the local hospital – Addenbrooke’s. Furthermore, 9 Adams Road is the house next door to where another peace campaigner also once lived. You may have heard of her. Her name? Eglantyne Jebb.

Popular culture often throws up the six degrees of separation. Locally in Cambridge, it’s two. At least that’s what we tell ourselves.

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