Tag Archives: Virginia & Leonard Woolf

A vision of Christ in Firle

As lockdown restrictions begin to ease in England, we decide to go for our first pub lunch in four months to The Ram Inn, an historic 500-year old pub in Firle, East Sussex.

Ram Inn

Jeremy (with Covid crop and pint of Harvey’s) and Sophia at the Ram Inn. (Photo by Isabella Smith)


Firle is an attractive old village in the South Downs National Park, which manages to remain quite tranquil despite being just a few hundred yards off the ferociously busy main A27 road.  It sits below the high chalk escarpment of the South Downs, from which one can see the English Channel in the distance. The road to Firle from the A27 leads nowhere except to the village and up to Firle Beacon on the downs, so there is no through traffic to disturb the peace; and since there is no street lighting, no traffic signs or road markings, and no modern buildings, one can easily imagine that the village looks very much the same as it did in 1911, when Virginia Woolf took a house there for about a year.

Little Talland

Little Talland House, built in 1904, which Virginia Woolf rented in 1911, naming it after Talland House in St Ives, Cornwall, a place where she had spent many happy holidays in childhood.

After a pleasant lunch in The Ram Inn and a welcome pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter for me, we walked around Firle, passing Virginia Woolf’s house. In a letter describing it to her future husband Leonard, she said: “This is not a cottage, but a hideous suburban villa – I have to prepare people for the shock”. With due apologies to the present occupant, she was not wrong, it is the ugliest house in Firle; nevertheless, she invited members of the Bloomsbury Group and other friends from literature and the arts to visit her there, including Roger Fry, Adrian Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Desmond McCarthy, Leonard Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

We strolled on, pausing only to buy some quails’ eggs from a display outside a house, with an honesty box for payment, and then came to Firle Post Office and general stores, which according to a sign above the door was established in 1780.



Firle Post Office, established in 1780. (Photo via Angela Bunt Creative) 


A little further on, we came to a long path between beech hedges which brought us to the West Door of St Peter’s Church. The present church dates from the 12th century, though it is likely that there have been varying forms of religious settlement on the site since Druidic times.

Inside the vestry, I am struck by a newspaper cutting displayed there, from the Daily Mirror of November 8th 1940, with the headline: “Shepherd Tells Of Vision In Sky”.  The article, “by a Special Correspondent”, tells such an intriguing tale that I can’t resist quoting from it extensively:

Daily Mirror

A cutting from the Daily Mirror dated 8th November 1940, which is displayed in the vestry of St Peter’s Church, Firle. Fred Fowler, the shepherd, is holding a Pyecombe hook, a special kind of shepherd’s crook made in the Sussex village of Pyecombe for use with the narrow-legged Southdown breed of sheep local to the area.

“Old Fred Fowler, sixty-six, lifted his weather-beaten face skywards and pointed west way above the highest peak of the Sussex downs. ‘It be there when I see it,’ he said. ‘There in the clear blue sky. A vision they calls it – it was the like of something which I never see before’. Then he said reverently, ‘It be Christ I see.’

Fred, who is a shepherd, lives in the village of Firle, near Lewes, Sussex. Yesterday the Daily Mirror told of how he and other villagers claimed to have seen a vision of Christ and six angels.

Fred told me the strange story himself. I joined him in his shelter of bracken on the downs. The biting wind blew round us. His two dogs, Bob and Watch, guarded his 150 sheep.

‘I never be one to see things’, said Fred. ‘I am alone too much for that. (…) I’d just rounded up the flock that morning – it be about eleven. I says to meself it’s a nice clear day and I looks up west at the sky. Then I sees it. It be like what they tells me the cinema is like, but I thinks it be more real. There came a kind of panel across the sky’.

‘Inside the panel of white there was a cross, with Christ, his head to one side, nailed on to it. Round him were six angels. I counted ‘em, and they wore white cloudy robes to the feet. I know it was to the feet because I even saw their feet. I even saw their toes’.

‘When I got to the village I knew what I had seen was really there. There were other people who had seen it, too. But mine’s a simple life – I just have me two dogs, me sheep and me missus way back at the cottage and I come to church on a Sunday. That’s all I sees or knows of life; that’s all I really want to see or know’.

‘I forgot,’ he smiled. ‘There’s my pint I always have of a night’.

‘Sometimes though, if I think of it all now, the vision I mean, I wonders whether it really was Christ come to help put our world straight again’.

Old Fred walked away into the distance with his sheep and dogs. He has never been to the cinema or even out of Sussex. I watched him pass into the distance and I almost envied Fred.

Back in the village I confirmed his story. There were two sisters, widows, evacuated from London, Mrs Grace Evans and Mrs E M Steer who had seen the vision, and also a neighbour, Mrs Stevens. ‘Actually, we must have seen it a second or so before the shepherd did’, Mrs Evans told me, ‘because when I first looked into the sky it was clear blue. Gradually I saw the panel of kind of white cloud appear. I called my sister because it looked so pretty, then all at once we saw the crucifix and Christ. I saw every detail, to the nails in his crossed feet and the angels rose around him’.

‘One held a harp, another an old-fashioned pitcher with two handles. It was as clear as a picture and then, when I had got over my surprise, I called my neighbour to see the wonderful sight’.

‘Yes’, said Mrs Steer, it was so real it almost frightened me. I am not one to imagine things, and I used to smile at the story about the Angels of Mons – I always thought the soldiers who saw them imagined things, but now I can believe it’.

I called to see the vicar, the Reverend A G Gregor.

‘I saw nothing’, he said, ‘and I think the whole thing is nonsense’.


However, the vicar of Firle’s neighbour, the Reverend JR Lawson, the vicar of Glynde, said in an article published a week later in the newspaper:

‘I think those people who say they saw the vision were too much in earnest to be discredited. After all, our Christian religion is based on the vision of Bethlehem, which was only seen by a few. Therefore, why should not the story of apparently quite earnest people living today be equally believed? I certainly think the vision was seen and I only wish I had seen it myself’.


This is a lovely story and reminds me of The Shepherds’ Play from the Oberufer Christmas plays, not just because of shepherds and angels but because of the simple faith of Fred Fowler. A shepherd’s life consists of tending, watching, minding and guarding his flock, all of which can be summed up in one word: caring. The risen Christ said to Peter, “Feed my sheep”, but the Vicar of Firle’s brusque dismissal of the story sounds as though he was rather in the same vein as Peter, who at first didn’t believe the tales of the women who had visited the tomb on that first Easter Day.

I should add that the present-day Vicar of Firle, the Reverend Peter Owen Jones, is a very different sort of person from the Reverend A G Gregor.

SSX MAY15 Peter Owen Jones

The Reverend Peter Owen Jones, Vicar of Firle. (Photo via Sussex Life)

Firle has other Bloomsbury Group associations besides Virginia Woolf; Charleston Farmhouse, which was the home of several Group members, is just a short distance from Firle. In the churchyard at Firle are found the graves of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Angelica Garnett (the only child of Vanessa and Duncan), Quentin Bell (art historian, author and biographer of his aunt Virginia Woolf, and the second son of Vanessa Bell by her husband, Clive Bell) and Quentin’s wife Anne Olivier Bell, whose five-volume edition of the diaries of Virginia Woolf is a superb work of scholarship and elucidation.

When we get home, Sophia reminds me of an interesting coincidence: the date of Fred Fowler’s vision of Christ in 1940 is very close to the introduction of the ‘Big Ben Silent Minute’ on the BBC on November 10th 1940. The Silent Minute was an initiative of the adept Wellesley Tudor Pole, in which people in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth were asked to devote one minute of their time at 9.00pm each evening to pray for peace and thus create a channel between the visible and subtle realms through which divine help and inspiration could be received. The prime minister, Winston Churchill, and King George VI, offered their support and accepted Tudor Pole’s suggestion that it should coincide with the chiming of Big Ben in London. On Remembrance Sunday, November 10th, 1940, the BBC broadcast the chimes of Big Ben as a signal for the Silent Minute. This then continued throughout the war years and on up until the late 1950s.

Did the Silent Minute offer some kind of help against the Nazis, in a similar way that Fred Fowler imagined Christ coming “to help put our world straight again”? In a letter to President Roosevelt dated August 11th 1953, Tudor Pole said the following:

“At the end of the War a Staff Officer of the German Intelligence Corps made this remark when under interrogation at British H.Q. in Germany: ‘During the war you had a secret weapon for which we could find no counter-measure and which we did not understand, but it was very powerful. It was associated with the striking of Big Ben at 9pm each evening. I believe you called it the ‘Silent Minute’.”



Filed under Firle, Silent Minute, Vision of Christ

Life Unworthy Of Life

On Saturday 9thJanuary 1915, the 32-year old Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard took a walk from their home in Richmond along the River Thames towards Kingston. Virginia recorded in her diary:

“On the towpath we met and had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look twice at, but no more; the second shuffled, and looked aside; and then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead, or no chin, and an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.”

This is quite shocking from someone who was herself no stranger to mental illness; but Virginia Woolf’s attitude to people with learning disabilities was typical of the intellectuals of her time. Today, we associate such sentiments with the Nazis, who came up with the phrase Life Unworthy of Life as justification for the murder of at least 250,000 disabled people (this figure from the German government, which in 2005 issued an apology to their relatives). Many consider this figure to be a gross underestimate, with the true total being nearer to one million disabled people, if one takes into account all the murdered children and disabled people who were not in “Greater Germany” or the occupied territories.

Drawing on the ‘science’ of eugenics, in 1933 Adolf Hitler and the Nazis instituted measures for the compulsory sterilisation of men and women suffering from hereditary diseases. This in turn led to seven propaganda films and many advertisements preparing the German population to give up their mentally disabled family members for ‘mercy killing’. Adverts showed a German worker weighed down by the burden of having to pay 50,000 Reichsmarks to maintain a mentally disabled person until the age of 60. Such was the effect of this propaganda that Hitler was even petitioned by some parents to kill their disabled children.

In October 1939 after war had been declared, Hitler issued a secret decree to expand the authority of physicians to examine patients who were considered incurable and after critical evaluation of their condition grant them mercy killing. Six so-called Euthanasia Centres were set up throughout Germany and also in many hospitals; here the killing of the disabled by gas and lethal injection was developed and these techniques were then refined and applied within the concentration camps, continuing until the end of the war in 1945.

But from where did Hitler and the Nazis draw these ideas about the people they called “useless eaters”? I’m afraid they came from Britain and in particular from ideas deriving from Charles Darwin.In 1859 Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking book Origin of Species which expounded his theory of evolution by natural selection. It wasn’t long before scientists and political theorists began to apply Darwin’s theory to human beings. With the spread of ideas about “the survival of the fittest”, social Darwinists started to question the wisdom of providing care to the ‘weak’ on the grounds this would enable people to live and reproduce who were not meant to survive. They feared that offering medical treatment and social services to disabled people would undermine the natural struggle for existence and lead to the degeneration of the human race.

Such views took hold not only in Germany but also particularly strongly in America and Britain. The existence of disabled people was increasingly seen in the UK and USA as a threat to social progress. Darwin himself wrote in his 1871 treatise, The Descent of Man, “We civilised men…. do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick… Thus the weak members of society propagate their kind.”

It was Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, who in 1883 first came up with the term ‘eugenics’. Galton became obsessed with Origin of Species, especially its chapter on the breeding of domestic animals. This inspired him to spend much of his life studying the variations in human ability. He wrote: “The question was then forced upon me. Could not the race of men be similarly improved? Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?”

Galton wrote in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius: “Let us do what we can to encourage the multiplication of the races best fitted to invent, and conform to, a high and generous civilisation, and not, out of mistaken instinct of giving support to the weak, prevent the incoming of strong and hearty individuals.” He argued that early marriage between healthy, mentally strong families should be encouraged by financial incentives, and reproduction by the ‘feeble-minded’ should be curtailed. In his mind, superior mental and physical capabilities were advantageous not only to an individual but essential for the wellbeing of society as a whole.

Galton’s views were not regarded as eccentric or offensive at the time and in fact he received many awards during his career. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1860 and was knighted shortly before he died in 1911. His writings played a key role in launching the eugenics movement in the UK and America. Supporters of eugenics called for government policies to improve the biological quality of the human race through selective parenthood. They linked physical and learning disabilities to a range of social problems including crime, vagrancy, alcoholism, prostitution and unemployment.

Eugenics quickly gained many backers on both sides of the Atlantic, including leading politicians and opinion formers – and not just figures on the far right of politics. Some of the British Left’s most celebrated names were among the champions of eugenics: Sidney and Beatrice Webb (the founders of the Fabian Society), Harold Laski, John Maynard Keynes, even the New Statesman and the Manchester Guardian. George Bernard Shaw wrote: “The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man.” Bertrand Russell proposed that the state should issue colour-coded ‘procreation tickets’ to prevent the gene pool of the elite being diluted by inferior human beings. Those who decided to have children with holders of a different-coloured ticket would be punished with a heavy fine. HG Wells praised eugenics as the first step towards the elimination of “detrimental types and characteristics” and the “fostering of desirable types” instead.

This brings us back to that distinguished socialist and convinced atheist, Leonard Woolf.  Fifty years after that walk along the Thames with his wife Virginia, Leonard wrote in the fifth volume of his autobiography, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters:

“The passionate devotion of mothers to imbecile children…always seems to me a strange and even disturbing phenomenon. I can see and sympathise with the appeal of helplessness and vulnerability in a very young living creature – I have felt it myself in the case of an infant puppy, kitten, leopard, and even the much less attractive and more savage human baby. (…) But there is something horrible and repulsive in the slobbering imbecility of a human being. Is the exaggerated devotion of the mother to this child, which nearly always seems to be far greater than her devotion to her normal, attractive children, partly determined by an unconscious sense of guilt and desire to vindicate herself and her child?”

So it seems that even in the 1960s, after all the experience of the Nazis and the murder of countless numbers of disabled people, an intellectual such as Leonard Woolf still could not find a way to understand and empathise with people with learning difficulties or the fact that they are loved by their families. This to me illustrates the great danger of allowing such bleak and bony atheists and intellectuals anywhere near public policy and law-making on social and health issues; their failure to understand what is really going on and their characteristic attitudes such as lack of empathy and thinly-veiled disdain for the “devotion of mothers to imbecile children” makes them unfit to pronounce on other people’s lives.

Their disdainful attitude would of course be extended also to Rudolf Steiner; this is a pity, because if instead they were to take a little time and trouble to study anthroposophy they might actually find some insights into phenomena such as learning disabilities and how these can only be understood properly in terms of multiple lifetimes and karma. Through his spiritual research, Steiner was able to reveal some vital information about the invisible structure of health and illness. In the course of lectures titled Pastoral Medicine given in September 1924 to a mixed audience of priests and physicians, Steiner showed the interweaving of medical and spiritual issues and how these need to be understood if one is to care for suffering human beings.

In Lecture 5, describing what he calls psychopathological impairment, Steiner says that:

“In most cases a person brings it along as his or her karma … Already at birth, the person is in an abnormal condition because of some unusual stress in putting together the etheric body before entering the physical body. An etheric body was formed that does not want to penetrate the physical body completely, does not want to enter heart and stomach in the proper way but wants to flood them: in other words, an etheric body that carries the astral body and ego organisation too strongly into the various organs. Already at birth or very soon after, we see facial or bodily deformities that can give us deep concern. This is called congenital mental retardation – but there is no such thing! There is only karmic mental retardation, related to the child’s entire destiny. We will also speak about this more fully, so that you will see how an incarnation spent in such mental dullness can, under certain conditions, even have a beneficial place in a human being’s karma, although it may mean misery in that one incarnation. There is need, after all, to regard things not merely from the point of view of finite life, but sub specie aeternifrom the point of view of the immortal life of a human being. Then we would have a compassionate charity (caritas)and a wise one as well”.

There is much more that could be said to describe the wholly humane and wise approach of anthroposophy to these issues and the impact that Steiner’s observations subsequently had on people such as Karl König and Thomas Weihs and the birth of curative education, the Camphill movement etc. But the reason why I am writing about this issue now is because eugenics is starting to raise its ugly head again.

In China, a scientist, He Jiankui, has just claimed to have altered the DNA of twin girls before birth. He, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, described how he used gene-editing technology known as Crispr-Cas9 to modify a gene called CCR5 in a number of embryos created through IVF for couples with HIV-positive fathers. The modification was intended to mirror a natural mutation found in a small percentage of people which makes them resistant to the virus. Two girls, named Nana and Lulu, were born with the genetic changes, he said.

So the eugenics genie is now once again out of the bottle. In academia, the word ‘eugenics’ may be controversial but the idea is not. To Professor Julian Savulescu, former editor and current board member of the Journal of Medical Ethics, the ability to apply ‘rational design’ to humanity, through gene editing, offers a chance to improve the human stock — one baby at a time. “When it comes to screening out personality flaws such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence,” he said, “you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children”. Francis Galton could not have put it better himself.

Meanwhile, the scientific pursuit of “ethically better children” is advancing rapidly. Since Louise Brown was conceived in a laboratory 40 years ago — the world’s first IVF baby — the treatment has become mainstream, and between 1991 and 2016, there were more than 1,100,000 treatment cycles in UK licensed clinics. Developments in IVF mean that, today, several embryos can be fertilised and screened for diseases, with the winner implanted in the uterus.

It is, however, the genetic modification of human embryos that causes most concern. But here, and at each point in the new eugenics, advocates will argue: where is the moral problem? There are no deaths, no sterilisations, no abortions: just a scientifically guided conception. This is all about the potential avoidance of disease and the benefit of humanity. So who could possibly complain?

Well, I can, for one. If you are using science to choose the most favourable genes to hand down to your children, that is the application of eugenics. This is just the latest example of humans acquiring God-like powers without the God-like wisdom to know how to use them properly. And the idea of consumer eugenics is already with us: sperm banks claim that they screen for everything from autism to red hair and in India, women desperate for a boy will pay for ante-natal screening to identify – and abort – girls.  One can imagine a future situation in which parents who do not go in for genetic modification of their offspring will be labelled anti-social, rather like those parents who choose not to vaccinate their children today.

We have opened the door to an era of high-tech consumer eugenics, with affluent parents choosing the best qualities for their offspring and creating a new form of genetically modified human being. Once again the idea of perfecting humanity through eugenics is back, and once again it is coming with the assumption that the processes involved are limited to chemical, physical and biological ones and with no awareness or recognition of the spiritual dimension. This is not going to end well.


Filed under Eugenics, Learning Disabilities