The following biography is taken from ‘Reminiscences of 70 Years’ by Father Denis Sheil, who died in 1962 in his 97th year.
On the left-hand side of the High Altar in the church can be seen a memorial tablet to the memory of John Pollen and his wife Mary, Oxford Movement converts and parents of F. Anthony Pollen as well as two Jesuit priests. F. Anthony’s father had been an Anglican clergyman before he became a Catholic, and he was closely associated with Cardinal Newman when the latter was Rector of the Catholic University in Dublin – not only as an ember of the professional staff, but he also designed the famous University Church in S. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, the decorations of the Saints so much admired to this day being his own personal work. John Pollen also designed the Chapel at the Oratory House, Rednall which bears a clear likeness to the Dublin University Church, just as do the altars in our church – the Sacred Heart, S. Charles’ Chapel and S. Patrick always remind the writer of his beautiful marble design of the High Altar in the University Church.
Anthony Hungerford Pollen as a boy was at the Oratory School, and after his studies in Germany joined the Birmingham Oratory in 1883 at the age of twenty-three. He had been a member of the Community for fifty years when he died in October 1940.
His early work after his ordination was that of Sub-Prefect of S. Philip’s Grammar School under F. Richard Bellasis, that was opened in 1887. F. Anthony was a good German scholar, keenly interested in athletics, and he played a great part in promoting, in its early days, the Midland Cycling Club in the quiet days when the week-end roads were almost entirely clear for cyclists. A clergyman on a bicycle was rather unusual, and F. Anthony told the writer of one occasion when he was cycling with a party out by Frankley Beeches; they met some youths on foot, and one of them mockingly shouted after him ‘Let us pray’. F. Anthony got off his bicycle, went over to the youth and said, ‘You mean “Let us bray!”‘ He was also a fine swimmer, and a great delight of his younger days was to teach boys how to swim.
He was for some years German master of the Oratory School in the early years of this century, but undoubtedly his chief accomplishment was music, in which, as in so many other respects, he was, to a great extent, a hidden light, being always of a very retiring nature. He has bequeathed to the world some notable compositions, the chief of which is a polyphonic Mass for four voices frequently performed at Westminster Cathedral and at the Oratory. Also he wrote three or four delightful motets for church use as well as organ music of distinct merit.
In this connection, the writer recalls an occasion when he was asked to read a paper on Church music to the Little Oratory Literary Society. ‘If I do, there will be a row,’ he said, but in the end he consented under pressure. On the day itself there was a crowded house. F. Robert and Mr Collins (our distinguished organist and a great musical authority) and many more were there, all of whom had a lot to say on Church music. A very lively evening was the verdict of all, although a bit too controversial for some; and the controversy overflowed into the pages of subsequent issues of the Oratory Parish Magazine. One Brother protested at the report in the Magazine on the ground that it gravely misrepresented what F. Anthony had said. The Editor (F. Charles) replied that the account was contributed by F. Anthony himself! At the end of it all, F. Anthony simply remarked: ‘I told them that there would be a row if I talked on Church music.’
Perhaps his chief field of pastoral work was as a chaplain in the Royal Navy in the 1914-18 War. Most of his time was in H.M.S. Warspite – a battleship known affectionately in the Royal Navy as the Grand Old Lady of both wars – in which he served several years during and after the war. He was wounded at Jutland, mentioned in despatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for Gallantry in Action, the only chaplain to receive this decoration. His age at the time was 56. During the battle some cordite charges caught fire in one of the 6 inch casements on the main deck, and several of the gun crew were hurt. F. Anthony, hearing this, immediately entered the casement and succeeded in bringing out two seamen, but was badly burnt himself on his face and hands.
After the war, when the Home Fleet went abroad on cruises, F. Anthony organised and conducted several naval pilgrimages to the famous shrine of S. James the Apostle – Santiago di Compostella – when the British fleet visited Vigo, at the same time giving many Spaniards their first contact with British sailors. The Fleet also visited Palma, Majorca, then an island in the Mediterranean that few English people had heard of, and he invited the Palma Oratory Fathers to visit the British Battleship.
F. Anthony had a great wit; when reporting himself to the Captain of the Warspite, the Captain said, ‘I hope we shall get on, but I think it fair to tell you that I don’t like Catholics.’ To which F. Anthony replied, ‘I am sure, Sir, that we shall get on, as, to be candid, I detest Protestants.’ They did become friends and played golf together during the short intervals at Scapa when they could get ashore.
Another story told by F. Anthony to the writer occurred towards the end of his years of service in the Warspite. The immense battleship had, in the stern, a suite of five ‘luxury’ cabins for the Admiral. After the war, the ship did not carry a Flag Officer, and so F. Anthony, as the oldest officer on board by many years, and having a distinguished record, was allocated the Admiral’s suite. One day, while sitting in one of his cabins, he heard steps along the corridor of one of the ship’s company, who did not know his way about that part of the ship, and who was evidently searching for someone. Two or three of the doors of F. Anthony’s suite were knocked without success; then the fourth one. When the petty officer found F. Anthony within instead of the person he wanted, he apologised and withdrew, and as he walked down the corridor outside, F. Anthony heard him mutter to himself, ‘Takes up half the ***** ship, he does!’
During the latter years of his life he was unable to take any active part in the work of the Oratory owing to indifferent health. He used to say Mass at S. Philip’s House, Westbourne Road. When he began this chaplaincy he asked them how early he could come. ‘As early as you like, Father,’ the good sisters told him, but afterwards they found out that F. Anthony practised the motto ‘Early to bed and early to rise’ far more literally than they had bargained for. Mr H. B. Collins was our organist in those days and had a room in the Oratory House; he used to retire very late, not infrequently about the time that F. Anthony was getting up. That was on weekdays. On Sundays F. Anthony always said the 12 p.m. Mass in church, in the days when a rigorous fast had to be kept from midnight, and as his health got weaker it was suggested that he should give up the last Mass as being too much of a strain, but he resisted as long as he could.
F. Anthony died in the early hours of Saturday, 5th October, 1940, and the Oratory Community was the poorer by the loss of this gifted and attractive though eccentric Father.