Tolkien’s first contact with the Birmingham Oratory

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), literary scholar, philologist and esteemed novelist (due in part to Peter Jackson’s much-acclaimed film trilogy), was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

His father, Arthur, was a branch manager for the Bank of Africa and had travelled there ahead of his wife-to-be, Mabel Suffield, as her family disapproved of her marrying before the age of twenty-one. J. R. R. Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary were born in the Orange Free State, but the climate did not suit their mother, and in April 1895 she and her two sons set out for what was intended to be a substantial holiday in England. While they were staying with the Suffield family in King’s Heath near Birmingham, the news came that Arthur Tolkien had contracted rheumatic fever and then had a severe haemorrhage. On 15th February he died, and so the boys never made their planned return to South Africa.

Life with the grandparents was all very well as a temporary measure, but the grandsons were fast approaching the age for education. Using the slender means provided by a modest number of South African shares left by her late husband, Mabel Tolkien managed to rent a small house near Sarehole Mill, then a little further out of Birmingham in the Warwickshire countryside. The influence of the atmospheric surroundings of the Mill and nearby Moseley Bog upon Tolkien’s later fiction is well recognised. A well-read and highly literate woman, Mrs Tolkien initiated her sons’ education herself. Then there was a development; she found consolation and peace in the practice of the Christian faith. For a while Anglo-Catholic worship answered her spiritual needs, but then the sons found their mother taking them to a very different sort of church – St Anne’s, Alcester Street, where John Henry Newman established the Birmingham Oratory’s first mission in 1849. In the spring of 1900 the small family were received into the Roman Catholic Church, to the horror of the Suffield and Tolkien families, with their Baptist, Methodist and Unitarian allegiances.

Ronald, age 13, and Hilary, age 11 (1905)

Some help from a relative enabled Ronald to take a place at the historic King Edward’s School in the centre of Birmingham when he passed the entrance examination in September 1900. The travelling necessary made residence at Sarehole impractical, and a small house in Moseley was rented. The local Roman Catholic Church, St. Dunstan’s, was apparently not able to provide all the spiritual support for which Mabel Tolkien yearned, and so Sundays came to involve long walks looking for something more. One of the walks took the small family all the way to the suburb of Edgbaston and the larger church of the Birmingham Oratory, which had been located on the Hagley Road since its move from Alcester Street in 1852. In one of the Oratory Fathers there, the Anglo-Spanish/Welsh F. Francis Morgan, Mabel found a priest who, even if not particularly gifted intellectually, nevertheless showed them great pastoral solicitude, with an ebullient and practical generosity.

Wards of Father Francis Morgan

F. Francis Xavier Morgan

Ronald had not won a Foundation Scholarship when entering King Edward’s School, and the termly fees were a great financial burden. In 1887 the Oratory Fathers had started a boys Grammar School. It was intended to fill the gap left after other unsuccessful attempts at founding a similar institution, first by one or two of St Chad’s Cathedral clergy and then by the Beuron Benedictines who had settled at Erdington. The fees were small and in any case F. Francis was able to ensure that a place was found for Ronald.  New lodgings were found near the school in Oliver Road, on the border between affluent Edgbaston and the fast-growing suburb of Ladywood. The new accommodation was grim, and the academic standards of St Philip’s Grammar School offered little to challenge Ronald’s undoubted precocity. His mother realised this and did what she could to sustain and raise his scholarly aspirations. Her efforts proved to be successful, for in the autumn of 1903 he returned to King Edward’s as a Foundation Scholar, and the enthusiasm of one of the assistant masters there did much to fuel his burning interest in English literature.

Things were not idyllic on all fronts. Illness hit the brothers and a serious illness afflicted their mother. In April 1904 she fell gravely ill with diabetes, in an age when insulin treatment was unknown. F. Francis recognised that the Oliver Road environment was unsuitable for an invalid in Mabel Tolkien’s condition.

Mabel Tolkien’s anxiety at the prospect of her sons becoming orphans included the fear that her own family and the Tolkien family might seek to force the boys to abjure their Roman Catholic faith. With this in mind, she had left Ronald and Hilary as wards, with F. Francis as their guardian. Again, this was to be of great significance, for Ronald’s life and work were to be permeated by his Catholicism, not least The Lord of the Rings, which he himself acknowledged to be a profoundly Catholic work. The assets left for the boys’ upbringing were slender, but F. Francis was a man of considerable private means and was more than happy to support them in every way necessary.

Accommodation was a major issue…

A brief stay at the Oratory could be no more than a temporary expedient, as the community there was large and part of their Hagley Road building was already used as dormitories for boys at the adjacent Oratory School. An aunt, Beatrice Suffield, lived nearby at 25, Stirling Road, Edgbaston. Her hostility to the boys’ Catholicism was not so intense as to refuse her nephews board and lodging. She herself was not well off financially, and the four pounds and sixteen shillings which F. Francis paid her every month must have been very useful (indeed, he continued to pay varying amounts to her even after the boys had moved on). However, their aunt showed them little or no affection (she had recently been widowed and this may have affected her temperament), the house was gloomy and Ronald and Hilary were far from happy there. Increasingly, ‘home’ became the Oratory, where the day began serving F. Francis’s early Mass, followed by breakfast, including games with the cat in the serving ‘drum’ which connects the kitchen with the Fathers’ refectory, and then school. Hilary was also at King Edward’s by now.

There was one enduring legacy from the time they spent in Stirling Road between June 1905 and June 1908 – the ‘Two Towers’. In the next road to Stirling Road, known as Waterworks Road, there are two curious edifices which must have been striking landmarks in the years before Birmingham became a centre for high-rise development. The one, an eighteenth century folly built by the eccentric Perrott for his own amusement, the other a curious dark red and blue brick Neo-Gothic structure, part of the local waterworks. They are known locally as ‘the twin towers’. It is a very strong possibility that these ‘twin towers’ influenced the symbolism of the second book of The Lord of the Rings.

Despite the irksomeness of Stirling Road, life for the boys had plenty of diversions. They participated enthusiastically in some of the Oratory parish activities. The Parish Magazine for May 1909 reported a new initiative:

Three patrols of Scouts under the Brothers Tolkien, have been started, and they marched smartly in the wake of the Boys Brigade on Easter Monday. When they have done a little more drill, we shall ask some of our friends to help towards providing them with shirts, haversacks, etc.

There was also another source of fascination.

When commencing the building of the Oratory in Edgbaston, Newman had envisaged the construction of a basilica-sized church adjoining the community’s house. He had extensive plans drawn up by an eminent French architect. Certain factors led to the postponement of the plans, and during Newman’s lifetime they made do with a rather makeshift chapel, with a roof that had once crowned a disused factory. Cardinal Newman’s death gave rise to a number of public memorials to him (including a prominent statue outside the church of the London Oratory, and a magnificent stained-glass window in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia). In Birmingham, the decision was taken to commemorate the late Cardinal by building a new Oratory Church as his enduring memorial. An architect was commissioned, the foundations were begun in September 1903 with the foundation stone laid in March 1904. The nave was complete by 1906 and the transept three years later. There was one aspect of this unusual architectural project which must certainly have aroused the curiosity of those who frequented the Oratory at the time, including the Tolkien brothers: the outer structure of the new memorial church was erected around the existing chapel, which remained in use for the first three years of the building work. The closing ceremony took place on Low Sunday, 1906.

Every summer, F. Francis took the Tolkien brothers on holiday to Lyme Regis (he had several friends in the region), and Ronald was fascinated by the striking landscape there. It was on one of these holidays that F. Francis discovered the true feelings of the boys regarding their life at Stirling Road. In the summer of 1908 he decided that a change of lodging was necessary.

A Mrs Faulkner, who lived at 37 Duchess Road, one block away from the Oratory, agreed to give them board and lodging. She was already well-known to some of the Fathers from the musical evenings she held. The household included the family, a maid,and another lodger, Edith Bratt, the illegitimate daughter of a member of a shoe manufacturing family. Her family’s shame meant that Frances Bratt had opted to leave her home area of Wolverhampton and eventually settled in Handsworth rather than in Birmingham. There she could raise her daughter with help from a relative who belonged to the Grove family (as in the Dictionary of Music of that name). Unfortunately, Frances Bratt died while her daughter was still in her teens. The executor decided that lodging with Mrs Faulkner would provide a temporary solution for Edith. An alliance of friendship between Edith and the newly-arrived Tolkien brothers was not surprising, especially as Mrs Faulkner appears to have been a rather stern landlady. Less expected was the warm personal affection that developed between Edith and the shy and bookish Ronald, who was three years her junior. Perhaps Mrs Faulkner did not notice, or maybe it did not concern her too much, but the friendship developed during afternoon outings around the town. The magical memories of Rednal and the Lickey Hills reasserted their charm and the young couple made visits there together. Their visits were observed by the wife of the caretaker at the Oratory’s country house, and she in turn told the Oratory cook at Edgbaston. In her turn, the cook told F. Francis, who was stern and unrelenting in his disapproval of any such relationship developing before Ronald had reached the age of consent, then twenty-one. F. Francis had become almost a surrogate father to the boys, and though it may seem strange almost a century later, Ronald’s obedience to him was unquestioning. F. Francis did not, however, insist on a total cessation of all communication between them, and there were still occasional brief exchanges. In March 1910 Edith accepted an invitation to move to new lodgings in Cheltenham, and that put the relationship in suspense, but only for a while. The couple were reunited three years later. A year later Edith became a Catholic, and after three more years they were married, with F. Francis (no longer Ronald’s legal guardian) cheerfully giving his approval and blessing.

Events at Mrs Faulkner’s had prompted F. Francis to look for alternative accommodation for the brothers. A suitable home was found with the McSherry family, Catholic parishioners who lived near the Oratory in Highfield Road. In the winter of 1909-10 Ronald attempted to gain a place at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, but failed to win the award. A second attempt in December 1910 led to a Classical Exhibition at Exeter College, and that was the start of what was to be an abiding relationship with Newman’s city of dreaming spires. At first F. Francis continued to pay Ronald’s living expenses, but then made the money over to him for him to manage his life for himself. In 1916, with marriage and war-service in mind, Ronald approached his guardian, who then made over the residue of the estate to him.

It was not the end of the Tolkiens’ association with the Oratory. While still at Oxford, Ronald went holidaying with F. Vincent Reade in the wilds of Cornwall. Marriage in 1916 was followed by the birth of a first son in November 1917, and the chosen name of John Francis reflects an abiding affection for his former guardian. The young family grew, and sometimes they all met up with the ever cheerful F. Francis at Lyme Regis. In the Oratory community, the generations moved on, and one or two of the newer members took keen interest in Ronald’s literary work. F. Francis died on 11th June 1935. The terms of his will left £1000 each to Ronald and Hilary. Certain relics of the Tolkien association still survive at Oratory House, e.g. the share certificates for the small investments left at the time of their father’s death, F. Francis’ executor’s account book and the large trunk which Mabel had brought with them from South Africa on what she thought was only going to be a holiday.