Wellesley Tudor Pole and the Big Ben Silent Minute
By PATRICK S. WOLFE
On Armistice Sunday, November 10, 1940, during the Blitz, the BBC added its considerable clout to the new practice “of one minute’s silence, to be marked by the first stroke of Big Ben striking nine o’clock each evening.”
The Silent Minute was an initiative led by the British mystic Wellesley Tudor Pole (1884-1968). The minute was intended to be, in Tudor Pole’s words, “a daily moment of united prayer and silence” that would “create a channel between the visible and invisible worlds through which Divine help and inspiration could be received.”
Although Paul Fletcher’s 2015 book, Light upon the Path: The Unpublished Writings of Wellesley Tudor Pole, notes that “Tudor Pole began his campaign on his birthday, St. George’s Day, 23rd April, 1940,” that beginning is often associated with the evacuation of almost 340,000 soldiers from Dunkirk a month later. Tudor Pole’s pamphlet, “The Spiritual Front,” published in 1940, and republished later that year as “Round the World at Nine O’Clock,” strengthened this idea. During the great Dunkirk rescue from May 27 through June 4, “it seemed as if Britain stood alone and unprotected against overwhelming forces of evil,” he wrote. In a famous speech on June 4, Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to the evacuation as “a miracle of deliverance.”
During that spring and early summer, Tudor Pole “sent out around ten thousand communications and over one thousand interviews were undertaken.” According to Andrew Dakers’ definitive history of the “Big Ben Minute,” Tudor Pole wrote “to all Members of Parliament in both Houses, to Church leaders and the heads of religious and social organizations, and to the secretaries of every club in the country.” Fletcher adds that Tudor Pole “also contacted four thousand heads of schools and other educational establishments,” as well as “his contacts in the Dominions… and the United States,” amongst others.
On July 10, Tudor Pole spoke to “the Toc-H Group of members of the House of Commons”; Toc-H, an international Christian movement founded in Belgium in December 1915, is an abbreviation for Talbot House, “Toc” being the letter T in the signals spelling alphabet used by the British Army during the First World War. This group approached Churchill with a view to enlisting the support of the BBC, which had declined to cooperate. Tudor Pole met with the prime minister in September. It may have been at this meeting that he reportedly warned “Churchill about psychic spying.”
On October 28, the BBC board “agreed to change their decision” and to support the Big Ben Silent Minute. Where “about a quarter of a million people were observing the Minute before the BBC came on-board,” Dakers estimates that this number grew to “not less than 5,000,000 people at home and abroad … within a matter of months.” By February 1941, according to Fletcher, the national daily press were also supporting the initiative.
The roots of the Silent Minute go back to the First World War. Tudor Pole, a businessman, was “excused from military service as his company [Chamberlain Pole & Co. Ltd., Flour Importers, Grain and Cereal Merchants] was marketing essential foodstuffs and supplying the army.” He had wanted to go to university, but in 1901, at the age of 17, he instead joined the family business, which had suffered financial difficulties due to “some ill-judged decisions” by his father. As Tudor Pole told a friend, he was “managing director at Bristol at 20.”
In November 1916, having “become uneasy about his exemption,” he enlisted with the Royal Marines. This was no small decision. Married in 1912, a daughter had been born in 1914 and a son in 1915. Moreover, enlistment meant permanently relinquishing his company directorship and selling his part in the business. For some reason he enlisted as a “Tommy,” a private, only to discover that they were “treated quite as sub-human creatures.” This provoked him to attempt some “cleaning up.” He met on multiple occasions with the General, the Brigade Major, and the Adjutant only to be transferred at some point, according to Gerry Fenge’s The Two Worlds of Wellesley Tudor Pole (2010), “to an Officers’ Training Course.”
By September 1917, he was a Second Lieutenant with the 3rd Cheshire Regiment. He served in the Middle East, rose to the rank of Major, and, in 1919, was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his war service, some of which will be discussed momentarily. But, while connected to the military and the war, it was another dimension of his life that laid the foundation for the Silent Minute.
On March 20, 1917, in Bournemouth, Tudor Pole completed his “Introductory Note” to an unusual little book called Private Dowding that was published that August. His introduction states that nine days earlier “I was walking by the sea when I felt the presence of some one…. I came home and sat down at my writing-table. Immediately my pen moved. Did I move it? Yes, in an involuntary sort of way. The thoughts were not my own, the language was a little unusual…. It would really seem as if some intelligence outside myself were speaking through my mind and my pen.
“Some of the ideas are not in conformity with preconceived notions of my own.
“The messages I received in this manner from ‘Thomas Dowding,’ recluse, school-master, soldier, are set down exactly as they reached me.”
After eight months of infantry training, Dowding, according to what his discarnate being tells Tudor Pole, was shipped in July 1916 to France where he was “killed [the next month] by a shell splinter one evening.” This is somewhat at variance with what records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tell us, namely that Private Thomas Dowding of the South Wales Borderers, Service Number 11392, died July 1, 1916, and is commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial at Somme.
Eight months after his death, Dowding tells Tudor Pole that he feared “extinction” and goes on to say: “It is because extinction has not come to me that I want to speak to you…. How necessary that some of us should speak back across the border! The barrier must be broken down.”
In his book The Silent Road: In the Light of Personal Experience (1960), Tudor Pole tells us that on the quiet, still evening of November 15, 1917, as he sat alone “on the deck of a transport in the Eastern Mediterranean…. Suddenly the night was filled with the tumultuous sound of ‘voices’…. speaking many tongues: English, French, German, Russian, Italian and many Eastern dialects…. I jotted down a record of the meaning of these voices.”
“Our message must be delivered, come what may,” the voices tell Tudor Pole, “a message that shall in some degree express the ideas, the ideals of a countless number of us, slain on the battlefields of Europe and elsewhere, slain needlessly, uselessly and as if unendingly…. We have been robbed not of life, but of the form in which we were expressing it…. We dare not rest while wars continue. There can be no blissful heaven for any one of us while the anguish of the battlefields remains…. We work that wars shall end for ever. There are millions of us now. We work in bands, in councils, in communities. We are behind the people’s cry for peace in every land…. You who fight in war! Soon you will hear the voices of us who fight for peace: who fight across the veil…”
As with Private Dowding, these voices provide another perspective to that of “the Dead” in John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The main difference between McCrae’s poem and the voices Tudor Pole hears is that they originate from different sides of the veil. Where McCrae’s words urge readers to “Take up our quarrel with the foe” and not “break faith with us who die” lest “we … not sleep,” Tudor Pole’s voices are apparent advocates for the abolition of war, declaring “There can be no blissful heaven for any one of us while the anguish of the battlefield remains…. We work that wars shall end for ever.” Both perspectives address slaughter and sacrifice. “In Flanders Fields” lives on as a tribute of remembrance. Vitally important as this is, it needs to be balanced by the lesson the other voices seek to impart. Yet, despite the needless, useless deaths these voices reference, the Silent Minute that grew out of these and other experiences is not an indictment of all war. After all, Tudor Pole himself was a soldier. A brief postscript will consider this conundrum further.
In early December 1917, barely two weeks after hearing the voices of the war dead, Tudor Pole “was in command of a force of Devon Yeomanry a few miles north-west of Jerusalem.” According to Patrick Benham’s The Avalonians, Tudor Pole’s men “were surprised by a large brigade of Turkish snipers and completely overrun. Hardly anyone was spared; even the wounded were finished off by the Turks and thrown into nearby wells to contaminate the water. WTP was caught by a bullet from a man hiding up a fig-tree. It entered near his right shoulder, passed right through him and out of his left side.”
In a letter to a friend, Tudor Pole said, “the bullet took a clean, miraculous, devious course by which no bones were shattered and no arteries severed.” Benham writes that the surgeon who attended Tudor Pole “was astonished that he could have suffered such an injury without any vital organ being damaged.”
Continuing his description of Tudor Pole’s survival, Benham says: “For a long time he lay there, losing blood, protected by the body of his sergeant, who had been killed while trying to help him and had fallen on top of him. He was aware of the presence of a ‘guide’, instructing him to remain still until a ‘rescue plan’ could be effected. He was eventually able to crawl to a cave where he found fresh water. Luckily he was discovered and taken in a basket on the back of a pack-animal for many hours until he was safe behind British lines. From there he was despatched to the Nazieh Military Hospital in Cairo.”
The night before the battle in which he was wounded, Tudor Pole had a private conversation with another officer, Rawson, who, he said, was “a man of unusual character and vision.” In words that Tudor Pole “quoted from memory” but admitted “are not literally exact,” Rawson told him: “I shall not come through this struggle, like millions of other men in this war…. You will survive and live to see a more tragic conflict fought out in every continent and ocean and in the air. When that time comes remember us. We shall long to play our part…. for that war for us will be a righteous war…. You will still have ‘time’ available as your servant. Lend us a moment of it each day and through your silence give us our opportunity. The power of silence is greater than you know. When those tragic days arrive, do not forget us.”
Rawson was killed the next day. When 33-year-old Tudor Pole, with his severe wound, made it back to the British lines, he did so, he wrote later, “with an inescapable sense of miraculous delivery.” He added: “It was then that the idea of a daily moment of united prayer and silence was born…”
In his Introduction to Tudor Pole’s last book, Writing On The Ground (1968), the journalist Edward Campbell, writing under the pseudonym Walter Lang, says Tudor Pole was “able to live in two worlds and to pass information about another world (to a limited and cautious extent) to people in this.” Elsewhere, Campbell says of Tudor Pole: “The first impression you got of T.P. was his ordinariness…. He was an ordinary, sound chap, you felt; good company, literate and astute but withal ordinary…. The vast un-ordinariness of T.P. revealed itself only gently and slowly to a few, and even then, only if he chose to reveal it.” Fenge talks of Tudor Pole “ensconced in his more mundane, unspectacular persona.”
Tudor Pole once said of himself: “I am only a visitor to this particular planet…. I am a modest and anonymous ambassador from elsewhere.” He had been told at the time he’d enlisted, according to Fenge and Fletcher, that he would be “under special protection.” While recovering from his wound, in a letter of December 12, 1917, Tudor Pole described his extraordinary survival to his father: “Outwardly looked at I cannot imagine a greater number of tragic events happening in 24 hours to a sensitive man, yet I can actually say that the whole series of events was the most wonderful and enheartening experience I have ever had.”
In another letter, this one of August 11, 1953, to President Eisenhower, Tudor Pole told this story: “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 [sic]. I believe you called it the ‘Silent Minute’.”
The BBC continued broadcasting the Big Ben Silent Minute “until the autumn of 1961.” The Silent Minute was revived following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. It is still practiced at different locations around the world. It was and continues to be dedicated to the united pursuit of peace as expressed by Rawson, Dowding, and those other voices.
The First World War was the gravely misguided “War to End All Wars.” It killed nine million men in combat, wounded “another twenty-one million… many of them left without arms, legs, noses, genitals,” and it sowed the seeds of the Second World War. “If ever there was a conflict that both sides lost, this was it,” writes Adam Hochschild in “The Eleventh Hour: If you think the First World War began senselessly, consider how it ended.” It began “after the epic chain of blunders, accusations, and ultimatums that followed the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, at Sarajevo,” on June 28, 1914. It ended in needless paroxysms of killing and bloodshed. The French Allied commander-in-chief, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, “rejected German requests for a ceasefire while the Armistice was being negotiated.” This resulted in “sixty-seven hundred and fifty lives … lost and nearly fifteen thousand men … wounded. Worse yet, British, French, and American commanders made certain that the [fighting] continued at full pitch for six hours after the Armistice had been signed…. The day’s toll [twenty-seven hundred and thirty-eight men from both sides … killed, and eighty-two hundred and six … left wounded or missing] was greater than both sides would suffer in Normandy on D Day, 1944. And it was incurred to gain ground that Allied generals knew the Germans would be vacating days, or even hours, later.”
Tudor Pole’s friend, Rawson, not only foresaw the Second World War, he said it would “be a righteous war.” Presumably it was righteous because it opposed the aggressions of totalitarianism, which also produced the Holocaust. The German Hans Bernd Gisevius, a long-time opponent of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, wrote in his memoir, To The Bitter End: “We must not make the error of thinking that all those who eat the bread of dictatorship are evil from the start; but they necessarily become evil. Other systems of government, including democracy, may have their faults; but so long as they permit the possibility of free choice between good and evil, defects can be remedied and the crooked made straight. The curse of a system of terror is that there is no turning back; neither in the large realm of policies nor the ‘smaller’ realm of everyday human relationships is it possible for men to retrace their steps.”
Perhaps it is because of war’s persistence that we look to the sky: The sky where, as McCrae’s poem says, “The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below.” A much older poem by the Persian mystic Rumi (1207-1273) observes:
The way of love is not
a subtle argument.
The door there
Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling,
they’re given wings.
Text copyright © 2019 Patrick S. Wolfe
All rights reserved. Short segments may be quoted with due attribution.
An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
- Paul Fletcher, Light upon the Path: The Unpublished Writings of Wellesley Tudor Pole, Chalice Well Press, Glastonbury, UK, 2015, 180. Wikipedia (“Silent Minute”) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Minute – accessed January 22, 2016 and October 20, 2019. ↑
- Patrick Benham, The Avalonians, Gothic Image Publications, Glastonbury, UK, 1993, 138. Benham incorrectly states (138) that the Big Ben Silent Minute began on September 18, 1940. ↑
- Wellesley Tudor Pole, The Silent Road: In the Light of Personal Experience, Neville Spearman, London, 1960, 139. Wellesley Tudor Pole, “Round the World at Nine O’Clock,” quoted in Fletcher, 176-177. ↑
- Fletcher, 178, 179. ↑
- Ibid., 179, 176 (republished 1940 under new title).. ↑
- Ibid., 176. The Silent Minute is not to be confused with the separate campaign, started in February 1940 by Ronald Heaver (1900-1980), for a National Day of Prayer that was held on Sunday, May 26, 1940, and led by King George VI at Westminster Abbey. See Fletcher, 179. Fletcher also states (179): “It is even said that it was Heaver’s vision that ‘saw’ the small boats as the method of evacuation and that was relayed to the military commanders.” ↑
- Churchill quoted in Fletcher, 179 ↑
- Fletcher, 178. Dakers quoted in Fletcher, 178. ↑
- Fletcher, 178. ↑
- Fletcher, 179, 339. Wikipedia (“Toc-H”) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toc_H accessed October 27, 2019. ↑
- Fletcher, 179. ↑
- Benham, 138. ↑
- Gerry Fenge, The Two Worlds of Wellesley Tudor Pole, Starseed Publications, 2010, 1. ↑
- Fletcher, 179. In his Introduction to Tudor Pole’s Writing On The Ground (1968), the journalist Edward Campbell, writing under the pseudonym Walter Lang, says: “At T.P.’s request and with the Prime Minister’s support, the B.B.C. restored the voice of Big Ben to the air on Remembrance Sunday, November 10th, 1940, as a signal for the Silent Minute at nine each evening.” Re: Campbell being Lang, see Fletcher, 13, 340. ↑
- Dakers quoted in Fletcher, 180. ↑
- Fletcher, 180. ↑
- Benham, 118. Fenge, 15 (name of company). ↑
- Fenge, 15. ↑
- Benham, 118 (“uneasy”; enlistment; implications for business). Fenge, 58 (marriage to Florence), 83 (births of first two children, Jen and Christopher). ↑
- Fenge, 78-83. ↑
- Benham, 118 (Cheshire Regiment; Second Lieutenant), 136 (Major, OBE). Fenge, 83 (3rd Cheshire Regiment). ↑
- W. Tudor Pole, Private Dowding: A plain record of the after-death experiences of a soldier killed in battle and some questions on world issues answered by the messenger who taught him wider truths, Dodd, Mead and Co., New York, 1919. https://archive.org/details/PrivateDowding/page/n97 Fenge, 74 (published August 1917). ↑
- Private Dowding, 4. ↑
- https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/754748 – accessed October 27, 2019. ↑
- Private Dowding, 5. ↑
- The Silent Road, 141-142. ↑
- Ibid., 142, 145, 146. ↑
- Benham, 118. ↑
- Ibid., 119. ↑
- Tudor Pole quoted in Fenge, 90. ↑
- Benham, 119. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Fenge, 85 (officer; Rawson; quote). See also: Benham, 119; Fletcher, 44, 176; The Silent Road, 138-140. ↑
- The Silent Road, 138-140. Fenge, 85-86. Fletcher, 176. ↑
- The Silent Road, 139. See also: Benham, 119; Fletcher, 47. ↑
- Walter Lang, Introduction, Writing On The Ground, Neville Spearman, London, 1968, 11. Re: Lang being a pseudonym, see Fletcher, 13, 340. ↑
- Walter Lang, “The Messenger of Chalice Well,” Number 9, Spring 1969—quoted in Fenge, 6. ↑
- Fenge, 6. ↑
- Quoted in Fletcher, 14. ↑
- Tudor Pole family document quoted in Fenge, 79-80, and Fletcher, 44. ↑
- Fenge, 86. ↑
- Quoted in Fletcher, 238. See also Walter Lang’s (Edward Campbell’s) Introduction to Tudor Pole’s Writing On The Ground, 13. ↑
- Benham, 138. ↑
- Wikipedia (“Silent Minute”). https://sydneygoodwill.org.au/1-introduction-to-the-solstice-silent-minute/ ↑
- Adam Hochschild, “The Eleventh Hour: If you think the First World War began senselessly, consider how it ended,” The New Yorker, November 5, 2018, 28-33 (31).↑
- Ibid., 30.↑
- Ibid., 31.↑
- Ibid., 26, 33.↑
- Hans Bernd Gisevius, To The Bitter End (published in Germany in 1946), Boston, 1947, 584.↑
- The Essential Rumi, Translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne (First HarperCollins paperback edition, 1996), p. 243. Quoted with the permission of Coleman Barks.↑