Florence Allshorn (1887-1950) and St Julian’s

An important collection of papers of the St Julian’s Community, Coolham (West Sussex), including material about the life of the founder, Florence Allshorn (1887-1950), is held in the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide (CCCW) Archive. Work has been done on Florence Allshorn and the Community, the most comprehensive being by J.H. Oldham, Florence Allshorn and the Story of St Julian’s (London: SCM, 1951). This is written in Oldham’s typically thorough fashion. It was re-printed a number of times. Oldham, who knew all the missionary leaders of his period, considered Florence ‘one of the most remarkable’; someone who ‘saw further than most into the meaning of the missionary task and the nature of its demands’. Another important source is a small book (63 pages) by Margaret I. Potts, St. Julian’s. An Experiment in Two Continents (London: SCM, 1968). Jocelyn Murray wrote on Florence in Gerald H. Anderson, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions (New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1998). The Archive also holds The Notebooks of Florence Allshorn (1957), selected and arranged by a member of the St Julian’s Community. This short study is an introduction to Florence’s story and that of the community.


Florence Allshorn’s early life and work  

Florence’s father was a medical doctor with a practice in the East End of London. Her mother was from a well-to-do business family in Sheffield. There were three children, Malcolm, Florence and Leo. Both parents died when the children were young and they were brought up by a governess, who was remembered as undemonstrative. Their home life lacked brightness, and Florence said she ‘was only happy in escaping from it’. The two boys were sent to boarding school and for the last two years of her school education, after having been at day school in Sheffield, Florence went to a small boarding school at Pocklington. Malcolm went to Australia to farm and Leo studied in Cambridge and went on what seemed a promising career in history. Both brothers, however, died young.

As Oldham put it, Florence ‘had an independent spirit, and lived her own life of colour and excitement, of adventure and thought’. She was gifted in art and music, and after leaving school went to the School of Art in Sheffield, which she greatly enjoyed. However, eye trouble meant she had to give up her studies there and live in almost complete darkness for six months. Her eyesight recovered, although her eyes were to trouble her throughout her life. She moved from the School of Art to the Sheffield School of Domestic Science. The four-year course gave her many skills. She obtained a first class Diploma in all subjects. This period also saw her broadening her experience of life. She was able to have a holiday in Denmark through a legacy from her mother. Among other ways to relax, she enjoyed playing the piano, golf, mountaineering and riding.

Florence’s spiritual life developed through the Sheffield Cathedral and associated Anglicans in the city. Her ability to make lasting friendships became evident in these circles. She also had gifts in pastoral work and as a communicator. She started a club for factory girls, with whom she established a rapport, and membership grew to over 80. Herbert Gresford Jones, Vicar and Archdeacon of Sheffield (and later a Bishop in Uganda and then Bishop of Warrington), wrote that no-one had been able to reach these girls before. One of the girls later wrote about the way Florence inspired the group. She also became superintendent of the Cathedral Sunday School, and was loved by children and teenagers. In 1918, having worked for two years in a coal office, she was appointed as a full-time member of the Cathedral staff, and as well as teaching a Girls' Bible Class with over 60 members she visited homes and hospitals, and promoted interest in overseas mission, especially with the Church Missionary Society.


With the CMS in Uganda

The interest in overseas mission led Florence to offer herself to the CMS for service overseas. She stated in her application that she wanted to serve Jesus Christ and believed her life would count for more abroad than at home in England. In other letters from this time, she wrote of her heart being ‘so full of joy to feel how Christ has gripped me all through’ Christ was ‘turning me towards Him’. She was influenced by the mystical spirituality of Evelyn Underhill, and her reading of Underhill and other writers meant she encouraged awareness of God in everything: the grasping of ‘simple victories’; and an aim to ‘love strongly, to seek strongly and to be strongly happy’. The idea of aiming high was important. In one letter she wrote about the ‘shallows of yourself’, and continued: ‘Still I’m not going to be daunted. I’m out for the hazard again. Is it so impossible to live up to your utmost? I'll dare to try.’

The CMS readily accepted Florence’s application and sent her out without further training, aged 32, to Uganda. She was part of a fairly large group going to East Africa that included Gresford Jones and his wife. Gresford Jones had been appointed Assistant Bishop of Kampala. Florence was sent to Iganga in Busoga, Uganda. Seven young missionaries had been sent out in seven years but none of them had stayed. The climate was debilitating and the senior woman missionary was a tyrant. In the sitting room in the house that Florence had to share with her, all the furniture was at on the senior missionary’s side of the room. Florence’s side was bare! She wrote in one letter to a friend: ‘I need God so much here. Everything is so difficult. There is so much “ungoodness” in everything. I keep reminding myself that I am here for Christ.’

Soon Florence was put in charge of the CMS girls' school, which was a ‘High School for Chiefs' Daughters’. There were enormous challenges of communication. Florence wrote: ‘No one can speak English, and the only other European lady… is nervy, and the lady whose place I am taking has gone dicky with her nerves. So I’m in the soup. But it’s a great job, because it's the place on which the raising of the status of the women of Busoga depends.’ She thanked God for ‘something absolutely impossible’. At the same time, she was realistic about ‘loneliness, disheartening work, language, rats in your bedroom, lots of them, hyaenas, leopards and jackals in the garden, keeping you awake half the night more often than not, another seven foot black snake outside my bedroom door, ants, bites by the hundred… you get driven back and back on God every time.’

The demanding and dispiriting relationship with the senior colleague continued. One day an African matron found Florence in despair and said that missionaries had come ‘saying you have brought to us a Saviour, but I have never seen this situation saved yet.’ It was a wake-up call for Florence. She decided to let God save the situation through her. Slowly things altered, the atmosphere changed, and the girls were aware of it. Florence read 1 Corinthians 13 every day for a year. She began to write about her colleague, ‘Whom I have come to love very much indeed’. Florence was now free to give her energy to managing the boarding school, with its 100 girls, and she also ran a Teacher Training course for 20-30 girls who then went out to the village schools. The school was described as ‘first-rate’ by an Education Inspection team in 1924. When a senior colleague went home on furlough, Florence was also in charge of the hospital. She gave her best in everything, and was highly competent, but she confessed in 1924 as returned to England: ‘I'll be glad to get away, I'm done!’


Training Missionaries

Florence was unwell. After a year she saw a specialist. It was discovered she had a cavity in her lung. One medical verdict was that she might live for two years. However, she was convinced that God still had work for her to do. She went to a well-regarded English Sanatorium in Switzerland, at Montana, and after a year of rest there she was largely cured. From Switzerland she went to Storrington, in West Sussex, to a new community of about 30 people. Florence lived for a year in a hut as part of this community. She wrote: ‘Well here I am ensconced in my hut. I adore it and this simple life is quite the best kind of all.’ The community was not based on any shared faith, and Florence found her wider-ranging conversations stimulating. However, she did not see her stay in Storrington as long term. She wrote: ‘When this winter is over I am going to C.M.S. to see what they are going to do with me… I don't want to work under committees or societies, I want to be free to experiment in things.’

The next step soon became clear. In 1928 Florence received an urgent approach from CMS. This was to fill a temporary need as warden of St. Andrew’s Hostel, one of two of the Society’s training colleges for female missionaries. Some in the Society were concerned that Florence did not seem to fit into conventional patterns. For example, she had never been to a missionary training college. Nor had she undertaken theological training, although her Notebooks show that she was an avid reader of works of theology and spirituality. Also, her experience in Uganda had given her crucial insights into the challenges of missionary life. One of her great gifts was for friendship, and she readily made friends with the students at St Andrew’s. She wrote: ‘It’s the most marvellous job really. As usual I do think I am one of the most fortunate people in the world’. Her enthusiasm was infectious, as was her spiritual vision. She wrote: ‘I've got a real passion for quality in souls.’ For her, the soul was not separate from the body. The whole person was important. She improved the house diet, to make sure students were strengthened for future service, she beautified the house, and she fostered an interest in poetry, art and music.

Eleanor Brown, writing in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research in 1984 on ‘The Legacy of Florence Allshorn’ (January 1984, pp. 24-28), wrote that through her work with CMS candidates Florence ‘was to effect a quiet revolution in the whole concept of missionary training, a revolution whose effects have been spreading ever since, and which has changed the attitudes of people who never knew her’. In 1934, the training for women at St Andrews Hostel combined with Kennaway Hall, in Stoke Newington, the other CMS institution for women. Florence was appointed Principal of the combined institution, with the name Kennaway Hall, after a President of the CMS, being preserved. She was determined to secure the help of lecturers who were well regarded in their fields and as well as those who could bring wider thinking about mission she also had speakers who brought insights into practical training from their experiences internationally. Her vision, as she put it, was to help students ‘to think and see’.

In the same year as the St Andrew’s Hostel and Kennaway Hall amalgamated, Florence wrote what was her only published article, ‘The Corporate Life of a Mission Station’, in The International Review of Missions (October, 1934, pp. 497-511). She spoke about missionaries who had ‘lost the forward, vital influence, the life of the Spirit’. Some, she suggested, might never have been right for missionary work. However, others, and here she spoke from experience, had become ‘caught in the cog of the mechanical routine of too much work, and have become exhausted and unable to deal with their problems’.  It was from this concern that St Julian’s was to emerge.  Addressing in particular women in mission, Florence spoke of the need for a spiritual life ‘going down into deep places’, not a life centred on ‘the job’. Her vision was of a community in which missionaries showed love to each other and thus there could be something authentic for ‘my African or Indian sister’. The article elicited letter of appreciation from all the leading missionary societies in Britain and from some in other countries. However, Florence was not content with that; she wanted to see changes in practice.

Plans were underway in 1936 to find alternative accommodation for training and, after the decision to move out of London, a house called 'Foxbury', in Chislehurst, Kent, was purchased in 1938. The house there could accommodate 40 students and had 8 acres of grounds. But three terms later war was declared. CMS closed the college and used Foxbury as temporary HQ during the war. Florence was asked to take the students to Selly Oak, Birmingham, where they were accommodated in Carey Hall. Foxbury was re-opened, for candidates but because of bombs the community had to leave again and moved to the evangelical Anglican theological college, Ridley Hall, Cambridge. This was the first time women had been on the Ridley Hall campus. Meanwhile, however, Florence’s thinking about her vocation had moved on. In February 1940 she wrote to former students: ‘I want to do something where I can still go on serving you with what I have of experience and real caring for you.’ She had ‘a dream of a house in some lovely quite place where you could come and be quiet and rest and read and talk’. She hoped also that such a place would be ‘for church people at home who go on and on and on in the same rut’.


The beginning of St Julian’s

In 1941, Florence and two other friends found a suitable place in Oakenrough, Haslemere, Sussex. The house was lent to them by the Tritton Gurney Trust. They found one other person, and the four moved at Easter 1941. One of them, Dorothy Alton, wrote of the way Florence translated vision into reality. It was, Dorothy, considered, ‘perhaps because she was a woman’, that Florence ‘an ideal was of little or no value’ unless the ideal ‘could be made to work in human living’. The Community was named St Julian’s, after an old Sussex saint renowned for hospitality. The house was on a very steep hill. It had five bedrooms, five ‘cells’ outside, and a drawing room, dining-room, sitting-room and kitchen. The four residents created a library and chapel and opened their doors.

There were pressures in creating a community but there was also the joy of welcoming guests. There were many war-tired people, Florence wrote, who came for relaxation and rest. Small conferences were held, notably J.H. Oldham’s Moot conferences, a discussion group with a number of leading thinkers concerned with education, social reconstruction, and the role of culture in society. [See The Moot Papers: Faith, Freedom and Society 1938-1944, edited by Keith Clements (2010)]. The CMS held secretarial meetings there and Max Warren, who was General Secretary of the CMS from 1942 to 1963, became a strong supporter of St Julian’s. At the end of 1942 Florence wrote that in the course of the last year there had been ‘142 visits from missionaries, 24 from teachers, 52 from the Church (of all denominations) and 35 from foreigners from Europe and the East’. The experiment was primarily for women, ‘but a large sprinkling of men have been and returned and for months ahead the rooms are booked up.’

The CCCW Archive helps in tracing the next steps. It became evident that more accommodation was needed, and a beautiful old house at Barns Green, near Horsham, Sussex, was purchased. This was done under the auspices of a Trust that was set up. An appeal for support was issued, with signatories including Oldham, Warren, the author and translator Olive Wyon, and the intrepid missionary in China and writer Mildred Cable. The first annual report from Barns Green described the Community, now eight (and later twelve) in number, and the accommodation for 25 guests. Existing accommodation in the Barns Green house had been reworked. Florence remarked: ‘You can convert anything if you have imagination!’ The year had been significant. ‘We have had 430 guests this year and have had to turn many away.’ During 1944 and 1945 the Community had quite a number of requests from parents to bring children. Initially it did not seem this was possible, but the Community was able to buy an adjoining farm. Later farming became part of Community life, which produced food for guests. Also working together in this enterprise was beneficial.

During the time at Barns Green, visitors came from Africa, America, China, Holland, Switzerland, India, France and Greece. In this way, as Florence put it, there was contact with ‘international Christian life and thought’. Those who visited for longer and shorter periods embraced the rhythm of the Community. The day in community began at 7.00am and finished at 9.00pm. Within that there was variety. The need for rest was acknowledged and encouraged. For those committed as members of the Community, however, there were extra responsibilities. It was made clear that membership of the Community involved a vocation to a way of life. All those considering membership stayed initially for six months. After that it was possible to become a probationer member. This period of testing vocation was flexible in length. If the testing meant that there was the move to membership, a service of dedication took place, with promises to obey the Community and the way of life, although life vows were not involved. There were no salaries for Community members, only the provision of free board and a little pocket money.


Gains and losses

In October 1949, quite unexpectedly, the possibility came of purchasing a larger property in the village of Coolham, still near Horsham. This had 460 acres, a lake, two farm-houses and thirteen cottages. There was a wonderful, open view to the South Downs. A sale price was agreed of £50,000. This was an enormous sum, but the Trustees supported the view of the Community that this was the place to which to move. The owner had received a higher offer, but liked the sound of what the Community was doing. They moved on 19 January 1950. Max Warren, for whom St Julian’s was very important, spoke of how at Barns Green and at Coolham the Community and the surroundings breathed ‘an immense benediction to a tired spirit’. To walk through the door, he said, was like entering – taking imagery from Pilgrim’s Progress - a ‘Palace Beautiful’, where quietness and peace could ‘do its healing work’, while engagement with others was always available. He considered that the women in the Community were widely read and in touch.

Florence’s ‘Notebooks’ indicate her wide reading. She drew from a wide range of Christian spirituality, and from writers of literary classics, and she was evidently reading works of contemporary theology. An example of her spiritual practice is her practice of the presence of God. She wrote: ‘The only way I can learn it is to do it, and one thing I am very sure of for myself is that to sit quietly before God doing nothing, only fixing the will gently on some expressive word like “O God, I want thee” or “Father” or “Here am I and here are You” makes a world of difference.’ On another occasion she wrote: ‘There is only one test of our prayer life really – are we wanting God? Do we want Him so much that we will go on if it takes five, six, ten years to find Him….?’ She applied her thinking to the life of missionaries, and wrote this: ‘I have been thinking why being a missionary is like being an actress.’ She expanded this statement by speaking of how tries to get what the character feels. ‘You are wanting to be that other, and for us that other is Christ.’ She was always open to discovering fresh aspects of Christian living. She wrote to one friend: ‘What you have helped me to see is a very happy Christ.’ She was well aware of suffering, but considered that Christ was offering a way of life in which someone could ‘give and give and give happiness’.

Having moved to Coolham and having enjoyed a beautiful spring, the Community suffered the great loss in July 1950 of the death of Florence. In May she had developed a rash and this was diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of a part of the immunae system. Florence had never been afraid of death. She wrote: ‘I can never see why one should fear to die. When I walk into the garden here early in the morning and nearly burst with excitement at this world; and when I realize that it is only a shadow, a pale ghost of what that world must be like – then I can only feel a tremendous longing to know more of it and to be in it.’ She died on 3 July 1950, aged 62. As part of the response to this great loss, the Community decided to build a chapel in the orchard at Old House Coolham, in memory of Florence. It was dedicated in 1952 by George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, who had taken an interest in the Community when it came to Coolham.

A mark of the resilience of the Community was that in 1955 they were preparing to open a second house, in Africa – in Kenya. They sold Home Farm, part of the Coolham land, and this freed four people to go to Africa. Dorothy Alton, one of the original for that included Florence, took flying lessons at Gatwick Airport. A small plane was bought and in October 1956 Dorothy Alton and Mary Phillipson left to fly to Kenya. Dinah Hart and Janet Clarke left two weeks later. The new Community was in a house that had the needed facilities at Limuru, 15 miles from Nairobi, and The Times published an article: ‘A Multi-racial meeting place’. This produced a veritable storm for several months, as the ‘White Highlands’ were a favoured place of refuge for whites. They were unable, however, to stop it from going ahead. In June 1956, a Leaflet was produced, ‘A House for all Races in Kenya’, signed by well-known figures such as Max Warren. It asked for donations for the community. The multi-racial aspect meant the community became a cause célèbre. Max Warren wrote to the Community in December 1956: ‘I have seen that egregious article in the Kenya Weekly News and all the Irish in me surged with desire to go and knock somebody's block off.  A measure of how very slight a distance I have managed to progress along the road to sanctity!’

The two communities worked well together, although separated by such a long distance. Limuru and Coolham were places of serious thought for people from all nations. Both had heavy-weight backers, including bishops such as the Bishop of Mombasa. The first visitor to Limuru came in December 1956, from Uganda. After Christmas, Dennis Payne brought a work party, European and African, to work on the chapel and on enlarging the kitchen garden. On 4 February 1957, at St Margaret's, Westminster, London, intercession was made for the community of St Julian's, Kenya. A chapel was dedicated in the same month. A Flat in Nairobi was also purchased. The CCCW archive contains a considerable amount of material about what was accomplished in Kenya. For example: in a small book, St Julian's in Kenya 1956-57, in a diary used by Richard Frost, ‘Race against Time’, and in information about people who came and went, the services, and the conversations. The stress was on sharing as people of faith, without ethnicity being the primary focus.


Ministry and the ending of ministry

The ministry in Coolham went on for decades. Max Warren spoke of Coolham as ‘one key to our survival’ – referring to himself and his wife Mary. In the midst of very busy lives there was ‘the regular withdrawal to St Julian's’. He spoke of how he was asked to talk about St Julian's in many places, and he tried to do so, but confessed: ‘I am baffled. You would have to visit it to find the secret.’ He added: ‘For us St Julian's was an unfailing resort for the much needed recharging of our batteries spiritual, mental and physical.’ He traced back to St Julian's the fact that while heavily involved in administration and travelling, he was able to write quite a number of books. At St Julian's there was peace in the library, to sit and think. Many a small group gathered at St Julian's under Max and Mary’s leadership and hospitality spoke of gaining a new vision of their relationship to God and to one another within the great missionary cause. No place on earth came to mean so much to Max Warren as St Julian’s. He wrote about it in 1962 in Theology, and again in 1974, and called it ‘the gate of heaven’.

In one year, the tally of those at Limuru was this:

Kenyans 70
other African 9
UK 118
USA 48
Scandinavia 14
Rest of Europe 7
Asian/Kenyan 9
Australian 6

Dorothy Alton spoke of the many nationalities and denominations represented. She reported how weekly Bible Notes were prepared for more than 300 people all over the world. She quoted a maxim of Florence that ‘we must never settle down and get stuck’, but remain alert to new things. The Community was seen to have performed a valuable service in promoting racial harmony as a place of retreat for Kenyans and missionaries throughout East Africa. In 1979, however, it was recognised that no St Julian’s members were able to be there, and it felt right to sell the premises to the Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK). Minutes of meetings about this are in CCCW.

Meanwhile the Coolham community continued, and there is much to be gained from the book about both communities by Margaret Potts, St Julian’s: An Experiment in Two Continents, as well as other unpublished material in the CCCW archive. However, by the year 2000, only five resident members were left at Coolham and it was evident that the Community could not continue. The five members who were left, handed over the property to the Arundel and Brighton Roman Catholic Diocese. Florence would probably have seen this as part of the ongoing dynamic of the Spirit, although there was a sense of loss, especially to the Anglican Communion. However, Florence’s vision was always ecumenical. William Paton, a leader in world mission and ecumenism, said Florence had the most spiritual insight of anyone he had ever known. It would be a valuable task for someone to undertake more research on how her insight might apply today, when there is a renewed interest in community.

Ian Randall
Ian Randall is a Research Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide and is a spiritual director in Cambridge. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the International Theological Baptist Study Centre in Amsterdam. He has written several books and many articles on mission, community and spirituality.

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