Special Collections & Archives

Canterbury at War

The Red Dean's Life and Times 1939-1945

Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral from 1931-1963, steered the Cathedral Chapter through the turbulence of the Second World War. During that time, the crypt was turned into an air raid shelter, much of the town of Canterbury was flattened and the Deanery itself took a direct hit, although the Cathedral building survived largely intact.

However, Johnson's presence had stirred up turbulence since his arrival as Dean, long before the war had started. A vocal supporter of Communist regimes across the world, Johnson's public profile allowed him to promote his beliefs widely, leading to both condemnation and praise from members of the Church and the public. His support for socialist regimes in Russia, China and Cuba earned him the epithet of the 'Red Dean'.

When war broke out in 1939, the already controversial Dean was determined to see Canterbury and its Cathedral through one of the devastating periods of recent history.

Hewlett Johnson

By the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 Hewlett Johnson had brought about significant improvements in the governance and worshipping life of the Cathedral. Under his care the dignity and beauty of the services had increased, the fabric of the Cathedral had been secured and enriched, the King’s School had been brought back from the brink of disaster, and the Chapter estate had been remodelled on financially secure principles.

Hewlett Johnson’s political beliefs had brought him both praise and criticism from a wide variety of people. While many in the Church establishment considered Johnson’s radical political views at odds with his position in the Church of England, in the early years of Soviet Russia there were many members of the public who believed that the social equality advocated by Socialism leant itself to a more Christian society.

Since his arrival in Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson had found himself at odds with the Cathedral Chapter on several occasions, often due to his political opinions. By the end of 1939, tensions were simmering over into the everyday life of the Cathedral. Following the Soviet invasion of Finland and reports of the repression of religion in Russia, the ‘Red Dean’ found himself increasingly isolated. Despite Archbishop Lang’s attempts to head off a crisis, five of the Cathedral’s Canons wrote a letter to The Times, publically dissociating themselves from Johnson’s radical views.

Canons' letter to The Times

A barrage of letters and newspaper articles followed, with some writing to the Dean to express their anger;

If you do not resign your living of the Deanery of Canterbury the undersigned will expose you as the fraud and Humbug that you are
(UKC/JOH/COR : 919)

and others offering support;

I judge your Canons' letter to be quite deplorable....The letter, as a whole, means that the freedom of the ministry, pulpit and platform is assailed...
(UKC/JOH/COR : 1172)

Some of the support for Johnson was based upon anger that the Canons should make the private disputes of the Chapter public, but others supported the Dean's beliefs in the need for social change in Britain and looked to the Soviet regime for inspiration. Johnson wrote his own letter to the Times to refute the charges which the Canons put forward, but the Chapter's war with itself had already begun.

Service in Canterbury Cathedral



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Last Updated: 02/02/2018