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J.R.R. Tolkien and the Birmingham Oratory

J.R.R. Tolkien and the Birmingham Oratory

Oratory Church of the Immaculate Conception, Edgbaston, Birmingham, England (photo: Michael D. Beckwith / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0)

In the shadow of the “Twin Towers,” the True King dwells in the Oratory

Arriving in Birmingham, England’s second city — population in its metropolitan area in excess of 3 million people — I was dismayed to find that the city did not possess a Tourist Information Centre. Not a formal one, at any rate — there is an informal one in the City Library though. It was there I asked for information on the “Tolkien Trail.”

The answer I received only increased my dismay: “Is that in Birmingham?”

Although Tolkien was born in South Africa, the family hailed from Birmingham. And it was to Birmingham that the 4-year-old Ronald and his younger brother, Hilary, and their mother, Mabel, retreated in 1896 when Tolkien’s father died. Tolkien was to grow to adulthood in England’s second city. Eventually, he left Birmingham for the trenches of the Great War, and, later, for Oxford, but it was Birmingham as much as anywhere that shaped him. This much is often remarked upon. What is less well-known is how much a part the Birmingham Oratory, founded by Blessed John Henry Newman in 1849, played in Tolkien’s early life.

Mabel Tolkien to the horror of her family was received into the Church in 1900, together with her sons — Tolkien was 8 years old. Later she moved with the boys to be near the Birmingham Oratory on the Hagley Road, Edgbaston. The move was motivated by Mabel’s attraction to the spirituality that she had discovered at the Oratory. It was also in part due to the offer of a place for Ronald at the school attached to the church.

By 1903 Ronald won a scholarship to the more prestigious King Edward’s School in a different district of Birmingham and took up his place there. Nevertheless, the Tolkien family continued to remain living near the Oratory and attending Mass and other spiritual exercises there.

Then tragedy struck. Mabel became seriously ill in 1904 with the then untreatable disease of acute diabetes. As she lay dying, her chief fear was not about her impending death or even about her sons being orphaned. Her anxiety was at the prospect of the boys being forced to renounce their Catholic faith by her own family or that of her late husband. With this in mind, she left instructions for her sons be made wards of the Birmingham Oratory with a Father Francis Xavier Morgan named as the two boys’ legal guardian.

After Mabel’s death, the boys were billeted at the home of an aunt, Beatrice Suffield, at the back of the Oratory, on Stirling Road. Father Francis paid for the boy’s boys’ room and board there. As it turned out, Mrs Suffield had been recently widowed and was still grieving for her husband. No doubt this contributed to what was later remembered as the gloomy environment in which the boys were plunged. Their aunt’s dislike of Catholicism only added to the air of grim despondency.

During this time, the Oratory went through a major architectural change. A much grander church building replaced the makeshift structure that was home to Newman. The work started in September 1903 and, by Low Sunday 1906 a new basilica-sized church stood beside Oratory House.

During these years, Father Francis took seriously his duties as guardian of the Tolkien boys. Each summer, he brought them with him on holiday to the Dorset coast. It was during one of these holidays that the priest learnt how miserable Ronald and Hilary were living at Stirling Road. By the end of the summer of 1908 the brothers had changed lodging, moving to another nearby address at Duchess Road, with a Mrs. Faulkner. This move was to prove significant, and to have an unforeseen and lasting effect on the life of J.R.R. Tolkien.

At that address, there lived another lodger. A young woman called Edith Mary Bratt. Edith’s mother, Frances, came from a well-known shoe manufacturing family in Wolverhampton and had moved to Birmingham on account of the shame of having an illegitimate daughter. Sadly, Frances died while her daughter was still in her teens. Thereafter, Edith’s extended family determined that the teenager should continue lodging with Mrs. Faulkner.

The 16-year-old Ronald and his fellow lodger, Edith, his senior by three years, became friends. They would go for long walks in the countryside. News of these walks eventually got back to Father Francis at the Oratory. Needless to say, the priest was concerned about an attachment at such a young age. He felt obliged to act. Except for the occasional communication, he forbade Ronald to see Edith. The boy obeyed. By 1910, Edith had, in any case, moved to another part of the country. The burgeoning romance seemed to have ended.

Ronald’s friendship with Edith at Mrs Faulkner’s had caused Father Francis to begin looking for alternative lodgings for the brothers. A suitable home was found with parishioners who lived across from the Oratory on Highfield Road. During this time Ronald was attempting to gain a place at Oxford University. He did so in December 1910 at his second attempt. At Oxford, initially at least, it was Father Francis who continued to pay Ronald’s living expenses.

By 1916, much had changed in the life of the young scholar. Not only had he experienced the trenches but three years earlier, in 1913, Edith and Ronald had started to see each other again. A year after that, Edith became a Catholic. In March 1916, the couple were married with Father Francis more overjoyed than anyone. By June, Tolkien had received orders that his Battalion was to move to the Western Front. Before leaving for France, the recently married couple visited the Oratory, spending their last night together at a hotel, The Plough & Harrow Hotel, which still stands adjacent to the Oratory.

The Tolkien’s first child was born in November 1917. He was named John Francis in honor of the guardian who had looked after the boys. In the years that followed, the young family would often visit Father Francis and sometimes holiday with him.

Father Francis Xavier Morgan died on June 11, 1935. In his will he left £1,000 each to Ronald and Hilary.

The Birmingham Oratory to this day retains a number of Tolkien artefacts. Among them there is a large trunk, brought to England by Mabel on her last trip from South Africa just prior to hearing the news of her husband’s death.

Today, it is possible to walk around the various Tolkien addresses close by the Oratory. They are all but minutes apart. While doing so, it is clear that the Oratory is the centre of all those locations. This could be said of Tolkien’s Catholic faith: it was the centre of all his life. All else came and went, but to the end he remained true to the faith for which he and his mother had suffered much.

There is one other claim to the imaginative influence of these streets, a disputed one.  While living in Stirling Road between June 1905 and June 1908, the young boys could not but have failed to notice at the end of the street “the Two Towers.” In the road next to Stirling Road, on what is known as Waterworks Road, there are two curious structures that rise up from the ground to the skies above. They would have been more conspicuous then than now, especially given that in Edwardian Birmingham there would have been few landmarks of such height. One of these structures is an 18th-century folly. Built by a local eccentric named Perrott for his own amusement, its style is of an architectural provenance not known. It looks as if it were built for a fantasy realm, and with a wizard resident. The other structure is equally curious. A Neo-Gothic edifice of dark red and blue brick, more prosaically built as part of the local waterworks. Both these structures are known locally as “the Twin Towers.”

In all the addresses that J.R.R. Tolkien lived he was never far from these “Twin Towers.” They would have been visible throughout his time in Birmingham. It is equally true, though, and, perhaps, of greater significance that he was never far from the Birmingham Oratory. This was the fixed point in his unstable early years.  For any Catholic, however, a church is always more than just a building for within is housed the Blessed Sacrament. During his formative years, when all else was in a state of flux around the young Tolkien, one thing remained constant: the lighted lamp by the Oratory’s tabernacle.

Many years later, near the end of his life, Tolkien was to write the following: “Out of the darkness of my life… I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth…”

So contrary to what you may be told, Birmingham’s “Tolkien Trail” does exist.

And that trail leads to an unexpected destination. For in the shadow of the “Twin Towers,” and ministered to by a priestly fellowship, the True King dwells in the Oratory, and remains so until his Return in Glory.

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