Peacock, William Arthur

William Arthur Peacock
William Arthur Peacock

William Arthur Peacock (August 23, 1905-September 15, 1968) was a British Universalist and Unitarian minister, Labour Party politician, and a journalist in religion and politics. He was minister of the South London Universalist Church and the Wandsworth Unitarian Church, and the first Press Relations officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

Arthur, as he was known, was born to James and Heltie Peacock, a working class couple living in the south central London residential community of Camberwell (now a part of Lambeth). His father was secretary of the Camberwell Branch of the Shop Assistants’ Union. He was educated at the Oliver Goldsmith School in Peckham, the Santley School in Brixton, the Junior Country Exhibition, and the Reay Central School in Kensington. Family financial restraints ruled out further study. He was afterwards sensitive about his lack of a college education.

When eleven Arthur got a part-time job in a collar shop near his home. One day his boss, Hugh Harries, who was active in the Labour Party, took him to meet George Watson MacGregor-Reid, a leading figure in the Clapham Labour Party and minister of the South London Universalist Church. MacGregor-Reid, a shadowy and mysterious individual prone to inventing myths concerning the details of his life, was a magnetic personality. The encounter transformed Peacock’s life. MacGregor-Reid eventually became Peacock’s mentor and led him into the ranks of the labor movement and the Universalist ministry.

Peacock, who had earlier found the Anglicanism of his childhood inadequate, began to attend the Universalist church’s services and programs—especially the classes taught by MacGregor-Reid on politics, economics, psychology, mysticism and world religions. He joined the church’s staff as organist, assistant warden, and eventually as assistant minister, 1937-42.

During the First World War Peacock became a socialist and started to work for the Labour Party. He wrote articles for its trade union journals and, when just 22, became editor of the Clarion, 1927-30, a popular socialist paper. Later he served as editor of New World, 1932-34. During the 1920s, working for the party’s League for Youth, he met his future wife, Elsie Graves. They were married in 1931. Their only child, Roy, was born in 1935.

The same year he was married he accepted the position of Secretary-Manager of the National Trade Union Club, a post he held until 1946. Its duties required that he travel extensively throughout the United Kingdom. As a result he came to know intimately many of the people in the trade union movement and came to admire and respect the people in the working class. In 1936 he was chosen to edit the 80th birthday souvenir for one of Labour’s prominent early leaders, Tom Mann. After the international socialists brigades began fighting in the Spanish Civil War he wrote, with George Jeger, about the socialists’ medical mission in Spain.

The South London Church ordained Peacock in 1937. In 1942 he became its senior minister and MacGregor-Reid its Elder Brother. Peacock’s Universalist views reflected more closely the traditional teachings of the movement than did MacGregor-Reid’s theology. The latter was the Chosen Chief of the Druid Order and his message was deeply influenced by Druidism. Indeed, many members of the church also belonged to the Druid Order. MacGregor-Reid’s attempt to meld Universalism and Druidism into one faith failed in the end. For Peacock, on the other hand, Universalism was “the Church of the broader view” within Christianity. Its vital essence was not to be found in creeds but in its ability to help men and women “grow in knowledge and understanding.” That was the “substance” of the “Universalist spirit.” The purpose of British Universalism, Peacock insisted, was to “promote among adherents of all religious faiths, whether Christian or otherwise, a deep spirit of harmony and goodwill.”

The Second World War years were difficult for the church. Its congregation dwindled and its financial problems mounted. Its place of worship, a home owned by MacGregor-Reid, was heavily mortgaged. As they ran out of money, Peacock was forced to beg for aid from the Universalist Church of America (UCA). Unfortunately the UCA had little to share. Then, in 1944, a German bomb destroyed most of the premises. MacGregor-Reid and Peacock hoped to rebuild, but this never happened. For a while services were held in varying places throughout London. Soon after MacGregor-Reid’s death at 94 in 1946, the church ceased to exist.

In 1945 Peacock wrote a brief autobiography, Yours Fraternally. Although the book mentions MacGregor-Reid and the Universalist church, its major theme is selected leaders of the Labour Party and the work of trade unionism. It was his only book. He wrote, however, many pamphlets concerning Unitarianism and Universalism and numerous journal articles in The Christian/Universalist Leader and The Inquirer. He also edited the latter publication regularly in the 1950s and 1960s in the absence of its editor.

After 1946 the Universalist cause lingered on for a short period at Blackboys in Sussex as the Universalist Holiday Centre. A small chapel was also built there, the Royhill Universalist Church. The Centre was essentially, however, a venue for summer conferences. By 1957 its financial situation forced its trustees to sell it and purchase in nearby Great Frenches Park a residential home as a “center of religious fellowship and service.” This closed when Peacock died in 1968.

After the demise of the South London Church Peacock became a Unitarian minister. This offered him a wider scope for his abilities. He preached in various London locations until 1951 when he assumed the pulpit of the small Wandsworth Unitarian Church. At the same time he became the Secretary of the Social Service Department of the Unitarian General Assembly, 1952-68. As its first Press Relations officer, 1965-68, he revolutionized the way Unitarians in Britain viewed and put out their publicity. He chaired the Unitarian publicity committee and wrote pamphlets: The Family and Society and (with Alan Ruston) Prisons, Punishment and People. His most well known publicity pamphlet was Outside the Mainstream. While its title caused a storm at the time its content and structure was used for twenty years afterward.

Peacock made his most significant contributions to liberal religion as a Unitarian minister. His colleague, Alan Ruston, noted: “He was instrumental in creating a new feeling for social service and concern in the Movement. He pioneered new ideas that had hitherto not been considered appropriate. His own experience in the Citizen’s Advice Bureau during the last War and the subsequent social legislation of the Labour Government, made him see that a new approach was needed in very different times. The Church must become a partner of the state in helping any section of society in need.”

A friend of Peacock observed that he was a “willing horse” and “collected jobs like schoolboys collect stamps.” From 1951-59 he was Secretary of the World Congress of Faiths and editor of The Modern Free Churchman. In 1956 he wrote the Congress’s story, Fellowship Through Religion, and the next year edited their publication, Religion Can Help the World. He also found the energy to be a member of the Churches Council on Gambling, the Central Churches Group of the National Council of Social Service, and of the National Peace Council.

Although physically unattractive, Peacock had a compelling personality and the ability to engage all kinds of people in conversation. While his sermon delivery was poor, his addresses were considered to be excellent. His dress, on days other than Sunday, was flamboyant: he was known at church gatherings and socialist meetings for wearing a black Sombrero and a red tie. After church he “held court” at a restaurant near Trafalgar Square.

Peacock died suddenly at just 63. A memorial service was held at Essex Hall in London, the headquarters of the national Unitarian movement. Its secretary, John Kiety, conducted the service. The obituary in The Times predicted that Peacock would be “sadly missed in ecumenical circles where his contribution was considerable.”

Peacock left no papers but Alan Ruston, editor of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, has in his possession about 100 letters that Peacock wrote him. The Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University, has the only records (1929-57) of the British Universalist Church. See also Peacock’s UUA ministerial file there. The portrait of Peacock above is from the Andover-Harvard collection and is used with the Harvard Divinity School’s kind permission. For an account of Peacock’s life see his memoir, Yours Fraternally (1945), and Alan Seaburg, “Two Universalist Ministers: G. MacGregor-Reid and Arthur Peacock,” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (April 2004). See also Who Was Who (1961-70) and Adam Stout, Choosing a Past: The Politics of Prehistory in Pre-War Britain (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wales, 2004). There are obituaries in The Times (September 20, 1968), The Inquirer (October 5, 1968), and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, Directory (1968-70).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted July 13, 2006