The Reverend Dr James Parkes was born in 1896 on the Channel Islands. He was the son of an English-born tomato grower, making him a bit of an outsider in the insular French world of Guernsey. Tragedy struck when his mother died when he was 14 years old. Her absence cast a shadow over his once happy childhood. Parkes’ idyllic world had been rocked by his mother’s death. In less than a decade, he would also mourn the loss of his two siblings, David and Molly. Like so many others, they perished in the First World War. His older brother, David, died in 1917 at Passchendale. Molly, his younger sister, died when her ship – the RMS Leinster – was torpedoed while she was travelling to Ireland in 1918.
After serving as an officer on the western front, Parkes studied theology at Hertford College, Oxford. His own recollections suggest that he was repulsed by the student snobbery that he witnessed at the University, including the frequently used antisemitic slur ‘jewboy.’ After graduating, Parkes became a leading member of the Student Christian Movement before joining the International Student Service in Geneva. He regularly observed incidents of antisemitism as he travelled around central and eastern Europe. With the rise of Nazism, rampant antisemitism was particularly widespread on university campuses.
By the late 1920s, there is no doubt that Parkes became obsessed by the plight of European Jews. He referred to them as “my Jews” and this identification became a central feature of his remarkable career. Parkes was one of the few activists campaigning for the Jews of Europe from the 1920s onwards. Parkes wanted to understand the phenomenon of modern antisemitism and he embarked on pioneering academic research. He was one of the first to clearly identify that the root of much antisemitism lay in the teaching of the Churches. Parkes saw Judaism as equally valid a religion as Christianity and rejected all attempts to convert Jews. While this is now a mainstream view in 21st-century British Christianity, his thinking was highly controversial at the time. Parkes’ ideas were particularly shocking to many Christians as he had been ordained as an Anglican clergyman in 1926.
As the plight of European Jewry increased during the mid-1930s, Parkes’ work became more urgent. His research on the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion helped to expose the document as an antisemitic hoax during the Berne Trial (1934-5). Due to his work, Parkes was placed on Hitler’s ‘black list’ and was the victim of a failed assassination attempt.
Having moved to Barley, near Cambridge, in 1935 to pursue academia, Parkes became involved in Jewish, Christian and secular organisations that helped to bring 80,000 refugees to Britain. He worked closely with the Board of Deputies of British Jews to produce materials outlining the nature of Nazi antisemitism and defended Jews against unfounded libel claims, while also aligning himself with anti-fascists who fought against Oswald Mosley and his followers.
During the Second World War, Parkes devoted his time to supporting Jewish causes. The house in Barley was full of evacuees and refugees. He presented broadcasts (including one on the history of the Jews) on the BBC’s Home Service and developed the persona of ‘John Hadham’ who wrote and broadcasted popular and highly-acclaimed theology for the masses.
Parkes was a founding member on the executive of the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror. Set up by the MP Eleanor Rathbone, this organisation provided an important means of publicising events that were unfolding in Europe. Despite being involved in many committees and organisations, Parkes was not a natural team worker and preferred to maintain his independence. For this reason, he turned down the opportunity to be the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees during the 1930s and then a peerage with the remit to fight antisemitism during the war. Parkes was, however, a key figure in the creation of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), claiming that the organisation first met under a pear tree in his orchard at Barley. Whatever its precise origins, the CCJ was galvanised in 1942 as evidence of the Nazi extermination programme received widespread exposure in Britain.
The personal library that Parkes maintained at his home in Barley grew exponentially throughout the 1930s and 40s. By the 1950s – and experiencing financial and health problems – Parkes wanted to find a new space for his collection, where it could be made available as a practical resource. The lack of interest in Parkes’ collection in the decades following WWII mirrored the British public’s general disengagement with the Holocaust at the time. The Wiener Library in London – the world’s oldest Holocaust archive – equally struggled to garner support during this period.
Finally, in 1964, a home was found for the materials at the University of Southampton. Parkes found working with institutions tiring and it is unsurprising that he complained that the university was not making the most of his life’s work. He wanted someone to devote themselves to the work in the vigorous way he had and demanded that a director be appointed. This post was not created during his lifetime. Over half a century later, the Parkes Library has been transformed. The University of Southampton is now home to a major Jewish documentation centre and Parkes’ ambition to create an international research centre has been realised int he form of the Parkes Institute – the world’s largest centre devoted to the study of Jewish/non-Jewish relations.
Age caught up with Parkes and his writing ceased in 1979; he died on 10 August 1981 at the age of 84, survived by his wife Dorothy. Not much else survived him. While still alive, efforts to recognise his work floundered, including a mooted biography. Since his death, James Parkes has been increasingly forgotten. He has become a ‘nobody,’ while others are celebrated for the work that he pioneered. Remembering activists such as Parkes is partly about honouring their humanity, but it also helps to illustrate the failures of their contemporaries to act during an age in which intolerance was all too common.
Text adapted from travelling exhibition, ‘James Parkes and the Age of Intolerance’, presented at Hertford College Chapel in February 2020. Curated by Dr Chad McDonald and funded by the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. Images courtesy of the University of Southampton’s special collections.