The British Church That Worshipped Hitler
In late 1945, a small self-styled fascist church established itself in southern England, where its members worshipped Adolf Hitler. For the war-weary locals, it was too much: vigilante action was required.
It might be supposed that in 1945, with war with Nazi Germany recently concluded, supporters of Nazism would not have been tolerated in Britain at all. Although the British government was aware that a few of its citizens supported National Socialism, its general policy was to ignore them. However, the discovery of a ‘church’ at Kingdom House, near Petworth in Sussex, set up by a group styling itself the League of Christian Reformers (LCR) and dedicated to the worship of Adolf Hitler, stretched the patience of the war-weary nation to the limit.
In November 1945, while reports of the Belsen trial were making headline news, another story hit the front pages of national newspapers. It began with the controversial auction of the contents of the German embassy in London. Among the items sold was a granite bust of Hitler, purchased for £500 by Captain Robert Gordon-Canning, a leading member of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) before the war. James Larratt Battersby, another former BUF member, also attended and bought some Nazi flags. They told reporters that their purchases were destined for Kingdom House, where the League of Christian Reformers had established a church.
Questions were asked in Parliament and the reply of the Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede, brought the League of Christian Reformers to public attention. He ‘entirely shared the feelings of revulsion against the LCR which, in the guise of religion, sought to make a cult of Hitler and of the forces of evil which the United Nations have recently successfully overcome’. But unless they broke the law, he added, nothing could be done.
Kingdom House was owned by WG Barlow, who had been a racing driver in the 1920s. Less well-known were Barlow's fascist sympathies. During the war he was detained under Regulation 18B of the Defence (General) Regulations 1939, a law introduced to enable the internment of enemy aliens and political dissenters. Most members of the LCR were former 18B detainees and it is likely that the League was formed in early 1945 in the Isle of Man camp where they were interned.
Members of the LCR included the ‘Custodian’ of Kingdom House, Arthur Schneider, a former cigarette-machine salesman from Kidderminster, who spent the summer preparing Kingdom House for the League following his release in April 1945. In September, other members arrived, including Schneider's sisters, Battersby and another notorious fascist, Thomas Guillaume St Barbe Baker. The League’s members were planning to move their families there, too.
Baker and Battersby were involved in an organisation called the Militant Christian Patriots before the war, which was closely linked to other fascist groups, such as the Nordic League and the Britons Society. As the LCR, they published a manifesto in 1943 from the Peveril internment camp on the Isle of Man, written by Battersby:
We Englishmen, true to God and to England, declare the Judgement, the final struggle between God and Mammon, and the God-appointed mission of Adolf Hitler as God’s Judge, from our prison camp to the leaders of our country.
Deeply antisemitic, the pair developed their political ideology into a religion centred around the divinity of Hitler. Several observers in the intelligence services were convinced that Baker was a charlatan, but Battersby was absolutely genuine in his beliefs. In 1952 he would publish The Holy Book of Adolf Hitler, in which he developed his ideas:
Nordic man, with whom walks eternally the Spirit of Adolf Hitler, stands on the Rock of the Redeeming Blood of his Race. Race is Religion, and in God’s Chosen Race, the Aryan peoples, will be illumined the Path for all mankind ... Adolf Hitler is the ‘Light to lighten the Gentiles’ promised in the New Testament of Jesus Christ, and the Germanic pattern shall guide the Aryans to all Eternity ... All hail to God’s Christ and Chosen, Adolf Hitler.
Even fellow internees regarded Baker as extreme. In a letter to Charles Lockwood, a former 18B detainee from Lancashire, sent in October 1945, fellow fascist internee Samuel Darwin-Fox discussed the inhabitants of Kingdom House: ‘Schneider and his sisters are already installed as cooks, cleaners etc ... Mrs Baker hasn’t “seen the light” and has departed – taking the god-child with her!’
The ‘god-child’ was Baker’s son. He claimed that a birthmark on the baby's head was a swastika and that the boy was Hitler’s heir.
Arthur Schneider was one of the League's most fervent believers and both of his sisters, Joan and Ethel (known as May) became converts. His younger brother, Robert Schneider, was less openly involved, but, as a serving soldier in 1945, he would have been foolish to speak openly about involvement with a pro-Nazi organisation. Arthur was closely watched by Special Branch from the moment he joined the BUF in 1939. Born in 1914 in Wolverley near Kidderminster, he was the son of an Austrian immigrant, Johann Schneider. None of the Schneiders appear to have been particularly interested in politics before the late 1930s. Johann only took out formal naturalisation in September 1939. He had four serving nephews in the Wehrmacht and must have feared deportation.
Arthur claimed that he sought out the BUF because they reflected opinions that he already held. Soon he was enthusiastically recruiting others. He joined the army at the outbreak of war but requested to transfer to a non-combatant role in early 1940. He told a tribunal this was because he did not want to fight against his cousins, but, under examination, it became obvious that he held deep-seated pro-Nazi views. He was discharged from military service and interned. Significantly, Schneider was the last 18B detainee to be released from Peveril in 1945. Even then, he was watched by the police and MI5. His brother, Robert, was also kept under observation during the war. He was refused entry to the Royal Air Force, although he was allowed to serve in the army under supervision. Robert was seen at Kingdom House in 1945, in army uniform with regimental badges removed, labouring in the grounds. He claimed not to know what was going on there.
The Schneider sisters, Joan and May, moved to Kingdom House from their Women’s Land Army hostel in late September 1945. In a secret document, written on 30 November 1945, Captain WJ Hutchinson, Acting Chief Constable of the Sussex Police, described their involvement:
Down to about the end of 1943, these two young women were lukewarm in their attitude towards the war. At that time they were converted by their brother, AJ Schneider, to his views and their attitude since has been disloyal. It may be judged ... from letters written by them to him ... [that] it is clear that the final victory of good over evil refers to the victory of national socialism over democracy and that home means Germany.
It became obvious that all four siblings were committed to the Hitler cult. The security services thought they were deluded but also dangerous, as Miss PM Burke of MI5 wrote in January 1944:
Crazy they are, but I do not think that this renders them harmless. Anyone who believes that Hitler is Christ returned to earth might well try to help the coming of his Kingdom by, for example, helping the Nazis in the event of an invasion ... The danger from these people, to my mind, is not so much that they might convert others to their way of thinking – which is most unlikely – but that they might help the enemy in a more direct fashion.
Baker had converted Schneider to his ideas of Hitler-as-Messiah while they were both detained. MI5 believed that Schneider ‘never wavered’ from these views and was completely under Baker’s spell. Lieutenant Paget, the senior Intelligence Officer who interviewed Schneider at Peveril described him as ‘a mean, vindictive creature ... indistinguishable from a Nazi thug’,
crudely, and spitefully, antisemitic ...The question of where obsession ends and insanity begins is not for me to answer. I believe Schneider now to be as genuine as Battersby was in his belief, and in that respect, Schneider like Battersby is insane. He looks as mad as a hatter. His master, TG St Barbe Baker I shall always consider a faker.
The residents of Kingdom House said they wanted a quiet, self-sufficient life and were not planning to evangelise. The security services were aware of their existence, not least because Schneider still had to report to the police once a month, but they decided to leave them alone. In November 1945, the publicity surrounding the sale of Hitler’s bust changed all that.
In Parliament, Garry Allighan, Labour MP for Gravesend, asked the Home Secretary ‘whether he will cause an investigation to be made into the membership and operations of the Christian Reform League, with headquarters at Kingdom House ... whose objects are the veneration of Hitler and the perpetuation of his memory’. The Daily Mirror reported that ‘they believe Hitler is the second Jesus Christ and end their prayers with the words, “In the name of Adolf Hitler, amen”’. A clergyman, Canon Campion, arrived at the gates of Kingdom House to protest and a Pentecostal pastor led a demonstration of hymn-singing protestors outside. More poignantly, local villagers expressed their personal objections.
In September 1941, Petworth village school had suffered a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomber, killing 31 children. An elderly woman who had lost a son told reporters: ‘We have suffered too much here even to try to like people who say they love Hitler.’ Stronger feelings were expressed by a serviceman who was on leave from the Navy. He said that he would be spending his leave organising a march on Kingdom House and ‘have these Fascists flung out’. A group of Canadian airmen from a nearby camp also came to protest.
In mid-December, these threats were realised. As the Daily Mirror reported:
A gang of masked men, wearing black handkerchiefs with eyelet holes over their heads, last night raided Kingdom House ... There were ten men, and they arrived in two large saloon cars, which were parked during the raid in a lane near the house. One of the two young women at Kingdom House, hearing noises in the grounds, called to Arthur Schneider, who guards the headquarters of the League of Christian Reform. He opened the back kitchen door and was set upon and beaten up. He was cut on the face and head, knocked down and jumped on. Schneider’s sister, sturdy Joan Schneider, tried to get help by telephone, but the instrument was snatched from her and pulled from the wall. Two other men members of the League were roughly handled during the raid, but the women were treated courteously.
Schneider was bound, gagged, debagged and left in the market square at Petworth. Captain Baker was not in the house at the time, but arrived soon afterwards by car and spoke to the press. The League only wanted forgiveness, he told them. Expressing Christian values, Baker emphasised that they in no way wanted the police to press charges, despite the fact that Schneider had been badly hurt. The raiders, meanwhile, had fled in the direction of the coast, taking the LCR's propaganda literature and leaving a note:
We, a party of young officers in HM services, carried out the operation at Kingdom House because the authorities seemed to be doing nothing about this setting up of a Hitler cult in England. All of us have served overseas. We have come home to find this worship of Hitler going on here. It is not good enough to read that Scotland Yard are making inquiries. We want this thing stamped out.
It was the end for Kingdom House. The League’s members dispersed, although they attempted to found a similar community in South Africa a few years later. In a letter sent in February 1949, Olga Pike, a disillusioned member of the LCR told the People’s Post, ‘the Schneiders, plus Mr James Battersby and Mr Baker’s illegitimate sons have all sailed for S. Africa to join Mrs Baker and family. It seems the Bakers left before Xmas and it is hoped they will find a fruit farm to all work on ... This country is well rid of them all. Fancy Battersby deserting all his children (4) and wife, to keep with the Kingdom House crowd.’ It is likely that the mother of Baker’s illegitimate sons was May Schneider.
The plans for a fruit farm did not last. Battersby was soon deported as an ‘undesirable immigrant.’ He returned to England where he continued to publish antisemitic literature. In 1955 he committed suicide by jumping from the Mersey Ferry. His suicide note read: ‘My work here is complete. I follow the Fuehrer to glory and eternity. Through the sacrifice of the Aryan martyrs our world victory is assured. Heil Hitler.’
The other members of the League disappeared into obscurity. A newspaper advertisement in February 1963, placed by a Kidderminster firm of solicitors, sought information about the whereabouts of Arthur Schneider, ‘formerly of the Isle of Man and Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia’. Baker returned to live in Jersey, where he was occasionally visited by neo-Nazi admirers, until his death in 1966. The members of the short-lived church would surely be pleased to know that in 2018, The Holy Book of Adolf Hitler can be downloaded online, while busts of the Nazi leader are readily available from Amazon.
Susan Gardiner is a writer and editor. Her most recent book is The Wanderer: the Story of Frank Soo (2016).