The Red Dean of Canterbury: The Public and Private Faces of Hewlett Johnson by John Butler - review by Damian Thompson

Damian Thompson

Now I’m a Believer

The Red Dean of Canterbury: The Public and Private Faces of Hewlett Johnson


Scala 292pp £16.95

The Very Reverend Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury from 1931 to 1963, looked as if he had been drawn by Osbert Lancaster. Long white hair sprouted from the edges of an otherwise bald dome; he wore a frock coat and gaiters; and in photographs he gazes at the camera with an expression of loveable whimsy. Perhaps he practised it in front of the mirror. The Dean was very conscious of his image. His conservative clothes and avuncular manner were in deliberate contrast to his political opinions, which were extremely left-wing. Hewlett was known as the ‘Red Dean’, largely because of his unwavering support for the Soviet Union. History remembers him as naive – the epitome of the ‘useful idiot’. This biography by John Butler presents us with an altogether darker picture, though I’m not sure whether it intends to.

Johnson came from a prosperous Manchester family of strictly Protestant Anglicans. By the time he was ordained, in 1906, he had already served an engineering apprenticeship and studied theology at Oxford. As vicar of St Margaret’s, Altrincham, and Dean of Manchester he displayed a sincere passion to alleviate the conditions

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