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The man who made it all possible

Tom Willis was a curate in Hull in 1958 when he inherited £10,000, the money that would buy 5 Caledonian Road for Peace News and Housmans Bookshop. Co-editor Emily Johns interviewed him at the 50th birthday event for Number 5.

I was 28 when I inherited the money and I thought: “What am I going to do with this money because Jesus said you can’t serve God and wealth?” I thought: “I’ve got to get rid of it because wealth always destroys you. If you have a lot of money it cuts you off from ordinary everyday life, you don’t know what people are going through or experiencing.”

I always tell my kids you can tell a rich man because he goes around saying there isn’t any poverty any more. Only last week my daughter was behind a man who owns a stately home, very wealthy, and he said: “Child poverty? There isn’t any child poverty these days!” So I thought: “I must get rid of it.”

Very quietly and anonymously I first of all offered it to another pacifist organisation, going round saying: “What would you do if someone gave you £5,000”, (the equivalent of £90,000 today)?” And they said: “We should be lucky! I don’t know.” They weren’t interested. They had no vision for the future.

A bishop once said to me: “If you have vision, money follows.” You have got to have the dream and then people say “I’ll give to that, I’ll do that”.

I can’t remember how I met Harry Mister, on a CND march perhaps. I was talking to Harry Mister [business manager of Peace News at the time] and said what would he do with this [money]. And he said: “We would buy a shop and the shop would support Peace News.”

I knew then that they were a great support of CND and the anti-Vietnam war protest. Therefore helping Peace News was the best basic thing to do, so eventually it was £5,700 and they bought the premises. I knew that if they had a bookshop they would have the means of supporting all sorts of peace activities and the means of supporting themselves.

But the marvellous thing after that was that other people gave money. Other people – plumbers, electricians, joiners – came along and gave their services free and did a lot to the interior and the whole thing came together.

And it’s been a marvellous thing to see the list of some 50 organisations since then who have used Peace News offices and rooms. And so I’m really pleased to see how much it has been used and how many organisations it has helped. But it wasn’t just me, I gave the basic stuff for the outside but a lot of other people gave for the creation of Peace House.

Vera Brittain let it out to the press. After that the press deluged me; after that I was always “the £10,000 curate”. It hit the headlines!

The family were appalled; there were quite a lot of ructions about it. The parish were in a fundraising thing – “Why didn’t he give it to us?” – there were arguments: “It was a good action”; “It was a bad action.”

Tom Willis has retired as a priest but still works as an exorcist for the diocese of York. He is on the council of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, which was founded as a specifically Anglican offshoot of the secular Peace Pledge Union.

Topics: PN-related