Author uncovers 'shocking' truth of grandfather's past in new book

Stanley James

Stanley James wandered the world and had a wandering eye for the ladies. - Credit: Robert Nurden

A writer uncovered a shocking truth while delving into his grandfather's past for a new book.

Journalist Robert Nurden from Forest Gate believed his relative was a deeply religious, moral man who wandered the world, having been a cowboy, hobo, soldier and poet.

But while researching his family history, Robert discovered that his grandfather, Stanley James, a married church minister, had a wandering eye which led to affairs with members of his own congregation.

Stanley - who was born in 1869 and died in 1951 before Robert was born - was a socialist, pacifist, non-conformist minister and later convert to Roman Catholicism.

The author of nine books and two autobiographies counted writer GK Chesterton as a friend and worked alongside the pacifist philosopher Bertrand Russell.


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Robert said: "He was quite full of himself.

"The trajectory of his life was pretty unusual. He was a sort of second division celebrity.

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"He was too controversial to become famous, but it's people who are perhaps not in the full glare of the public eye who are left to pursue their own dreams. 

"This extra freedom gave him the possibility of a life of adventure."

Stanley on horseback

Stanley on horseback (centre, foreground). The Englishman had various jobs including cowboy, hobo, soldier and reporter. - Credit: Glenbow Museum

Stanley was in the Canadian West in the late 19th century and fought in the  Spanish-American war, joining the US army in Puerto Rico. He also worked as a reporter on The Calgary Herald.

On Stanley's return to England, he married and appeared to settle down, becoming a minister in Walthamstow where he charmed and alienated his congregation with his political beliefs, according to his grandson. 

In 1923, Stanley converted to Roman Catholicism and reinvented himself as one of the best-known Catholic writers of the English-speaking world. In 1941 he was appointed deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.

His reputation as an intellectual of faith and integrity may have remained if not for Robert's chance discovery of three women's letters and diaries.

Robert first came across reference to his grandfather's affairs in a book about the early 20th century.

While it embellished certain details - Stanley did not seduce women in the church vestry - it contained a nub of what went on.

But it was the discovery of letters and diaries from three women stored in The Women's Library at the London School of Economics and a letter from Stanley to one of them which unearthed the whole story.

The letters only came to light through their chance discovery in the basement of a house in Blackheath. 

Robert Nurden

Robert discovered his grandfather had affairs with members of his congregation. - Credit: Robert Nurden

On uncovering his grandfather's affairs, Robert said: "I was totally shocked to begin with.

"I thought up to that point I was writing a reasonable family history, but this turned it on its head. It's just a bloody good story," Robert said.

He added that as a minister Stanley would have been expected to uphold a higher standard of behaviour, but it was hard to know how much of a scandal was caused.

Stanley's grandson - who has worked on the Guardian, Independent on Sunday and Daily Telegraph - explained that the father of seven was forced to resign for his pacifism as much as the liaisons. 

But the affairs were hushed up, Robert said. He is still unsure how much Stanley's wife and children knew.

Front cover

Between Heaven and Earth is available on Amazon and at Number 8 Forest Gate Emporium in Sebert Road. - Credit: Robert Nurden

On writing the book, he added: "The research was as fascinating as the writing itself. 

"People have said I've been meticulous. As a journalist, it's second nature not to take anything as read.

"But I hope it's just a bloody good read. It's about my exploration as well as [Stanley's]. It's been described as a spiritual thriller."

The 69-year-old travel writer, who went to Canada to carry out some of his research, added that at the story's heart is a search for meaning.

"My grandfather seems to have explored every sort of movement going at the beginning of the 20th century," Robert said.

Between Heaven and Earth: A Journey with my Grandfather is available on Amazon and from Number 8 Forest Gate Emporium in Sebert Road.

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