Following in My Parents’ Footsteps
AS TOLD BY HILDA PADGETT
“My life is dedicated to the service of the Most High,” read the press report, “and I cannot serve two masters.” Those words from my statement to the British Ministry of Labour and National Service authorities in 1941 presented my reason for refusing their direction to do hospital work during World War II. Shortly thereafter I was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison for my refusal.
WHAT had landed me in this predicament? No, it was not some youthful whim or rebellious behavior. Rather, the reasons date back to when I was just a child.
Dad’s Zeal for the Kingdom
I was born on June 5, 1914, in Horsforth near Leeds, in the north of England. My parents, Atkinson and Pattie Padgett, were Sunday-school teachers and choir members at the Primitive Methodist Chapel where Dad played the organ. When I was a baby, our home was a happy one except for one thing. World conditions worried Dad. He hated war and violence and believed the Bible command: “Thou shalt not kill.”—Exodus 20:13, King James Version.
In 1915 the government urged all young men to join the army voluntarily and thus avoid conscription. With some misgivings Dad stood all day in the rain waiting his turn to register as a soldier. The very next day, his whole life changed!
While working as a plumber at a big house, he talked with other workmen about world events. The gardener handed him a small tract, Gathering the Lord’s Jewels. Dad took it home, read it, and reread it. “If that’s the truth,” he said, “then everything else is wrong.” The next day, he requested more information, and for three weeks into the early hours of the morning, he studied the Bible. He knew he had found the truth! Sunday, January 2, 1916, his diary says: “Went to Chapel in morning, went to I.B.S.A. [International Bible Students Association, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known in England] at night—studying Hebrews 6:9-20—my first visit to the brethren.”
Opposition soon arose. Our relatives and chapel friends thought Dad was crazy. But he had made up his mind. He lived for the meetings and study, and by March he had symbolized his dedication to Jehovah by water baptism. After a few weeks of Dad’s going alone to the meetings, Mother had had enough. She put me into my pram and walked the five miles [8 km] to Leeds, arriving just as the meeting finished. You can imagine Dad’s joy. From then on, our family was united in Jehovah’s service.
Dad’s position was very difficult—a volunteer in the army and then within a few weeks, a conscientious objector. When called up he refused to handle a gun, and by July 1916 he faced the first of five court-martials, being sentenced to 90 days in prison. After serving the first sentence, Dad had a fortnight’s leave, followed by another court-martial and 90 more days in prison. Following his second term of imprisonment, he was transferred to the Royal Army Medical Corps, and on February 12, 1917, he set sail by troop ship for Rouen, France. His diary relates that there he became more disgusted each day with his position. He realized that he was simply patching soldiers up for them to go back and fight.
Again he refused to cooperate. This time the court-martial sentenced him to five years in the British military prison in Rouen. When Dad kept asking to be transferred to a civil prison as a conscientious objector, he was punished with three months on bread and water, followed by regular prison diet until his weight increased; then the whole process was repeated. He was handcuffed with his hands behind his back by day and with his hands in front during the night and at mealtimes. All his life, he bore scars on his wrists where the handcuffs that were too small had been clipped into his flesh, resulting in festering sores. He also had leg chains connected to his waist.
The army authorities did everything in their power to break his spirit but to no avail. His Bible and books were taken from him. He had no letters from home, nor could he send any. After two years he decided to demonstrate his sincerity by going on a hunger strike. For seven days he kept his resolve, neither eating nor drinking, resulting in his transfer to the prison hospital, seriously ill. He proved his point although he almost lost his life as a result. In later years he admitted he had been wrong to jeopardize his life in this way, and he would never take such a course again.
The war ended in November 1918 with Dad still in prison in Rouen, but early the next year, he was moved to a civil prison in England. Imagine his joy to receive all Mother’s letters and parcels that had accumulated, together with his precious Bible and books! He was taken to Winchester Prison, where he met up with a young brother whose wartime experiences had been similar to his own. His name was Frank Platt, who later served in London Bethel for many years. They made arrangements to meet the next day, but by then Frank had been transferred elsewhere.
On April 12, 1919, Mother received a telegram: “Hallelujah! Coming home—calling London.” What a time of rejoicing after three years of test, trial, and separation! Dad’s first thought was to call in and meet the London Bethel brothers. At 34 Craven Terrace, he received a loving welcome. After a bath and a shave and dressed in a borrowed suit and hat, Dad returned home. Can you imagine our reunion? I was then nearly five, and I did not remember him.
The first meeting Dad attended after gaining his freedom was the Memorial. Upon climbing the steps to the hall, whom should he meet but Frank Platt, who had been moved to a military hospital in Leeds. What joy they had in sharing their experiences! From then on until his release, Frank made ours his second home.
Mother’s Faithful Service
All the time Dad was away, Mother took in washing to supplement her meager income from the authorities. The brothers were so kind to us. Every few weeks one of the congregation elders handed her a little envelope containing an anonymous gift. Mother always said it was the love of the brothers that brought her close to Jehovah and helped her endure through those trying times. She faithfully attended the congregation meetings throughout Dad’s absence. Her most severe test was when, for over a year, she had no idea whether Dad was alive or dead. As an added burden, in 1918 both Mother and I caught the Spanish flu. People were dying all around us. Neighbors who went to help neighbors caught the disease and died. No doubt the food shortages at that time helped to lower people’s resistance to infection.
The words of the apostle Peter proved so true for our family: “After you have suffered a little while, . . . God . . . will make you firm, he will make you strong”! (1 Peter 5:10) My parents’ suffering built into them an unshakable faith in Jehovah, an absolute assurance that he does care for us and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. I was especially blessed to have such an upbringing in the faith.—Romans 8:38, 39; 1 Peter 5:7.
Following Dad’s release, Kingdom service became the center of our lives. I cannot remember ever missing a meeting, except for sickness. Soon after his return home, Dad sold his plate camera and Mother’s gold bracelet to get money to attend a convention. Though we could not afford vacations, we never missed these gatherings, including those in London.
The first two or three years after the war were times of refreshing. Dad and Mother took full advantage of all opportunities to fellowship and associate. I can recall how we would visit other brothers and sisters, and I, as a little girl, would sit painting and drawing while my seniors talked together for hours and hours about new understandings of truth. Talking together, having song sessions around the organ, enjoying sweet fellowship, made them very happy and refreshed.
My parents were very strict with my training. At school I stood out as different, even at five years of age, taking my “New Testament” to read while the class learned the catechism. Later I was paraded before the whole school as a “conscientious objector” because I would not take part in Remembrance Day celebrations.* I do not regret my upbringing. In fact, it was a protection and made it easier to stay on the ‘narrow road.’ Wherever my parents went, to meetings or in the service, I was there.—Matthew 7:13, 14.
I especially remember that Sunday morning when I first began preaching on my own. I was just 12 years old. When in my teens, I can remember announcing one Sunday morning that I was going to stay at home. No one criticized me or made me go out, so I sat in the garden studying my Bible and feeling thoroughly uncomfortable. After a week or two of this, I said to Dad: “I think I’ll come with you this morning!” From then on I never looked back.
What a wonderful year 1931 was! Not only did we receive our new name, Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I was immersed while at a national convention at Alexandra Palace, London. I shall never forget that day. We wore long, black robes, and mine happened to be a wet one that had already been used by another candidate!
My ambition as a child always was to be a colporteur, as full-time preachers were then known. As I grew older, I felt I ought to do more in Jehovah’s service. So in March 1933, at the age of 18, I joined the ranks of full-time servants.
A special joy for us were “Pioneer Weeks” in certain big cities, when up to a dozen full-time servants would come together, stay with local brothers, and work as a team. We delivered booklets to the religious leaders and other prominent men. It took courage to approach them. Mostly we were received with scorn, and not a few of us had doors slammed in our face. Not that this worried us, for so great was our enthusiasm that we rejoiced to be reproached for Christ’s name.—Matthew 5:11, 12.
In Leeds we converted a pram, a tricycle, and Dad’s motorcycle and sidecar, and later his car to carry transcription machines. Two brothers would go into a street with the machine, put on a musical record to alert people and bring them to their doors, then follow this with a five-minute talk recorded by Brother Rutherford. They would thereafter move on to the next street while we, the publishers, followed and offered Bible literature.
For years, every Sunday evening after the meeting, we would go to the Town Hall Square where there was a Speaker’s Corner and give support by listening to one of the hour-long talks of Brother Rutherford, handing out leaflets and contacting any who showed interest. We became well-known there. Even the police respected us. One evening we gathered as usual when, in the distance, we heard the sound of drums and a band. Soon a parade of about a hundred Fascists came down the road. They marched around behind us and came to a halt with their flags held high. The band stopped, and silence reigned just as Brother Rutherford’s voice boomed: “Let them salute their flags and heil men if they wish. We shall worship and heil only Jehovah our God!” We wondered just what would happen next! Nothing happened, except that they got a good witness, and the police made them keep quiet so that we could hear the rest of the public lecture.
By now the phonograph was coming into use to help us give a grand witness. On the doorstep, we carefully kept our eyes on the record to encourage people to listen for a full five minutes to the recorded Bible sermon. Householders often invited us in and were glad for us to come back and play more records.
The year 1939 was very busy and tough, with outbreaks of opposition and violence. Prior to one of our conventions, the brothers experienced quite a bit of street mobbing and shouting. So during the assembly, they made plans for a special squad of brothers in cars to preach in the troubled areas while the sisters and the other brothers went where it was safer. Working with a group on one street, I went down a passage to visit the houses behind. While at a door, I heard a commotion starting up—there was shouting and crying out in the street. I just continued talking to the person at the door, prolonging the conversation until I could hear that things had quietened down. Then I walked up the passage and out onto the street to find that the other brothers and sisters had panicked when they could not find me! Later in the day, though, the troublemakers tried to disrupt our meeting, but they were escorted out by the brothers.
World War II Strikes
By now conscription was in force, and many young brothers were imprisoned for from 3 to 12 months. Dad then received an added privilege, that of prison visitor. Every Sunday he conducted the Watchtower Study in the local jail. Wednesday evenings he visited the brothers in their cells. Having had such a long and hard prison experience himself during the first world war, he was especially glad to serve those going through similar trials. This he did for 20 years, right up until his death in 1959.
By 1941 we were getting used to the bitterness and hostility that many people expressed over our position of neutrality. It was not easy to stand on the streets with the magazines and face this. At the same time, we rejoiced to help the refugees housed in our area. Latvians, Poles, Estonians, Germans—what a joy to see their eyes light up when they saw The Watchtower or Consolation (now Awake!) in their own language!
Then came my trial for the neutral stand I took during World War II. Locked in my cell for 19 hours out of every 24, I found prison life tough. The first three days were the hardest, for I was alone. On the fourth day, I was called to the governor’s office where I found two other girls standing. One of the girls whispered to me: “What are you in for?” I said: “You’d be surprised if you knew.” She asked in a tense whisper: “Are you a JW?” The other girl heard her and asked us both: “Are you JWs?” and all three of us threw our arms round one another. We were no longer alone!
Delightful Full-Time Service
Released from prison, I continued my full-time service, and a young girl of 16 who had just left school joined me. We moved to Ilkley, a beautiful town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. For a full six months, we tried hard to find a suitable place for our meetings. Finally we rented a small garage, which we converted into a Kingdom Hall. Dad came to our rescue, providing lighting and heating. He also decorated the building for us. For years the nearby congregation supported us, assigning brothers every week to give public talks. With Jehovah’s blessing we prospered and grew, and eventually a congregation was established.
In January 1959, Dad suddenly fell ill. I was called home, and he died in April. The years that followed were hard ones. Mother’s health failed and with it her memory, making it a struggle for me. But Jehovah’s spirit kept me going, and I was able to care for her right up to her death in 1963.
I have had so many blessings from Jehovah over the years. There are too many to recount. I have seen my home congregation grow and divide four times, sending out publishers and pioneers, some as missionaries to countries as far apart as Bolivia, Laos, and Uganda. The prospect of marriage and settling down never worked out for me. It has not made me sad; I’ve been too busy. Although I have no fleshly relatives of my own, I have many children and grandchildren in the Lord, even a hundredfold.—Mark 10:29, 30.
I often invite young pioneers and other youths to my home to enjoy Christian fellowship. We prepare together for the Watchtower Study. We also relate experiences and sing Kingdom songs, just as my parents used to do. Surrounded by a cheery group of young people, I keep a young and happy outlook. There is no better life for me than pioneer service. I am grateful to Jehovah that I have had the privilege of following in my parents’ footsteps. My prayer is that I may continue serving Jehovah throughout eternity.
In commemoration of the end of hostilities in 1918 and, later, 1945.
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Hilda Padgett with her parents, Atkinson and Pattie
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The tract that sparked Dad’s interest in the truth