Volume 3 Number 6
Mansion Where Opposites Meet
01 June 1990

Fifty years ago this month a large English country house became a centre where people could find new aims and motivation. Kenneth Noble reports:

The successful outcome of negotiations requires more than organization and an isolated setting, as the instigators of the Camp David talks would no doubt testify. To persuade people to moderate demands, risk unpopularity and perhaps put aside hatred is surely the highest and hardest - form of diplomacy. Those who aspire to such skills might do well to visit Tirley Garth, a conference centre in rural England which for 50 years has been cultivating the ambience where difficult decisions get taken.

You enter Tirley Garth along a narrow driveway, screened on both sides by rhododendron bushes and azaleas. The tranquil 40-acre estate with its imposing mansion and commanding view over the Cheshire Plain gives little outward impression that you are in a conference centre with an emphasis on a change of attitudes in people.

A former Australian cabinet minister described Tirley Garth, which is run by Moral Re-Armament, as `a centre of statesmanship for the ordinary man and woman'.

Many visitors are struck by the atmosphere in the house. A British MP, for instance, detected an environment of prayerfulness which contrasted with the ambition he met in the Houses of Parliament.

Cotton magnate
Bill Taylor, an engineering shop steward from Birmingham, regularly visited Tirley Garth to get his `spiritual batteries recharged'. When 21 died in IRA bomb attacks on Birmingham pubs in 1974, anti-Irish feelings among the three thousand workers in Taylor's car factory threatened to explode. He persuaded the management to allow him to organize a silent vigil in memory of the victims. He then led them in saying the Lord's Prayer. The tension was defused.

More recently, Brian Thirlaway, Secretary of Consett Co-operative Enterprises, said that Tirley Garth had been `a great inspiration' to him in his work. His company was set up by a group of redundant steelworkers as a means of creating new businesses in Consett after the closure of the local steelworks.

Thirlaway gives some clues as to how the atmosphere is created at Tirley Garth: `The younger generation that I have met have been an inspiration to me - the way in which they work together, help and understand each other. Coming from many different countries and backgrounds as they do, it must be difficult at times. It is very refreshing and reassuring in these troubled times to see young people trying to live their lives in obedience to God's guidance.'

The building of Tirley Garth began in 1906. In 1912 a Manchester cotton magnate, Richard Prestwich, rented the nearly completed house from a chemical company, Brunner Mond. He and his wife moved in with two of his daughters Irene, then 28, and Lois, 26. They worked with C E Mallows, the architect, and his friend T H Mawson, a noted Edwardian garden planner, to create a home worthy of their wealth.

The servants, who included ten gardeners, meant that Irene was able to pass her time `playing bridge, golf and tennis, doing a few good works in the nearby village of Utkinton, playing the piano and taking the dogs for walks'. Lois took more interest in the gardens.

But after the First World War, life at Tirley Garth `seemed to have lost something of its freshness and flavour'. `Perhaps,' Irene Prestwich wrote, `the sacrifice of the war had awakened a hunger for great living - for a purpose in life that was worth giving everything for.'

In 1932, Lois introduced Irene to people who, in Irene's words, were `determined to build a world that works'. This was to happen through `sacrifice, hard thinking' and living by high moral standards. Irene Prestwich responded whole-heartedly to their ideas and joined them in their commitment to the moral rearmament of the country. The first practical effect was a reconciliation between Irene and Lois - a relationship which had previously worried Irene enough for her to seek a psychiatrist's advice.

The Prestwich parents died during the early weeks of the Second World War, and Lois moved to a smaller home of her own. Irene Prestwich had longed to use Tirley Garth to further her beliefs, and it seemed natural to offer its facilities to her Moral ReArmament friends in blitz-torn London. Many gladly accepted. The arrival of several dozen people, papers, files and a printing press in her 40-room home marked a dramatic change of life-style for Irene Prestwich. To the servants, used to caring for a family of four, the influx came as an even greater shock - and most resigned.

Irene Prestwich saw Tirley Garth's aim as `to back up the war effort by strengthening the moral fibre of the nation... and to provide a training centre where servicemen could find strength to fight and businessmen a new purpose for industry'.

The gardens, well-known by now, were turned over to vegetable production by several 'land-girls', who used their evenings to write morale-building articles for the press. Weekends were devoted to caring for the spiritual needs of up to a hundred visitors.

After the war, the outreach of Tirley Garth grew. Miners came in large numbers from the nearby coalfields of Lancashire, Staffordshire, Yorkshire and elsewhere. They attended conferences which placed great emphasis on such Christian principles as unselfishness and `living by the guidance of God', both at work and home. One miner reported that when this spirit was lived out in the mines, absenteeism and communism went down and production increased.

Other areas of life were affected - notably a tannery in Runcorn where relationships and efficiency improved dramatically after the boss apologized to the chief shop steward for not trusting him. Many from overseas also came to learn from Tirley Garth - sometimes for months at a time.

Soon Irene Prestwich felt that God was asking her to buy the house outright and make it permanently available for his purposes.

She had inherited approximately one tenth of her father's fortune, and in 1948 she put nearly all her resources into a trust fund. The trust purchased Tirley Garth for £16,000. Comparatively little was left in the fund, and to this day expenses far outstrip guaranteed income.

Despite this, Tirley Garth has broken even over the years - a fact attested to by meticulously kept accounts and attributed by the residents to much prayer and the generosity of hundreds of benefactors. The Friends of Tirley Garth, who arrange fairs and highly popular garden open days, play a significant part.

Until her death in 1975, aged 90, Irene Prestwich lived at Tirley Garth and was still eagerly meeting guests. The work is carried on by a resident `family' of volunteers, supported by many local people. There is also a small paid staff, under the direction of Geoffrey Johnson who has worked there almost continuously since 1948. With voluntary help, the staff maintain the buildings and gardens and grow some food. Johnson, a godson of Irene Prestwich, has been studying 1920s photos of the grounds and says that they are now trying to get closer to Mawson's original concept.

Although the number of voluntary workers fluctuates, Tirley Garth is used for a great variety of events large and small. A glance through recent printed invitations reveals weekend conferences on `Everyone's chance to make a difference in the world'; `Communities in crisis: liberating the creative response' and `The city and the nation', described as an informal conference to consider a practical and realistic alternative to conflict. There are notices of concerts; choral evenings; `work weeks' (practical help is always needed); an African dialogue; a family week; and one-week courses `for those (young people) who want to understand the forces that run the world and have a part in changing them'. That may seem a big syllabus for a week, but would-be participants are warned that they should expect to go away `at least a little different from what you were when you arrived'.

Next 50 years
Comments gleaned from a 1985 course participant seem to bear this out: `I have learnt here how much more self-centred I am than I thought. Seeing other nationalities really helps. It knocks away false and preconceived ideas.' The young person was `taking a message of faith and hope' back to his country, where personal freedom was limited.

Another participant wrote that he had arrived with qualms about `do-gooders', but noted: `What has struck me here is the humour and the honesty from so many different parts of the world. I found one speaker very upsetting. He talked about taking things from the office. I have done that too. Now I would feel very bad about doing it again!' The writer left with `renewed faith that there are people in politics and in business who are motivated positively'.

Most 50th anniversaries look to the past. But Geoffrey Johnson seems to be speaking for all when he says: `We don't have much time to think of the last 50 years. We think a lot about the next 50.'