A.H. (Hilton) Birtles – a tribute

ahbirtlesWe are sad to record the death of Arthur Hamilton Birtles in Bangor at the age of 90. Hilton – as he was always known – grew up in Liverpool and attended Ullet Road Church, then under the thirty-year long ministry of Lawrence Redfern, whose remarkable gifts were to inspire four of his congregation to become Unitarian ministers. Hilton became a ministerial student in 1940 at Liverpool University and Unitarian College Manchester, but interrupted his studies in 1941 to become a Navigating Officer in the Royal Navy. He served in Flower Class Corvettes, initially in the Indian Ocean, where he witnessed the traumatic events which followed the torpedoing of the troopship SS Khedive Ismael, which sank in two minutes with the loss of 1,297 lives. Hilton subsequently sailed with no less than six of the Arctic Convoys taking supplies to Archangel and Murmansk, which were notorious for the dangers and hardships to all those involved. At that time, the crews were treated with hostility and suspicion by Stalin’s authorities, but after the Cold War ended, Hilton derived much joy in being invited to visit Russia with many of the survivors of those days as an honoured guest of the Russian people. At the end of the War, one of Hilton’s last tasks was to lead a boarding party of ten men and take the surrender of Hitler’s three and a half thousand ton private yacht, the Grille.

In 1945, Hilton resumed his ministerial studies, graduating with a BA (Theology) in 1949. He never forgot that this was made possible by the generosity of Sir Sydney Jones, a life-long member at Ullet Road Church. His first ministry was at Southport from 1949 – 1952. In 1952, he moved to Bristol, now accompanied by his first wife Jean, to take over the ministry of the Lewin’s Mead and Cliftonville congregations. In 1962, he moved to Birmingham with Jean and their five young children, to become minister of the Church of the Messiah in Broad Street. He remained as minister when the congregation moved to the new church near Fiveways in 1973, reverting to its original name of Unitarian New Meeting. The move to a totally different environment brought many new challenges, and Hilton successfully overcame these with determination and tact, finally retiring in 1984.

It was after the move to Birmingham that tragedy struck the family, when Jean died unexpectedly after an operation, leaving Hilton with five young children to bring up. Members of the congregation rallied round generously to help and support him, and the situation was further eased when Hilton married his second wife, Eileen. Sadly, after their retirement to Colwall in Herefordshire, Eileen contracted Parkinson’s Disease, and Hilton dedicated himself to the task of nursing her during her final years.

Hilton also rendered signal service to the wider Unitarian cause. For many years, he was Secretary of both the Ministers’ Pension Fund and of the Ministers’ Benevolent Society. He served as President of the then Midland Union in 1966-67, and President of the General Assembly in 1979-80. Both he and Eileen were also magistrates on the Birmingham Bench for many years.

But what above all else earned him the love and respect of his congregations was his ability to make attendance on a Sunday morningan eagerly anticipated event, when the scholarship and sensitivity of his sermons with their sense of poetry and message of love brought fresh inspiration and hope to his hearers. He was truly a ‘gentil parfit knyght’.

Sandy Ellis