Answering God’s call

by John Cornes

In the summer of 1947 when I was 20 years old and a medical student at King’s College in the Strand I discovered the Westminster Friends Meeting in St Martin’s Lane, and became a regular attender. The meeting house had been destroyed in the blitz and we met in the lobby. It was a small meeting of mainly elderly Friends. They were very kind to me.

After completing my training in 1951 at Westminster Hospital I was appointed as house surgeon to Clement Price Thomas at Westminster Hospital. A few weeks later I received my call up papers for military service and decided that I had to register as a conscientious objector.

In June 1952 I was summoned to appear before a tribunal in Fulham Town Hall and taken into police custody. I was the last of 20 conscientious objectors to appear before the court that morning. The first 18 objectors were sent to prison and the 19th was granted alternative service as a hospital orderly. I was shaking like a true Quaker when I went into the dock. When I looked down into the courtroom I saw, to my amazement, more than a dozen Westminster Friends holding a silent Meeting for Worship in the courtroom. That gave me courage. I don’t know if the support I received from Westminster Friends led to my being granted relief from military service or not. I only know that I was grateful to Westminster Friends for their support.

I left the courtroom with doctor Cuthbert Dukes, an elder of Westminster Meeting. I told Cuthbert Dukes I had no desire to escape the horrors of war and my sincere desire was to join something like the Friends Ambulance Unit. He put me in touch with the secretary of the Friends Service Council and I was invited to appear before a committee meeting of the council. The Service Council considered my request after telling me that they were trying to assemble a team of doctors, nurses and social workers to join an American team in Korea under the leadership of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. I was told that FSC had received several offers of help from doctors but none at all from nurses. When I told the committee that I had a girl friend who was a qualified nurse I was informed that FSC would only consider sending married couples to Korea.

As soon as I got back to the hospital where I was working in, I asked my girl friend, Jean Grose, if she would marry me and come out to Korea with me. Amazingly, and without a moment’s hesitation, she said yes. We got in touch with Cuthbert Dukes and asked if we could get married in the Westminster Friends Meeting House.

When Jean told her family that she was going to marry a conscientious objector in a Quaker Meeting House before going out to the Korean war they did everything they could to stop our  marriage taking place, including visiting my father in Liverpool. He agreed with Jean’s family and disowned me as his son.

This was a distressing experience for Jean and myself as our worldly possessions were our skills and professional qualifications and £120 in my Post Office savings book. We poured out our hearts to Cuthbert Dukes who was shocked by what had happened. He arranged a meeting of the Westminster elders and we were told that if our families would not support our marriage, Westminster Friends would.

In the meantime we found a bed sitting room in Chelsea at a rent that we could afford. The landlord and landlady became interested in our predicament and asked if they could come to our wedding. After our wedding we discovered that this couple had met as students at Saffron Walden Quaker School and had fallen in love there.

Our wedding in the Westminster Meeting House on 09/08/1952 was a joyous occasion, packed with Friends from Westminster Monthly Meeting. I gave Milo, the Westminster caretaker, £12 and he provided tea and sandwiches for everyone who turned up. Westminster elders made Jean stand one side of the door leading to the Adult School room and I stood on the other side as Westminster Friends entered the school room for our simple wedding party. To our surprise and delight as Westminster Friends entered the school room they gave us absolutely everything we needed for our bed sitting room in Chelsea: a kettle, a toaster, a bread board and knife, dusters, tea towels, cutlery and so on.

Although FSC had collected a team together by the end of 1952 the American military refused to let the team into Korea. In 1953 the situation in Korea was so desperate that the army gave way. The team was allowed to enter Korea in November 1953 and asked to work in Kunsan, a centre of refugees overlooked by all the other international aid agencies. Jean and I were sent out in the second batch of volunteers in 01/1954.

Westminster Friends gave us everything we needed to provide medical help in the refugee camps in Kunsan. Cecil Baker, an elder of Westminster Meeting, asked me to write to her once a month and keep the meeting posted on developments in Korea. Cecil Baker died a few years ago and when I was asked to help clear her cottage in East Garston I found all my letters from Korea tied neatly together and in perfect order.

Nothing ever goes according to plan. When we arrived in Kunsan I was asked to restore the surgical services in the war damaged Kunsan Provincial Hospital and Jean was asked to organise a training school for nurses. How we succeeded is a miracle.

I received a lot of help from Dorothy Mayer, a member of Westminster Meeting. She gave us 50 modern hospital beds and persuaded others to send out all the rolls of Plaster of Paris, various types of bandage and surgical dressings needed in the surgical unit.

We stayed on in Korea after all the original members of the team had gone home as neither AFSC nor FSC were able to find replacements for the three doctors who had started the medical work in the war-damaged hospital. Eventually, nine months later, two more doctors were found. Jean and I returned to London at the end of 09/1956.

I did all my specialist training in London and we resumed our attachment to Westminster Meeting. I had joined Friends before we went out to Korea and Jean joined Friends when we got back. Our first two children were born after we got back from Korea and they were welcomed into Westminster Meeting. In 1960 I was asked to serve as an elder of the Westminster Meeting and helped to start going-home Meetings for Worship on Wednesday evenings. I was also appointed as the Quaker representative on the Churches Council of Healing at Lambeth Palace by London Yearly Meeting. These were formative years in my Quaker upbringing.

After completing my specialist training in London in 1962 I was appointed as senior lecturer in Pathology at Bristol University. I missed London and the Friends Meeting in St Martin’s Lane, which still feels like home to both of us. I remain deeply grateful for the help, friendship and inspiration that I found in Westminster Meeting.

John Cornes will give an illustrated talk on Quaker work in Korea in the aftermath of the Korean war (and in particular the miracle of his work to restore the surgical services in the war damaged Kunsan Provincial Hospital and Jean’s efforts to organise a training school for nurses) on Tuesday 12/04/2011 at 6pm for 6:30pm.

The address is the Korean Cultural Society, 1 Northumberland Avenue, London (near Trafalgar Square). However, places must be reserved by phoning 020 7004 2600 or email the Korean Cultural Centre on [email protected]

5 thoughts on “Answering God’s call

  1. Can I just say how appropriate it is that the talk is on April 12th, the International Day of Action on Military Spending.

  2. Although serendipity undoubtedly had a role in this life story, what comes through most strongly is the commitment to live in the faith of both Jean and John Cornes, and Westminster Friends – a really inspiring account.

  3. As a current attender at Westminster Meeting, this account moved me deeply – how inspirational. I hope as a Meeting we continue to offer this welcome, support and strength!

  4. Pingback: “A deepening of the religious life”: John and Jean Cornes’ Korean witness honoured

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