KENNETH MATHEWS was a sailor's parson. He had served in tankers for a spell in the 1930s before coming ashore to be Vicar of Forest Row, East Sussex, in 1935. When war broke out he immediately volunteered for service at sea as a Temporary Chaplain, RNVR. He joined the eight-inch gun cruiser HMS Norfolk early in 1940 and it was in this ship that he built a parish of sailors whose respect, devotion and friendship he was to hold for the next 50 years.
The ship's commander was to write of him: 'It would be impossible to exaggerate Ken Mathews's influence in the Norfolk. His value in the ship was certainly greater than that of any other officer. He made her the happiest ship I have ever known. He was loved by every man on board, and it is largely his influence that has kept the Norfolk spirit alive ever since . . .'
Only once did he run into trouble, when a new captain joined who knew nothing of him or the ship and her ways, and told him he wanted compulsory church and none of this meek and mild stuff in lessons and hymns. Mathews smiled sweetly and begged him to wait a little while before making it an order. A month later the captain decided to make no changes. 'There's something about this ship I don't quite understand,' he said. 'Everyone seems so happy and things go so well. Better go on as you are.'
Things did go so well until one bitterly cold dark Arctic day, 26 December 1943, when two 11-inch shells from the Scharnhorst killed nine of the ship's company, wounded many more and wrecked a large part of the ship. Later in the torpedo parting shop, rigged as a chapel, Mathews read their funeral service.
'I suppose,' he said, 'there are many feelings in our heart today; pride in duty done, in selfless giving, and in steady fortitude . . . .' Afterwards, led by the choir, that great body of bareheaded men sang as I have never heard it sung the sturdy words of 'Eternal Father'.
Few naval padres have been awarded a DSC and an OBE for their conduct in separate actions at sea. Fewer still have remained a godfather figure to their shipmates for 50 years thereafter.
After the war Ken Mathews returned to his vocation ashore. I once visited his parish at Rogate, in West Sussex. The village youths had all the church pews out in the cemetery for a quick 'scrub out' - it had to be Ken's church. Of his time as Dean of St Albans and Rector of Peebles, I can say little since I was away abroad, but as always he made countless friends. Many of these will speak of his wonderful service as parish priest in terms as enthusiastic as those of his naval counterparts.
Ken Mathews's long and happy marriage to his beloved first wife Betsy ended in her death in 1981. In 1987 he married again, and for five years he and his wife Diana lived at Westwell, Oxfordshire, in peaceful and blissful retirement. As best man at that wedding I had a problem explaining to Ken on which side of the bride he should stand. He was confused by the fact that, as a parson, he normally saw the happy couple the other way around. Eventually, I got it across to him - 'Starboard side, Ken'.
A sailor's padre to the end.Reuse content