OG, poet, naturalist, ‘saint’
John Randal Bradburne left Farfield in 1939 to join the Indian Army instead of going to university. When he died in 1979 this eccentric missionary left behind a legacy of 6,000 pages of verse in the Spartan tin hut that was his final home in a life of wandering.
John had a lifetime love of the natural world. One of his earliest poems was called ‘The Birds’, also the subject of his final sequence. During his life he wrote hundreds of poems about the wildlife of England and Africa, pasting animal pictures everywhere he went, including on the covers of a school exercise book. Eagles in particular fascinated John because of their spiritual significance of flying close to God. In Africa he climbed a tall tree to observe an eagle’s nest, playing his recorder to the parent birds, and even cared for a tame one. Bees too held special significance for him after he prayed to God to send an angry swarm to keep visitors at bay, feeding his buzzing guests with prune juice and altar wine! Since John’s untimely death there have been many uncanny instances where his followers and associates have been visited by eagles or bees.
Bradburne was born in Cumbria in 1921, the son of a parson. The family soon moved to Norfolk, though, and Gresham’s features in a number of John’s early poems where his love of his natural surroundings is already evident. ‘Serene were the surroundings of my school’, he wrote, ‘and pleasant were her fields whereon we played, Remarkably attractive to a fool.’ John would often depict himself as fool or jester in his poetry, assuring us that he was ‘Bottom-of-class-but-two-or-three each year’. He recalled playing ‘in Shakespeare like a fool’ amidst a ‘leafy wood’, but admits to being more interested in climbing the trees to observe birds, bees and grasshoppers than in the cricket game taking place beneath. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he also noted that his own name has not been written in ‘golden letters’ by his Alma Mater along with those of Benjamin Britten, Wystan Auden and other ‘mummers’.
A very different backdrop was soon to prove inspiring for John, who found bustling Bombay rather a culture shock after gentle north Norfolk, but quickly developed a love of both its people and wildlife. After a dramatic escape from enforced hiding in the Malaysian jungle John rejoined his Gurkha regiment, tending the wounded, bird-watching, and singing psalms. There followed a year with Major Wingate’s ‘Chindits’ and a spell in hospital with Malaria. Father John Dove who met him at this time described Bradburne as a hero and a misfit, perhaps a fitting epithet for the life that was to come.
John soon realised that a solitary life devoted to God and helping others was where his destiny lay, and spent many years living in various monastic communities with the intention of becoming a monk. Entering Buckfast Abbey as a gardener, he quickly began to prepare to become a member of the Roman Catholic Church, being received in 1947. After this there followed a short spell teaching in Devon, a brief romance, and a period as a fisherman. He went to Italy and the Holy Land on a pilgrimage, travelling as a vagabond, playing hymns on his recorder, and made vows of poverty and chastity. Returning to London on the death of his father, John worked as a carer in a shelter for the homeless and busked to raise money for church restoration, calling himself the jester of Christ.
By now it was becoming clear to John that he was perhaps too much the individual to be a monk, although he still longed for solitude and always followed the hours and rituals of praying and singing. He wrote to Father Dove asking if he knew of a vacant cave in Africa where he might pray and live as a hermit. In 1962 John began his long association with South Africa, working in Jesuit missions growing and distributing food for the poor. Word of John’s compassion soon spread, though, and it was whilst working at an education centre in Harare that he felt it necessary to call on a swarm of bees to keep unwanted visitors at bay. Bradburne’s great hero was St Francis of Assisi, who gave away his belongings and dressed as a leper in order to work amongst them. John had three wishes; to work with lepers, to die a martyr, and to be buried in the habit of a Franciscan monk.
As soon as he saw the appalling living conditions of the lepers at Mutemwa he knew he had finally found his true vocation. John was appointed warden and immediately set about making improvements, driving out the rats, improving housing and hygiene, even bathing the sores of these social outcasts with whom he so strongly identified. He tried to restore humanity and dignity to the colony, bringing in much-needed medical attention and building a chapel. With his refusal to compromise, however, John quickly met opposition. Committee members were angry when he refused to reduce food rations and to force lepers to wear metal tags around their necks, and he was sacked and told to leave. Camping on a nearby rock, John continued to care for the sick, creeping into the camp at night to read the Bible to comfort the dying.
When first in South Africa John had learned about the abundant wildlife. He prayed for an eagle, and one appeared. During his last six years spent living in isolation in a simple tin hut outside the leper colony he was able to get even closer to nature and inspired to write many poems on the subject. Wearing the monastic habit, John now lived as a hermit, growing his hair and beard long, and becoming very thin, which he hoped would improve his chances of flying like a bird! Shortly before the kidnap that led to his murder, John had a vision of an angel and a squadron of large ants invaded his hut in an omen of doom. In his bid to help the lepers, John had possibly unwittingly become caught up in local politics when locals involved in stealing supplies decided to abduct and march him at gunpoint to a guerrilla outpost. Much to their anger, the commander had no quarrel with this quiet charity worker and set him free. John Bradburne’s body was found by the side of the road on 5th September 1979. He had been shot in the back and left to die.
Strange incidents immediately began happening: a group who approached the body heard singing and ran off in terror, a huge white bird was seen hovering overhead, and three beams of light apparently rose from where he lay. During John’s funeral it was noticed that three drops of blood had fallen from his coffin and lay in a pool. When the coffin was later opened, the body was clean and dry, but it was soon realised that John’s wish of being clothed in monastic habit in death had not been granted, and this was put right. John Bradburne’s death soon resulted in a cult, miracles were attributed to him, cancers cured, dire warnings of accidents received, and job successes secured following prayers to this curious and caring man. Many pilgrims go to Mutemwa to visit his shrine, and the woman who tends it claims to have had visions of the Virgin Mary. His friend Father Dove firmly believes in John’s sanctity, and a ‘cause file’ of material for his beatification has been submitted for consideration. To add to the list of Gresham’s great and good, along with the Britten’s and Auden’s, we may soon have a reclusive saint who spent his life in the service of God. An interesting collection of material about John Bradburne has recently been donated to the School Archives, including a biography by Father Dove entitled ‘Strange Vagabond of God’, and a selection of his nature poems ‘Birds Bees and Beasts’.