Lambeth's long history of welcome uncovered

19 August 2016

Central Press Photos

WELCOMING refugees with an invitation to live in the grounds of Lambeth Palace is not a new gesture, but history repeating itself.

The Syrian family who moved into the Palace last month, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, were the first to be sponsored under a new Home Office scheme, designed to channel offers of goods and accommodation from members of the public into viable long-term support for refugees (News, 22 July).

But searching the archive this week, the Church Times unearthed a Central Press agency photograph of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, and his wife, Joan, showing a Ugandan Asian refugee couple their new home — a cottage in the grounds of the Palace — on 3 November 1972.

The newlyweds, Sulfikaralli and Zebunisa Esmail, are seen with the Ramseys outside No. 216a. A note on the back of the photograph states that Sulfikaralli Esmail, a 28-year-old farmer, television engineer, and salesman, married Zebunisa, a typist, shortly before they left Uganda on 9 October 1972.

On 4 August that year, the Asian minority in Uganda were ordered to leave the country by the then President, Idi Amin, within 90 days. Some of those who had the right to come to the UK on British passports did so, including the Esmails.

Dr Ramsey’s biographer Owen Chadwick confirmed their arrival in his book Michael Ramsey: A life (SCM Press, 2012), writing: “The Archbishop denounced in a BBC broadcast [President] Amin’s ‘dreadful racialist policy’. He gave a Lambeth Palace cottage to a homeless Ugandan refugee family till they should find something better, and this charitable act brought him a pile of some of the most vitriolic post he ever received.”

The note states that the accommodation was furnished, decorated, and made available by the Church Commissioners “rent and rates free”. The couple “travelled from Stradishall reception centre, near Newmarket, West Suffolk, this morning, and were met by the Archbishop’s Domestic Chaplain, the Revd John Kirkham, at Liverpool Street Station, who brought them to their new home in Lambeth Palace.”

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Bishop Kirkham, formerly the Bishop of Sherborne, is now retired, but continues to serve the diocese of Salisbury as an honorary assistant bishop. He said this week: “I remember I met them at Liverpool Street and took them to Lambeth Palace, where they were given a very warm welcome, typical of the Ramseys. Lady Ramsey would visit them in the cottage daily.”

He recalled that the couple stayed for six months to a year, after which time they settled in Canada. “Lady Ramsey continued to correspond with them regularly — she wrote endless letters. They got on quietly with their lives, and, I believe, had a little boy. They were, as I recall, a very nice couple.”

Another black-and-white photograph of the newlyweds being shown round the grounds of the Palace by the Ramseys on the same day is available to buy as a print on the United States website fineartamerica.com.

A spokesman from Lambeth Palace said that, although some staff were aware of the Esmails (having read Dr Ramsey’s biography), they had not seen the photographs before.

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