On Christmas Day 1939, soon after the outbreak of World War Two, King George V1 made a historic wireless broadcast to the peoples of Britain and its Empire. Ahead of his closing lines, in which he paid tribute to the fighting services of Britain and its allies, he spoke of the uncertainty of the year ahead - would it bring peace, or continued struggle?
Offering a message of encouragement, the king concluded his speech with the following lines. "I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' And he replied, 'Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shalt be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.'" He added, "May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all."
Response to the broadcast was extraordinary. At home, thousands immediately contacted the BBC to ask the authorship of the lines that had so poignantly matched their mood and feelings. Newspapers here and abroad, having advance copies of the speech, were already attempting to track down the author. But no one, academic or otherwise, including Buckingham Palace, knew the answer to the question: who wrote it?
On the 9pm Boxing Day news, the BBC was obliged to announce that the author had not been traced and was assumed dead. Later, a man phoned the Corporation to say he had permission from his sister to reveal that she was the author. Then, on its midnight news bulletin, the BBC stated that the sought for writer was a Miss M. L. Haskins of Crowborough, in Sussex, who had written her now renowned lines some years earlier as an introduction to some verses. News of Miss Haskins and her whereabouts spread rapidly. Early next morning, with the arrival of snow, so descended the world's press to await the first signs of life from a house called Brooklands in Ghyll Road, Crowborough.
To global surprise, the king's unknown poetess turned out to be a shy, softly-spoken retired university lecturer with greying hair and steel-rimmed spectacles. Aged 64, she lived with two younger sisters, also unmarried, in a large house which they ran as a School for young children. Minnie Louise Haskins, made famous the world over in one minute of a king's speech, had led a remarkable and dedicated earlier life as a teacher, missionary worker, academic and factory welfare pioneer, as well as a poet and novelist. She was born at Warmley, Gloucestershire, in 1875, and died in the Kent & Sussex Hospital, Tunbridge Wells, in 1957.
Author John Hackworth