James Philip (Phil) Forbes

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Peter Flinn
Posts: 65
Joined: Mon Feb 22, 2016 6:26 am

James Philip (Phil) Forbes

Post by Peter Flinn » Sun Apr 29, 2018 12:57 pm

Phil Forbes, formerly of Mt Martha, Victoria, Australia, passed away on Saturday 21st April 2018. He was just under 92 years of age.

Phil, and his twin sister were born in Melbourne on 3rd June 1926 to Reginald and Gertrude Annie Forbes, and brought up in the suburb of Caulfield. Phil had an older sister and brother, and described his parents as kind and loving. The family was brought up in the Exclusive Brethren, and attended the old Malvern meeting room in Wattletree Road, Malvern (which I only vaguely remember). Some interesting connections with the Seelenmeyer (later Seeley) family go back to the 1800s. James Forbes, Phil’s grandfather was a homeopathic chemist, and was a business partner of Henry Seelenmeyer in Swanston Street, Melbourne. Henry’s brother Dr Adolph Frederic Seelenmeyer was one of the Brethren pioneers in Australia, and many of his descendants remain members to this day.

Phil said his early years at home were quite normal, but school life, even in the 1930’s, was not easy. They did not have radio and were not allowed to go to the pictures or visit other non-Brethren children in their homes. Phil never actually “came into fellowship” and when he started work he drifted away from the Brethren, made some good friends and found life somewhat easier. His elder sister was the only child of the family who became a member of the Exclusive Brethren, and remained so all her life.

In Phil’s younger days, many Brethren family members married “outside”, and the “separation” issue was not as strict as it became after 1960. His parents also had many friends outside the Brethren who were always welcome at home for a “cuppa”. The family always celebrated Christmas together.

However, in 1947 Phil’s brother got married and his wedding was in the Baptist Church. Phil’s mother, who by then was in poor health and confined to a wheelchair, was looking forward to attending the wedding and the Minister had arranged for her to get into the church. However, the day before the wedding, senior members of the Brethren told Phil’s parents that they must not go to the Baptist Church. Phil’s mother was very upset.

In 1952, Phil’s mother died, and his older brother said that he and Phil, as her sons, should carry the casket to the grave. Again, senior Brethren members told them that because they were both “outsiders”, they could not do this – it was a task for the Brethren. After the funeral, a very old friend of Phil’s mother told him that she had telephoned several times to see if she could visit his mother, but that Phil’s older sister had said this was not possible as she was too ill. However, the real reason was that the friend was not a member of the Brethren.

Phil’s father Reg later re-married, his second wife being Grace Benson. In the early 1960s the JTJr era dawned, with the well-known rigid enforcement of separation between Brethren members and non-members within families. This was the end for Reg and Grace, who were both in their late 70’s; they left the Exclusive Brethren together with several hundred other members and their families. Reg’s brother and his wife, together with Phil’s older sister (Brethren members) came to say good-bye, and they never spoke to Reg or the rest of his family again.

Phil’s twin sister never married and worked more than 15 years for a well-known Brethren company in Melbourne, as the owner’s secretary. In the 1960’s, the then prominent Sydney leader and businessman W. Bruce Hales (uncle of the current world leader) told the business owner he had to sack Phil’s sister as she was not a Brethren member. She was very upset and never recovered from this unfair dismissal.

Phil told me that, although he personally escaped the ravages of the Exclusive Brethren, he had unpleasant memories all his life of what they did to his family. In particular, he could not forgive W. Bruce Hales for his treatment of his twin sister, which he had no doubt was the cause of her death from alcoholism.

As I grew up in the Brethren in Melbourne, I knew Phil’s uncle and family and his older sister quite well, and also remember his father Reg, but I never knew of Phil’s existence until he phoned me out of the blue around 2006-07. Clearly, as a man then in his 80s, he wanted to talk about his memories of growing up in the Brethren. His memory was amazingly detailed, and over the ensuing years we became good friends. I heard many stories, not only about people I used to know well (some of them elderly), but also their parents. It was quite extraordinary. Phil became my “historical consultant” and he could always answer my questions.

He also gave me several historic photographs, including one taken at my cousin’s 21st birthday in 1948 (the year I was born). Yes, such events did take place in at least some Brethren families back then! The photo, which included Phil, was a veritable who’s who of young Melbourne Brethren in the 1940s.

As time went on, my wife and I visited Phil from time to time, and took him out to lunch around the time of his 90th birthday. Last November, when we saw him for the last time, we noticed his health was declining. A few weeks ago, his niece and her family took him under their wing, and it became necessary for him to enter a nursing home – something Phil had always dreaded. However, he was not there long. He passed away peacefully in his sleep, after a long and eventful life.

Phil was an intensely private man, and told me once he did not want any fuss at the time of his death. His funeral was private.

We will miss this very quietly spoken, intelligent and thoughtful man with the encyclopaedic knowledge of Brethren families, friends and events he had from bygone days. It just demonstrates that even though for most of his adult life he had little or no contact with any Brethren members, his childhood and youthful memories, some of them traumatic, were seared into his consciousness all his life.

He is not alone in that.

May he forever rest in peace.

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