Hewlett Johnson was the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral from 1931-1963 and held strongly Communist views, which led to his gaining the epithet of 'The Red Dean'.
Born in 1874, the son of a wire manufacturer in Manchester, Johnson graduated as an engineer in 1898 and during his training was introduced to Socialism. After marrying Mary Taylor in 1902, Johnson studied Theology at Oxford, intending to become a missionary, but his views were too radical. Instead, in 1908, he was ordained vicar of St. Margaret's, Dunham Massey, Altrincham.
During his time at Dunham Massey, both Hewlett and Mary worked to improve the situation of their poorer parishioners: the workers of the wealthy amongst his flock. During the First World War, Mary ran a hospital for servicemen wounded in the First World War, and Hewlett was chaplain to a German P.O.W. camp. Despite his radical views, Johnson advanced in the Church and continued to pursue his ideals intellectually, publishing and editing the journal The Interpreter from 1905 until he became Dean of Manchester in 1924.
1931 began in tragedy for Hewlett Johnson when his wife Mary died of cancer. In June, he was appointed Dean of Canterbury, which included becoming chairman of the Kings' School Board of Governors. Early on in this appointment, Johnson courted controversy by inviting Mahatma Gandhi to visit the cathedral. From 1932, Johnson travelled widely, gaining fame in the western press for his tour of China, during which he joined a small band of communists and faced many dangers. The 1930s also saw Johnson making an impact in Canterbury, for example in his commissioning of Murder in the Cathedral for the 1935 Canterbury Festival. In this period, Johnson began many lifelong friendships; these included the actress Sybil Thorndike, fellow socialist A.T. D'Eye and Ivan Maisky, the Russian ambassador.
In 1938, Hewlett married Nowell Edwards, who was a talented artist and also adventurous: she had toured Russia in 1936, but it was not until 1937 that Hewlett spent 3 months in the country. Their first daughter, Mary Kezia, was born in 1940 and their second daughter, Helene Keren, in 1942. During the war, the Dean's family lived near Harlech, in Wales, while Johnson himself remained in Canterbury. Although his measures to protect the cathedral were unpopular, they proved successful: the cathedral remained intact throughout the war, despite extensive damage to the Deanery and to the city.
Following his 1937 visit to Russia, Johnson published prolifically in support of socialism and on socialist countries; after the war, Anglo-Soviet relations were a popular topic. During his visit with A.T. D'Eye in 1945, Johnson was feted in Russia and was granted an audience with Stalin. This was only the beginning of post-war visits which took Johnson all over the world to speak on the benefits of socialism and in support of socialist governments, including a rally at Madison Square Garden in the U.S.A. Johnson's popularity abroad concerned many who feared that he was seen as a representative of the Anglican Church, particularly as he was frequently mistaken for the Archbishop of Canterbury.
During the 1940s, Johnson was a regular speaker at Peace Conferences around the world, although this involvement led to his being ostracized by many at home, especially by the clergy. In the 1950s, both Keren and Kezia joined their parents on trips to China, Poland and Russia. Tensions in Canterbury and across Britain deepened when, in 1951, Johnson was the second person to receive the Stalin Peace Prize. There were further attempts to force his resignation as Dean but, despite the McCarthy trials in America, Johnson succeeded in keeping his office.
Hewlett Johnson remained a staunch supporter of socialism and Soviet Russia all of his life, earning him further criticism amongst his peers. In 1963, with hostility continuing around the chapter, Johnson resigned from the office of Dean at the age of 89. However, his travels did not stop there: at the age of 90, he met Fidel Castro in Cuba, and Mao Tse Tung in China. Johnson died in 1966 and his buried in the Cloister Garth in Canterbury Cathedral.