IN modern times Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were among many noted individuals feted for their fight against apartheid.

However, in 1960 the most vocal opponent of racial segregation in South Africa was a former Haydock vicar.

During that year, Dr Ambrose Reeves was featured extensively in British newspapers and on television criticising the treatment of black South Africans.

The Daily Telegraph described Dr Reeves as the "most influential and factual critic of the South African Government".

Since leaving St Helens in 1942 Dr Reeves had become Rector of Liverpool and, subsequently, the Bishop of Johannesburg. After the Sharpeville shootings of black demonstrators on March 21st 1960 – which he condemned as a "shocking outrage" and a "massacre of unarmed people" – Dr Reeves feared arrest and fled the country.

For the next five months the 60-year-old was a bishop in exile and toured Britain to raise awareness of the evils of apartheid.

On June 12th Dr Reeves returned to the St Helens district to walk in the Trinity Sunday procession in Downall Green, along with the Haydock Prize Band and Parr Temperance Band.

Standing on a farm cart on the village green near Garswood, Dr Reeves told the crowd that he'd first heard of their Trinity Sunday walk during his five years ministering in Haydock and undertaking it had been a "great thrill".

It had been in 1937 when Dr Reeves became vicar of St James Church and took up residence in the vicarage in Clipsley Lane. At Downall Green he explained to the parishioners how the white South African government's pass laws were severely curtailing the freedoms of blacks.

St Helens Star: A cutting from a newspaper reportA cutting from a newspaper report

Some had criticised the bishop for leaving South Africa at a troubled time in the nation's history. But he felt he could do far more good spreading the word than languishing in a prison cell.

The anti-apartheid movement was then in its early days with Nelson Mandela a virtually unknown figure. And as a white, quietly spoken clergyman, Dr Reeves made a good advocate for the cause. One St Helens newspaper referred to his Downall Green speech as a "quiet but urgent plea for greater unity and tolerance" in the world.

But Dr Reeves' quietly spoken demeanour belied his toughness. The Guardian described the bishop as a "tough man for a tough job" and his sister Clarissa Reeves told one newspaper, "Nothing can frighten him. He is the stuff martyrs are made of."

During his 5-month period of exile, Dr Reeves gave many TV interviews. In reviewing one appearance before the cameras, a Birmingham newspaper wrote: "His thin, lined face and clasped hand indicated the strain he has suffered and his gentleness did not hide his wrath at the “ghastly outrage against the African people”."

Dr Reeves had for some time stated his intention to return to South Africa and did so on September 10th 1960 – telling reporters before his flight that he would not be compromising his views.

Upon his arrival at Johannesburg Airport, several hundred cheering supporters – both white and black – welcomed him back. But within 48 hours, the South African government had the bishop deported back to England.

In December 1960, Dr Reeves won praise for a book that he published which analysed the Sharpeville shootings. This contained 30 photographs that disputed the South African government's version of events.

Although Dr Reeves would serve as president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement from 1970 until his death ten years later, others, such as Nelson Mandela, became the torchbearers of the resistance campaign. Sadly Dr Reeves died without seeing the collapse of apartheid and today he is a largely forgotten man.

But there is no doubt that for a year a man who had served the community of Haydock well had been chiefly responsible for educating the world on the horrors of apartheid.

Stephen Wainwright’s book 'The Hidden History Of St Helens' is available from the St Helens Book Stop at 11 Bridge Street and online from eBay and Amazon. Price £12.

N.B. Volume 2 of 'Hidden History' will be published in September