“…well that’s not quite true; my real name doesn’t matter all that much since my friends all called me Fynn and it stuck. If you know your Irish mythology you will know that Fynn was pretty big; me too. Standing about six foot two, weighing some sixteen stone odd, close to being a fanatic on physical culture, the son of an Irish mother and a Welsh father, with a passion for hot saveloys and chocolate raisins – not together I might add. My great delight was to roam about dockland in the night-time, particularly if it was foggy.”
Thus Fynn introduced himself in Chapter One of Mister God, This Is Anna, first published in 1974, and his true identity has remained a mystery for over 35 years. This website contains some memories and reflections of people who knew him, along with research results of Anna enthusiasts who wanted to learn more about him, which all builds up to somewhat of a profile of Syd Hopkins, the real Fynn, a very special person.
For general enquiries, if you knew Syd or can supply any further information,
please email fynnfacts-AT-hotmail.co.uk
Malmesbury Road, London E3 – Guerin Street is to the left by the lamp post
opposite the primary school Syd attended.
Early Life (1919 – 1939
Little is known about Syd’s early life, besides what can be gleaned from his books. He was born on 26 March 1919 at 15 Guerin Street, Bow, London E3, and it is fairly safe to assume that he lived his first twenty years there.Guerin Street was a small, dead-end street of some 21 terraced houses, leading off Malmesbury Road and ending where the main Great Eastern railway line passed across the end of the street. This small community is vividly described in Mister God, This Is Anna, his first book (see below). Sadly there is now no trace of Guerin Street after comprehensive redevelopment (probably in the 1970s), and although Malmesbury Road still exists, it has also been redeveloped and diverted away from its original course. However, other houses of the type in which Syd grew up are still plentiful in the area. Syd gained a brother, William Stanley (“Stan”) in August 1922. Some time after this (but before 1926), Syd’s father, Sydney Thomas, died. Both of these events are alluded to in MGTIA.
Map of the local area where Syd spent his early life
In the early 1930s, we learn from the books that Syd attended a “posh” school, Coopers Company College, a local Grammar School, thanks to a scholarship bursary, where his love of mathematics was recognised and encouraged by a teacher there, John D. Hodge. One of Hodge’s nicknames was “The Black Knight” and he is a central character in the third book, Anna and the Black Knight.Syd’s life-changing meeting with Anna, a little runaway not yet 5 years of age, is said to have taken place in November 1935, by which time Syd had left left school aged 16 and was employed locally by The Russian Oil and Petroleum Company, which specialised in the blending of oils, where he had aspirations to qualify as a research chemist. In A&TBK Syd reveals that he also considered entering the priesthood, but rejected the idea: “I just wasn’t sure enough for that.”
Syd’s friendship with Anna, who was taken into the ever-changing Hopkins household, is the main subject of MGTIA and the two subsequent books. Anna’s death in an accident, probably (by deduction) in early 1939, left Syd traumatised to an extent which can only be imagined. According to his widow Jill, Syd suffered an unexplained fall off a cliff in North Devon, and was referred to Finchden Manor, a therapeutic community near Tenterden, Kent, by a psychiatrist, because he was experiencing symptoms of a phobia about falling, resulting in chronic insomnia.
Finchden Manor, home of the therapeutic community
founded by George Lyward OBE. It closed in 1974.
Finchden Manor (1939 – 1970)
Syd had come to Finchden Manor in 1939 after a meeting with me in Harley Street, he with learned books under his arm, me drawing little match-stick-like figures to illustrate my points. He became willing to join us at Finchden Manor only after I had disclosed the fact that there he would find Mister Knox and his laboratories. He shared a room with the son of wealthy parents who wanted privacy in order to ���study agricultural chemistry’. Agricultural chemistry, my foot! Frequently there seemed to be sounds of music coming from their room – over the big kitchen – but whenever anybody went to investigate the music stopped, for Syd had arranged that the opening of the door turned off the music.” (George Lyward – His Autobiography, 2009)
Finchden was requisitioned by the Army in 1940 for the duration of the war, and the community evacuated to Shropshire. On returning in 1946, Syd was on the staff and supervised the catering, as well as his role as mentor and counsellor.
“When I first came to Finchden Manor with my parents for an ‘interview’, I was taken to Syd’s room and although I was shy, he somehow made me feel I was a human being and not something to be punished for my wild ways. He made me feel I was an equal, and listened to me. While at FM, I sometimes went to have a chat. He talked about anything and everything, explained how a computer worked, and seemed to know about anything mathematical or scientific. When I found out, quite recently, that he had walked and married I wondered how, but was thankful. Then his books were a surprise. I guess that his intellect and capacity were remarkable, so we should not wonder how or why he did it. One thing I am sure of is that he did a great deal more good than harm in his life.” (Andrew S. via email, 2009)
“One by no means trusting boy remarked of Syd, that ‘you could not like him, you could only love him’. He had been studying to be a research chemist by profession. Heftily built, formerly an athlete, his feats of strength had become a legend; he had been able to lift two boys and hold them from the ground, one on either arm. An accident to his spine some years ago had made it impossible for him to walk without a stick, and he was seldom out of pain. His massive and still young face had the nobility of a Cockney Samson. He played the piano, the accordion, and other instruments. He was in remote or immediate control, as the occasion demanded, of the cooking. It was he who helped the boys who wanted to ‘do wireless’ and, if asked, taught or examined them in chemistry and physics.
The loss of his physical vigour may have deepened the resources of a spiritual and speculative nature already deep. The role into which he had moved at Finchden seemed to be that of one who reassured. The slowness of his movements seemed now to be in character. He took things quietly, humorously, and without hurry; and to many of the boys, especially the younger and more excitable, his mere appearance had the effect of a caress. He, like all the other members of the staff, knew himself thoroughly, and knew therefore how to prevent exploitation of his own particular strength, which lay in gentleness.”
(Mr. Lyward’s Answer by Michael Burn , 1956)
Following an accident when he fell and injured his spine on a concrete plinth, Syd had to take a lot of bed rest, and solved his mobility problem by scooting around on a trolley for a while, and then realised he could shuffle around on his knees without causing too much pain.The Lywards invited him to live with them in a small suite of rooms on the ground floor, where he remained until he left to get married to Jill Crawford-Benson in 1970. Syd’s restricted mobility meant he could be somewhat reclusive at times, but he did shuffle into the boys’ side a couple of times a week, usually to play the piano, and sometimes, supported by a bench, play table tennis. Of course, his door was always open for any of the boys who wanted a chat, or help building a radio, or anything at all really.
Left: Syd’s famously cheeky smile.
Right: with David Hobbs and George Lyward in The Oak Room
Later Life (1970 – 1999)
Syd and Jill first met at Finchden in 1961, when Jill, a social work student, was assigned a three month residential placement. By coincidence, Jill’s family lived in Tenterden, and she became a regular visitor to Finchden after her placement . Over the following nine years Syd and Jill developed a very special friendship. With encouragement from Jill, Syd found the confidence to get off his knees and walk again, so that he could achieve a ‘normal life’. The proof of his determination to overcome thirty years of physical debilitation was when he escorted his new bride down the aisle of Saint Mildred’s church, Tenterden, to the acclaim of family, friends and the Finchden community.
The newly-wed couple moved to Somerset, where Syd continued with his math studies and made a living as a computer programmer. Meanwhile, he began to write about his early life in the East End of London, and the life-changing relationship with Anna, which developed into Mister God, This Is Anna, published in 1974. The success of MGTIA inspired Syd to produce two more books, with Jill acting as his literary editor and agent.Syd experienced increasing health problems in his later years and the fact he rose above these was quite an achievement. Right up to his final illness, Syd remained positive and creative.
Syd’s grave in Somerset. The Latin inscription translates as
“Let what is to be found in the glory of God be found”
“The two interlocking circles on Syd’s headstone formed the basis of most of Syd’s mathematics. He kept two interlocking rings near him all the time and I still have them. One day when visiting him at Finchden, I was wearing a silver brooch of my grandmother’s made into two interlocking circles, he told me how important this configuration was for him. So we agreed that our wedding ring would be based on the same design. And Syd often used the design as a motif on letters, cards, etc. So it seemed very appropriate to put it on his gravestone. And, for us, it has symbolised our union.” (Mrs Jill Hopkins)
Sydney Hopkins is “Fynn!”
“Since first reading Mister God, This Is Anna in 1987, and Anna’s Book, then Anna and the Black Knight several years later, I have been intrigued about the author ‘Fynn’. The book had a big impact on my life at the time, so naturally I wanted to learn more.However I could find nothing about Fynn in libraries or even by visiting the Mile End area where the events in the books took place. Then in the late 1990’s a little something called the Internet came into my life. I searched for Fynn and the books he wrote, but could find nothing about him until discovering Wikipedia in 2004, where rumours started to surface over the next three years or so about a guy called Sydney Hopkins being Fynn, that he had died in 1999 and was buried in a village in Somerset.
On 1st August 2007 I travelled down to Somerset to try and find Syd’s grave. Using my car’s satellite navigation I found the village mentioned relatively easily, not far from the town of Taunton. The church there is quite large as is the graveyard, and after searching for ages there was no sign of a Syd Hopkins buried anywhere there. Despondent, I was just leaving the churchyard when by the church gate I bumped into a lady coming in who turned out to be the vicar of the church. I asked her if she knew of anyone buried there called Syd Hopkins and she said ‘Oh yes Syd the author! His widow still lives in this area. But he isn’t here, he’s buried in another village nearby.’ She then gave me directions. After driving for what seemed like hours I realised I was lost, deep in the Somerset countryside. Just as I was about to give up, as if out of nowhere there appeared ahead a little village and the sign saying it was the right one! Driving past the sign, the church tower was visible across the village and I made my way towards it, my heart racing a little…
The church was pretty large and the graveyard sprawling. It took a while, but tucked away at the very back of the graveyard I saw the name on one of the graves; Sydney George Hopkins.And then the thrill – there was an inscription underneath which read ‘Quod est inveniendum ad gloriam Dei sit inveniendum‘, words found in Anna and the Black Knight … this was confirmation that Syd was Fynn!Feeling a little shaky and emotional, I went back to my car to get my camera and a red rose that I had plucked from my garden. I laid the rose on Syd’s grave and said some words of thanks to him, wherever he was.Although it was in the middle of the village and mid afternoon, there was not a sound to be heard or a soul to be seen, and I had a feeling of deep peace and a strong sense that Syd was there with me somehow, along with Anna … laughing. I couldn’t help but laugh too!”
The Anna Books
2011 UPDATE: a USA production company, Island Filmworks, has bought
the film rights to all three books and is currently working on MGTIA.
The first, and most well-known, of the “Anna” books is Mister God, This Is Anna, published in 1974. The book opens with teenager Fynn’s first encounter with little Anna on a foggy night on the streets of pre-war London’s East End. She turns out to be just 4 years old and homeless, and Fynn takes her back home to meet his family, where she willingly takes up residence.Through a series of episodes, the book narrates the developing bond between Fynn and Anna as they meet local characters and, through Fynn’s tuition, explore science, mathematics and Anna’s very individualistic philosophy, and the effect that her boundless enthusiasm has on all who meet her. The book ends with Anna’s accidental death at age 7.It was immediately successful, and eventually Syd was persuaded to produce two sequels. Anna’s Book is a small volume which appeared in 1986 and consists of a sequence of the little girl’s writings. Finally, 1990 saw the publication of Anna and the Black Knight, with more tales of Fynn’s adventures with Anna, the local community, and in particular their relationship with John Hodge, a teacher at Fynn’s old school, and a profound sceptic. Gradually he warms to Anna’s persistent questioning and comes under the spell of her passion for life.The three books have remained in print since publication, and have reached a worldwide audience of millions, with translations into more than two dozen languages. Currently, a paperback entitled Anna and Mister God contains all three volumes under one cover. Click here for the Introduction to MGTIA 1975 USA edition by William Collins.
Also read: Discovering ‘Mister God, This Is Anna’ by Nigel C Fortune
Researchers: John Gray, Nigel C. Fortune and John Stevenson