William Davage has taken up his pen


My 70th birthday party on a Saturday afternoon in February 2020 now seems something akin to the long, languorous summer of 1914 before the deluge of the Great War. By some miracle of nature, my guests were able to enjoy a buffet luncheon in a spacious garden in warm sunshine, and I was able to enjoy their company. A month later it already seemed a distant memory, a dream before the nightmare of Covid-19. 

A week before the first “lockdown” I finished the preliminary research in Walsingham for a book on the Vicars of St Mary’s from 1921 to the present. It was the idea of the present, estimable Vicar, Fr Harri Williams, to mark the centenary of Fr Patten’s Induction. It was launched on Trinity Sunday in May. I preached and signed books after Mass.

The book is not intended as a history of the parish but a series of portraits of the Vicars. Of the eight Vicars, six are still alive, quite a high percentage in comparison with many parishes. Sadly, the pandemic meant that I was unable to meet any of them in person but was able to speak to some by telephone or communicate by email. Those who felt able to assist did so with grace and helped enormously. 

Fr Patten has been written about so many times and has entered into the mythology as well as the Pantheon of the Catholic Movement that there was little or nothing new that I could say. 

I had known Bishop Norman Banks for many years, although we never met on our native heath in Newcastle upon Tyne. We had several lively and amusing conversations by telephone. Not everything made its way into the book. It was very good to meet Frs Barnes, and Haydon remotely and I hope that circumstances will allow meetings in person. Fr Barnes had been curate at S. John Baptist, Newcastle, but before the time when I worshipped there. He had, however, prepared one of my best friends for confirmation. I had been to Fr Haydon’s church when he was in Oxford as one of those on the preaching course from S. Stephen’s House. Fr Rear I met for the first time at Mass on Trinity Sunday and look forward to seeing him if and when I am next there.

Fr Roe, the second profile in the book, was the only one of the post-Patten vicars of whom I knew nothing before I began the project. He was the one that I came to know primarily through the papers and documents, the written record on which historians rely. Trawling through the papers, magazines, press reports, memoirs to meet him for the first time was rewarding when, as I turned a page, to find some gem, some story or comment that illuminated his character. Those moments usually came after page after page which produced no harvest. His health suffered, perhaps precipitated by the destructive fire only a few years into his incumbency.

The manuscript was completed at the beginning of summer last year. After a brief respite, I began the next task. Fr Philip Corbett invited me to write a history of the two churches now in his care; All Saints’ Notting Hill and S. Michael and All Angels’ Ladbroke Grove. The former was dedicated 160 years ago and the latter 150 years ago. This was a much larger task: two churches, twenty-five parish priests, curates galore, countless faithful laity. It took a year to research and write. The manuscript was delivered at the end of July.

All Saints’ had a large archive and an almost complete run of parish magazines from 1867 to the 1970s, plus PCC Minutes plus many and various others paper. S. Michael’s had sent much of its material to the London Metropolitan Archive decades ago. The pandemic meant that it was closed for some time and once opened only a dozen readers were allowed tag any one time and only once a month. That was impossible. Fortunately there was some good printed material, such as Prebendary Denison’s memoir and, another incumbent, Fr Anthony Andrews, having trawled the material sent to the archive, produced a series of pamphlets. Some had to be treated with a degree of caution but were more help than hindrance. And I had the benefit of the assistance of Tony Middleditch whose knowledge of the history is unsurpassed.

Fr Corbett marshalled material and pointed me in the right direction several times; and produced documents with just the right amount of colour and anecdote that books such as this need. As with the Walsingham book, so with this, every word was read chapter by chapter as they were written by Fr Hugh Mead. His meticulous eye, erudite scholarship, capacious knowledge, and expertise on the use of the comma, saved many a slip or ambiguity. A new foray into a parish history beckons.

As an incentive to buy the books: nearly twenty years ago Fr Barry Orford and I edited and contributed to a volume of essays on the Principals of Pusey House to mark Fr Philip Ursell’s retirement after twenty years as Principal. I was gratified to see on a recent foray into Amazon UK that it ranks 5,405,853 on the best sellers’ list. Even more gratified that there was a copy for sale at £913. Sadly, no cut for Pusey House, or the editors.

Thurifer is away