The Rev George Saintsbury

Champion of schoolboy boxing
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The Independent Online

George Lewis Saintsbury, actor, musical director, teacher and priest: born Edinburgh 28 February 1911; ordained priest 1970; died London 4 June 2006.

Father George Saintsbury came from a remarkable family. His paternal grandfather was another George Saintsbury, the irascible bon viveur, Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at Edinburgh University and scourge of all "pussyfoots". His father, Lewis, was a talented if erratic actor, and his maternal great-great-great- grandmother the celebrated actress Sarah Siddons. He inherited, as it turned out, the pugnacity of the first, and the talent of the others, while adding a gift for music, teaching, and, in its deepest sense, exploration.

George Lewis Saintsbury was born in 1911, in Edinburgh. When he was five, an accident turned his father into a permanent invalid and it was his strong-minded mother, Fenella, who steered the three children (his sister, Elizabeth, was born in 1913 and his brother, John, in 1918) through a shoal of moves and schools and passed on to them her High Church (with just a whiff of Spiritualist) principles. She also taught them hymns, sung round the Bechstein piano every Sunday evening.

Religion and music were thus deeply instilled into the young Saintsbury before he was seven, by which time he also knew the whole of Macaulay's "Horatius" by heart and, thanks to an absent-minded but garden-loving prep-school headmaster, the rudiments of Latin, a language he grew to treasure. At the same school, he first became aware - mainly from the marks of battle on the faces of his young contemporaries - of the "noble art" of boxing. In the best Jesuit tradition, the pillars of his long life were all in place.

Saintsbury was no academic - he himself was always the first to point this out - but he was a born communicator. After a not very distinguished education, at Bedford School and Edinburgh University, he took up his father's profession, earning glowing notices for his performances in weekly rep and with the Hindhead Players.

Tall and craggy, with a magnificent deep-velvet voice not unlike the late Valentine Dyall's, he seemed equally at home in light comedy, melodrama and Shakespeare. But acting, for all the pleasure involved, did not satisfy him. There was something else pushing him towards a more didactic use of his talents.

In the late 1920s he had trained at the Royal School of Church Music in Kent and, beginning with a Surrey Scout troop in 1930, whom he taught singing and boxing, as well as knot-tying, Saintsbury went on to make a living over the next 10 years as teacher, choirmaster, organist and boxing coach in schools all over Kent and Surrey.

Noticing at one school how the smaller boys in the choir were bullied to and from choir practice, he taught them how to defend themselves, a practice he continued in schools and churches on tough London housing estates. It was natural that Saintsbury should become involved with amateur boxing championships, training as a referee and judge, later becoming a member of the National Council of Saba (Schoolboys Amateur Boxing Association) and eventually becoming its vice-president, a post he held till his death.

He was a passionate defender of the character-building virtues of boxing and publicly scornful of what he saw as the interference of media "pussyfoots", writing and speaking on the subject with a vigour that would have delighted his grandfather. His 1999 pamphlet In Praise of Boxing and his 2000 autobiography, A Teacher's Tale: sixty years of boxing, are classics of the genre, summarising a lifetime of practical teaching. He was also co-compiler, with Jeff James, of Boys Will Be Boxers: the Lonsdale anthology of schoolboy boxing (1997).

Saintsbury seems to have been an inspiring presence too in the worlds of choral music conducting massed choirs in St Alban's Abbey, St Albans, and taking a leading part in the huge Festival of Church Music of 1936 and, towards the end of his life, he wrote that, if he was proud of anything, it was of his work as a trainer of boys' voices.

But behind the music, the drama, the teaching, the boxing, and through the Second World War - when Saintsbury was variously a policeman, a fire-warden, a storeman and a naval stoker - a bigger journey was going on: the search for his religious vocation. His High Church beginnings never left him and he was for nearly half his life a more-or-less enthusiastic member of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Church.

By 1952, inspired by the example of a Roman Catholic hospital orderly who had looked after him during a period of illness, and disillusioned by what he saw as the inconsistencies of Anglicanism, he was received into the Old Roman Catholic Church, a fringe group not fully accepted by Rome.

The next nine years were spent in finding a way towards that acceptance and, beyond, towards training and ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. In 1961, at the age of 50, he began his training at St Edmund's College, Ware, just as the huge changes to Catholic liturgy and practice brought about by the Second Vatican Council got under way. Once again, Saintsbury drew back, returning to teaching, at St Columba's College in St Albans.

It wasn't until 1970 that a way through was found and he was ordained as a priest of the Old Roman Catholic Church but with the blessing of the auxiliary bishop of Westminster. He had, in a friend's words, "come home" and for the last third of his life continued to celebrate the Latin Mass with a small but devoted congregation.

In a 1984 Radio 4 documentary, Saying the Word, he said: "I realise I have a mission to those who otherwise would be deprived of the traditional Catholic worship for which their souls long." This, amongst the boxing photos and trophies, the books of church music, the packets of Woodbines and his precious collection of Billy Bunter books, was, in the end, the purpose of his life.

Piers Plowright

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