Obituary: The Very Rev J. H. S. Wild
Wednesday 26 August 1992
John Wild was very much an Oxford man whose life was also closely associated with the north of England. The greater part of his active career falls into two periods. From 1933 to 1951 he was a key figure, in many capacities, at University College, Oxford. Then in 1953 he moved north to become Dean of Durham, a position which he held until his retirement in 1973.
Wild was born in 1904, the oldest of four sons of the Rev HL Wild, a former vice- principal of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, afterwards Bishop of Newcastle. John Wild went to school at Clifton, of which he was later one of the governors. He won a classical scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford, where among other things he represented Oxford against Cambridge in the Three Miles in 1927. In 1929 he was ordained.
His first parish, St Aidan's in Newcastle upon Tyne, brought him into close touch with the problems created by unemployment, with which he was deeply concerned. Although he returned to Oxford in 1933 as chaplain fellow of University College (soon also to become domestic bursar), he continued to be actively involved up until the Second World War in the running of summer camps for the unemployed.
After the outbreak of war, the Master of the college, Sir William Beveridge, as he then was, found that he had to spend an increasing amount of time in London. More and more of the Master's work began to devolve on Wild, as was formally recognised in 1943 when he became Pro-Master. He had already taken over as Dean in 1939 in order to relieve a colleague for war work. For the last two and a half years of the War, in fact, he was simultaneously doing the jobs of Master, Chaplain, Domestic Bursar and Dean. There is little doubt that he would really have preferred service as an army chaplain, but he felt - rightly - that at least one young fellow was needed to keep the college going during this uniquely difficult period. It should be recorded that on one occasion he showed great courage in helping to disarm a mentally unbalanced undergraduate who started shooting with a rifle in the main quad.
In 1945 Wild was still only 41 but, with Beveridge's departure in that year, it was no surprise that he was elected Master. His knowledge of the college's traditions, and the familiarity with its statutes which he made it his business to acquire, were valuable assets at a time when most fellows had only recently been elected. Undergraduates found him an extremely approachable Master, the more so because he was still also chaplain. It was during his Mastership, in 1949, that the college celebrated the seventh centenary of its foundation.
Wild was a tall, athletically built man who loved the country and the open air. He was a mine of information about railway trains and timetables. Never remotely pompous, he had a delightful sense of humour and a great gift for friendship. He was married to Margaret Wainwright in 1945, and when the Wilds moved to Durham a few years later the deanery became a by-word for hospitality.
Wild was first and foremost a devoted man of the Church. At Durham the Dean and the canons usually took or attended two, often three, services daily. The harmony of the chapter was a notable feature of Wild's years as Dean: this may well have owed something to his personality. With his strong sense of history, he compiled an excellent new guide to the cathedral. He himself officiated at the enthronement of as many as four bishops.
But the dean of a great cathedral needs to be more than a devout churchman. When Wild came to Durham in 1951 there were many formidable problems of a practical kind to be found. His predecessor as Dean, Dr Alington, had done much that ornamented the cathedral, but - largely, no doubt, because of the constraints imposed by the war - little attention had been paid to the fabric of the building itself. Similarly, the estates for which the dean and chapter were responsible had had little money spent on them since 1939 and much needed to be done in that direction.
One of Wild's greatest concerns was to put the cathedral itself into a state of good repair. He was also very much aware of the importance of doing the same thing for the numerous properties for which the Dean and chapter were responsible. He took great trouble to familiarise himself with every aspect of a problem and then to get the best advice from the appropriate experts. In all this work it was necessary to weigh up what the chapter could afford to spend against its many obligations.
As a friend of the miners' leader Sam Watson, he was on excellent terms with the Durham mining community. He valued his invitations to the annual miners' gala, and he often showed groups of miners round the cathedral personally.
Wild took an active interest in the social services provided by the county council and played a part in many other aspects of Durham life. The success of an appeal to repair the historic Prebends' Bridge just below the cathedral was largely due to his efforts. When Wild retired in 1973 he and his wife moved down to Somerset. They left behind them innumerable friends, whom until very recently they visited regularly on summer pilgrimages to the north.
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