Obituary: The Very Rev William Baddeley

James Fergusson
Thursday 11 June 1998 00:02

IN AUSTRALIA, he was known as the Racing Dean. Dashing, handsome, with upturned eyebrows that eloquently signalled his sense of the ridiculous, famous as much for his acting sisters as for his own instinct for occasion, William Baddeley seemed the epitome of the worldly West End Anglican priest. His melodious bass spoke of a rich, comfortable high-church heritage.

The truth, as often, was more complicated. Hermione and Angela Baddeley were not his sisters, but his half-sisters. His mother was Louise Bourdin, a singer, the orphaned daughter of a rich French soldier who ran away and married a young composer, William Clinton-Baddeley. But the younger William was not his son. By the time he was born, in 1914, the two had parted, and Mrs Clinton-Baddeley had bought a house in London, in Lancaster Gate, and was taking in lodgers. One day, records Hermione baldly in her 1984 autobiography, The Unsinkable Hermione Baddeley, "Mummy went off to a nursing home and came back with our half-brother Bill, whom she named after `Uncle Pye' and Daddy." "Uncle Pye" was one of the lodgers.

William Pye Baddeley was not brought up by his mother. He was given away, in accordance with the brutal manners of the day, to be brought up by a family in Fulham. He was not privately educated either, as were his half-sisters, but attended the local school, and might have become a pharmacist had he not drifted into the orbit of the Church of St John the Divine in Kennington. There Cyril Eastaugh (later Bishop of Peterborough) recognised his talents. Eastaugh took him under his wing and arranged for him to go to to Tatterford, in Norfolk, a school which crammed clever working- class boys for university. Baddeley won a place at Durham and, following his vocation, his career at last found a conventional direction: St Chad's College, Durham, and then Cuddesdon, Oxford.

He was ordained in 1941 and had two wartime curacies in London, first at St Luke's, Camberwell, in 1941-44, then at St Anne's, Wandsworth, in 1944-46. Worn out by his work in these south London parishes, he was prescribed country rest by his doctor, and took himself to Suffolk, where he met Shirley Wyatt, whose father had retired from the Army to Woodbridge, and in 1947 they married. After a further curacy in Bournemouth, he was awarded the prize London parish of St Pancras, near Euston Station. A daughter, Frances, followed, and for the first time he had a real family.

Bill Baddeley's church reputation was based on his three main jobs: St Pancras, from 1949 to 1958; Brisbane, where he was Dean, from 1958 to 1967; and St James's, Piccadilly, where he spent 13 years as Rector, from 1967 to 1980. In both his London parishes, the one centred on raffish north Fitzrovia, the other more smart shops than residents, he had to wrestle as much with problems of fabric as with those of compelling a post-war urban congregation. St Pancras was a Greek Revival church finished in 1822, the most expensive church of its time, and by 1949 in serious disrepair. St James's, Piccadilly, built in 1676 by Christopher Wren, had been bombed in the war. Only in Baddeley's time, with the replacement of the spire (by a fibre-glass replica), was restoration completed.

Baddeley had to close St Pancras and raise pounds 60,000 to make it serviceable again. It is a magnificent building, as is St James's, a church redolent of London history (here, in the Grinling Gibbons font, William Blake was christened). Wren intended St James's, with its airy galleries, to be an efficient "auditory" church; that any of the 2,000 possible congregants should be able to hear their preacher.

Baddeley had no difficulty in either London parish, or in Australia, of making himself heard. He had projection; a theatrical concentration which was in his genes. He also had a seriousness which stemmed, perhaps, from his difficult background. His combination of gravitas with levitas marked him out amongst Anglican clergy.

When in 1958 he went to Brisbane (William Wand, the Bishop of London, had recommended him to his successor as Archbishop of Brisbane, Reginald Halse), he immediately won himself a reputation. He went to the races and backed six out of seven winners. (Later he attended in full clerical garb, but won only three.) Puritan newspapers were outraged, but the Australian public responded, as had his English audiences, to his joie de vivre. He criticised the government's ban of Lady Chatterley's Lover as belittling the intelligence of Australians. He defended Sunday cinema opening, deploring "this business of inflicting gloom on a Sunday" as "not a good advertisement for Christianity". He declared that the clergy broke the Ten Commandments if they did not take a full day off a week. He appeared on television quiz programmes, he was active in the arts. Priests should circulate, he argued; Christ himself "liked to be among the people".

Bill Baddeley relished his public life, both in Australia, where he is still fondly remembered, and in London, where he enjoyed many decorative sinecures, such as Chaplain to the Royal Academy across the road from his church. He was outgoing, spoke powerfully ("There was nothing sedating about his sermons," recalls the Australian politician Sir James Killen), was a performer; a fine singer, a natural pianist. But he was a surprisingly private man; he protested shyness, even insecurity; he had a developed spiritual side. His own spiritual director, Reginald Somerset-Ward, thought of him initially as a contemplative.

He bought paintings, he was devoted to the, essentially passive, art of photography. He didn't drive; he couldn't cook an egg. There was much of the child about him. People loved Bill Baddeley for that. His flamboyance was studied, his appeal for approval definitely boyish. His zest for life was not only attractive, it improved the moment. He was a man who raised your spirits. There was about him something inspiring.

William Baddeley's work at St James's, Piccadilly, was the zenith of his priesthood, writes the Rev Dr Martin Israel. Indeed, he played no small part in its contribution to the spiritual life of London.

He was a forceful speaker with strong, eloquent convictions, and made many people aware of things more lasting than the commerce of daily life. A popular part of his ministry of St James's Church was the Lent Lectures, at which numerous distinguished people preached. Baddeley's churchmanship was broadly Tractarian, but inclusive and ecumenical. In this repect he was an early pioneer, and Cardinal Heenan was a lecturer at one Lent series.

Baddeley was a man of wide interests. While in St Pancras he was Chaplain to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital and St Luke's Hostel, and later to St Martin's Hospital, Brisbane. He was keenly interested in acting, having no little acting skill himself, a trait that came out brilliantly in his preaching. He was President of the Brisbane Repertory Theatre from 1961 to 1964 and the Queensland University Dramatic Society from 1961 to 1967 and Director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust from 1963 to 1967. He was a member of the Council of Management of the Friends of the Royal Academy from 1978 until his death, a Vice-President of the Cancer Relief Appeal from 1977 and a Life Governor of the Thomas Coram Foundation from 1955.

He was Chairman of the Association for Promoting Retreats from 1967 to 1980. He also chaired the Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund for Children from 1968 to 1992, after he which he became Honorary Consultant.

On his retirement from St James's Bill and Shirley Baddeley went to live in Woodbridge, where they enjoyed 18 happy years together. He died, appropriately, on the Feast of Pentecost.

William Pye Baddeley, priest: born London 20 March 1914; ordained deacon 1941, priest 1942; Vicar of St Pancras 1949-58; Dean of Brisbane 1958- 67 (Dean Emeritus 1981-98); Rector of St James's, Piccadilly 1967-80; Chairman, Association for Promoting Retreats 1967-80; Chaplain to Royal Academy of Arts 1968-80; Chairman, Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund for Children 1968-92; Rural Dean of Westminster 1974-79; Visiting Chaplain, Westminster Abbey 1980-98; married 1947 Shirley Wyatt (one daughter); died Ipswich 31 May 1998.

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