St Peter / Balsall Common

The Church of St Peter

Balsall Common

A History for Visitors:

Author - The Late Dr Mark Johnson (Legend!)

Some key dates in our short history:

20th March 1871  Balsall Street Chapel licensed for worship

Easter 1875  Parish Room opened as a school

28th June 1911  Dedication as St Peter’s Church

9th December 1959  Consecration, and Installation of Vicar

29th June 1965  Formal Opening of St Peter’s Hall

10th December 1989:Dedication of Church Extension

30th September 2012  Reopened following further refurbishment.

Our little Church building, standing at the crossroads on the western edge of the village, has played a central part in the life of the community since its inception. It has continually sought to develop new facilities to meet the needs of a growing population, and the challenges of change. The Parish Room became a school, then the Scout and Guide Hut: the Hall has developed its facilities, and in 1989 the Church building itself was extended with a ‘washroom’ and baptistry to allow the growing congregation to fit into one building for common worship. In 2012, we removed the old pews and levelled the floor, installing new lighting and an AV system to make the church more accessible for everyone! In 2020/21 we fitted ‘livestream’ equipment and a new camera and computer system to operate these. All of these changes have come about through the generosity of parishioners and friends, to the glory of God.

The Church has played a full role in providing for the social needs of the community. The first formal educational provision in the area took place in the Parish Room. The church is still involved with the local schools, both Primary and Secondary, and has played a key role in developing activities for young people and other facilities such as the Jubilee Centre.The stage, meeting rooms, auditorium and kitchen of our Hall also play a key role in village activities.

In order to keep up-to-date with changes in the community and communication, we have now developed our own website ( and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube channels (@spcbalsall) and all of these can also be accessed through links on the website. This has enabled us to keep providing a service throughout the ‘Covid-19’ Pandemic and associated restrictions.

The history of the parish can be traced back over 140 years, to 1859, when Knowle ‘Parochial Chapel’ was granted independence from Hampton-in-Arden by the Bishop of Worcester. Knowle Church was originally built some 500 years earlier because of the problems met by villagers fording the River Blythe, ‘a greate and daungerouse water wch in wynter and at every raine so rageth and overfloweth that neyther man nor beaste cann passe without ymmynant danger of peryshing’ (It still does rage, sometimes). Four years later, the Templars’ Church of Temple Balsall was also granted parish status. However, even in those days and well before the rash of building that occurred around the 1920s, the bulk of the population lived in Balsall Common.Land was therefore bought in 1868 and in March 1871 a ‘small brick church of Gothic style consisting of a nave with western bell gable’ was licensed for public worship as Balsall Street Chapel, built for a cost of some £900. On Easter Monday 1875, a Parish Room was opened, to provide formal public education, with sixteen pupils. This formed the nucleus of the current Primary School which first opened in September 1913. The Church Room went on until 1965, when the Scout & Guide Association took it over.

Following the creation of Birmingham Diocese in 1905, Bishop Charles Gore paid his first visit to the church at Balsall Common in March 1911, and returned shortly afterwards for a service of dedication at which the Chapel became St Peter’s Church. Plans were laid at that time for an extension to the eastern end – the drawings now hang in the western Baptistry. The organ was also installed around then, although the electric blower had to wait for the coming of electricity in the 1930s. The development of the Church continued in 1913, with its recognition as a Conventional District, but it remained part of the Parish of Temple Balsall, together with Chadwick End Church and St Richard’s, Meer End. The latter was donated by Revd. Francis Downton in memory of his mother to serve a planned expansion of the village that never happened, and services were held there until January 1972, when it was sold. Moneys from the sale contributed to the new works dedicated in 1989, and many of the Church’s ‘treasures’, including a painting of Christ on the Cross, came to us from St Richards. Other bequests and donations over the years have contributed to the beautification and functioning of the church; notably the installation of electric lighting in 1934 (anonymous), the West Window (by Mrs Frances Walker 1954) and Miss Evelyn Overton’s bequest commemorated in the Baptistry. During the work for the latter, two panels from the West Window were relocated above the font. There are many other ‘treasures’ given in memory of people who once served the church and community.

The ‘Consecration of the Church of St Peter Balsall Common, with the Institution of Revd. Wallace Hamilton Barker and the Inauguration of the Statutory District (Parish) of Balsall Common’, conducted by Dr Leonard Wilson, Bishop of Birmingham, took place on 9th December 1959. This began a new chapter in our history. At that time, there were about 700 houses in the parish, and the ‘Parish Newspaper’ sold as many copies. Unfortunately, none of those newsletters remain in our archive. Shortly after, discussions began about the possibility of building a new, larger Church but it was decided to construct the Hall first, on land which had been purchased (with amazing forethought) in 1920. The new Hall was opened by the Bishop in June 1965, permitting the sale of the old Parish Room.

The centenary of the Church in 1971 was marked by a ‘Gala Cricket Match’, Ecumenical Choral Evensong, Garden Fete and Flower Festival. The brochure for that event observed that ‘The history of our small church is not expected to be resplendent in impressive grandeur. What cannot be expressed in mere words is the faithful service and witness of the people who have served and worshipped in St Peter’s Church, and it is through God’s grace and their devotion and dedicated perseverance that this Church flourishes today and is ready to serve the corporate religious needs of Balsall Common….’. Those words are still true today. We have tried to keep pace with the needs of the changing population of the village. The Sunday School, restarted in 1978, continues as a Sunday Club during morning service; a ‘Mums and Babies’ social drop-in is held on Friday mornings, and there are many societies and social events!

The Church building itself has also been added to and made more attractive, through the donations and hard work of the congregation. In 1979, we made ITV local news when a helicopter replaced the small ‘fleche’ (bell-tower). The Baptistry and extra facilities were dedicated in 1989, and the whole church repainted at the same time. In 2012, we completely refurbished the church, removing the pews and levelling the floor while installing a state of the art lighting and ‘AV’ system. The story will continue – with your help!

The next few pages are part of a series of articles originally published in our magazine: we shall be editing these and adding some photographs, especially as we welcome new readers from the Balsall Heritage Trail! Your feedback and any extra contributions, are very welcome.

As we approached the 60th anniversary of the dedication of St Peter’s as a fully-fledged Parish Church, we ran a series of short articles in ‘The Key’, our parish Magazine, on what we knew about the history of the parish. If you (or anyone you know) has any pictures, materials such as old magazines, or other memories, that help describe the last 60 years at St Peter’s, Bob Farmer, our church Archivist, would be delighted to hear from you – email – or speak to one of the editorial team!

Early history

The history of ‘the Parish of Balsall’ actually seems to date back to around 1290, when the Knights Templar founded a church at nearby Temple Balsall. The Knights were abolished in 1312, and the manor (with the church, two chaplains, a watermill, dovecote and 500 acres of arable land) was passed to the Knights Hospitaller in 1322. Unfortunately, we know little more about that early history.

Earl Robert Dudley’s legacy

The church was surveyed for King Henry VIII in 1541 but reported to be in poor condition. The sisters, Anne Holbourne and Katherine Leveson, grand-daughters of Earl Robert Dudley, restored the dilapidated church and created the Charity (which still manages the ‘alms-houses’ and school at Temple Balsall) in 1671.

Moving out

These all remained part of the Parish of Hampton in Arden until 1863 when Temple Balsall became an independent Parish. Plans were approved in 1864 to create a ‘Chapel of Ease’ for the community of Balsall Street, to be built by the architect Thomas Garner, and served by a curate living in the Old Hall. In 1867 a Mr Perkins offered a site for building the chapel at Holly Lane, but the plans were too expensive and ‘modifications were suggested’ by a group of ‘subscribers’.

Charity – and the birth of our Church

Following the gift of £225 by the Governors of the Temple Balsall charity, “an unpretentious structure of brick, a simple nave without aisles, like the ‘mother church’’ (according to Eileen Gooder’s book about Temple Balsall) was erected in 1871, and so our story began!

We invited church members to send us memories, pictures and artefacts to help us celebrate our anniversary – both at a Parish Barbecue on St Peter’s day (June 30th) and at a special celebration service on Sunday 8th December 2019 to mark the true anniversary of our dedication as an independent Parish. These made a splendid display which is now stored in our archives.

Volunteers offer cake and tea to visitors!

From the history books: St Peter’s @ 60 ....... Balsall and the Parish Breakfast!

Our little parish has its own small corner in the history of the church in England! Until quite recently, the normal pattern of services in most Anglican churches was for an 8:00am early service of communion, Matins or Morning Prayer around 11:00am, and Evensong around 6:00pm, and sometimes a ‘High Mass’ communion service at around midday. It is not widely known that Balsall played a major part in the ‘Parish Communion’ movement in the 1920-30s, which led to wider use of a sung family or parish Eucharist around 9:30, which is now quite common.

When the Parish of Balsall, centered at Temple Balsall, was created in 1863, there were few residents living near the church, and ‘parishioners had to walk one or two miles from Fen End, two and a half from Chadwick End, and a mile and a half or even farther from Balsall Street’. Few could or would manage that, as well as their farming duties, and observe the then-common idea of fasting before Communion. Consequently, around 1913 they devised a ‘sung Eucharist at 8:45am as the principal service on a Sunday ... at which the faithful could receive their communion together, fasting, and a common meal at which they could meet together socially once a week and refresh themselves before returning home’. The Parish Breakfast was held in the Old Hall at Temple every week during this time, ‘a box being sent round during the meal for those who were able to contribute towards the expenses of the simple repast of bread and butter, marmalade and tea’. The children ‘for economical reasons were supplied with treacle instead of marmalade, and besmeared themselves accordingly’ (!). It was reported that ‘the middle aged had a trestle table for themselves’ ... ‘while the clergy, church wardens and other leading members of the congregation and visitors occupied a central table in close proximity to the fire’ (!!!). The same pattern was quickly established also at St Peter’s, the ‘daughter church’ at Balsall Street, in the ‘Parish Room’ (now the Scout Hut across the road from the church), although it was not until Fr. Downton’s time that it became popular, averaging 50-60 communicants weekly in the 1930s.

Once a year, on Mothering Sunday, the whole parish met at St Mary’s and ‘at the breakfast which followed home-made Simnel cakes were provided while on Christmas Day the congregation indulged in mince pies’! St Peter’s today continues the tradition with home-made cakes at many of our events or services, and ‘pastries’ before, rather than after, our Cafe Communions.

(We are grateful to Stephen Eyre for the discovery and loan of a book by AG Hebert: ‘The Parish Communion: A Book of Essays’, published by SPCK in 1937 – Chapter 12 is by FR Fairbairn, ‘sometime Vicar of Temple Balsall’ and FM Downton, ‘sometime Assistant Curate’, whose name is commemorated in our ‘Downton Room’ in the Church Hall.)

St Peter’s at 60 – The early days

While we shall be celebrating the 60th anniversary of becoming a Parish Church this December, we have other dates to remember – and June has always been a special month, since St Peter’s Day falls on June 29th, and our building was dedicated as a church on 28th June 1911! What’s more, the Hall was also formally opened on 29th June 1965, so we can have a double celebration. And we are also looking forward two years, when we shall celebrate 150 years of service to the community since 20th March 1871, when what was then known as Balsall Street Chapel was first licensed for worship

The origins of this history go even further back, when it was recognised that people living out in the wild country of Warwickshire needed to be enabled to make their regular devotions somewhere and that it was not easy for them to get to a town! Our nearest church was St Mary & St Bartholomew in Hampton – (Barston was only a chapel until 1894) and people would have had to make their journey to worship along the old ‘green lane’ near the Saracen’s Head pub, and cross the river. This was not always easy: Knowle Church was originally built in about 1400AD because of the problems met by villagers fording the River Blythe, ‘a greate and daungerouse water wch in wynter and at every raine so rageth and overfloweth that neyther man nor beaste cann passe without ymmynant danger of peryshing’ (It still does rage, sometimes). It gained parish status only in 1859, as did the Templars’ Church of Temple Balsall in 1863, which in 1868 bought land in Balsall Street. In March 1871 a ‘small brick church of Gothic style consisting of a nave with western bell gable’ was licensed for public worship as Balsall Street Chapel. The cost of that came to some £900. On Easter Monday 1875, a Parish Room was opened, to provide formal public education, with sixteen pupils. This formed the nucleus of Balsall Street Primary School which first opened in September 1913, while the Parish Room found new functions, finally being demolished in the 1960’s and replaced by the present Scout Hut.

The centenary of the Church in 1971 was marked by a ‘Gala Cricket Match’, Ecumenical Choral Evensong, Garden Fete and Flower Festival. The brochure for that event observed that ‘The history of our small church is not expected to be resplendent in impressive grandeur. What cannot be expressed in mere words is the faithful service and witness of the people who have served and worshipped in St Peter’s Church, and it is through God’s grace and their devotion and dedicated perseverance that this Church flourishes today and is ready to serve the corporate religious needs of Balsall Common….’. Our celebrations in the 21st Century may be more modest, but we shall enjoy the special services and the Barbecue just as much – and still exist ‘to serve the community’.

Pictures included: Demolition and excavation begin!

Farewell to the old boiler-room!

And goodbye to the old Vestry

Footings for the Baptistry

Vicar Nigel Hackett presides!

Nearly there: our modern church takes shape

St Peter’s @ 60 – Planning for Growth

As the last item in this series showed, our ‘little church’ has grown a lot since the early simple ‘small brick church of Gothic style’ of 1871. That probably seated only about 60 people, while now we can accommodate over 100 in the main building and perhaps up to 50 more when the internal double doors are opened to the Baptistry (added 1989)! While reviewing our archives for the display on St Peter’s Day weekend this summer, we found even more amazing evidence of what might have been. Also, it is impressive to see how well our predecessors planned for the future: we hope that we may be as careful and effective stewards.

Among the dusty documents in our archives are the plans for St Peter’s Hall, built in 1964 – after dropping a plan dated April 1963 that saw the demolition of the old church and its replacement by a 400-seater church linked to a new Hall via a covered walkway and toilet block! The Hall would have seated 300, and there was to be car-parking for 54 vehicles between the buildings and the Vicarage, and on the present ‘play area’. The new Hall was built, to a more modest design, the following year. The brochure advertising its facilities describes it as ‘among the most modern and best equipped halls in the country ... set beside green lawns and neatly kept gardens ... a delightful meeting place for Business or Social occasions’! It was felt that it ‘may well provide the answer to the problem of where to celebrate those important family occasions’. It still does! The dedication by the Bishop of Birmingham on 29th June, 1965 (St Peter’s day!) was a glittering occasion with many visiting clergy and local dignitaries including the Assistant Bishop of Coventry. Also, we note, “A great deal of thought lies behind the choice of the Curtains”!

We have also copies of an earlier plan to demolish the church in 1956, to build a very modern-looking church in the shape of a boat, that would have seated 306 and with a Lady Chapel behind the main Altar, as well as a bell-tower alongside Balsall Street East! Unfortunately, funds clearly never allowed for this – as in 1989, we again had to drop our plans for a bell-tower, upper room, and covered walkway to the Hall! Who knows what the future will bring?

The blueprint of the 1963 plans for both Church and Hall

How things have changed – or have they? It is clear from our archives that there are two perpetual problems – 1: ‘Being Church’ on weekdays so we are more than just a ‘Sunday Club’ but become a true community of friendship,; and 2: raising enough funds to maintain the church buildings and pay those who work for it! One solution has been the organisation of a string of (fund-raising) social events, and the St Peter’s Socials Committee was formed in 1964 to address these issues. We thank John Shuttleworth (Chair for many years) for letting us see the Minutes Book recording its activities from 1964-1977.

The first few entries focus on the then regular Autumn Fair, hoping that the Toffee Apples and Tombola stalls which has been ‘ huge success’ at the earlier Garden Fete, could be repeated. The Raffle included prizes of a chicken dinner and wheelbarrow(!). The First prize was to be a Transistor Radio worth 11½ guineas (£12.08)/. The Summer Fete in 1965 was the first to be held in the new Hall, and the Autumn Fete regarded as a great success, raising £292 ‘Nett’.

In subsequent years the Social Committee (with 24 members!) raised its scope with plans for a Cheese and Wine party in 1966, followed by singing, dancing to piano and drums, a conjurer and community singing. A subsequent discussion sounds familiar: “we could possibly do with more helpers and so halve the work”. Also attendance by young families had been hit by problems finding baby sitters. Some things do not change. Buffet Dances were tried and found ‘a great success socially but not financially’, Harvest Suppers were a staple event and a New Years Eve dance added to the regular calendar in 1969. Another innovation that year, which continues, was fundraising for Malawi ‘to be started by a meeting after Evensong ... as soon as the Forsyth Saga (on TV) ends’!

By 1970 it was said that ‘lack of attendance at social functions was a sign of the times, created in large measure by Television ...’ Over time, some events have gradually ceased due to competition with other organisations (Schools, mostly, even then) but new ideas such as an annual cricket match were always being tried and added to the repertoire. The Fete Queen and attendants were great attractions, pulled on a trailer in 1973 by a Steam Roller! Other innovations included Theatre trips, Old Time Music Hall, Strawberry Teas, Bingo, and Brass Band concerts. How strange will our modern records seem in 40 years time?

(Photo found in the archives shows Harvest Supper 1968)

Delving into the church archives is a never-ending source of amazement and delight! What is clear, in all the arguments about whether or not there should be a separate church and Parish for Balsall Common, and how things should be organised (and indeed, after that, how the church would continue to raise funds for its activities), is the importance of individuals! There are so many hidden stories, and characters who have made us what we are today. Some of the names recur and represent long-established local families – like the family of Jim Morris, who was the church boiler-man and first caretaker of St Peter’s Hall. They still remember Jean Morton and TV koala puppets Tingha and Tucker who came to open the new St Peter’s Hall, described in September’s magazine!

We should also not overlook the succession of faithful priests (and in many cases, their families) who have worshipped here, led services and chaired the Parish Councils, argued with ‘higher authorities’, and set out the case for the worshipping community of the village. Take, for instance, Frances Murray Downton, whose name is commemorated in the ‘Downton Room’ in the Hall. He built and endowed a church, St Richards, at Meer End, in the hope that it would service a growing village in that area (which never came to pass). We also owe a debt to John Slade who found correspondence from 1935 that the “congregation being promised that if they found the money for a parson’s house, they would be given their own Parson and Parish status in due course”. He went on to make the case to Church Commissioners and Archdeacon that “owing to ‘overspill ... the population of Balsall Common has increased until it is now more than twice the size of the original parent parish of Hampton-in-Arden, and three times the size of the community around Temple Balsall.” He argued that “The present population figure of just over 3,000 is increasing week-by-week”.

The Diocesan offices at that time responded that they had been advised that “the ultimate potential population was unlikely to reach 3,500 and even this figure was based on the assumption, which might not in fact be realised, that the whole of the ‘island’ (of built-up land) would be developed”, but they did concede that St Peter’s might become a ‘Statutory District’ with a view to later being awarded Parish status. The Churchwardens of the time (John Hedley and Frederick Davies) were then tasked with mapping out boundaries for the new ‘district’ – fighting with Temple Balsall for the area around the Saracen’s Head pub, which had been for years a favourite spot for the people of St Mary’s Temple Balsall when ‘beating the bounds’ and holding their annual social events! Which is why the parish border, technically, runs through the Saracen Drive estate, and not through open countryside or Magpie Lane!

On December 10th 1959, following an Order in Council signed by the Queen on 15th June, the Right Reverend Lord Bishop of Birmingham, John Leonard Wilson, visited the village to inaugurate the ‘Statutory District’ of Balsall Common, consecrate the Church of St Peter, and institute the Revd. Wallace Hamilton Barker as its first Vicar. He was accompanied by his Registrar, the preacher Revd. Wendell Rhys, and the Master of Temple Balsall, along with sundry other dignitaries and well-wishers. As the programme for the day notes – by this ‘it is set apart for all time to serve as the spiritual home of the parishioners of Balsall Common’. Over the past 60 years, the church has gone through many changes, as can be seen in our selection of pictures on the centrefold of this issue of the magazine! But, throughout all that time, we hope that it has continued to fulfil that role, and find new ways to reach out and serve the community.

What a long and exciting journey it was up to that point, since the purchase of the land on which the church stands in 1868. Very swiftly the original ‘Balsall Street Chapel’ building was erected at a cost of about £900 and licensed for public worship on 20th March 1871 – soon followed by a ‘Parish Room’ or school which opened on Easter Monday 1875! This provided the only education in the village until 19th September 1913, when it closed to be replaced by the new Balsall Street Council School.

In future issues we shall be running a series of short histories of the priests who have served at St Peter’s, with thanks to Stephen Eyre for historical research. For the record, we have benefitted from a long list of clergy – as you can see!

1896 J Havelock Collins

1899 E G Betenson

1906 William Arthur Douglas Hamilton

1908 S Burgess

1909 John Collingwood Gainsforth Bruce

1913 George Bissett Poole

1916 Frances Murray Downton

1931 Wendell Rhys

1940 Richard Joseph Cooke Gutteridge

1941 John Herbert Curtis

1944 John Arthur Reginald Lisney

1951 Ernest Micheaux

1953 Christopher Kingston Hamel Cooke

1958 John Henry Philip Slade

1959 Wallace Hamilton Barker (First Vicar of St Peter’s as an independent Parish)

1968 John Roland Morgan

1982 Nigel Hackett

1996 Andrew Montgomerie

2005 Peter Thomas

2023 - to be appointed!


St Peter’s house was built in 1935 ... PCC minutes July 1937 ... the Archdeacon of Aston had promised that as soon as the house was built the Parish would be separated (from Temple Balsall) ... This had now been done almost two years ....

Nb 1955 Fr Cooke ... saw the Bishop of Aston who agreed in principle to the setting up of the Statutory District (which by July 1957 had still not been agreed so he resigned and left the parish in Sept 1957!)

Wendell Rhys was resident 1931-1939 before moving to Hob Moor Rd, Bordesley .....

Village Vicars: A selection of pen-portraits of our priests, compiled by Stephen Eyre


Many of the priests who served at Balsall Common while they were curates at Temple Balsall were young men near the start of their ministry. Samuel Burgess was very different. He came to Balsall Common in 1908 to help out for a short time when he was in his later 60’s and when he had already retired from a life of service as a teacher and pastor. His time with us was short but it does give us a connexion to that life and to a family who served the Church and our country through the generations.

Samuel was born in Luton in 1841. His father, Henry Burgess, was at that time the minister of a nonconformist congregation. Henry was a noted scholar and had already published a translation from the ancient Syriac of the hymns of St Ephraem and other books on religious and academic topics. Within a few years Henry had joined the Church of England and he was ordained in 1851. The same year he obtained the degree of LLD from Glasgow University followed by a PhD from Gottingen University the next year. Henry continued his writing. He made more learned translations of Syriac texts but also served as the first editor of what later became Crockford’s Clerical Directory and wrote books attacking “diluted popery” in the Church of England. After a time in Buckinghamshire he was appointed in 1861 as vicar of Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire. That appointment was expressly made in recognition of Henry’s services to ecclesiastical learning and Henry remained as vicar at Whittlesey until his death in 1886.

It was in Whittlesey that Samuel Burgess met Annie Peed, one of his father’s flock and the daughter of a local solicitor. In 1867 Samuel and Annie were married in Sydenham at a service conducted by Henry Burgess. By then Samuel had himself been ordained after studying at St. John’s College in Cambridge and when he and Annie married he was a curate at Stony Stratford combining that post with being Second Master at the local school.

In 1869 aged twenty-eight Samuel became the Headmaster of Guilsborough Grammar School in Northamptonshire. This was a small but long-established school taking boarders at 36 guineas per annum and day boys at 6 guineas per annum.

Samuel remained as headmaster at Guilsborough for sixteen happy years. He and Annie had eight children, four boys and four girls, and six of them were born during their time at Guilsborough. The Northampton Mercury contains repeated news of the life of the school and of the part Samuel played in that life. There were cricket matches with Samuel playing for the combined school and old boys’ team when they beat the Guilsborough club team. There were plays and concerts with Samuel singing a mixture of comic songs and patriotic ballads. However, sport and music were combined with study. The school had good academic results and Samuel was praised for the “high moral tone” he set and for not being ashamed “to let it be known that the education he gave was a distinctly Christian education”. Annie clearly took her part and at the speech day in 1879, “before a large and very select company of the clergy and neighbouring gentry” a rather gushing Lady Spencer was generous in her praise saying that there was not a “better or kinder headmaster’s wife” in any school in the country.

In 1885 Samuel and Annie moved to Halse near Taunton in Somerset when Samuel became rector there. We know little of Samuel’s time in Halse but we do know that his eldest daughter, Ethel, followed Samuel’s example and married one of her father’s flock. She married George Hancock the son of a local farmer whose family had been farming in Halse since the Seventeenth Century. After their marriage George and Ethel moved from Halse to Worcestershire and farmed there.

Samuel retired in 1899 and moved to live in Edgbaston. He and Annie were joined there by their daughter, Annie, who worked as a governess. From 1901 Samuel had assisted at St. Augustine’s in Edgbaston formally becoming a member of the clergy team there in 1912. We don’t know what brought Samuel and Annie to Edgbaston (though it may have been so as to be near to Ethel and George who at one time lived in King’s Norton) but by 1918 the vicar of St. Augustine’s described them as having become “established Edgbastonians”.

It was while he was living in Edgbaston that Samuel spent time as the curate in charge of St. Peter’s, Balsall Common. We have no record of his ministry here nor of why his help was sought and we can only wonder if he performed any of his repertoire of comic or patriotic songs at parish social gatherings.

In the Autumn of 1914 Samuel was aged seventy-three, helping his local church in retirement, and with a family of children and grandchildren. He may well have been looking forward to a quiet and gentle retirement but for him as for so many others the next few years were to bring a mixture of sadness and pride.

The First World War in East Africa began with the advance of German forces under Colonel Vol Lettow-Vorbreck into the British colonies. At that time Samuel’s son, John, was aged thirty-eight and married with two young daughters. He was working as an engineer at the Magadi Soda Works in Kenya. On the declaration of war he and others living around Magadi banded together in a volunteer squadron called the “Magadi Force” with a view to resisting the invasion. The Magadi Force quickly joined up with others to form the East African Mounted Rifles. This was a volunteer regiment of Kenyan settlers and local residents described as being made up of men who were Swahili-speaking expert riders and crack shots who knew the local land but who “knew little and cared less about formal soldiering”. The EAMR are credited with having held the German advance at bay for a vital two months until regular troops arrived from India. Unfortunately those reinforcements came too late for John Burgess. On 25th September 1914 he was part of a patrol of thirty men which ran into a German detachment one hundred and fifty strong armed with machine guns. John Burgess and three others were ordered to hold off the Germans as long as they could to cover the withdrawal of the rest of the patrol. They did this and when the British troops returned in force the next day they found the dead bodies of John and his companions still in the positions they had taken up to protect their comrades’ retreat. In their commanding officer’s words “if ever men gave their lives to save others it was those four”.

1915 brought further sadness for Samuel and Annie. Their son, Harry, had been a colonial civil servant in what is now Malaysia serving as Assistant Secretary to the government of Perak. Out there he had contracted sprue, a wasting tropical disease, and had retired home. Harry had been living with his parents and sister in Edgbaston but in February 1915, aged forty-three, he died of heart failure brought on by a bout of influenza attacking his weakened system.

It is hard to imagine the emotions which Samuel and Annie must have experienced when they learnt in August 1916 that their eldest grandson, George Hancock, had been commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps as a Second Lieutenant aged twenty-one. George was followed in October 1916 by his brother, John Hancock, who joined the Royal Sussex Regiment, also as a Second-Lieutenant, just two months after his eighteenth birthday.

On 24th September 1918 almost exactly four years after his uncle’s heroic death John Hancock was in action at Bricourt on the Western Front. John’s heroism on that day earned him the Military Cross. The citation for his award says with a degree of understatement that “he did fine work” in leading an attack and showing “great gallantry and dash” in holding off a German counter-attack despite having been “severely wounded”.Fortunately John lived to receive his honour. He and George returned to civilian life after the War with George ultimately taking over the family farm in Halse though John returned to the Army with an emergency commission in 1940.

Samuel’s family had been represented in all three Services during the First World War. His and Annie’s third son, Charles, had joined the Royal Navy in 1899 and he served throughout the War and beyond finally retiring as a Commander in the Paymaster Division.

Samuel died of a stroke at home aged seventy-eight in August 1919. After Samuel’s death Annie moved to live with their eldest son, also called Samuel, who was a bank manager in Tonbridge and it was there that she died in 1929 aged eighty-nine.

Village Vicars:- Wendell Rhys: A “Definite Catholic”

Wendell Rhys was not the first priest to serve in Balsall Common nor was he the first vicar of the new parish. However, he did preach the sermon when the new church was consecrated in December 1959, and his life is an example of Christian service typical of so many of those who have ministered in our parish.

Wendell Rhys was born in 1905 in Monmouthshire. His father, Thomas, was a priest, and Wendell’s two brothers also became priests. However, Thomas had been a Congregational Minister and had travelled to the USA to minister there. There, he became an Anglican serving as a parish priest in the diocese of Southern Ohio. In America, Thomas married Mary Hopkins and the American connexion may well explain the choice of Wendell’s name.

Wendell attended Birmingham University and then Wadham College, Oxford. He was ordained deacon in 1929 after theological studies at Ripon Hall and became a priest a year later. Fr. Rhys served all his full-time ministry (lasting 42 years) in just two parishes. He was a deacon and then curate at St. Benedict’s on Hob Moor Road in Small Heath. He came to Balsall Common as a curate of Temple Balsall in 1932 but returned to St. Benedict’s as vicar in 1939 and remained there till he retired in 1971.

When Wendell came to Balsall Common in 1932 his brother Edwin was a curate in Bourneville. Fr. Rhys made trips back to the USA in 1932 and 1934; the latter appears to have been at the time of his father’s death. It was Wendell’s service at St. Peter’s, combined doubtless with the impression he had made there earlier, which led to him being made vicar of St. Benedict’s in 1939. Commenting on this move the Church Times said that at Balsall Common Wendell had “worked with much devotion on definite Catholic lines.” It said that he would have a harder task at St. Benedict’s which was a parish of 11,000 “mostly of the better off working class”.

We don’t know what form Fr. Rhys’s devoted service in Balsall Common took, but we can get a good idea by seeing how he approached matters at St. Benedict’s. He took over there in December 1939 and served throughout the time of bombing of inner-city Birmingham. It is clear that he was a hard worker and throughout the war he maintained a full pattern of services ministering to his flock. So, on Christmas Eve, 1943, Evensong at 5.45pm was followed by Midnight Mass at 11.30pm and on Christmas Day he held communion services at 7.00am, 8.00am, and 10.30am with Evensong at 5.45pm. On Ash Wednesday, 1944, there were communion services at 6.45am and 9.00am with Evensong at 5.45pm and then, at 8.00pm, “Compline and Instruction in the Faith”. Not only did he work in his own parish but also helped elsewhere in the city at that time. So, in 1941 the people of St Jude’s thanked him and others for the support given while they were without a parish priest. It is no wonder that in 1947 he was advertising for a new curate saying that the priest had to be unmarried and that the parish was “Definite Catholic” in its churchmanship. The advert also pointed out that “the Bishop demands a graduate”.

Fr. Rhys did not confine himself to parochial ministry. He was a member of the Council for the Defence of Christian Principles and an active member of the Birmingham Diocesan Synod. In that synod he spoke out against the scheme which ultimately became the Church of South India. At that time, he spoke strongly about the need to maintain the catholicity of the Church of England’s ministry and sacraments and expressed concerns about close relations with “Nonconformists”, warning that any watering down of the Church’s requirements for the priesthood and administration of the Eucharist would have effects on the prospects for unity with the worldwide church. It may be that these concerns had been influenced by his father’s move from Congregationalism to the Anglican Church.

Press reports make it clear that though Fr. Rhys expressed the fears of many, his views were not welcomed by the leadership of the church in Birmingham. That may be why the visit of Bishop Wilson to St. Benedict’s in 1955 to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Wendell’s ordination was the first time in 19 years that the Bishop of Birmingham had been to that church.

Unmarried, hardworking, firm in speaking up for Christian principles, and wary of compromise: perhaps that makes Wendell Rhys sound rather unattractive? That clearly was not the whole picture. It is significant that Wendell was invited back to preach at St. Peter’s on the occasion of the consecration of the new church, even though it was 20 years after he had left the parish, and also significant that when St. Benedict’s became vacant, he was summoned back to work there in the stress of wartime. In fact, we have a good indication that Wendell’s was a life suffused by Christian joy. This indication comes from the advert which Canon Rhys, as he had become, placed in the Church Times in 1980 marking the 50th Anniversary of his ordination. He described himself as “living in very happy retirement” in Solihull (where he died in 1987 aged 81) and said:

“Canon Wendell Rhys gives thanks to God for fifty years of Priesthood …`Thou, O God, hast taught me from my youth up until now: therefore, will I tell of thy wondrous works’ Psalm 71 v 15”.


In November 1951 Fr Ernest Michaux married Susannah Wright and together they moved to set up their first home as a married couple in Balsall Common where Ernest was to be the curate in charge. In doing that they followed in the footsteps of Ernest’s immediate predecessor at St. Peter’s, Rev John Lisney, about whom I will write next month. We will see that Balsall Common was to be the first family home for a number of young priests and their wives.

Ernest Michaux served as curate in charge of St. Peter’s from 1951 to 1953.

Born in South London in 1915 Ernest had obtained a theology degree from King’s College, London. He was ordained in Southwark in 1939 and served as a curate in South London throughout the Second World War. He was first at Holy Trinity, Woolwich and then at St. Michael and All Angels, South Beddington. Both of those were churches which had been founded in the Oxford Movement spirit of ministering to those in the inner cities with worship in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Holy Trinity in particular served the people of “the Dusthole” the poorest and seamiest part of Woolwich.

Until 1946 Ernest Michaux seemed set for a life of ministry in the diocese of Southwark but then there was a marked change in his ministry and life. From 1946 to 1951 he was a priest in Trinidad. He was at the churches of All Saints in Port of Spain and St Paul’s in San Fernando. Both are still going strong and a visitor has described St Paul’s as “a great parish full of hospitable people and beautiful worship” – should we be aiming at getting similar comments to put on our website?

While he was serving in Trinidad Ernest’s life changed in another way. It was there that he met Susannah Wright. She was a nurse from Hampshire who had been working in Trinidad.

Ernest and Susannah returned to England in 1951. They married in November and shortly after their marriage Ernest became the curate responsible for St. Peter’s. It is to be hoped that he and Susannah did not find a winter in Balsall Common too bracing a start to married life after their years in Trinidad. It seems that their life in Trinidad seemed rather exotic to the people of Balsall Common. So we learn that in July 1953 Susannah was talking to Balsall Common WI about Trinidad.

Shortly after his wife’s talk to the WI (but not we hope as a result of it) Ernest left Balsall Common. He served as priest in charge of churches in Shrewsbury and Reading before becoming vicar of St. Matthew’s Etruria in Stoke on Trent in April 1964. St. Matthew’s was another church which had been built in the middle of the Nineteenth Century to provide for the needs of those in the hearts of big cities. Sadly Ernest’s ministry there was a short one because he died of a coronary thrombosis just before Christmas 1966 aged fifty-one.


On 19th September 1944 Fr. J.A.R. (“Jack”) Lisney was introduced to the Church Council of St. Peter’s as the new curate in charge. Jack had married Margaret (“Peg”) Maltby on 1st September. They had already moved into St. Peter’s House and Jack had drawn up plans for changes at St. Peter’s. He got ready agreement from the Church Council to changes in the times of services; to arranging for surplus vestments to be provided free of charge to parishes which had lost their vestments as the result of bomb damage; and to the setting up of a boys’ choir.

Jack put those changes into effect quickly. An advert offering the surplus vestments appeared in the Church Times the following week. The boys’ choir was recruited and was clearly a success. It was remembered fondly by a former member now living in New Zealand who got in touch last year after seeing an article in the Bugle and who wrote of the trips which Jack Lisney organised for the choir to various cathedrals.

Born in 1915 Jack went to Repton School and then Clare College, Cambridge. He was ordained as priest in 1940 and served as a curate at All Saints, Stechford before coming to Balsall Common. He left St Peter’s in 1951 becoming the vicar of St. Mary & St. John, Shaw Hill in Alum Rock near to his previous service in Stechford. Jack moved again in 1954 and became vicar of St. Andrew, Witchford with St. Peter, Wentworth just outside Ely. He remained there for 32 years retiring at the age of 71 in 1986 to live in Ely and dying aged 78 in 1993.

His obituary in the Church Times explained that Jack had never owned or drove a motor car but that throughout his time as a priest covering two Fenland parishes he “cycled in all weathers”. The author of the obituary said that Jack was of a “scholarly disposition” and that he “believed in the discipline of the daily office and the regular celebration of the eucharist.” He also said that Jack “was not one for committees” and “believed in the parish priest being in his parish”. Jack was a keen gardener using the large vicarage garden in Witchford for the production of prize-winning vegetables.

Although Jack believed in a parish priest being in his parish he did contribute to the wider life of the Church. He wrote a number of letters to the Church Times and also provided the information for a learned but humorous article about which types of nightcaps clergy were allowed to wear under Canon Law.

Jack and Peg had been contemporaries at Cambridge and it was probably because of Peg whose family lived in Birmingham that Jack came to be ordained here. Peg was active in the life of the Church. At Balsall Common she had served on the Church Council and had been an elected representative to the Diocesan Council (the predecessor of the Diocesan Synod). In Witchford Jack and Peg also worked together in running twice-weekly classes in the parish church giving “definite Christian instruction” to the children from the local secondary modern school.

Jack and Peg had both read Classics. They continued their interest in Greek and were energetic in building relations between the Anglican and Orthodox churches. Jack was an active member of the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association. Peg was involved in the work of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. She translated a number of works of Orthodox theology into English and the Fellowship published her booklet “Under the Wings of their Prayers”, a collection of Orthodox prayers suggested for private use in conjunction with the Book of Common Prayer Communion Service.

When Jack retired from Witchford he and Peg went to live in Ely but his was an active retirement. He was a chaplain at Ely Cathedral and also became responsible for the small church of St. Peter. That church was a rare proprietary chapel – a church owned and run by trustees. It had been a frequent place of worship for the ordinands from Ely Theological College. When that college closed in 1964 St. Peter’s not only lost those young men but, in the words of Dr Janet Fairweather writing the history of St. Peter’s, “the young women who came in admiration of them”. There then followed “thirty years of decline and difficulty”. Before Jack and Peg arrived St. Peter’s was in a bad way and the small congregation had not been able to afford to repair the heating system for two years. Dr. Fairweather says that the arrival of the Lisneys meant that “help was at hand”. Together they helped to build up the church and to maintain the traditional “Prayer Book Catholic” worship for which the church was known.

Jack and Peg appear to have lived modestly engaged in study and prayer; gardening and cycling. They had no children but were kept cats and built up a collection of cat figurines and cat vases as well as of icons, crucifixes, and paintings. However, Jack was a man of some considerable wealth. When Peg died in 1996 she left an estate worth just over £900,000. The money had come from Jack’s family’s business empire. When Jack was born his father was running the London operation of their builder’s merchant business, Turner and Lisney. However, Jack’s grandfather had wider interests. He was the co-owner of a pipe manufacturer in Leicestershire and in 1919 he and his partner together with Jack’s father and uncle bought the adjoining Red Bank Manufacturing Company. This was a manufacturer of bricks and terra cotta goods particularly chimney pots. The family expanded the business: buying up other local companies and capitalising on the link with their builder’s merchant operation. Writing in the journal of the British Brick Society Michael Chapman said that “the company enjoyed an extremely prosperous time and was entirely dominant in its market for many decades”. Jack had a substantial income from his shareholding in the company and we can see that he used this money for the church and for those less fortunate than himself. His obituary writer says that Jack and Peg did much to “adorn and beautify” the churches at Witchford and Wentworth contributing their own money to this. At their death they left substantial sums to the Bible Lands Society and the Christian Children’s Fund to continue paying for the children they had been sponsoring through those bodies. Jack’s estate passed to Peg and she in turn left their home to provide accommodation for a retired priest or clergy widow with half of the balance after a number of charitable bequests going to St. Peter’s Ely and the other half to the work of Bridget’’s – a fund assisting disabled students at Cambridge. The money which went to St. Peter’s put its finances on a firm foundation and enabled the purchase of the adjoining house which is used as a church hall providing space for meetings and social functions.

The funerals of both Jack and Peg were at St. Peter’s, Ely where they had given instructions that the service was to be in accord with the Book of Common Prayer and requiring that the creed be recited at any requiem mass. They are buried together at Witchford.


William Douglas-Hamilton served in nine parishes never spending more than five years in any parish. He was never a vicar or a rector but always either a curate or priest in charge.

Born in 1864, William Douglas-Hamilton was the curate of St Mary’s, Temple Balsall with responsibility for Balsall Common from 1906 to 1909. He had been the curate in Hanley Castle in Worcestershire before coming to Balsall Common and moved on to be priest in charge of St John the Evangelist, Stranraer.

We don’t know why William moved so much. Not only did he serve in nine parishes but he attended two different Cambridge colleges (Trinity Hall and Downing) to obtain his degree. Also although he was ordained a deacon in the Salisbury diocese in 1893 he was unusually priested in the rather different diocese of Glasgow in 1895.

William was a descendant of the Dukes of Hamilton. They were, the premier peers of Scotland with very substantial landholdings throughout Scotland and in England. In 1895 his connexion with the peerage became even closer. The main line of the Douglas-Hamilton family died out and William’s first cousin succeeded as 13th Duke of Hamilton.

It is tempting to think that William Douglas-Hamilton might have been something of a “chinless wonder” lacking application or staying power and flitting from parish to parish. However, I don’t think that would be a fair conclusion to draw. We know that William did serve in some pleasant country parishes as shown by his time in Hanley Castle and Balsall Common but he also served in rather more testing settings. Before his time in Hanley Castle William had been at Bethnal Green in the East End of London for three years and after leaving Balsall Common he was at Stranraer and then at Kirkcudbright. If he had been looking for soft options there would have been many others open to a well-connected aristocrat and it is clear that William did not need the limited income those curacies would have provided.

Perhaps the best indication of William’s true character is shown by his service in the First World War. In December 1914 at the age of fifty he volunteered for service as an army chaplain. At that time he gave his home address as fashionable Onslow Square in Kensington. William served in France but was invalided home with infection in April 1915. By the end of May 1915 he was pressing the War Office to allow him to return to duty. He had been recuperating at a family property in Perthshire and arranged for the Medical Officer at Perth barracks to undertake a fresh medical examination to confirm that he was fit to return to duty. He wrote to the War Office with this medical confirmation of his fitness and asking what steps he needed to take to be allowed to return to France. The Chaplain General said that the state of William’s health meant that he would not be allowed to return to serve in France but did agree that he could serve in the United Kingdom. William did this and was a chaplain at barracks in Colchester and Shoreham. William had signed on for one year’s service as a chaplain but sought to serve for longer. In December 1915 the War Office told him that because of his state of health he would not be asked to serve for a further year. William responded by asking to be allowed to serve until the middle of January 1916 – presumably so as to be able to conduct Christmas services at the barracks – and that request was allowed.A less dedicated man would not have volunteered at the age of fifty and certainly would not have pressed to be allowed to return to the front when invalided home.

Might it be that far from being lacking in determination William used the flexibility provided by his wealth and connexions to serve as a trouble-shooter and to assist in parishes needing help or to which he felt a particular call? If so what were the circumstances which called him to Balsall Common?

At the end of his time as an army chaplain William served in Kirkcudbright and Ballater. He retired from full-time ministry in 1919 moving to live in Kent. However, in 1923 aged fifty-eight he married Alice Legge. Alice was a spinster aged forty-seven. She was the daughter of a long-standing vicar of North Elmham in Norfolk and related to the family of the Earls of Dartmouth. After their marriage William and Alice lived on what appears to have been part of his family estate in Hampshire until he did aged eighty-three in 1948.