Wilfred Knox | ‘Finding a home and the end of loneliness’

Wilfred Lawrence Knox (1886-1950),
Priest, Oratorian, Scholar.
“Finding a home and the end of loneliness.”

A paper delivered at the November 2018 Chapter of the London and Cambridge College
By Christopher, OGS

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Father Wilfred Knox, Superior of the Oratory at Pembroke

In producing this paper about our brother Wilfred Lawrence Knox, it is not my intention to write a biographical profile; rather to see what influences can be discerned throughout his life that led him, first to join the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, and then to become its Superior and, ultimately, to be the first of its brethren to die in Profession.

For those looking for a fuller biographical study, there is none better than the careful and well-researched “Knox Brothers” (1977), written by his own niece Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000). This gives very full biographical pictures of the four famous brothers, and is written quite helpfully as a consecutive narrative rather than four individual life studies. In terms of our brother Wilfred it is largely complete (although the passage of time led to one or two confusions in her presentation of the early days of the Oratory which I have sought to correct here) and it forms the basis for some of my thoughts in this paper.

Wilfred Lawrence Knox was born 21 May 1886 at Kibworth Beauchamp, a small village in Leicestershire where another of our brethren, Robert Symonds, lived for some years in retirement. He was the third son and the fourth of the six children of Edmund Knox, the Evangelical rector of Kibworth, and his first wife, Ellen Penelope, née French. The other sons (the Knox Brothers) were Edmund, Dillwyn and Ronald; his younger sister was Winifred.

Edmund was to become a famous editor of “Punch” magazine, Dillwyn, after a scholastic career, was a key figure among Second World War “Enigma” code-breakers at Bletchley Park, and Ronald became a prominent Roman Catholic priest, writer, and ultimately translator of the Latin Bible into English. Their father was a descendant of the aristocratic John Arbuthnott, 8thViscount Arbuthnott, and their mother was the daughter of an evangelical missionary bishop in India.

Wilfred’s father was ill at ease with the comfortable country way of life of Kibworth, feeling he could do more good in a deprived area. So in 1891, when Wilfred was five, the family moved to the parish of Aston-juxta-Birmingham, then a rather poor area Birmingham but now rather smarter and home to the modern University quarter.

Tragically in 1892 Ellen Knox died of influenza. Their father was inconsolable and so Wilfred and his younger brother Ronald were sent to live with their bachelor clerical uncle, his formidable widowed mother and his sisters at Edmundsthorpe, near to Grantham. These were seemingly happy enough years in which the two brothers became increasingly close, indeed almost inseparable. When, two years later, Wilfred’s father became suffragan Bishop of Coventry (the modern Diocese was not created until 1918), he remarried and reunited his six children with their step-mother. Although Wilfred and his brothers loved the excitement of the proximity of the city and especially, it seems, its trams, their father was persuaded that the boys should attend public schools away from home.  All four boys won scholarships to Rugby (in the case of Edmund and Wilfred) or Eton (in the case of Dillwyn and Ronald).

Our brother Wilfred’s early childhood concern for the poor, first witnessed when he was very young indeed, was reinforced during his father’s tenure at Aston. At Rugby he came under the further influence of an older pupil, one William Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, whose creed combined Christianity and Socialism.As well as Temple’s views, Knox was impressed by the writings of John Ruskin (1819-1900; the art critic and writer on social reform and Christian Socialism) and F.D. Maurice (1805-1872; the theologian later widely-regarded as the founder of Christian Socialism), all of whom tended in the direction of socialism and the alleviation and, ultimately, the abolition of poverty.

From Rugby, Knox won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford. He suffered a crisis in his religious faith while there, and threw himself into study. He was placed in the first class in classical moderations (1907) and in literae humaniores(Greats 1909). On coming down from Oxford he obtained a civil service post as a junior examiner at the Board of Education. In this period of his young adult life, Wilfred had serious doubts about his Christian faith and for a short time felt that he had ceased to believe.

During the Oxford vacations, and later while working as a civil servant, Knox lived at the Trinity Mission in Stratford, of which he later became warden for a short period. His mentors and role models were Temple and George Lansbury, the latter a future leader of the Labour Party, who was a prominent figure in the East End. Through Lansbury’s influence Knox became involved with the Workers’ Educational Association, of which Temple was president.

By now, his Christian faith no longer in doubt, he moved away from his father’s evangelicalism towards Anglo-Catholicism (a term for which he had a life-long dislike, preferring rather “English Catholics”). Bishop Knox was distressed by his son’s doctrinal views, but was in full support of his work among the poor in the East End of London.

In 1913 Knox resigned from the civil service in order to train for ordination. He studied theology at the short-lived St Anselm’s House, Cambridge (presided over by Father Waggett of Cowley), and was ordained deacon in 1914, and priest the following year, serving as assistant curate at St Mary’s, Graham Terrace under the saintly Father John Howell, with Lord Halifax as Church Warden. At this time he privately made vows of poverty and celibacy, having in fact made such “promises” earlier when he was only 17 at school as did his brother Ronald.

On the outbreak of the first World War, he volunteered to serve as an army chaplain, but was turned down by the War Office, which was somewhat suspicious of Anglo-Catholics.His request to become a medical orderly was also turned down, this time by his bishop. With no possibility of official war work, he and his brother Ronald settled down to the life of very active members of the Anglo-Papalist movement in the Church, centred on St Mary’s Church, Graham Terrace and the ultra-Montane Society of Saint Peter and St Paul which had its own printing press.

In many ways, it seems that Wilfred had hoped that his ministry would be in this world of those who sought a corporate reunion with the Roman Church; this hope he shared with his beloved brother Ronald. Graham Terrace in those days (unlike now) had many poor parishioners and Wilfred lived out the life of a “slum-priest”; even fifty years after his departure from the parish, there were those who remembered his heroic work. But this world was not to last, for in 1916 his beloved brother decided to become a Roman Catholic and Wilfred was left bereft.

So it was that in 1920 Wilfred returned to Cambridge as a member of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. He returned to a city that he had known before the War and ordination and it is worth quoting here at some length what was said of this period in Henry Brandreth’s early history of the Oratory.

The brethren all met again, at Gillingham, in January, 1920. It was at this meeting that they took the important decision to open an Oratory House in Cambridge. The idea was by no means new…Certain monies had already been subscribed to this end, and the House was also to receive the £300 per annum which the English Church Union had previously given to St. Anselm’s House. St. Anselm’s House had come to an end during the war, and the new Oratory House was to be, in some degree, the inheritor of its tradition, as it was also of a number of its books and of the altar from its chapel. John How outlined the general use to which the House would be put: 1. As a home for the Oratory, 2. a centre for work in the University and 3, to be a religious house under strict order and discipline.

A desirable house was quickly found, in Lady Margaret Road, and was opened on June 24th. Of the £4,000 required for the purchase of the lease (68 years), some £2,500 was raised by the brethren themselves through the sale of their private investments for the benefit of the common purse. The formal opening of the House did not take place until November 4th, when it was dedicated by the Bishop of Ely (Dr. Chase), and the Hon. Edward Wood (the present Earl of Halifax), presided over the day’s festivities. A list of some of those who were present on this occasion gives some idea, not only of the place which the Oratory had made for itself in the few years of its existence, but also of the need felt for such an establishment in Cambridge; Bishop Gore, Canon William Temple, Father Frere, … as well as the senior members of the Divinity Board. The Church Timescommented on the enterprise that “the presenting and living of the full Catholic Faith in the Universities of to-day is so important that the Oratory looks hopefully to the ardour of Catholics everywhere to support this foundation in Cambridge.””

It was to this Oratory House that Wilfred moved in 1920; becoming a Probationer in October of that year and making his first profession in 1921. This was to be the centre of his life for much of the next twenty years; for most of which he was its Warden.

It is worth quoting his niece’s view in her history of the Knox Brothers for his motivation. I have remarked already on the sense of devastation that Wilfred felt on his brother becoming a Roman Catholic. His hopes seemed dashed “ If Wilfred could have had Ronnie still by him, what might they not have done…?” He tried to throw his energies into the early Anglo-Catholic Congresses; but he felt lonely without his closest brother there to share the work. “But his loneliness found its own relief…in 1920 Wilfred was introduced to a community, the only one, perhaps, in which he could ever have felt truly at home. It had the odd distinction that the same thing could be said of nearly all its members”.

Wilfred was introduced to a community, the only one, perhaps, in which he could ever have felt truly at home” – Penelope Fitzgerald

He had found a home in both the physical and the metaphorical sense. The Oratory House provided him with the sense of belonging and the stability for which he longed. His greatest love was the garden and the company of endless stream of students who visited or lived alongside them. One such was Canon Jack Bagley who became a friend and mentor to me in his retirement in Cambridge during my undergraduate days. He lived at the House from 1927 to 1929 and was even a Probationer for a time. He remained a Companion until his death in 2006.

He recorded some of his memories of Wilfred for the Fitzgerald book. Some of the shyness, even eccentricity, comes out; but more so the kindliness, generosity of spirit and faithfulness. Indeed Father Bagley would doubtless have echoed the words the day after Wilfred’s death of The Timesas it paid tribute to his fine scholarship, ending its obituary thus: “He was indeed one of the holy and humble men of heart, and the nimble wit and intellectual ingenuity he shared with other members of his family never obscured the fundamental simplicity of his character. In many respects he was utterly unworldly. During the last years of his life he made a deep impression upon the college of his adoption (Pembroke). Appointed Chaplain at an emergency period, he quickly established himself, socially as well as spiritually, in the affections of his colleagues and of his pupils. In the ordinary sense, Wilfred Knox was entirely untroubled by ambition; but perhaps it would be truer to say that he had two ambitions—to be a good scholar and to be a good Christian. Certainly he fulfilled them.”

If, however, he had found such happiness in the Oratory life in Cambridge, what of the short break he made to return to parish work in 1922? It is well known that he spent two years in parish work at the Anglo-Papalist shrine of St Saviour’s, Hoxton, in east London as an assistant curate.  What seems to be less realised is that he did so after a call for help from the curate, Father Stephen Langton whom he had known at The College Mission in Stratford and who, in turn, would become a well-loved Vicar of Bourne Street.

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High Mass at St Saviour’s Hoxton. Final Decoration Scheme by Martin Travers.
The Church was lost to enemy action in 1941.

The Vicar of St Saviour’s was the famous Father John Bloxam who had been part of the rather outré Wilde-Douglas Set at Oxford in the early 1890s and who subsequently had an heroic ministry in this tough East End parish (his surname appears briefly and is therefore immortalised in The Importance of Being Earnest). The parish had no money as it had incurred official episcopal wrath for not using any English in its Eucharistic liturgie

Wilfred worked there for no stipend and was both well-loved and respected for his concern for the poor. It was to be his last foray into parochial work, and his last close contact with the heady (and now almost forgotten) Anglo-Papalist world of the Inter-War years in which he also assisted with some of the work on the once beloved English (Cowley) Missal.

In 1924 he left London for good and returned to Cambridge to become Warden of the Oratory House. While holding the wardenship he was persuaded by Alec Vidler to become a member of Pembroke College, Cambridge, where our great Classical scholar brother received the degrees of Bachelor of Divinity (1937) and Doctor of Divinity (1943).

In 1941 he was appointed chaplain to the college, while the incumbent chaplain Meredith Dewey went to be a naval chaplain for the duration, and finally, in 1946, he was elected a fellow. The steady flow of undergraduates who had once come under his influence through the Oratory House were superseded by the very many Pembroke students who found in Wilfred a caring, thoughtful and genuine mentor, tutor and priest.

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The former Oratory House in Cambridge. Now Lucy Cavendish College.

In the Dictionary of National Biography, our brother Edward Wynn, himself once Dean of Pembroke, divided Wilfred’s published works into three categories. First, publications that were essentially explanatory, putting the case for the Anglican school of Liberal Catholicism. Secondly, there were books of guidance on how to follow the Christian way of life. The best known of these was Meditation and Mental Prayer(1927), which gave “simple and direct teaching on prayer, penitence, and the love of God”. It is still widely used today.

Thirdly, Wynn identifies works of pure scholarship. Wilfred approached biblical studies from the standpoint of an outstanding classical scholar. He examined how Greek culture influenced not only the language but also the thinking of the writers of the New Testament. He frequently contributed to The Journal of Theological Studies. His books on the Hellenic aspect of Christian history include St Paul and the Church of Jerusalem(1925), St Paul and the Church of the Gentiles (1939) and Some Hellenistic Elements in Primitive Christianity(1944 – based on his Schweich lectures of 1942). His last book, The Sources of the Synoptic Gospelswas nearly complete when he died, but lay in total chaos across the floor of his college rooms. The manuscript was faithfully and lovingly edited by Henry Chadwick (another profound influence in my younger life) and published posthumously in two volumes (1953 and 1957). They are perhaps the most up to date of all his written works as they debunk the late twentieth century fashion for Form Criticismin approaching the Gospels. I recommend them highly.

According to Natalie Watson in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Wilfred “became an outspoken representative of the Anglo-Catholic movement. … [In] popular and theological apologetics, he outlined the differences between Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism” in such books as The Catholic Movement in the Church of England(1923) and (with Alec Vidler) in The Development of Modern Catholicism(1933).

Wilfred died on 9 February 1950 in Addenbroke’s Hospital in Cambridge at the relatively young age of 63 of cancer. His brother Ronald visited shortly before the end and felt utterly helpless; he thought that perhaps a gift of good champagne might be appropriate. So many wanted to attend his memorial service in Pembroke chapel that there had to be a ballot for tickets.

Perhaps three short vignettes will illustrate what I have found so very attractive about the character of our brother Wilfred as I have researched for this paper. They each come either first-hand from someone whom I knew; or at second-hand from those who knew Wilfred well.

The first comes from Canon Jack Bagley (1908-2006) who first met Wilfred in the garden of the Oratory House in October 1927; Wilfred was so absorbed in what he was doing that he barely looked up, passed Jack a hoe and said that he had better got on with it! It was the beginning of a friendship that led Jack first to test his vocation to the Oratory life and then to becoming a priest. Beyond the eccentric behaviour was a deeply serious and listening priest; although Jack always maintained that when he served Mass for Wilfred in the Oratory chapel it was so very sotto vocethat it was hard to discern whether it was in English or Latin! Given his ministerial experiences in Hoxton, it might have been either!

Secondly, there was the homeliness. A dear friend, called Aline Norman (1910-2003), knew Wilfred during the war years and was among those who frequently left parcels of clothing and food in his bicycle basket as his physical mortifications (and near destitute appearance) alarmed not a few of the good ladies of Little St Mary’s and St Giles’, Castle Street (at that time the numerically leading Anglo-Catholic Church in Cambridge, attended primarily by the “Town” not the “Gown”). However, he always proceeded to give it all away again to the poor and less fortunate. She was one who saw him stand in all weathers in the queue at Fitzbillies’ Cake Shop to collect goodies to offer to his students for tea; he had been brought up at home to offer at least two cakes and wartime privations were not going to let him “let the side down”. Home was everything to him.

And the final vignette comes from the published memoirs of Father Meredith Dewey (1907-1983). When the war came, and with Wilfred homeless without the Oratory House, Meredith was among those who supported Edward Wynn’s plans to get him to live at Pembroke College. By then, Alec Vidler had gone to Hawarden and Edward himself had become the Bishop of Ely. Meredith was himself on the point of going to war as a naval chaplain and he came to the rescue.

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Pembroke College, Cambridge. The Chapel from Little St Mary’s Church

Pembroke became Wilfred’s final home; complete with young students in whose lives he could have a positive influence; It is also offered him an English Catholic tradition both in College and the neighbouring Little St Mary’s and most importantly a garden in with to put down both his literal and metaphorical roots. Meredith even had a solution to what needed to happen in 1945 when the war ended; he simply became college dean and left Wilfred to end his days as chaplain. The one possible area of tension was the garden which was beloved by them both; the solution was a neat and equal line dividing the garden into two. Meredith joked that it would have been unseemly for the college student body to see two distinguished clergy fighting it out by surreptitiously throwing snails and slugs into each other patch of college garden.

So, what have we discovered about our brother Wilfred Knox? Surely that, in the words of my title, he found a fulfilment and a home in the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. The Oratory of those early years also led him to cease in his quest to channel the loneliness he felt after his brother’s departure to Rome. It also gave him the liberty to be who God had called him to be and to use his God-given gifts to the furtherance both of the Catholic Faith and of the Study of Holy Writ.

In many ways it can be said that he embodies most fully the Seven Notes of the Oratory, most especially the Note on the Labour of the Mind and that on Fellowship: “Brethren will find and maintain in the Oratory a true Christian family in love and mutual service.” Indeed our brother Henry Brandreth is doubtless correct when he said of him, “There has never been anyone like Father Wilfred and it is impossible to believe that there ever will be. … he sacrificed his own interests and inclinations on [the Oratory’s] behalf with a wonderful steadfastness.”What more could be asked of any of us?

His character, holiness, loyalty and profound scholarship echo down the years and when I remember him each day in my prayers for our departed brethren, I am without doubt that the words of the last Note on Joy are fulfilled in our brother Wilfred, who was the first of us to die in Profession,  “They will welcome any labour or sacrifice which will minister to the joy of others, looking toward that most blessed voice, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord””.

Selected Bibliography

  • The Catholic Movement in the Church of England, 1923
  • St Paul and the Church of Jerusalem, 1925
  • Meditation and Mental Prayer, 1927
  • The Church in Crisis, 1928
  • One God and Father of All, 1929 (with Eric Milner-White)
  • Life of St Paul, 1932
  • The Development of Modern Catholicism, 1933 (with Alec Vidler)
  • The Gospel of God and the Authority of the Church, 1937 (with Alec Vidler)
  • St Paul and the Church of the Gentiles, 1939
  • Some Hellenistic Elements in Primitive Christianity (The Schweich Lectures 1942), 1944
  • A series of lectures delivered and published under the auspices of the British Academy
  • The Acts of the Apostles 1948
  • The Sources of the Synoptic Gospels (two volumes, 1953 and 1957) (ed. Henry Chadwick)