Day Conference


Mission House

Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the
establishment of the Society of St John the Evangelist

Day Conference

Saturday 24 September 2016
10 a.m. – 5.30 p.m.
St Stephen’s House, Oxford

The Cowley Project is the first appraisal of the work of the influential Society of St John the Evangelist. Better known as the “Cowley Fathers”, the SSJE was founded in 1866 by Richard Meux Benson, and was the first religious community for men in the Anglican Communion. Its work soon spread across the world, and the conference will explore various aspects of the life and work of the SSJE in the historic setting of the order’s former mother house, with a number of leading experts.

  • Far-flung Fathers: the SSJE at home and abroad – Serenhedd James
  • Beauty of Holiness: G. F. Bodley and St John’s Church – Michael Hall
  • Padding the Parish: the Mission House in context – Annie Skinner
  • A Fathers’ Father: the life of George Congreve SSJE – Luke Miller




The cost of the day, including coffee, lunch, and tea, is £25. There is no charge for anyone wishing to attend Evensong in the monastery church at 5pm. For further information and to register, please contact St Stephen’s House directly: 16 Marston Street, Oxford OX4 1JX; 01865 613504;


Archbishop Emeritus Tutu

TutuTHE Director was delighted to be asked to breakfast with Archbishop Emeritus Tutu this morning, and to hear some of his memories of the Cowley Fathers. Archbishop Tutu particularly recalled Fr John Shand SSJE, who was his chaplain at theological college, and talked about the work of the Society in the Diocese of Cape Town. (Many thanks to the Dean of Cape Town for taking the photograph!)

Robben Island

robben islandIT WAS rather strange yesterday to be probably the only visitor to Robben Island on the trail of a story that did not involve the late Nelson Mandela. Long before the island became synonymous with political prisoners, it was a leper colony ministered to by the Cowley Fathers. The view of Cape Town across the water is rather special.

Fr Congreve recalled in 1904 that when he visited the leper colony and attended the men’s service, he was – apart from the chaplain – “the only person in the church who was not a leper”. On another occasion, he preached at the women’s service: his words were translated by an inmate, “her head and face hidden by her shawl, [who] came very quietly and modestly and sat on the lower chancel step at the feet of the preacher, and interpreted the address, sentence by sentence, in a gentle voice” [Cowley Evangelist, 1906:10].


Sailing for Africa

IMG_2496[1]Well, not quite. Our apologies for the recent radio silence, but things have been very busy – not least with the planning of the move of the Project to South Africa for a few weeks. This afternoon the Director began the journey taken by so many of the Cowley Fathers, from the Mission House on Marston Street to St Philip’s, Cape Town. They would have travelled by boat, of course. The Director is going by a more direct route: Heathrow to Cape Town on the overnight flight.

The first Cowley Father to be sent to Africa, Fr Frederick Puller, sailed for Cape Town on 11 April, 1883, on the Conway Castle. Travelling with him were some All Saints Sisters of the Poor (they were all destined for St George’s Home, which was run by the ASSP and where Puller was to serve as Chaplain for the time being) and a number of ‘young fellows going out to the colony’, with a number of whom he had ‘some serious conversation on religious matters’. Puller was well-known in ecclesiastical circles, and on Sunday 8 May, having landed two days earlier, he found himself lunching with the Dean of Cape Town and then preaching at the Cathedral in the evening.


Kings of Tarshish



Fr Benson on Psalm 72

10. Kings bring oblations – Tarshish and the sea!-
Kings offer presents – Joktan, Meroe!-
11. All kings to him in homage prostrate fall-
All Gentiles stand to serve, obedient to His call!

Look forward to Christ’s Kingdom. Christ is the King, the King’s Son, King by birthright for He reigns in consubstantial glory with His Father. Ps. 2 finds its consummation in Ps. 72. “The kingdoms of the world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ.” The disordered state of the world will be set right. The true Melchizedek is seen reigning in the true City of Peace, – Peace triumphant through righteousness. The mountains that bring it are the manifestations of Divine power on which the Church is founded. Heavenly mountains, symbolised by the clouds of Heaven! the righteous that were suffering in a state of oppression while Satan ruled the world are now redressed. The seed of the serpent can no longer tyrannize over the Seed of the woman. The oppressor is crushed, and his victims are saved.

Messiah reigns on high. His sovereignty is the consummation of all unto the end of time. His power descends from Heaven upon mankind in gifts of the Holy Ghost. The shower is the symbol of the Divine Gift. the grass is the symbol of perishing humanity. Human nature flourishes with Divine power. Hostile powers fall down. The afflicted One whom the world persecutes is His very self. He has redeemed them by His power, and lives unconquered. He has triumphed over the grave. In risen life He pleads for His people. The Heavenly Kingdom is full of joy. Majestic harvest! The corn of Heaven! The life-giving Name of the King brings eternal security. The bright Sun of Righteousness infuses light and strength for ever. All nations are blessed in Him. He alone worketh great marvels. The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are consummated in the reign of the Beloved One, the Son of God. This is the sum of all our prayer, “Thy Kingdom come.”

War Songs of the Prince of Peace (1901)



Reginald Thompson Podmore SSJE


The Commonwealth War Graves at Divion. Fr Podmore is buried on the far right. Credit:

Reginald Thompson Podmore, priest, SSJE

REGINALD THOMPSON PODMORE has the sad distinction of being the first military padre to have been killed on active service in the Second World War. His appointment as a Chaplain appeared in the London Gazette on 9 January 1940, and by 3 February he was “somewhere in England” preaching, teaching, and getting to know his men.

By May 1940 he was with the B.E.F. in France. He wrote to the community at Cowley that casualties were building up, and that “the sadder side of my ministry to the men is likely to be in demand soon”. He was working alongside the medics, and had acquired the necessary material to construct a portable altar that would fit in the back of his car – and the lady with whom he was billeted had made him a dossal and frontal for it. He had also persuaded a local café owner to let him hold services at her establishment, having overcome her qualms about his not being a Roman Catholic.

Poignantly, Fr Podmore also remarked that “we have one of the smaller English cemeteries outside this village. It is a beautifully peaceful spot, though unspeakably sad with its long straight rows of head-stones”. His letter was dated 14 May 1940: by the time the community received his letter he was already dead; but it would be several weeks before they would know for certain, and six years before they learned anything of the circumstances of his death.

The Superior-General, Fr O’Brien, asked for prayers for him in July 1940, noting that “we have no news of Father Podmore and are of course extremely anxious about him, but it may still be a considerable time before we can expect to hear whether he is a prisoner in the hands of the Germans or whether he has fallen with the troops he was serving”. By the end of August the community was still desperate for news; but Fr O’Brien had heard from Fr Podmore’s colonel:

We still have no news about Father Podmore, except that on May 20 he was sent into Belgium with the troops to which he was attached. On that day or some subsequent day he was driving back to a village he had just left to fetch some stores from the canteen. It was learned subsequently that the Germans had reached the village. His Colonel thinks that he is a prisoner. Enquiries are being made from various quarters, but it is a slow work.

Fr Podmore’s batman had certainly been taken prisoner, for he managed to make contact in September 1940. The Church Times, which had been following the Cowley Evangelist, announced that “News that the Rev. Reginald Thompson Podmore was killed in action has been received from his batman, who is a prisoner of war. Fr. Podmore, of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Cowley, has been reported missing since the withdrawal from Dunkirk.”

His brethren were deeply affected. In the Cowley Evangelist of October 1940 Fr O’Brien announced his death in the customary formal way on the first page, before noting that he had “died in Belgium [as the community then still thought] probably in May, 1940, while acting as a Chaplain to His Majesty’s forces, in the thirty ninth year of his age and the seventh year of his profession”. He went on:

We have no details of Father Podmore’s death. His batman writing to his own mother said ‘The padre is dead, I must tell you more when I get home.’ We do not know the date, place, or any of the circumstances of his passing. He went to his new and unfamiliar work as an army Chaplain like many other Chaplains with not a little trepidation, but with a clear sense of duty. I think he was happy in the work. His Colonel wrote of the appreciation he gained from those amongst whom he worked…

There remains confusion about the exact date of Fr Podmore’s death. The army casualty lists have him as “Killed in Action 21/23.5.1940”. The memorial boards in the chapel at Cowley have his date of death as 23 May; while his memorial at Haileybury, his old school, has 21 May. Further complications arise from the account written by the late Bill Priest and deposited at the Museum of Army Chaplaincy, which claims 22 May.

Priest served with III Corps – to which Fr Podmore was attached – in 1939 and 1940. His account is harrowing.

Reg Podmore joined the RAChD in January 1940, his hair already gone grey, his cheeks bright and his eyes gleaming with purpose. At the age of 40 he had left a rather remote sect [sic!] of the Church of England – the Cowley Fathers – for the rougher world of soldiering, a young’s man’s profession in any age.

His first and only charge was a large transport unit – attached to III Corps – HQs – of some 1200 souls, under the command of Col. Mike Cahill, a veteran of the Great War. The unit’s job was ‘ammunition’. . .

The Spring of 1940 saw the unit scattered in and around a delightful Artois village on the edge of the Béthune coalfield complex. Chaplain Podmore established a small church in one of the rooms off the main hall in the village. Salle de Fêtes, opened a canteen for many of his ‘parishioners’ and ran occasional boxing matches.

The interminable phoney war ended abruptly on May 10th and the unit began to make some preparations for the move into Belgium; known euphemistically as Plan ‘D’. For some reason this move was to be halted on the Belgium border for several days at a place called Montecouvre. It was during the stay at Montecouvre that Padre Podmore asked to be permitted to return to his old HQs in Artois for some supplies he had left there. It was the last time that any of us saw this remarkable man; who had the knack of being both chaplain and friend to all alike.

Whilst he was being driven through the mining village of Divion-en-Artois, his car was machine-gunned by an advance company of an SS Division . . . Chaplain Podmore’s legs were shattered and when the SS realised they had shot a Padre they refused medical assistance and left him to die on the pave[ment]. The sight was more than a Frenchman in a nearby house could stand. He carried the Chaplain into his front room where he made him as comfortable as possible. R. T. Podmore died at about 4.30 on May 22nd, the first Padre to die during the 1939-45 War on Active Service.

His vestments and organ were buried in the Frenchman’s garden where they remained until the Liberation of the Pas-de-Calais, when they were dug up and returned to the Podmore Family in Eastbourne. For giving aid and comfort to the enemy to the SS arrested the Frenchman and his family and they would have been imprisoned but for the fact the person concerned was the chief of the local coalmine whose miners went on strike until their boss was released.

The community at Cowley knew none of this, of course. They had to wait until 1946, when, out of the blue, a letter written in French arrived at St Edward’s House in London addressed to “Monsieur Le Directeur”. The letter was from a Monsieur Mathon. He was the Chief Engineer of Mines at Divion, near Calais, and the “Frenchman in a nearby house” of Priest’s account, which it contradicts in a number of details. The letter was dated 8 July 1946, and Fr O’Brien caused a portion – and ‘portion’ is noteworty – of it to be published in translation in the Cowley Evangelist of the following month, noting that it was “of special interest and value”. It began “Dear Sir”.

I have in my possession some priestly vestments of embroidered silk, which belonged to Captain Reginald Thomson Podmore, Chaplain, who was killed at my house on May 23, 1940. Perhaps you have already received details concerning his death from his batman, George Randell, who succeeded in escaping while the Germans were occupied in burying the Captain in our garden. He had been attacked on the road and morally wounded. On the morrow, when the German force which occupied my house had left, I had a grave made for the Captain with a plaque, and contrived to give him a worthy burial. Some months later, when permission could be obtained, I had the body moved to the little English cemetery near at hand, and had a cross of cement placed upon his tomb, on which I fashioned his helmet and a plaque of copper upon which I had his name engraved, together with a religious form of expression (pensée) found in this prayer-book, written upon the photography of a grave which I presumed to be that of his mother. Knowing that his family and friends were still ignorant of his death, I had Masses said and prayers offered for him in our own church.

As soon as it was possible, I wrote by means of the Red Cross to his brother’s address which was found in his notebook; but I do not know whether the message ever reached its destination. In the same way, since our liberation, I invited an English officer, Captain William Lloyd, to come to my house in order to show him the place of the grave. He promised me that he would write, on reaching England, and try to discover the family; but perhaps he did not do so, for I never heard of him again. He left by air for the front in Holland, and it is possible that he also met with a mishap.

On leaving my house for the Dunkirk front on the 24th of May, 1940, the Germans took away Captain Podmore’s motor, after emptying it and throwing into the garden all that at that moment was no use to them. After their departure I collected all these objects, so that the family might eventually recover them. Unfortunately in 1942 the Germans came to arrest me, and before taking me away they ransacked the whole house. In this way they discovered all the Captain’s belongings and those of his batman, and carried them off. If I have been able to keep in safety the sacred vestments to which I referred, it is only because my wife, finding them to be too fragile to be left with the objects of a military nature, had wrapped them up and placed them in a special cupboard.

Believe me, dear Sir, Yours sincerely,
E. MATHON, Chief Engineer of Mines,
Route Nationale, Divion, Pas-de-Calais

Fr O’Brien had forwarded the letter to Fr Podmore’s father: the Revd Claude Podmore, Rector of Broughton, Northants, from 1900 until 1936. Claude Podmore wrote in the same issue of the Cowley Evangelist that he had met Randall, Fr Podmore’s batman.

[I] had a long talk with him, about 3 hours. He gave me full details of the attack. He and my son left the car and took shelter in a ditch before Reg. was hit. There is one discrepancy between his account and M. Mathon’s. He (Randall) with the help of two Frenchmen buried Reg. He did not escape, but was made prisoner. I am very glad to know that the grave is so well marked. I hope you will eventually receive the vestments safely.

There are, of course, a number of questions left unanswered. Priest must have relied on hearsay for his account, which was written decades after the events. But if its goriest details are true, then either Mathon did not disclose them, to spare Fr O’Brien the full horror; or Fr O’Brien received the full details and in the “portion” of the letter that he published spared the readers the same horror, and did the same for Fr Podmore’s father; or Randell, the batman, deliberately withheld the distressing truth from Claude Podmore for the same reasons.

That explanation seems rather too complicated to be plausible, and there are too many inaccuracies for us to be able to take Priest’s account as seriously as we might like. There would be no reason, for example, for the vestments to be returned to Eastbourne; but Claude Podmore’s father, the Revd Thompson Podmore, had been Headmaster of Eastbourne College. Crockford’s notes that Claude Podmore retired to Oxford in 1936, and so it is almost inconceivable that the Superior would not have taken such an important letter about his son to his home on the Woodstock Road.

Meanwhile, Mathon is clear that it was the Germans themselves who buried Fr Podmore in his garden: and so Priest’s tale of Mathon carrying him into his parlour and nursing him until he died must be discounted as a legend – although a kind and merciful one. For the same reason we must also discount his version of the time and date of Fr Podmore’s death.

Perhaps it is more reasonable to assume that the most reliable sources are Mathon and what we hear of Randell; and that Fr Podmore was indeed killed instantly, or almost instantly, after being hit by gunfire. Certainly that was what the family and the community believed, and they must have been glad of Mathon’s corporal work of mercy. They must also have been touched at the warm ecumenical gesture of requiem masses offered in the local church for the repose of his soul – and appropriately enough the church at Divion is dedicated to St Martin, the patron of soldiers. But it is strange that Mathon thought that Randell had escaped; and it is clear that Claude Podmore wished to defend his honour.

And so Fr Podmore awaits the resurrection in the little British section of the town cemetery at Divion, where his remains rest alongside those of seven soldiers of the same conflict that had claimed Br Walter Frederick SSJE on 23 April 1917. His grave is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is also uncertain about the date of his death – but there seems little reason for doubting Mathon’s memory of 23 May 1940. The letter in French that arrived at St Edward’s House in 1946 does not, at first glance, appear to be among the SSJE papers at the Church of England Record Centre at Bermondsey; but it is almost certain that Fr O’Brien would have left the original with Claude Podmore. What became of the vestments is a mystery, for now.

Dark powers may gather around the Cross, but the angels of God shall be found giving glory to the Tomb. Here we may taste the bitterness of death beforehand, dying daily under the oppression of the enemy, but when the shaft of death strikes us, the evil form will disappear. Then we shall see it laying low the ungodly, and we ourselves in Christ shall be set free for ever. Richard Meux Benson

Armistice Day


From the Cowley Evangelist, July 1917

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(Walter Frederick Pleasance)

The first of our Society to give his life in the war. He was killed in action in France on April 23rd, 1917. He was a Lance-Sergeant in the Royal Fusiliers. Brother Walter Frederick was made a Novice in the Society July 27, 1912, and was sent out to India in 1913, where he gave great help in the schools, and in the care of the Indian boys. In 1915 he returned to England to take the first of his annual vows, but then felt it was his duty to join the Army. When unable to enlist with the R.A.M.C., he joined for active service, with the full consent of the Society.

He was in France about six months, and his letters revealed a stedfast hold of his religion, though often feeling lonely. Without any regret for the step he had taken, yet his active service only increased his desire for life in Religion.

The details of his death have not been received. A token, however, of the care he took of the men under him, as sergeant, came to us while he was in camp on the south coast, awaiting the order to cross the Channel. It was winter, and he had written to ask for a little money to buy one or two extras, to provide against the cold of the trenches. A pound was sent, but he spent ten shillings on two lads of his Company. ‘They were the sons of labourers, and their parents could not afford to send them any money.’ He was 27 years of age.

H. P. BULL, S.S.J.E.
Superior General

From the Cowley Evangelist, October 1940

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Pray for the soul of


who died in Belgium [as the community then thought] probably in May, 1940, while acting as a Chaplain to His Majesty’s forces, in the thirty ninth year of his age and the seventh year of his profession.

We have no details of Father Podmore’s death. His batman writing to his own mother said ‘The padre is dead, I must tell you more when I get home.’ We do not know the date, place, or any of the circumstances of his passing. He went to his new and unfamiliar work as an army Chaplain like many other Chaplains with not a little trepidation, but with a clear sense of duty. I think he was happy in the work. His Colonel wrote of the appreciation he gained from those amongst whom he worked…

Superior General


Br Eldridge Pendleton SSJE


Br Eldridge Pendleton SSJE

WE heard a few days ago that Br Eldridge Pendleton SSJE, archivist of the US Province for many years, had gone to his reward after a long period of ill health.

The Director was very pleased to be able to meet Br Eldridge in his nursing home in Boston earlier this year. They chatted for a while, and Br Eldridge was very encouraging about the Project. His work on Bishop Grafton, “Press on the Kingdom: The Life of Charles Chapman Grafton”, was published last year and promises to be an abiding testament to Br Eldridge’s scholarship and interest in the history of the SSJE in North America.

We send condolences to our brethren in Cambridge. Jesu mercy, Mary pray.

The Boston Globe‘s obituary is here:

Star-struck in the Library

Fenton photo

Not long after Michaelmas, while trudging my way through the countless number of books written by the Cowley Fathers, I opened a copy of Fr Longridge’s The Spiritual Exercises of S. Ignatius of Loyola, and stumbled upon a little pocket-sized treasure – a photograph, stuck on the inside cover. A photograph indeed which neither I, nor the director, have seen anywhere else. It shows the Society of St John the Evangelist as it was in 1887, at least those members who were present in the Oxford House at the time. Many of the faces would have remained unrecognisable however, had not the past owner fortuitously written the name of each and every Father and Lay Brother around the edge.

There was Maturin, one of the many unhappy victims on the Lusitania in 1915, next to him his dear friend Fr Congreve, there Fr Longridge, the author of the very book that was in my hand – and in the middle, the one person who needed no introduction, the Society’s stern-faced founder, Richard Meux Benson.

I looked across the page to see if I might discover the identity of its previous owner, and I found the name JC Fenton scrawled in the top corner. The name meant little to me, until, on contacting the director, his ecstatic outburst encouraged me to think again. To my surprise, this book had once belonged to one of the Church of England’s leading New Testament scholars. JC Fenton had passed away in 2009, aged 87. He had been a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and was the author of many theological works, most notably his 1963 Commentary on St Matthew’s Gospel. As much as one can be when working as a research assistant in Nineteenth-Century Anglican monastic history – I was rather star-struck.

JC Fenton