The Revd Neville Stiff (1880-1923)

Vicar of Christ Church, Epsom Common, 1921-23

The Revd Neville Stiff3
The Revd Neville Stiff
Image courtesy of Roger Morgan © 2015

Neville George Joseph Stiff was born in 1880, in Walworth (just south of London's Elephant and Castle), the youngest child of William and Elizabeth (née Webb) Stiff. The 1881 and 1891 Censuses record William as a Shorthand Writer and Police Court reporter. William died in 1893, aged 54, and the 1901 Census records that the widowed Elizabeth was living in Streatham and - with her widowed mother, Eliza - partner in a dressmaking concern. Living with them was Neville, then 21 - recorded as "(A) Assistant School Master (B) Theological Student (Ch of England)" - and his milliner sister, Ada.

Neville's study was as an extra-mural student at King's College, London. Having gained the founding "Associate of King's College" (AKC) degree-equivalent qualification, he was ordained Deacon in 1904 and appointed Curate at All Saints' Church in Clapton, northeast London. He was ordained Priest in 1905. While there, he gave full reign to his scholarly side by researching and writing "Our Neighbourhood, Our Parish, and Our Church" - the 100 detailed pages of which rather belie the sub-title "A simple Record relating to All Saints', Clapton". The hard-bound book was privately published in 1907 for fund-raising purposes.

After that training post, he was appointed Priest in Charge (1909-11) of St Mark's, Hanwell in West London, a daughter church in the parish of St Mellitus. He then served two years (1911-13) as Assistant Priest at St Martin's, Dorking - where, in 1912, he wrote another well-researched fund-raising book (this time of 180 pages) entitled "The Church in Dorking and District". After a 1913-14 spell at the Winchester Diocesan Registry, he was appointed to his first parish as Vicar - St Agnes', Hampton Park in Southampton.

After seven years there, he moved to Christ Church in April 1921, succeeding the Revd Henry Bowles. Henry and his predecessors had substantial private means, but that was not the case for Neville Stiff who came from a more modest background. Shortly before his installation, he wrote in the Parish magazine: "Also there is the Problem of the Vicarage with its two acres of garden which, in spite of augmented income, will be a real and serious embarrassment and burden to me. It is a house that would not be taken by a wise layman with double the income, yet I am bound to go in, till a smaller, suitable house can be obtained." (In the event, that nettle was not grasped until 1938.)

Neville's tenure was tragically brief. In the history published to mark Christ Church's Centenary in 1976, Andrew Risbridger (Verger during Neville's time in Epsom) recalled:
"Neville Stiff was a really great man. He was tall, with a crew cut - a most unusual thing in those days. We knew him for his gaiety, humour and godliness - and yet I have never known a man suffer from asthma as much as he did. He would ask me to go to the Vicarage and lend him my arm so that he could walk to the Church. After the service, he would ask me to close the vestry door so that no-one saw him as he struggled for breath.

"His Sunday evening services were such that his reputation quickly spread throughout Epsom. It was difficult to get a seat unless you were there early.

"He was married by Bishop Talbot [the Bishop of Winchester, the diocese in which Christ Church came at the time] when he had been with us for a year, but within another year he had died. I had gone to the Vicarage on the Saturday but found him in bed. He was in a bad way but joked with me as usual. Then he asked me to find a Priest to celebrate Holy Communion on Sunday. Whilst I was ringing the Church bell on Sunday morning, I heard the tragic news of his death which shocked us all. I can remember the day of his burial. His wife was standing by the gate as we left for the cemetery. They were expecting their first child and it all seemed so tragic.

"Despite his great handicap, he was always about on his bicycle, visiting his people, exhorting and teaching them. They were wonderful days at Christ Church - but oh, so short a period!"
The wedding was at Christ Church on Wednesday 12 July 1922. As shown below, the 42 year old Neville's bride was the 19 year old Amelia ("Millie") Witt. They had first met when she played the organ at a service in his previous parish of St Agnes. The age difference gave them pause for thought - but this was resolved by Neville's careful 17-page letter establishing that the pros far outweighed the cons!

Neville and Amelia on their wedding day, 12 July 1922
Neville and Amelia on their wedding day, 12 July 1922
Image courtesy of Roger Morgan © 2015

Immediately after his death, the parish magazine noted that "[Mr Stiff] was never happier than [at social gatherings] when in the midst of his people and surrounded by younger members of his congregation, entering into their games with all the zeal of a big boy and, by his example, making the middle aged and elderly join in the romp with equal delight." His obituary in The Epsom & Ewell Advertiser of 2 February 1923 noted that, "The Rev. Neville Stiff was a strong personality with a breadth of mind and freshness of outlook that proved an inspiration to the work of the church."

Had Neville survived, he would doubtless have written another scholarly work on parish history to mark Christ Church's 50th anniversary in 1926: he certainly gave full reign to his talent in re-vivifying the monthly parish magazine. At a mere 25 pages, the commemorative booklet published in 1926 was, by comparison, a slight affair. It noted simply that, "The Rev. Neville Stiff was a man of striking personality and his premature death, after only two years' work, was deeply lamented."

Neville's untimely death, barely six months after the joyous wedding, was a great shock to all. After the funeral on 31 January 1923 and burial in Epsom Cemetery, Amelia returned to her family home in Southampton and was later safely delivered of a son - named Neville, after the father he never knew. (She remarried in 1935 but had no other children.)

Neville's widowed mother, Elizabeth, had lived with him throughout his Priesthood. Helped by the substantial sum raised in her son's memory by Christ Church and his previous parishes, she remained in Epsom - and active in the life of Christ Church until her death in 1937, aged 81. She was then buried in Epsom Cemetery alongside her son.

In 1927, Elizabeth gave Christ Church some communion rails for the Memorial Chapel (now the Peace & Reconciliation Chapel) in memory of her son - one of which is pictured below, together with the memorial plaque in the arch at the entrance to the chapel.

The communion rails given by Elizabeth
The communion rails given by Elizabeth.
Image courtesy of Roger Morgan © 2015

Roger Morgan © 2015