The Revd George Willes (1844-1901)

The first Vicar (1874-81) of Christ Church, Epsom Common

The 1903-ish postcard reproduced below shows what was then the brand new mural over the arch into the chancel. (Christ Church's fine Rood Screen was not erected until 1909.) There is no memorial plaque, but the records are clear that it was commissioned in memory of Christ Church's first Vicar, the Revd George Edward Willes, who had just died after 20 years as Rector of All Saints, Calverton in Buckinghamshire.

The mural clearly suggests that George was held in very high regard for his time as Christ Church's founder Vicar: indeed, his long-serving successor, Canon Hunter, recalled him as "one of the best of parish priests". So why did George Willes leave Christ Church after only seven years?

Postcard of Christ Church interior, circa 1903
Postcard of Christ Church interior, circa 1903

Before that, however, some background. George was born in 1844 in Hamstall Ridware, a village midway between Stafford and Burton upon Trent. He was the third child and only son of the Revd Edward Willes (Rector of the village church, St Michael and All Angels) and his wife Laura. Sadly, Edward died in 1848, aged only 47. The widowed Laura took her three children to Leamington Spa to live with her father, the widowed Samuel Edward Steward, and unmarried sister. Samuel was a wealthy landowner: the 1851 Census records the household of six being supported by a butler, footman and six other servants.

George was educated at Rugby School and then gained a BA at Trinity College, Cambridge. Following in his late father's footsteps, he entered the priesthood. His first post was a curacy at St Peter & St Paul, Buckingham. In 1869, he moved a few miles to become Curate at St Michael's, Aynho. While there, he married Laura Harriet Stratton of nearby Brackley.

In a somewhat unusual move between dioceses, the 30 year old George was, in 1874, appointed as Vicar of the newly-established parish of Christ Church. Initially, this operated from the "Chapel of Ease" established by St Martin's in 1843. The present church was built alongside that, and consecrated in 1876 when George, Laura and their young family took up residence in the brand new and then grandiose Vicarage that had been built just across the road. (The earlier chapel was then demolished.)

In 1874, Charles George Perceval had become the 7th Earl of Egmont, inheriting the title and estate at Nork Park, Banstead from his childless uncle. Although more fond of his home at Cowdray Park in Sussex, the Earl became quite involved in Epsom life: for example, he chaired the Epsom Bench of Magistrates from 1878 to 1889. The relevance of this apparent digression is that, in 1877, the Earl appointed George Willes as his personal Chaplain.

The 7th Earl's father - brother of the 6th Earl and, confusingly, also a Charles George Perceval - had been the Rector of Calverton (just outside Bletchley) from 1821, when he was aged 24, until his death in 1858. That was not by chance: the "living" had been purchased by Charles George senior's father (the 7th Earl's grandfather) specifically for the purpose of placing his son. Quite separately from the earldom, the 7th Earl had earlier inherited the patronage of Calverton. When the living fell vacant again in 1881, it is perhaps no surprise that he invited his Chaplain to accept the Rectorship there. George did so, perhaps encouraged by the prospect of getting back to his and his wife's earlier stamping ground on the Bucks/Northants borders. He served there until his death, aged 57, in 1901.

It is a great tribute to George Willes that, after 20 years elsewhere, the people of Christ Church wished to remember, albeit anonymously, their fairly short-serving first Vicar with the mural. Less surprisingly, George is remembered explicitly in Calverton's All Saints Church with a plaque by the high altar which reads: Sacred to the memory of George Edward WILLES priest / Rector of Calverton from 1881 to 1901 / Entered into rest Sept 8th 1901 aged 57 / "With Christ which is far better". (The quotation is from Philippians 1:23.)

Roger Morgan © 2015



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