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Saviour of St Ebbe’s
A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Cantuar, captured the essence of John Stansfeld when he wrote: “In his presence life was always brought to a glowing heat of enthusiasm . . . he radiated the immediacy of God’s claim and the insistence of God’s love; he embraced everyone in the eager charity of his own heart.”
The man known simply as ‘The Doctor’ earned widespread affection through his tireless campaigning on behalf of the poor, first in Bermondsey, South London, and later at St Ebbe’s in Oxford.
His legacy lives on at the Stansfeld Field Study Centre at Shotover, which he set up in 1918 as a rehabilitation centre, and which is still used as a recreational and educational retreat for children of Birmingham.
It is surprising, then, to learn that Stansfeld spent the first 30 years of his working life as a clerk with the Inland Revenue.
His medical and theological qualifications came much later, and were achieved through part-time study.
He was 58 by the time he took up the incumbency of St Ebbe’s, and well into his 70s when he was offered a country living at Spelsbury, near Charlbury in north Oxfordshire.
He was born in1854 in Lincolnshire to Alfred and Eliza Stansfeld, the fourth of six children.
He was a lively child, given to climbing trees and generally getting into mischief. In his entertaining biography of Stansfeld, Barclay Baron tells us that on a Sunday morning, once he had been dressed for church, he had to be “tethered by his waistbelt to the garden railings, the only way to keep him fit to be seen until the whole family is ready to march off”.
He was also “immensely sociable, the life and soul of parties and picnics . . . he always liked being with people”. Significantly, “he had an instinct for the happiness of other men and women”.
All of which makes it even more surprising that he did not feel compelled to take Orders on leaving school. Instead, he drifted aimlessly in and out of a number of jobs in the City before passing his Civil Service exam at the age of 22, and beginning his 30-year stint with Customs and Excise. In 1877, he was transferred to the Oxford office, and took up residence at 67 Banbury Road, along with his widowed mother, Eliza, and youngest sister, Jessie. Inspired, perhaps, by his new academic environment, he began studying part-time at Exeter College, matriculating on 4th November 1886. For the next six years he rose at 5.30 every morning to study before going to work, continued his studies throughout the evening – and, incredibly, somehow found time to join in with college social activities as well. He gained his BA in 1889, and his MA in 1892.
By this time he had become set on taking Orders, and was also studying part-time at the recently-established Wycliffe Hall – which, through its principal, F.J. Chavasse, had close links with the Oxford Pastorate, an evangelical chaplaincy founded by Chavasse for the city’s student population. The contacts Stansfeld made at Wycliffe Hall were later instrumental in helping him launch his missionary work at Bermondsey. For now, though, financial constraints prevented him from taking Orders, and after completing his MA he decided to study medicine. He passed his first MB exam in 1893, shortly before the Civil Service transferred him to Glasgow, where he gained valuable practical experience at the Royal Infirmary. A stint at Charing Cross Hospital in London followed, and in 1897 he qualified as a doctor.
A chance encounter with two former acquaintances from Wycliffe Hall resulted in an invitation to set up a medical mission at Bermondsey, parts of which were then among London’s poorest and most deprived areas. He launched the Oxford Medical Mission in 1897, working from a small house in Abbey Street with the ground floor serving as a doctor’s surgery and his own living quarters upstairs. The Mission provided free medical treatment, on the understanding that his patients attended Bible Class on Sundays. Later, he launched Bible classes for young boys, and this eventually developed into a Boys’ Club that offered various social and sporting activities. In 1902 Stansfeld married a local volunteer, Janet Marples; a son, Gordon, was born a year later, followed in 1906 by a daughter, Janet. Shortly after Janet’s birth, ‘the doctor’ finally fulfilled his ambition of taking Holy Orders, and became vicar of St Anne’s in Bermondsey in 1910. But his anxiety over his children’s health – particularly little Janet, who was always delicate - led him to seek an area with “cleaner air and more open space”. And so, in 1912, he returned to the city of his almer mater, and home of the Oxford Pastorate, to become Rector of St Ebbe’s.
St Ebbe’s in the early 20th century was one of Oxford’s most neglected and over-crowded areas, with poor sanitation, crumbling houses and lack of playing space for children. Such squalor would have dismayed many, but to Stansfeld it was a challenge, and one he tackled with vigour. He bravely took on Christ Church, owners of much of the land in his parish, and fought hard to get them to build a children’s playground on a site they had earmarked for development. Initial resentment from the college later turned to admiration, and in 1924 they made him an Honorary Canon of the Cathedral.
He also persuaded Oxford City Council to build public baths opposite the Rectory in Paradise Square, erected a scout hut and a medical dispensary in the Rectory garden, and opened his garden as an unofficial park in the afternoons. As in Bermondsey, he started Boys’ clubs, recruiting undergraduates from Exeter College and New College to run them.
Not surprisingly, Stansfeld became a popular local figure, often seen striding through St Ebbe’s with adoring children trotting alongside him.
Tragically, his wife Janet succumbed to Spanish flu in October 1918, after 16 years of very happy marriage. Using his own tragedy to benefit others, he spent the money he and Janet had been saving for a trip to the Holy Land to buy 20 acres of land off Quarry Road, which he turned into a rural retreat for the children of St Ebbe’s. Later, children from St Saviour’s, a poor parish in Birmingham, camped there, as well as boys from Bermondsey.
In 1926 Stansfeld left Oxford to pursue missionary work in Kenya. He became Principal of Maseno mission school, an Anglican boarding school, whose former pupils include the father of US President Barack Obama. After three years he returned to England, and was offered the country living of Spelsbury, in north Oxfordshire, a gift of Christ Church college. Now 75, he was still physically fit and energetic – so much so, according to Barclay, that “much younger men found it hard to keep pace with him”. He was a popular rector for ten years, during which time he gave pastoral care to soldiers billeted into the village..
His death, in 1939, was the result of a final act of characteristic selflessness. On a cold, rainy night in December he walked two miles to attend to a dying parishioner, returning home some hours later soaked and exhausted. He died five days later, on December 17th, at the age of 85. His funeral at Spelsbury, and thanksgiving service that followed at Bermondsey parish church, were both “crowded with the doctor’s friends”. The blue plaque at St Ebbe’s honours a man who devoted his life to others, radiating kindness, cheerfulness and generosity of spirit to everyone whose lives he touched.
Further Reading Barclay Baron – The Doctor: The Story of John Stansfeld of Oxford and Bermondsey (Arnold & Co., 1952). Available through Oxfordshire County Libraries.