Father Henry Bilsborrow

By Tess Taylor

Father 'Bill'

Born in Lancashire in Dec 1873 Henry Leeming Bilsborrow trained for the Priesthood at Oscott College, Sutton Coldfield. A nephew of both Bishop Bilsborrow and of the Rev. James Bilsborrow, Archbishop of Cardiff, he was ordained at Clifton in 1897 and was priest in charge at Campden for twenty-six and a half years from 1913 until 1939.

Keenly interested in cricket and a good exponent of the game, he played in both his college elevens, his special feature being wicket keeping. Playing for Campden most Thursday afternoons, he was one of three clergymen in the team! Although confessions were held on a Saturday afternoon, they were rapidly postponed if he was called to the wicket! Besides playing the game he was also a willing MC for whist drives in aid of the club.

According to J.E. Nuggen’s biography he says that ‘Father Bill was not the kind of priest who seemed to think that all Catholics were in a state of permanent mortal sin and in imminent danger of eternal damnation unless a priest was immediately available in an emergency, a sort of clerical fire brigade!’ He went on ‘Father Bill though easy in ordinary speech seems to struggle to get his words out when preaching and was said to be responsible for many spoonerisms such as ‘Jonah in the welly of the bale for three days’!

Among his parishioners was the author, Graham Greene who wrote in his autobiography – ‘Father Bilsborrow at mass preaching on missions: What a glorious sight! Seven thousand Zulus coming to Communion. We don’t see that in England.’

Parishioners can recall his appeal from the pulpit for money to clean St. Catharine’s Church. ‘Millions of dead flies are breeding away on the ceiling’.  When bored with the sermon parishioners including Greene passed the time counting the same dead flies!

He is remembered as being quite humorous in the Confessional though this didn’t prevent him giving out lengthy penances, ten Hail Mary’s and ten Our Fathers..This humour spilled over into his prayers for the people because after reading out the names of the sick and the souls of the dearly departed he frequently concluded the list with ‘William the Conqueror!’

Another tale concerned him driving along the old A38 and picking up a hitchhiker who was on his way to Bath races. On enquiring the man’s profession, he was disconcerted to learn that the man was a pickpocket! So alarmed at the revelation Father Bill drove straight through a red traffic light and was stopped by the police. After giving his details to the police officer, he drove on fearful of the trouble that he may get into with the Bishop. Eventually he stopped to allow the man out of the car, and thanking him profusely, the man said ‘Now Father, you’re not to worry about a thing’ and handed him the police officer’s notebook from his own pocket!

According to the Evesham Journal‘s article on his leaving Campden, Father ‘Billy’ as the children called him behind his back and Father Bill to his parishioners carried out his duties in Campden without the slightest friction, serving on the hospital and local charity committees, in fact practically every good cause for the alleviation of suffering, particularly among the poorer section of the community in such a manner as to win the esteem and affection of all who knew him

Father Bill had a most charming personality and it was said that he was one of nature’s gentlemen. Campden was the poorer for his leaving and he left not an enemy.

He died at Frome in 1948, a year after his golden jubilee.

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