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The Reverend Eric Jones 1946-1955

The Reverend Eric Jones 1946-1955

Few films can have been seen as often and by as many people as The Wooden Horse. The nail-biting excitement of British prisoners of war escaping from Stalag Luft III has had viewers on the edge of their armchairs in front of the television every Christmas and many a Bank Holiday for year after year. How many of us, though, re­alise I hat one of the real-life cast was the man who came, in December 1946, to be Vicar of Hale?

Eric Bertram Jones grew up in Liverpool where he attended Liverpool Institute (that fine academy later to win a quirky fame as the place where some of the Beatles went to school). His ability as a classics scholar took him to Durham University where he studied classics and theology. After ordination in Chester Cathedral, he be­came Curate at Tranmere, then at St. Thomas's, Stockport. He had moved to be Priest at St. Luke's. Dukinfield when war broke out and he became a Chaplain to the Forces. In North Africa he was captured by the Personal Assistant to Field Marshal Rommel. After a weary journey, and eventual march, he and his fellow prisoners arrived at Sta­lag Luft III. He ministered to them throughout his time there.

Conditions in the camp changed dramatically when the SS took over. Captain Jones was informed of Himmler's order that all sermons were to be vetted by the Commandant. He said, with perfect truth, that he never used a single note when he preached. Because he refused to provide a script, he was put into solitary confinement and beaten. It would seriously impair his health, and especially his hearing, for the rest of his life. The SS arrived to take over the camp as a result of the ‘Wooden Horse' escape, after which some escapees were shot by firing squad.

Eric Jones ordered the Commandant to see to the return of the bodies. Only ashes were returned but to these he gave a Christian burial service. After the war, officers from the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force who had been his altar servers in the camp presented him with a book, The Shape of the Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix with their signatures in the flyleaf.

He returned to St. Luke's, Dukinfield for a year before coming to St. Peter's.

The author remembers him as a close friend who officiated at his wedding. A man with a temper capable of flaring in an awe-inspiring way, but one who had tremendous charm, warmth and sense of humour. His sermons had the power to move his congregation profoundly, whether to a radiant feeling of joy or to a sense of shame and, yes, alarm, when phrases like 'while we have yet time' seemed a lifeline to be seized with immense relief.

Christmas 1946 was probably the first time we witnessed something many of us remember still. It is 11.30 on Christmas Eve. The church is full. Suddenly the lights go out. Above the Chancel, a star hangs. It shines in the darkness. The church is hushed and then, from the Choir vestry - a single, choirboy's voice is heard... 'Silent Night, Holy Night...'. Very softly, the rest of the choir join in with the second verse. As they process into church, it is filled with light and the Service begins.

The record attendance at this service, the Christmas Morning Holy Communion and, indeed, all services was a measure of Eric Jones's impact on the parish. He had the Choir Vestry fitted out as a chapel with a small altar, a rail and curtains to screen the cupboards and held weekday morning communion services for businessmen who then went on to a day at the office. Mothering Sunday saw children bringing bunches of violets to their mothers and the Three Hour, Good Friday service was instituted. A third pew was fitted into the north side of the choir to accommodate the ladies who, for the first time, look their place as part of it. When the Choir Vestry was not in use for its original purpose or as a chapel, it was overflowing when, on Sundays, children of the Sunday School crammed into it. They were the lucky ones. There simply was not room for others who wanted to come and had to wait their turn on a wailing list. This was the intolerable situation caused by officials who refused to release the As­sembly Rooms from their role as a School Meals kitchen, in spite of letters to the Bishop and the local M.P.

If the Vicar was hindered and frustrated by this outrageous obstinacy, and he most certainly was, he was helped and supported by the lively, capable and enthusiastic congregation he so greatly inspired. Organisations flourished as renewed spiritual life led to a social life full of vitality and variety. There were leaders to take care of that. To assist the Vicar in his ministry, 1949 saw the arrival of a Curate, Michael Powell, and a Reader, Mr. J.G.M. Allock. Nevertheless, his health was not good and he offered to resign. The PCC wrote a letter assuring him, ‘of the confidence and affection of the Council, of their satisfaction with his ministry and their earnest desire for its conti­nuance'. However, they insisted he should take at least four weeks holiday away from the parish.

As St. Peter's approached its Diamond Jubilee in June 1952, it was beginning to get back into shape. The church had been thoroughly cleaned, as had the organ. 50 Westgate had finally been recovered from tenants who had been refusing to leave and the Curate now had somewhere to live. The War Memorial, in the form of the names of the 12 fallen carved on the base of the font, had been unveiled. A Garden of Re­membrance had been created outside beneath the East Window, to receive the ashes of parishioners and a Book of Remembrance was to be placed in the North Aisle.

The chancel had a new carpet and, facing the memorial tablet to Archdeacon Gore, an­other had been unveiled to Revd. John Brunskill who had just died. Mr. Styles had re­signed as Organist and Mr. Wright had taken his place. Revd. Michael Powell left to go to his first parish and Revd. Kenneth Smith became the new curate. As this new as­sociation with the church was formed, sad news came of the ending of another old one, with the death of Revd. Ernest Milner Swift. The Jubilee celebration itself was marked by a special service at which the Bishop of Chester preached the sermon.

At long last, in 1953, the claims for dilapidation of the Assembly Rooms were settled, for £3,506. As it was going to cost around £6,000 to replace the floor of the main hall, to improve the kitchen facilities and the main entrance and to extend the small room almost up to the railway fence, an appeal was launched to raise £3,000. It took just one year.

The Assembly Rooms were formally re-opened by Mrs. Gibson on November 21st 1953. They had been improved internally but had lost the croquet lawn and the tennis courts. There was no longer the room for such things and so Mrs. Gibson made a gift of land at the top of Hale Road, part of the grounds of her house ‘Alanor’ enough for four tennis courts and for a pavilion.

The Rooms were a boon. Not just the Sunday School but every organisation now had a proper and permanent home. Such was the demand on its accommodation that the Parish Progress Annual Report expressed a wish that its sides might have been elastic.

One unfortunate outside booking led to an insertion in the Rules that ‘In no circumstances will the sale of intoxicants to be consumed on the premises be permitted’, but the only other regulations concerned the amounts to be paid by organisations to use the Rooms, the Youth Fellowship, £25 per year, the Mothers Union £30 and so on. A Badminton Club used the main hall and the Scouts, a hut outside.

A consequence of so much activity was a great strain on the Verger who had sometimes to work until the early hours of Sunday morning to clear up after a Saturday night booking and then be on duty at 7.30 in church. Frank Poole volunteered to be Assistant Verger, a post he still most ably fills at the time of writing.

With everything apparently so successfully completed, it would have seemed the moment to ring out the bells, but those were one thing the church lacked, apart from the tubular bells for the clock chimes. (The playing of a recording of bells as an ex­periment had not been a success and had been abandoned.) However, St. Peter's was to be heard far and wide when, September 30th 1954, the 9.30 service was broadcast on the BBC Home Service. A recording was played after Evensong on 10thOctober and copies subsequently put on sale for £6 10s 6d.

A dusty brown cardboard parcel in the Vicarage cellar- was recently found to contain two LPs of the service with the vicar preaching a rousing sermon. The choir and organ give a splendid performance, a great credit to their Organist and Choirmaster Joseph Hartington. He held the post from 1943 until a few weeks before his death in 1950.

A year of change now began. The Curate, Revd. Kenneth Smith, left for the living of Lindale and Ulverston and Mr C.E. Jones retired as Secretary of the PCC to be replaced by Mr. Frank Davies, whose copperplate handwriting has been such a joy to researchers for this book. But no sooner was the parish cheered by the prospect of welcoming Bishop Tom Greenwood back to preach at Harvest Festival 1955 than it was stunned by the news that the Vicar was to leave and take up the living of St. John the Baptist, Crewe. His ill-health had made it impossible to continue.

His last sermon was preached al Evensong on October 13th. In the Assembly Rooms afterwards, there was a presentation - a cheque for £342 and a car purchased for £150. A hundred parishioners went to Crewe to be present at his induction.