History – Part I
Written by Ted Fisher, RIP, late parishioner of
The Roman Catholics of Didcot
and the surrounding villages had been many years
without a church or resident priest. To celebrate
Mass they had the choice of St Amand’s [Chapel],
East Hendred, or St John’s, Wallingford, both a
considerable distance away. However, the Commander
of the Didcot Army Garrison gifted a large wooden
hut to the Catholics of the area, which had
previously served as a theatre for the soldiers.
Fr B V Miller submitted plans
for the hut to be erected on church land in Manor
Crescent for a period of five years, when funds
should be available for a permanent church. However,
the application was refused by Reading District
Council as it was too close to the local school. A
new plan was submitted by Fr Miller and this was
accepted, and the Didcot Catholics were ready to
start work and celebrate Mass in Didcot at last.
The Rev. Father James Campbell
arrived on the 15th September 1934 and took up
residence in a flat on the Lower Broadway, Didcot
due to the lack of church accommodation. Father
James became the first Parish Priest.
The period between 1931 to 1934
gives very little information year by year. Father B
V Miller had started the conversion arrangements for
the church, and the parishioners started work with
buckets, scrubbing brushes and other instruments of
cleaning. The floors were scrubbed white. Heating
was provided in the church in the form of a coke
fire, and parishioners brought their own chairs to
church due to a lack of funding. A confessional was
built on the outside at the rear of the hut.
The church was able to seat
around 200. Funding started with whist drives and
dances being held using the church, and eventually
bench type seating could be bought.
The altar, believed to be made
from solid beech wood, was surmounted by three
steps. The tabernacle had its own position behind
the altar. The date of the first Mass celebrated in
the church is not known, although records show a
baptism taking place in October 1934.
Father Campbell made an
application to Reading District Council for a house
to be built on the church land in Manor Crescent for
accommodation of its priests. The application was
granted and it must be assumed that it was completed
by 1937. Father Campbell may have been the first
occupant of the presbytery.
Father Campbell gave to Didcot
and the surrounding villages, some 1200-1500
Catholics, a church and a parish that they had
prayed for over many years. Father Campbell was
relieved by Father Olney in September 1938.
Our priests may move on, but
their footsteps can never be erased from all that
they have provided during their ministry.
September - The war clouds
were gathering on the horizon and people were at
prayer in churches around the country. Father
A V Olney arrived from Aldershot with housekeeper
Miss Piper, to take over the parish from Father
Campbell. Didcot was surrounded by wooden huts
belonging to the Army Garrison and the RAF depot at
Milton, and our church hut was among them.
The parish had gone from
strength to strength during Fr Campbell’s time, and
was hungry to expand efforts in providing funding
for a permanent church. The land around the
church at Manor Crescent had been taken over for
allotments, supporting the war effort. During
the war years the Parish Priest served Wallingford
on Sunday mornings, and a Dominican priest, Father
Daniels from Blackfriars, Oxford, said Mass at
A parishioner remembers First
Holy Communion candidates having the treat of
breakfast at the presbytery, which included a boiled
egg – a luxury in the war years.
Records show Confirmation
taking place, with Bishop John Henry King.
Father Olney looked after
the Prisoners of War with an afternoon Sunday
service. He also attended the German Row camp
at Nettlebed, near Wallingford. During this
period Fr T Walsh, a curate, joined the parish for
two years. He looked after the altar servers,
some fifteen of them, who were divided between
Didcot and Wallingford.
Father Jacob, curate, took over
from Fr Walsh. Fr Jacob had been at Portsmouth
Cathedral and was Chaplain to the Irish Guards
during the war. He left in 1948 to become the
first Parish Priest at Wallingford. Fr Walsh
left to go to Rome.
Fr Jacob left Wallingford and
moved to Ringwood. Fr Kearney came to
Wallingford and left in August 1970. The new
church at Wallingford was built in 1958 by Fr
Kearney, and opened in September as St John’s.
All through the war years, the church building fund
was ongoing, and the parish were looking forward to
the planning and building of the new church, when Fr
Olney was moved to St Mary’s and St Peter’s Church
in Jersey. This was in September 1948.
On the night before he left, at Benediction, the
hymn was sung ‘Sweet Saviour, Bless us ‘Ere We Go’.
Fr Olney was a much loved priest and carried the
parish through the war years, when many sacrifices
were made. He was to be replaced by Fr Nye.
Fr Nye arrived with his
housekeeper, and made several major changes within
the church. The high altar was dismantled, and
the sung Mass was discontinued. Fr Nye had new
seating and a gas fire heating system installed in
the temporary church.
Fr Nye's failing health
forced him to retire on Easter Monday 1961, having
served in the parish for thirteen years, the longest
period in the temporary church. Fr Henry and
Bridget his housekeeper arrived in 1961.
Father Henry had spent his
first year in the temporary church finding it very
uncomfortable and somewhat overcrowded. He was
to spend another five years of his ministry in the
"halted church". Father Henry was a very
austere man, but very good to people in need.
He was well known to the people of Didcot and often
seen walking the Broadway. Bridget, his
housekeeper, was very strict - this was quickly
known by the parishioners when seeking an interview
with the priest!
Fund raising became number one
priority and a football pools lottery was started to
sell something like four hundred tickets a week.
The power station and surrounding roads were being
built, which was very fortunate for the lottery.
Many of the workers were Catholics, and took the
tickets to the workers from Ireland and Wales.
Money was soon being made and the generosity of the
workers had the fund in good health.
Father Henry's ambition was to
see a primary school built on the available church
land in Manor Crescent.
With the church in its final
part of the building, Fr Henry's vision of a primary
school to be built on the land was rejected by
Reading District council due to the fact that a
Catholic primary school in East Hendred was
available to the people of Didcot.
The funding from the [parish]
lottery gathered strength now that the Knights of St
Columbia, Didcot and Wallingford, were helping to
run the organisation. The fund over the
fifteen years was estimated to be in the region of
£50,000. Fr Henry introduced a covenant scheme
to help with funding from the offertory collections.
The church had been built by
Lanely Ltd of Wakefield, Yorkshire, and handed over
to the Portsmouth Diocese. Fr Henry, the
caretaker Priest, awaited the date of blessing.
The headline of the Reading Mercury read 'The
£50,000 church for the Catholics of Didcot to be
blessed by Bishop'.
So what did the parish get for
that amount of money, most of which was raised by
the efforts of the parishioners, the football
lottery, and donations received from the workers on
the Power Station project?
The Parish got the most beautiful and largest
church in Didcot, with a seating capacity for
500 people, including a choir gallery.
The altar is built of connemara stone.
On the wall behind the altar is a huge crown of
thorns, central to this is the sacrificial
Lamb. These were made by Mr D Potter, an artist
The Baptism font is made from Derby stone with a
hand carved wooden lid of light oak, and the
floor made from tanazastone. [This floor was
removed later and the font repositioned near the
Sanctuary, in order to make room for a “Comfort
Space” or “Cafeteria” as mentioned later in this
The flooring of the church is made from maple.
The seating is made from Japanese light oak.
The roof supports which look like large
boomerangs and dominate the interior of the
church are made from pressurised maple.
The Stations of the Cross are hand carved of
light oak by David Jobas.
Toilets are provided.
The Catholics of Didcot and
surrounding villages could be proud of their church
- more to follow on the Solemn Blessing.
To put £50,000 into perspective
- in 1967 it would have bought eight three-bedroomed
detached houses, complete with cloakroom and large
garden, in a quiet location.
18th February 1967 – Solemn
18th February brought the day
the Catholics of Didcot had waited thirty-five years
for, and despite a slight fall of snow, the
parishioners had turned out in full numbers.
Bishop Warlock was staying at
the presbytery overnight and would be fasting on the
day before, setting out the relics to be used in the
consecration. The next day candles were lit
and all things needed prepared in the church.
Canon Olney had come over from
Jersey for the ceremony and received a very warm
welcome from parishioners.
[The actual Rite of Blessing
used was as follows:]
Fr Henry settled in well in our
new church, with Bridget the housekeeper taking
control of the presbytery.
The parishioners, having had
time to appreciate their church, made two
observations: the stairway to the choir gallery was
very awkward to surmount, and could be a danger in
an emergency, and they thought the church was very
cold, but then is was winter!
The hut was in the process of
refurbishment and the parishioners had been busy
painting. The plumbing was updated, and man's
toilet built and a small kitchen installed for
future activities. The church now had a Parish
Centre - the hut lived on!
The accent was now on funding.
The Knights of St Columba set up a 'bring and buy'
section which did well. The parish of some 120
worshipers settled into their church and had the
comfort of a Parish Centre for meetings and
Once up and running, the parish
centre became fully booked for jumble sales, auction
sales and the like. Saturday night became
popular for supper dances, the ladies bringing along
food for sharing. The dancing music was
supplied on 78" records. Car boot sales
operated on Saturday mornings and brought in useful
money. The planned late summer 1970 fete took
place, with sideshows made by parishioners, and
others brought in by experts, becoming a money
spinner. The Irish dancing team from Oxford
gave a great show, and the Pig Roast which was
supplied by an East Hagbourne butcher and roasted by
him was the jewel in the crown. The day
brought parishioners and local residents together.
The parish of English Martyrs had given Didcot a
place on the map.
The wooden hut provided the
next big function - the Silver Jubilee of Father
Henry in August 1971.
Fr Henry celebrating his Silver
There was a good attendance.
Fr Henry was presented with a 'This Is Your Life'
red book, and parishioners raised a substantial gift
for him. Fr Henry became the longest serving
priest of the Parish of English Martyrs.
The Parish Fund was increasing
at a very favourable rate due to the diverse
recreational activities being carried out, the car
boot sales in particular were well attended by the
Fr Henry was approached by the
parish teenagers to hold discos during the
autumn/winter season. Fr Henry agreed to their
request, and the Parish Centre Team decided that
this was another good move for swelling the Parish
Fund. A wine and spirit licence was applied
for, and granted. The hut did not need any
refurbishment so a bar was built in, the lighting
was adequate. Abingdon Brewery was asked to
supply the Centre, and they did so by also supplying
glasses and optics free of charge.
The discos were held
fortnightly. Senior parishioners volunteered
to act with the marshalling to keep under-age
children to soft drinks only. The discos were
very successful and brought the catholic and local
children together. The fund benefitted
extremely well. The bar was opened on Sundays
after the morning Mass and was well patronised.
Fr Henry continued to work with the possibilities of
a primary school being granted by Reading Council in
Fr Henry always returned to his
family home in Northern Ireland for the summer
holidays, and it was from his family home that the
church was informed of his death in September 1981.
He had just returned from attending a rugby match
between the two nations, and on that evening had a
heart attack, from which he died. The parish
was devastated by the news from Ireland. He
died with his family and friends at his side.
Fr Henry served his ministry at English Martyrs for
nearly six years, from the wooden hut to the
consecration of the new church, and for another
twenty years at this new church that the
parishioners had longed for. Mass was said for
the repose of his soul at English Martyrs, and was
attended by both Catholic and local people of Didcot,
for he was well known to them - he regularly walked
the Broadway for his morning exercise and would stop
and talk to everyone. May he rest in peace.
Fr David Freeman
The parishioners were still
mourning the death of Fr Henry and awaiting the
arrival of Fr Freeman from Basingstoke. In the
meantime the presbytery was being decorated.
Fr David Freeman arrived during the last week of
September with his housekeeper and bicycle! He
settled in very quickly and the parishioners were
soon to see changes made to the fabric of the
The railings around the altar
were removed, the gate was retained and fitted into
the wall of the surrounding forecourt and in line
with the doors of the main entrance to the church.
The central aisle of the church
was fitted with red carpet in keeping with that of
The choir gallery was closed
due to the stairway being unsafe, especially for the
elderly parishioners. The choir was positioned
nearer to the altar. The organ was past its
day and an electric piano was purchased to replace
it, much to the surprise of the organist.
Fr Freeman inherited a very
substantial parish fund, and was to spend it on
improving the church which had not seen any major
changes. The parishioners had told him the
church was very cold during the winter months, and
suspected the gas boiler, some twenty years old, was
needing replacement. The new system was
pressure heating and had become the main source of
heating in churches in Oxford. Fr Freeman
visited several of them and was soon convinced that
this was next on his list. As autumn approached a
contract was made and the system incorporated by
November 1989. Trunking carrying the heat had
to go directly through the rear wall of the altar,
and a grating had to be fitted, creating a 'black
eye'. This created an imbalance so another
grating was fitted to the wall. Although it
spoiled the beauty of the altar, the system worked
[Didcot fell in the path of the
hurricane that struck the UK in 1987.] Several
houses in Manor Crescent lost roof tiles and our
wooden hut (the Parish Centre) took a pounding and
lost many roof tiles and damaged the inside wall
linings. It was doubtful now whether it could
be repaired. It was sad to see the demise of
the hut, which had been the church 1934-1967, and
the Parish Centre since then.
Fr Freeman had seen many
changes that had been made during his ministry
within the church, the Sunday Mass was now being
said during Saturday evenings - this was well
received by the elderly parishioners. Clerical
balance sheets now had to be printed for the Diocese
and cheques passed through the Diocesan Trust.
The parish was given a great
shock when it was announced that Fr Freeman was
leaving to go to Thatcham to be nearer his father
who was in ill health. Fr Freeman was well
loved by all and was to be sadly missed. In the four
years of his ministry at English Martyrs he had
removed all the negatives and made them positives, a
great improvement in all areas. His footprints
will never fade away. The parish wished him
well at Thatcham, and awaited the next priest.
Father John Parry
The parish awaited the arrival
of the new priest from Lancashire, the Pastoral
Council team were present. The result of the
storm was still with us and new fence panels had
been fitted to the presbytery garden, the hut
was so 'bruised' that is was doubtful whether it
would ever again be used.
Fr John Parry arrived by car, a
big fellow with rugby physique, and wearing a flat
cap!! Having taken time to become interested
in the parish, he decided that it was time to
inspect the hut and to see whether it could be
refurbished. The parish centre team said that
the asbestos panelling was in a very bad state and
would become a health hazard. Fr John decided
to call on the Diocese property team to carry out an
inspection, which they did, and considered it to be
destroyed and the asbestos removed by following the
Reading Council instructions using the special bags
they supplied, which they would collect.
Having completed the safety factor the hut was then
dismantled and the remains burnt. The
parishioners who turned up were so sorry to see the
hut destroyed, that had served the parish since 1934
to August 1967 as a church, and until 1991 as the
Fr Parry [closed off the choir
gallery and so enabled its use] ...for the youth…
and for parish meetings, bingo sessions etc.
The old organ was sold off. The problem with
the stair access was [that it was] difficult for the
elderly parishioners. Fr John turned his
attention to the Baptismal Room and decided that it
was in the wrong place and had the font removed
nearer to the altar, on the left side of the church
close to the second sacristy…
The Baptismal Room [Baptistery]
had also been the Flower Room, and it was about to
be changed into the 'Comfort Room', or cafeteria,
and an extra section was fitted, doors changed, the
stone flooring removed. The kitchen equipment
soon followed and the ladies of the parish were
ready to serve teas. It soon became a popular
area after Mass.
Autumn was approaching and time
for the heating to be checked over. Fr John
decided that by closing off the choir gallery the
heating of the church would be improved. Two
doors were built and so fitted that it was easy to
operate a winter/summer programme. The doors
were hand built by one of the parishioners and a
first class addition to the church had been made.
Fr John decided that all the
steel framed windows of the church had to be removed
and PVC double glazed windows were to be fitted.
The local window specialist was called in, he took
the job on at a special price. The work helped
to improve even more the efficiency of the church
heating, and made it cheaper to run during the
Guild of St Stephen
The altar servers who had been
serving at East Hendred since 1990 returned to
English Martyrs Church in 1992, being welcomed back
by Fr Parry. The Guild was very strong at East
Hendred due to the Catholic school at St Amand's,
and it was now time to have the Guild established at
Didcot. Fr John gave them help and
encouragement to achieve this. December 1993
saw several young altar servers enrolled in the
Guild and they received their medallions with a
promise to give a high standard of service to the
Fr Parry had taken a dislike to
the confessional [which was built into the sides of
the church, and] too close to the altar area.
A change had to be made, and this Fr John achieved
by having a reconciliation room built by a company
in Basingstoke and shipped to Didcot as a
'flat-pack'. The room was assembled at the
rear of the church and on the right side close to
the entrance of the church from the foyer. The
room when built was easy on the eye. Fr John
had produced another first class addition to the
church. The parishioners were well pleased
with these changes and wondered whether Fr John had
finished! The answer was 'not yet'!
Fr Parry… [intended] the choir
gallery for use by the youth of the parish, the odd
bingo sessions were still going on but very little
else and the parishioners were questioning whether a
parish centre may be built and put this question to
Fr John. The parish centre team that had been
together for some time produced a plan for building
a centre within the next year, this was passed over
to Fr Parry who approved it and decided to call a
parish meeting, so allowing the parishioners to pass
judgement. It was accepted as a majority vote,
and the team was to go ahead keeping the parish
updated on progress.
The plan was to sell off church
land into four plots of 40 x 30 feet, this was at
the Manor Crescent side and each plot would sell at
£40,000 per plot with certain conditions, only one
domestic building and a perimeter wall built six
feet high. The site of the centre would be an
area of the church and presbytery and would include
a patio area.
The plan was sent to the
Diocese Finance and Property Department for
approval. They agreed to the selling of the
church land, with the approval an architect was
engaged. A single story building with
reinforced foundations so that a second floor could
be built in the future. The centre would have
a main hall, two classrooms, kitchen, toilets etc.,
the hall would have a Canadian pine floor and be the
size of a badminton court.
The sale of the plots went into
the Oxford papers. A private builder from
Oxford was prepared to build on the architect plan
for some £125,000 to £150,000. One of the
richest men in Didcot offered to buy two plots so
that he could build a large house, swimming pool and
landscaped garden. Such a sale would provide
[enough capital for] the centre to get started.
The plan was passed on to Fr
John for the parishioners' approval. The
feedback from the parishioners included a sector of
senior parishioners who were totally opposed to the
selling of church land, and requested that the
parish should vote again. The result was for
the plan to proceed but this time those voting
against it had increased. Fr John decided that
he did not want any diversity within the parish and
therefore the parish centre would have to be
cancelled, and the church land remain as such.
The architect was cancelled and paid off. The
Diocese was informed and advertising cancelled.
Needless to say the majority of the parish were very
The parishioners were still
smarting over the result of the proposed Parish
Centre and recalled the amount of fund raising money
which originated from the hutted parish centre
(a figure of £50,000 during the period of Father
Henry and Father Freeman's ministries) and
Father John Parry made great use of this money.
Father John was now ready for
two weeks’ holiday with his Family in Lancashire. He
said before he departed that when he returned he
would complete the odd out-standing work and that
included being the first priest to install a stained
glass window in the church. He had mentioned
this several times before.
Father John was well known
amongst the Didcot people outside the church and
they made him an honorary member of the Labour Club.
Father Parry left still wearing the flat cap and the
parishioners saw him off wishing him safe journey
and good weather.
The senior parishioners
started a club for their members calling it "The
companions Club" which met mid week, a prayer period
was followed with refreshments and a general
exchange of conversations for other ideas within the
parish to help out of the lack of a parish centre
and it was held in the cafeteria due to the
dangerous staircase leading up to the choir room.
The parish was brought to tears when news had
come through that Father John had suffered a heart
attack a few days after he had returned home. The
church was full of parishioners at prayer. They
could hardly believe this had happened to Father
John… Father Parry was 70 years old and he
died on the 20th November 1998. A Requiem Mass
was celebrated and the church was full, with many Didcot
people turning up.
Father John's prayer card reads "Pray for me and I
shall pray for you and all your friends that we may
merrily meet in Heaven".
'Two Amusing Incidents...'
Father John Parry is on his way down from Lancashire
to take over from Fr Freeman who has already left
for Thatcham. I thought that while we are
awaiting the arrival of Fr John I would slip back
into Fr Freeman's time and mention two rather
amusing incidents. The first refers to
Midnight Mass 1990. Father had just started on
his homily - "if an alien from outer space arrived,
I wonder what he would make should he enter the
church, of the altar, the Christmas tree, and church
filled with people awaiting the news of the birth of
Jesus Christ". At that very moment one of the
entry doors, which are spring hinged, made a loud
noise as it closed, and this was followed by the
heavy tread of a person walking up to the altar.
Being good Catholics, we ignored the footsteps, but
at that moment a figure, dressed in complete
fireman's gear, started shouting at Father as he was
half way up to the altar..."would the person owning
a red car remove it immediately for it is preventing
the fire tender access to the Broadway". With
that he turned and walked out! Father decided
we all needed a moment to recover, with a little
laughter before Mass continued.
The second incident occurred during warmer weather.
summer was on its way. Father's housekeeper
had gone to visit her family. Father was
awakened by the entry door bell ringing. He
got up and looked out of the window, and observed
two of the ladies of the parish. Thinking that
an accident may be occurred he put on his dressing
gown, opened the door and was immediately greeted by
"Father are you saying Mass here today?". He
looked down at his watch and said "it is only 8
o'clock!". "Father" they replied, "it is five
minutes to nine - you have failed to put your clock
forward to summer time!". Things happened so
quickly after that, Father still in dressing gown
was into the sacristy and with his vestments
complete, was saying Mass just a few minutes after 9
o'clock. the gossip after Mass was that the
timing was achieved by Father placing his vestments
over his pyjamas! Well all things are
Ted Fisher, who recorded these
details, died in 2011. May he rest in peace.]
Part 2 1998-2016
To be continued...