Saturday, 30 May 2020

The Victorian ‘slum priest’
who has left his mark on
the streets of Tamworth

The Co-operative shops in Tamworth are the lasting legacy of the Revd William MacGregor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It is impossible to walk around Tamworth or to write about Tamworth without becoming impressed by the life of the Revd William MacGregor (1848-1937) who was, without doubt, Tamworth’s ultimate ‘champion of the poor.’

His name keeps on coming up as I read about Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth Castle, Bolehall Manor or Tamworth’s architectural and social history. He was the very embodiment of the Victorian ‘slum priest’ and throughout his life he remained faithful to his beliefs and morals.

The Revd William MacGregor (1848-1937) … the Victorian ‘slum priest’ who loved the people of Tamworth

The Revd William MacGregor was born in Liverpool on 16 May 1848 into a wealthy shipping family. His Scottish grandfather had made a fortune as a merchant and banker, while his father owned a thriving Liverpool iron foundry.

William went to school at Rugby in Warwickshire, then went to Exeter College, Oxford, where he proposed to study law, but instead turned to theology. He graduated BA 1871 and MA in 1874, was ordained Deacon in 1872 and Priest in 1873 at Lichfield Cathedral.

He was a curate in Hopwas, outside Tamworth, in 1872-1876, and then Vicar of Saint Matthias’, Liverpool, in 1877-1878. But he returned to the Diocese of Lichfield when he was appointed Vicar of Tamworth in 1878 at the age of 30.

Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth … William MacGregor was Vicar of Tamworth in 1878-1887 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Tamworth, MacGregor was respected as a godly man with immense faith who devoted his life to the people of the town. He brought in two curates to help him and personally financed their ministry.

He gave Saint Editha’s Church a major facelift, had its bells re-cast, and built two churches, at Glascote and at Hopwas, where named the church Saint Chad’s. This brick and timber-framed ‘chocolate-box,’ church, praised by the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘an ingenious and entertaining building,’ is on Hopwas Hill in the shadow of Hopwas Hayes Wood. It was designed in 1879-1881 by the architect John Douglas (1830-1911) of Chester and is a Grade II listed building.

MacGregor also served occasionally as a magistrate. On one occasion a young boy was brought before him for playing football on the road. The boy told him there was nowhere else to play so William MacGregor bought a plot of land near the railway arches and gave Bolehall Park – now MacGregor Park – to the young people of the town.

He started a branch of the Mother’s Union in Tamworth and employed a home nurse to visit and help poor mothers with infants at home. He then started a girls’ club where they could not only learn needlework and religion but also have a place to read and socialise.

He spent the first ten years in Tamworth visiting the poor and squalid homes where typhoid was often rampant. He campaigned tirelessly for every home to have clean water and sanitation despite the strong opposition from the town’s wealthy inhabitants.

He exposed landlords for the squalid state of the homes of their tenants. He mediated between miners and colliery bosses when wages were cut drastically. He took children out of workhouses and put them into family homes. He took orphans from the slums to holiday in his own home.

He started a free library and a coffee house for teetotallers and established a workingmen’s club in Bolehall. He founded and financed Tamworth’s first hospital at his own expense in 1880 and acted as honorary secretary for many years, and his interest in the hospital never waned.

The Church Street Baths and Institute in 1891 (Photograph © Historic England Archive ref: BL10877)

The Church Street Baths and Institute were among MacGregor’s many gifts to the town. They were built in a timber-framed Tudor style in 1885 to a design by the architect John Douglas, who also designed Saint Chad’s Church, Hopwas, for MacGregor.

The building had a façade designed to harmonise with the 15th and 16th century timer-framed buildings on Church Street. There was a jettied gable and oriel window on one side, and the institute was on one side, with swimming baths on the other, while the School of Art occupied the first-floor rooms.

The poor people of Tamworth appealed to MacGregor to help them start a Co-operative Society where they could buy food cheaply at fair prices and share in the profits. He sourced the premises in Colehill in 1885 and acted as guarantor.

The local shopkeepers were enraged and feared that this cut-price Co-op would affect their livelihoods. MacGregor was abused in the street, and damned in letters sent to him, to the Tamworth Herald and to the bishop. Some parishioners even stopped going to church in protest.

Within a year he had resigned as the Vicar of Tamworth. An editorial he wrote in the parish magazine in December 1886 sums up his distress at the bad feeling surrounding him. He describes his first eight years in Tamworth as giving him some anxiety but also ‘much happiness.’ He then explains why the ninth year has opened ‘under a cloud’: ‘My connection with the Co-operative movement, which is about to get a footing in Tamworth, is an offence to many who have hitherto worked cordially with me, and whom I have valued highly as friends and helpers.’

As much as he regretted the ill-feeling that had developed, he could not hold himself back from helping a movement ‘calculated to benefit morally, socially and politically a large number of people.’

Although MacGregor resigned as Vicar of Tamworth in 1887, he continued to live in Tamworth, faithful to his beliefs and morals, held in esteem by ordinary working men and women.

Tamworth Castle … William MacGregor helped ensure the castle was bought for the people of Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When Lord Townshend decided to sell Tamworth Castle, MacGregor started the fund to buy Tamworth Castle for the town, and had a deep, practical commitment to the maintenance of the Castle. It was purchased from by the Borough of Tamworth to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and was officially opened in 1899 as the borough’s museum.

MacGregor addressed the 350 invited guests at an official lunch in the Tamworth Assembly rooms in 1899 to celebrate the purchase of Tamworth Castle:

‘In my public life, which has not been a short one, I have known no moment of supreme satisfaction than when the auctioneers’ hammer fell on Whit Tuesday night two years ago in the Town hall, Guy built for us, and the auctioneer announced that the ancient Castle of Tamworth, with its history dating from 775, had become the property of the Mayor and Corporation of Tamworth in the name of the people.

‘It will be to us a centre of light and life, a centre of the history of our town and England and we shall gather there in the course of time, collections, scientific and artistic, of interest to us.

‘I can only trust that as the young men and women of Tamworth grow up here and see their Castle rising in the midst of them, their minds will be carried back to the story of England’s history, that they will feel that history is a real and living thing. The people of Tamworth are the trustees of the Castle for the people of England.’

A serious lung illness later life caused him to convalesce in Egypt in 1885. He continued to visit Egypt regularly, developed his interests in Egyptian archaeology and excavations and became an eminent Egyptologist. He amassed a private collection that he housed in a special museum in his house at Bolehall Manor in 1903.

He is said to have buried at least two of the mummies he brought back from Egypt in the grounds of Bolehall Manor as they began to deteriorate.

Bolehall Manor, now Bolehall Manor Club … for decades the home of William MacGregor

He was also a noted authority on Greek pottery and was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

As he grew older, he donated some of his collections to Tamworth Castle, but he sold most of his collection privately. The MacGregor collection of 8,000 pieces was sold by Sotheby’s in 1921. The sale catalogue describes him as ‘one of the most important collectors of Egyptology.’

MacGregor sat on Warwickshire County Council from 1888 to 1917 and was Chairman of the Tamworth Herald from 1906 to 1928. He was 89 when he died on 26 February 1937 at Bolehall Manor, and he was buried at Saint Chad’s Church, Hopwas.

His baths on Church Street, Tamworth, were demolished in December 1966. But many of the objects from his private collections can be seen in museums, including the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum in London.

A blue plaque at Bolehall Manor Club commemorates Macgregor’s legacy, Bolehall Boys School was renamed William MacGregor School in his honour, and he has given his name MacGregor Park (formerly Bolehall Park), MacGregor Crescent at Glascote, and the MacGregor Tithe sheltered housing complex on the site of Tamworth General Hospital. His chair with his engraved initials is still in the office of the chief executive of the Tamworth Co-operative Society.

The Revd William MacGregor continues to be remembered with pride in Tamworth

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