William of Glasshampton – English Friar, Monk and Solitary

william glasshampton
In the early years of the twentieth century, Father William Sirr of the Society of the Divine Compassion (SDC) felt called by God to leave his work in the East End of London to begin a contemplative life of prayer in a more secluded setting. In the winter of 1918 he moved to Glasshampton and established the religious life in this place. For nearly 20 years Fr. William lived here, leading a life of silence, contemplation, intercessory prayer and manual labour. He renovated the building to make it habitable again. People came to stay for shorter or longer periods of time, finding in him a spiritual director of great holiness. He had always hoped to found a contemplative community at Glasshampton, but as the years went by it became clear that no community was going to form around him. Fr. William died in 1937, and in 1947 the Society of St. Francis were invited to come to live at Glasshampton.
william book
Geoffrey Curtis, “William of Glasshampton – Friar: Monk: Solitary – 1862-1937”, SPCK, London, 1947

For a review of the book, see “Theology” June 1947 vol. 50 no. 324 pp.233-234.

“The Revd. William Sirr was a member of an Anglican religious community, the Society of the Divine Compassion, at Plaistow, in East London. In 1906 his picture appeared in the Daily Mirror under a headline, “Clergy join the Procession of London’s Unemployed.” The caption went on to say, “Father William led the West Ham and Plaistow men with a banner bearing the words, ‘In the name of Christ we claim that all men should have the right to live.” He had that year been elected Superior of the Society, which office he held for six years.
About 1911 he began to feel that he was being called to a life of prayer rather than that of active work.
He was allowed a period of retirement, but his community was reluctant to release him. His time of testing was extended in 1915, at which time he went to live with the Cowley Fathers
at Oxford. In 1918 he again requested permission to take up a life of monastic enclosure. Approval was still withheld at first. But by that time Father William had heard that the stables at Glasshampton would be available to him, and a new Superior allowed his release.
He was now 57 years old, and may have hoped that the community he wished to found would grow quickly, while he was still active and vigorous. This was not to be. In 1922 he was writing, “We stand for something no other Community stands for … quietness, hiddenness and simplicity. It is a difficult time … there have been so many disappointments. But, thank God, we are getting a few years of tradition behind us, and after a few years of slow and steady progress we shall have won the confidence of a few. It is always difficult to go on with nothing to show

Men came to try the life, but none stayed. The stern self-discipline of the ageing monk could be admired but not easily imitated. The diet was said to be atrocious, the chapel worship
conducted at a painfully slow pace, and the life proved to be beyond surviving.
For eighteen years, Father William lived the life. Hundreds of men found him and drew strength to follow their own different vocations, but what he most eagerly awaited and prayed for never came to pass. In the end he accepted this. “It is God’s
will, therefore it was the best thing that could have happened.” Among his visitors was Stanley Baldwin, then Prime Minister, through whose offices permission was given for
Father William’s body to be buried at Glasshampton. His last days were spent at the home of St Barnabas at Dormans, Surrey, where he died on Easter Day, 1937. His body was buried first at Lingfield, then re-interred at Glasshampton on 15th September (the feast of St Mary at the Cross) in 1939.”
“The Story of Glasshampton” – http://www.shrawley.org.uk/Shrawley_Website/Publications_files/The%20story%20of%20Glasshampton_1.pdf

“Glasshampton took its name from the first manor that was built near the village of Astley about ten miles from Worcester. For a time it was the farm house of a group of French Benedictines and known as Astley Priory. After passing through many hands, in the eighteenth century it became the property of a curate of Astley Church, the Rev. D.J. Crookes. It was a house of great magnificence, having, it was said, as many windows as days in the year, as many doors as weeks, and as many chimneys as weeks. Crookes restored the whole structure, making it still more magnificent. He added the stables for his horses, which Fr. William S.D.C later turned into a monastery. In the spring of 1810 it the house was burnt to the ground through the carelessness of a workman dropping his cigarette ash. It was rebuilt, but was burnt down again, just before there was to be a house warming. It was never to be rebuilt. The stables were built in the form of a quadrangle, but when Fr. William got there, only one corner of the building was habitable. William, who had been superior of the S.D.C., had long wanted to live the contemplative life on a strict Benedictine model. He moved into the habitable part of the building in November 1918, just after the war, to live a very austere contemplative life, hoping for recruits, but without success. He lived in complete poverty. In the course of time, with the help of benefactors, he turned the horse boxes into cells, and built an enclosed cloister round the quadrangle with lawn and a Calvary in the centre. And he planted fourteen rose trees round the garth, which were sometimes used for a Stations of the Cross. Under one of the two towers of the building he built a chapel, under the other a library. Next to the main chapel was a small chapel for the Blessed Sacrament, dedicated to St. Bernard, but now turned into a sacristy. The big chapel was dedicated to St. Mary at the Cross, which became the name of the monastery. William was buried in the garth with the help of his friend, Lord Baldwin, the Prime Minister, who lived nearby. He died in March 1947, after a time in a nursing home for priests. The next year the monastery was bought by a trust, which included Fr. Gilbert Shaw and Mother Clare of the Holy [31/32] Name, Burnham, who was a great devotee of Fr. William. For a time during the war it was occupied by some nuns as a retreat house, and then by a Quaker home for evacuated children who smashed some of the images!”

From “A Life in Order: The Memoirs of Brother Francis SSF”: The Society of Saint Francis, Brisbane, 2003: http://anglicanhistory.org/aus/francis_life2003/04.html
The Society of St Francis at Glasshampton today

See further: Peter F. Anson “The Call of the Cloister: religious communities and kindred bodies in the Anglican Communion: (SPCK, 1956, new edition 1964), pp. 157, 159, 160, 194-199. Anson concludes his account quoting from Curtis’ biography: “Fr William was a voice crying in the wilderness: his personal example may yet lead others into the desert. Yet now the Church of England has at least one enclosed and contemplative order of men as well as several of women.”
william glass icon
The Community of the Servants of the Will of God (CSWG), an Anglican order based on the Benedictine rule which has both men and women living under the same monastic rule and is a semi-eremitical community, looks to Fr William of Glasshampton (on the left) as one of their founders, together with Fr Gilbert Shaw and Fr Robert Gofton Salmond. See further http://companyofvoices.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/fresh-expression-contemplative-anglican.html
“Community of the Servants of the Will of God. Founded 1953 This monastery is set in woodland with a small farm attached. The Community lives a contemplative life, uniting silence, work and prayer in a simple life style based on the Rule of St Benedict. The Community is especially concerned with uniting the traditions of East and West, and has developed the Liturgy, Divine Office and use of the Jesus Prayer accordingly. It now includes women living under the same monastic Rule.”

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