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Obituary: Canon Tony Williamson

22 March 2019

Canon Christopher Hall writes:

CANON Anthony William Williamson, the Church of England’s unique worker priest, died at his Watlington home on 12 February, aged 85.

For 30 years, 261092 was Tony’s clock number at Pressed Steel in Cowley. He was one of 12,000 employees, each easily replaceable, whom he saw as neglected by the Church, though each an individual of utmost value to God. That deep theological and socialist conviction was rooted for Tony in Matthew 25.31-46, read by two of his grandsons at the service of thanksgiving for his life.

After five terms at Cuddesdon, Tony began work as a “trucker”. It took 18 months to persuade the cautious Bishop Harry Carpenter to ordain him to serve his title at St Luke’s, Cowley, for the nominal stipend of 1s. a year; he still clocked on at 7.15, after celebrating the eucharist at 6.30 on Wednesdays. He joined the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), which met on Sunday mornings — for Tony this was after an eight-o’clock communion; and he chaired the largest UK TGWU Branch for 16 years.

Election to Oxford City Council led, through hours of thorough and caring case-work, to Chair of the Housing Committee for ten years, leadership of the Labour Party in both City and County Councils, Lord Mayor of Oxford, and Life Alderman of the County. One Polling Day, a voter arrived to “vote for Tony”, only to find that he wasn’t a candidate in that ward. “Where is he standing? I’ll go there!” Tony lobbied Buckingham Palace to allow Barbara and all their four children to witness his award of the OBE.

Tony was the son of Fr Joe of Poplar, widely known in his own day, and to viewers of Call the Midwife. For lack of schooling, Joe, too, struggled to be ordained; so he made sure that his children had the best chances. Tony went to the Dragon School, Marlborough, and Trinity, Oxford, gaining a third in Geography — with greater success at hockey. His wife, Barbara, a Somerville alumna, was cleverer, a JP and careers adviser. Tony repaid his debt to her as devoted mother, generous host, and wise critic, tirelessly giving her for four years the fullest possible life after a severe stroke.

Days before his death, his four children helped Tony to finish a project that had been important to their parents. They reached the Thames Barrier, the end of the 180-mile Thames Path that Tony and Barbara had started walking in 2010.

Thirty years’ “clocking on” was followed by spending 11 years as Oxford Diocesan Director of Education. He pioneered a sustainable scheme of professional advisers in church and county schools. In Watlington, the “retyred turbo-charged vicar” in his yellow BMW Mini fought for a new primary school and sheltered housing, and every week worked alongside community payback teams clearing the churchyard. He supported clergy as a union representative for the Faithworkers’ Branch of Unite.

On Barbara’s garden trolley, his ashes were drawn by his granddaughters in recession from the church as the Strawbs sang “I’m part of the union till the day I die”. Tony put into practice his lifelong belief in the union of God and the human family.

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