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Obituary: John Peart-Binns

25 February 2022

Lynne Greenwood writes:

JOHN S. PEART-BINNS has been described as “a leading episcopal biographer”, a description that made him chuckle, as he felt that it was “such a pompous title”.

Despite those misgivings, John, who never used his middle name of Stuart, wrote more than 20 books — the majority being biographies of Anglican bishops. He contributed entries to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and his Peart-Binns Episcopal Biography Archive is held in the University of Bradford Special Collections.

His research for the books provided him with a large collection of material relating to more than 400 bishops, past and present, of the Church of England and of other Churches of the Anglican Communion, and also reflects the involvement of senior clergy in social welfare, politics, and legislation.

John was born in Bradford on 21 March 1939, and went to school in the Bradford suburb of Clayton, during which time he was head choirboy at St John’s, Clayton.

After school, he moved to London, to work in insurance. It was there that he met and married his wife, Annis, a teacher, in 1967.

The couple later returned to West Yorkshire, living in Gomersal and Cleckheaton, before setting up home in Hebden Bridge, where they lived for more than 35 years.

Throughout his writing career, John maintained a low profile, and was known to be very private. He was always smartly dressed, a shirt-and-tie man, never seen outside without a hat, usually his trademark brown trilby. He was often spotted striding from his book-lined cottage home to collect his daily copy of The Times, before returning to his attic office to resume work.

Until a few years ago, he worked steadfastly on his typewriter — a favourite instrument after his black fountain pen — before finally being persuaded to move to a PC; but he never used email or the internet.

Instead, he stuck rigidly to using only paper archives and libraries for all his books and studies for his degrees at Leeds University. As a mature student, John obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree with Honours in June 2007, followed by a Master of Philosophy degree with distinction in January 2009.

He and Annis enjoyed foreign travel, exploring the churches of Austria and Germany, before moving on to Italy, where Puglia and the Amalfi coast were among their favourite places.

From childhood, John showed an interest in churches, in how services were conducted, and in the buildings themselves, particularly those from the Renaissance and rococo periods.

He began writing in the 1960s, and his first book Dead or Alive? The Oxford Movement today was published in 1967 by the Church Union. It was followed two years later by Blunt (Mountain Press, 1969), a biography of Alfred W. F. Blunt, Bishop of Bradford from 1931 to 1955, a key figure in the abdication crisis. He went on to write Ambrose Reeves (Gollancz, 1973) and Eric Treacy (Ian Allan, 1980).

His other episcopal biographies included Living with Paradox: John Habgood, Archbishop of York (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987); Graham Leonard, Bishop of London (same publisher, 1988); Defender of the Church of England (about Bishop R. R. Williams of Leicester) (Amate Press, 1984); Wand of London (Mowbray, 1987), Joost de Blank: Scourge of apartheid (Muller, Blond & White, 1987), Bishop Hugh Montefiore (Anthony Blond, 1990), and A Heart in My Head (a life of Lord Harries) (Continuum, 2007). John developed and maintained a friendship with several of his biography subjects, long after the books were published. He was also the author of a life of the Anglo-Catholic sociologist Maurice B. Reckitt (The Bowerdean Press/Marshall Pickering, 1987).

John and Annis attended St James’s, Hebden Bridge, regularly for many years before becoming Roman Catholics in November 2000. From then on, they joined the congregation at the Good Shepherd, Mytholmroyd.

John died on 8 February, aged 82.

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