The Reverend Christopher Jonathan Bird was born on 23rd January 1930 and at 8.00.p.m. on Friday 28th October 1966– the Feast of S. S. Simon and Jude – he was inducted to the living of All Saints’ by the Bishop of Southwark. This was Father Bird’s first parish following his training at Salisbury Theological College and Brasted College and two curacies at St. James’, Riddlesdown and St. George-in-the-East, Stepney. In his sermon the Bishop said that the church was often accused of unfriendliness. “In some churches,” he said, “you feel as if you are in the North Pole – the congregation put you in a deep freeze. Straightforward friendliness is among the greatest assets of a congregation,” he added, “and here at All Saints’ you are a friendly congregation.” The Bishop continued, “I am quite sure that you are keen to do your job here with your new Vicar and are keen to see this church go from strength to strength in this district.”
One of the first things that Fr. Bird did was to restrict the use of the nave altar to the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent and to introduce a regular pattern of worship.
He was an enthusiastic and lively priest, keen to build up the social life of the church and to address the issue of drawing in the young people of the parish. A questionnaire was produced asking people what they liked or disliked about the various aspects of church life so that they could proceed with the full backing of all concerned. A Parish Outing to Coventry and a holiday for twelve of the choirboys at St. Gilda’s Convent School in Lyme Regis were quickly arranged. By July 1967 plans to re-vitalise the parish were well advanced. Communications were to be improved, and a committee was set up to discuss the magazine and the weekly news sheet. Mrs. Chick took on the role of advertising manager and it was proposed that every road in the parish should have its own ‘Street Warden.’ A drive to increase Free-Will Offerings and the adoption of a Covenant Scheme formed the headline for fund-raising. Maintenance issues, such as the redecoration of both hall and church, and repairs to the roof were identified. Attention was also drawn to the need for new hassocks for the chapel and a new heater in the hall. But by far the most important changes were those proposed for the daily worship and running of the parish. Father Bird wanted an all-parish group meeting every fortnight, regular social evenings, and a ‘Ladies Group’ to replace the Mother’s Union. Young people should have a ‘home-based’ youth club – meeting one weeknight – and also a special Sunday Evening Group. The Children’s Church, previously held at 11.15.a.m., was to be discontinued and children were to be encouraged to come along with their parents to the Parish Communion which, as from October 1st was to begin at 10.00.a.m. Those children under seven were to meet in the hall for the first part of the service, before joining their parents at the offertory, but ALL were to be in church for the whole service at festivals!
It seemed that there was always something happening whilst Fr. Bird was at the helm. The choir succeeded not only with their singing, but also with their skills on the football pitch. The Choir Football Club forged ahead in the South London Choirboy’s League. Headlined by the Wimbledon News as ‘The Choir with the Kick in It,’ Father Bird confessed, “I don’t know if they are better at soccer or singing and,” he added, “it isn’t essential, but it would be very useful if our new organist knows something about football and will help coach the boys!” . There were also plans to re-decorate the church – finally completed in 1971 – , to hold a Flower Festival, and to organise regular outings as well as a host of other parish events. The choirboys holiday also became a regular event as did Christmas outings to a show in London.
The South Wimbledon Plan that had first reared its head during Fr. Christmas’s time was still very much to the fore in the 1970’s. A new school, replacing the outdated All Saints’ Primary School, was proposed for a site affecting Deburgh and Leyton Roads whilst other proposals would create new open spaces, pedestrian areas and better traffic management. The scheme was designed to make use of land that would become available following the clearance of ‘unfit’ homes, but this could only be done if the land was in public ownership. And it was this spectre of compulsory purchase that was at the heart of the problem as far as the residents were concerned.
For Father Bird however, the real and immediate challenge was the re-development of the area, and he was keen to suggest that the prospective candidates for the upcoming Council elections should attend a meeting in order that they could be questioned on their views with regard to the re-development scheme. He had already voiced his concerns over the plans at a meeting in the Baths Hall, Latimer Road when he criticised the number of parking spaces being provided within the scheme. “There are too many garages taking the place of houses,” he said. “If the roads are not going to be through-ways why do we need parking spaces? And ,” he added, “We are losing 110 houses. Surely we could have a small block of one-bedroomed flats for the elderly who are living in houses too big for them at the moment.” As well as building the new school and providing a Day Nursery and other amenities – including off-street parking – 200 unfit houses were to be demolished to make way for open spaces. Of the 431 properties remaining only 131 were deemed to have the proper facilities. As to the remaining 300, 170 had no bathroom, and a further 240 no inside toilets or even basins with hot and cold running water. In 1971 this was a disturbing statistic.
In 1971 All Saints’ had 54 children on the Sunday School register, with an average attendance of 40 each Sunday. The Thursday Club boasted 50 members; there were 18 Brownies, 26 Guides and 16 choirboys – who continued to cut a swathe of destruction in their Football League, posting an impressive performance of 114 goals for and only 8 against! The Girls Club had recently re-started with 12 members, a Discussion Group met every fortnight, there were now 9 servers and the Old People’s Club had 56 members currently on its books. Communicants were also on the increase and there had been 34 Baptisms and 22 Confirmations.
Despite this a proposal was now on the table that South Wimbledon would become a new parish with Holy Trinity as the Parish Church whilst S. Peter’s, All Saints’, S. Andrew’s and Christchurch, Colliers Wood would become daughter churches. No churches would close at present. Fr. Bird was of the opinion that, in view of the increased costs of upkeep and the proposal to build a new school, they should consider closure of the church and include a new one within the new school building. He envisaged that the school hall would be used for Sunday services and that a chapel could be built at one end for use on weekdays and as a Sanctuary on Sundays. His ideas did not meet universal approval and the matter was left for the council to consider in due course. Whatever the Vicar’s ideas, an anonymous gift of £4,000 ensured that the building of the new school would certainly go ahead.
Despite all the positive things that had happened since his arrival at All Saints,’ the Vicar, in his remarks, to the A.G.M. in 1974 declined to concern himself with the usual financial matters, but concentrated on his sadness with the fact that they had lately failed to find unity within themselves. This, he said “had given him one of his saddest years in his ministry. .….The Wardens and the P.C.C. members,” he said, “are confirmed members of the Church and as such have a responsibility to lead the Church and social activities in the Parish. I expect deeper commitment to God and Church and greater loyalty which should override all other thoughts.”
But better times followed. The choir won the South London Choirboy’s League for the 4th season in succession, having scored 328 goals and remaining undefeated in 32 consecutive games. The Mayor (Councillor Clifford – a former Haydons Road pupil) agreed to open the Summer Fete, they had managed to raise £1781.80 towards the cost of the new boiler and had the money to buy new equipment for both the Children’s Sunday and Thursday clubs. There was even money available for repairs to the organ. A Stewardship scheme was planned for late November and thirteen candidates had put their names forward for Confirmation.
But as suddenly as the parish had bounced back, terrible news broke in the early hours of Thursday, July 18th 1974 when Fr. Bird died suddenly at the age of 44. It was a terrible shock to the parish and the Wimbledon News was quick to pay tribute to Fr. Bird’s work in South Wimbledon: – “He was well known for his work with young people and organised the choirboy’s football league. His concern for the developing All Saints’ Environmental Area will also be remembered.”
Fr. Bird was buried at his home town of Kimbolton in Herefordshire and a Requiem Mass at All Saints’ was conducted by the Bishop of Southwark.
As a footnote there is a short Pathe News clip reporting on a Southwark Clergy Conference held at Bognor Regis in 1961 in which (if you look very carefully) a newly-ordained Fr. C. J. Bird features – albeit briefly. You can watch it by following this link.