Rev Preb Austen Williams CVO - An Appreciation

Austen Williams

Austen Williams died on Sunday 9th December 2001. He was a giant of a man who drew enormous strength from his belief in Christ. From 1956 to his retirement in 1984 he was the Vicar of St Martin's-in-the-Fields. Everyone currently living or working in Covent Garden has much to thank Austen, especially for his loyalty to the area and his dedication to help the poorest and oppressed, to quote one of the many obituaries:

"Austen's main concern was to fly Christ's flag as he understood it and from his observation from the variety of life in the passion around him.... he had a deep suspicion of institutional life and he had a mischievous delight in crisis and untidiness - and much of this led him into trouble!"

A ministry would consume any incumbent at St Martin's especially someone with Austen's drive and desire for life. Austen became world renowned thanks to his frequent broadcasts on the World Service. He was inundated with demands and requests from all over the globe to lend his name and that of St Martin's to some campaign or another. He recited gleefully that once when he visited Nigeria a boy of eight ran ahead to tell his mother that St Martin had arrived!

During his ministry at St Martin's its Social Service Unit dramatically expanded, so much so that in the 60's its Youth and Homeless Programme undertook more work than the whole of Westminster City Council Social Services Department. He helped establish War on Want, set up the Chinese Community Centre at St Martin's, organised the first Interfaith service which earned Austen a motion of anathema (close to excommunication) by the then Bishop of London.

But those who lived and worked in Covent Garden in the 1970's and early 80's were largely oblivious of the extent of Austen's other commitment and responsibilities. He was our champion and leader in the struggles to protect the 100 acres that makes up the Covent Garden neighbourhood. He always led from the front in the battles to preserve some humanity in the mad rush by property developers to exploit the area as a consequence of the madcap redevelopment plans.

When a few of us were plotting to start a protest movement to thwart the redevelopment proposals, it was not surprising that we turned to Austen. As a very scruffy, young and arrogant student, I visited Austen in the vestry in St Martin's Place in March 1971. He remembered me taking him to task: "You really should take an active interest in the GLC development proposals that would raze much of your parish to the ground". With his characteristic raised eyebrow look he took the bait and stuck with the struggles until he retired in 1984!

He came to the protest meeting, arranged on April Fools Day at Lord Soper's Kingsway Hall and was amazed by the huge attendance and remarkable mix of class and ages . He later said he could not refuse to get involved having heard the brilliant oratory of John Toomey, the depth of feeling from Sam Driscoll and other 'born and bred' locals. Austen was immediately accepted as the area's leader, and became the first Chairman of the Covent Garden Community Association, not as 'The Vicar', but as Austen, cutting across all religious, class and age divides. Last autumn he chided me that it was a bit thick that I accused him about the parish, as St Martin's' only incorporates a very small part of the 100 acres that makes up Covent Garden.

It is worth recounting what was at stake and what Austen actually did. Over 3/4 of the 100 acres that makes up the Covent Garden neighbourhood bordered by Kingsway and Charing Cross Road to the east and west, and High Holborn and the Strand to the north and south respectively, was destined to be demolished. All the local politicians had agreed to the proposals, representing Westminster (Conservative) Camden (Labour) and the GLC (both Labour and Conservative). Central Government welcomed the comprehensive redevelopment as did the specialist press, and the construction industry. The forthcoming public enquiry was to be a mere formality and indeed redevelopment had already commenced in anticipation of the formal adoption of the redevelopment plans. For example, at the top of Drury Lane the Kitchener & Khartoum Dwellings were being demolished to make way for the Moat House Hotel & BT office block, under which a section of the proposed sunken ring road that was to encircle the neighbourhood was constructed and can still be seen today. Developers were busy purchasing ends of leases ready to exploit the development plan. The only thing standing in the way was a motley vociferous collection of locals who had no evident power or influence and were for the first few years largely ignored.

To the establishment, personified by Lady Dartmouth at the time the leader of the GLC Covent Garden Redevelopment Committee, Austen Williams' involvement with the CGCA could not be fathomed. What was a Chaplin to the Queen - Austen was appointed in 1961- doing giving credibility to a disparate bunch of protesters who thought nothing of taking over GLC press conferences, squatting buildings, organising demonstrations, circulating "scurrilous leaflets full of untruths" and organising demonstrations to Lady D's Mayfair home.

This sentiment was repeatedly expressed over the years more so when the CGCA's actions became sophisticated and irritating. For example, when the CGCA took Westminster and the GLC to the High Court and various Secretaries of State of the Environment became involved. While Austen clearly welcomed the success of the struggles, he hid his own tireless efforts to keep the personalities in the campaign working together and to allow individuals preoccupations to become manifest. And how they did become manifest! A community centre was set up, a sports hall established, derelict land taken over and made into community gardens, sponsored walks organised, even a private members bill was sponsored to get legislation to create local Community Councils in London (a campaign still to be won).

One of the first tasks that Austen undertook as Chairman of the CGCA was to give evidence to ministry officials at the public enquiry into the redevelopment proposals. Austen talked about the community, local social ties, historical connections, the lack of meaningful public participation in the preparation of the plans and the remote and undemocratic behaviour of planning professionals and politicians. He was belittled and patronised by the GLC's leading Counsel and his evidence was dismissed as irrelevant. Austen was both surprised and hurt that what purported to be an independent enquiry was evidently a charade and the result preordained. True to form, the enquiry approved the GLC's proposals. The experience made Austen even more determined to battle for the area's survival, and to some of us he subsequently appeared to become more radical. He was proud to lead demonstrations. The largest took place in 1973 when the CGCA co-ordinated London community groups in a huge demonstration that filled Trafalgar Square to protest at the destruction of their communities by way of official plans and crude speculation by private developers

Austen was 'talked to' by important members of the clergy and the authorities pressed him to come to some kind of compromise or token amelioration. Last year the CGCA celebrated 30 years with a service at St Paul's Church. In his address Austen explained that "those in power" could not understand why as "a reasonable man" he would not distance himself from the protest movement and come to some kind of accommodation. Little did they know the man who had spent five years in a German prisoner of war camp and had little regard for cant and officialdom, be it inside or outside the church.

When eventually the GLC's plan was abandoned largely as a consequence of the neighbourhood's revolt lead by the CGCA, Austen remained chairman during the difficult period when an elected representative body (the Covent Garden Forum) came into being. The GLC were instructed to participate with this Forum before drawing up new proposals. The transition from a protest group to a body with whom the authorities could 'do business' was not easy. To some, including myself, the abandonment of the GLC plan was just the first round of a long struggle to wrest meaningful control away from the local authorities in favour of the neighbourhood.

The effectiveness of the CGCA was being eroded. As Doolittle so succinctly put it in Pygmalion, "middle class morality" was gradually enveloping and neutering the CGCA. Increasingly, the Forum became a talking-shop while the area was being surreptitiously undermined by developers' actions which the local authorities acquiesced.

A resolution was passed at the CGCA's AGM in 1978 that no executive member could be also a representative on the Forum, and the two groups parted company. While this undoubtedly saved the CGCA (the Forum folded in the early '80's), it caused considerable sadness to Austen who felt that everyone should work together. He did recognise the reasons for the parting, and while he decided to remain the Forum's chairman he continued to actively support the CGCA and remained its lifelong president. I think he was immensely pleased that he had been involved from the beginning.

Following his retirement in 1984, Austen and Daphne moved to South London, near to St Martin's secondary school in Tulse Hill. Despite his retirement and an open heart operation he continued to be extremely active, though not in Covent Garden; for obvious reasons he had to limit his official connections to the area so as to give room to his successor at St Martin's-in-the-Fields.

Following Mrs Thatcher's decision to dismantle the GLC, Austen was once again 'encouraged' to get involved in the area's future. The Government determined that all the GLC's assets and land holdings should be sold and the GLC land holdings in Covent Garden especially in the market area were a prized plum in the GLC real estate portfolio ready to be picked. The CGCA resolved that something should be done to retain some local control and established the Covent Garden Trust. The founder Trustees were Austen, John Toomey, David Bieda, Grace Cook and myself. Eventually the London Residuary Body, a government quango set up to dismantle the GLC, agreed to grant a 125 year lease to the Trust concurrent with the sale of the GLC market properties. The powers of the Trust were very constrained but at least the potential of some local involvement had been procured, though rarely has it been exerted. As soon as the lease was signed Austen withdrew.

Austen was made for the Covent Garden battles. Without his wisdom and guidance the CGCA's effectiveness would have been much reduced. When things got difficult at meetings he would lay his head on the table and gently bang it up and down. It was a brilliant way to bring the meeting to order. He never used his experience to direct or in a negative manner but always to encourage others, to advise and give support.

He took great pleasure that he was known locally not as the 'Vicar' but as Austen and with hindsight the combination of Austen and John Toomey was a formidable force that few could have withstood. Austen's contribution to the Covent Garden struggles made huge demands on his time to the cost of his family. The neighbourhood owes a huge debt of thanks to Daphne, and his children, Greg and Kate, who found that they had to share Austen with countless others demands . Those placed on him by the Covent Garden campaigns must at times have been the last straw!

Austen was a giant who taught us how to live on a gigantic scale. We all miss him.

Jim Monahan

A memorial service for Austen Williams will be at 6.30pm on Wednesday 30th January at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, Trafalgar Square, London WC2.

For more information, the following obituaries appeared in the following publications:

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