How Croydon’s rugby-playing vicar preached to millions

As the Rugby World Cup gets underway in Japan, DAVID MORGAN delves into the archives of Croydon Minster to tell the story of one of its vicars from almost a century ago with an impressive record in the sport

Croydon Minster’s history stretches back more than a thousand years

A sporting vicar is perhaps now a thing of the past, at least at an elite level of performance.

Some might remember Rev David Sheppard opening the batting for England in the 1950s and 60s, his final Test being against New Zealand in 1963.

There was Eric Liddell, famously portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire as refusing to race on a Sunday at the 1924 Paris Olympics because of his devout religious beliefs, who therefore switched events and won gold at 400 metres: the son of Rev James Liddell, Eric had won seven caps for Scotland at rugby union before racing at those Games; like his father, Liddell devoted his life to missionary work in China, where he died in 1945 in a Japanese internment camp.

To the best of my knowledge, no Anglican vicar has ever played rugby at international level, although two Catholic priests, Marney Cunningham and Tom Gavin, have played for Ireland and another, John Cootes, played rugby league for Australia.

Croydon Minster, or Croydon Parish Church as it was previously , can proudly boast that one of its vicars was selected to play international rugby. He was never able to take up the selection, unfortunately, as he failed to meet the residency qualifications… Intrigued? Let me outline the story for you.
Rev William Patrick Glyn McCormick arrived to take up his appointment as Vicar of Croydon in 1919, just after the end of World War I.

“Rev Pat” had served as a chaplain during the conflict being awarded a Distinguised Service Order and being mentioned in dispatches – a commendation for bravery – four times. He was, by the time of his appointment in Croydon, in his early 40s, so we need to look earlier in his career for evidence of his sporting prowess.

Born in 1877, McCormick was at the peak of his rugby playing powers and skills during the first decade of the 20th century. His abilities on the rugby field, though, were not seen in this country, as he was playing in South Africa. Initially he began playing for the Wanderers, in Johannesburg, which was then, as it is now, one of the country’s leading sports clubs. At the end of the Boer War in 1903, which had disrupted most sports events in South Africa, McCormick worked with the club to get it back on its feet and helped them to win the Grand Challenge Cup in that first season.

Rev McCormick, photographed in 1940, when he was vicar of St Martins-in-the-Fields. Photograph from the National Portrait Gallery

Subsequently, McCormick was selected to play for Transvaal in the Currie Cup, South Africa’s regional competition with all the best club players. Back in those days, the Currie Cup was not played annually. In 1904, he played for Transvaal against Free State, Borders and North East Districts, all the matches played in East London.

In 1906 he played three games for Transvaal (against Free State, Border and Eastern Province), this time the matches being played in Johannesburg. With a nickname of “The Preacher”, he was a target for opposition players who would try to wind him up by swearing and cursing even more than they would do usually.

This he dealt with in his own cool way. It was noted in his own parish church at the time that he often conducted a Sunday morning service with his face displaying the wounds of a Saturday match: black eyes, small cuts and reddened skin were all part of a combative player’s post-match visage.

McCormick must have been an outstanding player, as he was chosen in the squad for the South African tour to the British Isles in 1906-1907. This was the first time a touring South African team would be known as The Springboks. That tour was most successful, with the touring side drawing with England and beating Wales. But McCormick did not travel with the team as it was discovered that he did not meet the residency qualifications for selection. What exactly were his links to South Africa then?

Being ordained as a priest in 1901 meant that Rev Pat was following in the footsteps of his father Rev Joseph McCormick, who has been canon at York Minster and later was vicar of St James Piccadilly and also a Royal Chaplain. Immediately after his ordination, the younger McCormick travelled out to South Africa to be a chaplain to the British forces during the Boer War. In the chaplaincy records of the day, we can see that he was a chaplain “4th class”.

After the war finished, he decided that he would remain in the country, ministering to the workers involved in the mining district of the Transvaal.

It was in Cleveland, nowadays a suburb of Johannesburg, that he began his ministry, and where he stayed from 1903 to 1910. During that time he oversaw the building of a church, St Patrick’s. He seems to have been a popular vicar who fitted in well with the folk of the parish who were impressed with his sporting abilities, in cricket as well as rugby.

In 1910 Rev Pat was appointed to the position of Rector of St John’s in Belgravia Johannesburg. However, at the outbreak of World War I, McCormick decided to return to Britain to offer his services as a Chaplain. His rugby playing days were now definitely over.

He crossed the Channel in August 1914 on the SS Italian Prince, where he was recorded as Temporary Chaplain to HM Forces, 4th class. He may have started at the bottom of the chaplaincy group again, but The London Gazette of October 28, 1918, recorded that Rev McCormick was to be made Chaplain 1st Class, with the pay and allowances of that rank.

He was involved in the conflict straight away in September 1914, taking ambulances from Nantes to the British Expeditionary Force’s headquarters at Fere-en-Tardenois in Picardy. Indeed, it was largely through his efforts of persuasion that more motor ambulances were assigned to the BEF.

The Prince of Wales in his Guards uniform during World War I. Rev McCormick served alongside the future king

As the chaplain to the Royal Army Medical Corps No 1 Motor Ambulance Convoy, based in St Omer and Poperinghe, McCormick was heavily involved in the evacuation of wounded from Ypres during the first Battle of Ypres (October 1914 – January 1915). Among many ventures and tasks assigned to him during the war, it is notable that he organised a soldiers’ club at St Omer, got concert parties to entertain the troops at Le Havre and arranged cinema screenings in Poperinghe.

Being chaplain to the 3rd Guards Brigade (Guards Division) included service in the Battle of Loos (September – November 1915). This also brought him into contact with the Prince of Wales – later Edward VIII – and other prominent figures in the Guards Battalion.

In a biography about the Rev Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, or “Woodbine Willie”, the most well-known of all World War I chaplains,  it states that McCormick visited him both in France and at home in England, and was much inspired by Rev Kennedy’s preaching and ministry. Indeed, in the 1920s while McCormick was vicar of Croydon, the Rev Kennedy visited for a week organising special mission services.

Rev McCormick left Croydon in 1928, when he was appointed Vicar of St Martins-in-the-Field, one of the important churches of central London. While there, McCormick continued to develop his work with the homeless, a cause which is still vital today, and he was heard by millions more than just his own parishioners through in the BBC radio broadcasts in the 1930s.

Rev Pat was a man of faith, of vigour, of charisma and many skills. I suspect that he would have been humble about all of his many achievements, the rugby ones included.

If you are passing Croydon Minster you can pop in and look at the brass plaque containing the list of all the vicars just inside the west door: you can see Rev McCormick’s name in the right-hand column.

The church is open every day, except Thursdays. If you would like a group tour or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page.

  • David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers to plan bespoke tours for groups or to provide illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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1 Response to How Croydon’s rugby-playing vicar preached to millions

  1. Lewis White says:

    Wow ! What a man of action, Rev Pat!

    Thanks David for a brilliant article

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