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Spencer Wade

Former coal miner turned academic turned curate: the first student of St Anselm's Hostel.

Born: 1888

Old Anselmian: around 1907

Degree: Theology

Career: Coal miner, parson


Towards the end of the 19th century, Spencer Wade was born in West Auckland, in the heartlands of the Durham coal fields. He was the second youngest of ten children born to Wilson and Sarah Wade. His father was a coal manager, but in 1893, Spencer's father died in the Durham typhoid epidemic, leaving behind a five year old Spencer and his nine siblings.

Inevitably, the death of the head of the household had a major impact on the family’s financial situation. At the first opportunity, in 1902, against the wishes of his mother and his headmaster Robert Thompson, Spencer Wade left school. Following in his father’s footsteps, he went down the pit. He received £1 per week in wages, with a further 10 shillings when he became a ‘washer’ (washing coal for special uses). Upon meeting Spencer some years later, his former Headmaster was said to have wept with joy when he learned that Spencer was an undergraduate at the University of Manchester.

"What I owe to that young Irish curate is beyond my power to express."

Spencer Wade, writing about the Reverend Thomas B. Allworthy, founder of St Anselm Hall.

In the same year, the Reverend Thomas Allworthy arrived as the new curate at the local parish church in West Auckland. There, he ran a club for local boys that Spencer attended. Allworthy purchased Spencer his first book; Spencer gave him a little of his pocket money each week towards this. Allworthy, on discovering that Wade had used the book to teach himself Greek, was so impressed by the boy’s ability that he took him into his care, taking him to tea with the Bishop of Durham and teaching him a range of subjects.


In 1906, Allworthy moved on to take up a position near Macclesfield, but before doing so, arranged for the 17-year-old Wade to attend Macclesfield Grammar School. A year later, in 1907, Allworthy had founded St Anselm's Hostel to prepare young working class men for ministry. After completing his time at the at the Grammar School, Spencer Wade joined Allworthy at his newly established hostel in Newton Heath as his first student.

In addition to his theological training, Wade was prepared for the matriculation examination, eventually attending Manchester University. At the start of his second term, he was invited to join the Classical Honours School. Following a breakdown in his final year, he took the examination papers and was awarded an aegrotal degree, a degree awarded when a student has been too ill to study or take the examination. In 1913, Spencer graduated from the University of Manchester.


On New Year’s Eve in 1913, Spencer Wade married Annie Hindmarsh, who was known as Sis. His best man was fellow Slemsman Walter Sellers. Spencer was made a curate and the newlyweds moved to Torquay in Devon, where Spencer took up his first appointment. Later the same year, he was ordained as a priest at Durham Cathedral and appointed to Barnard Castle, back in the North East. Several other local appointments followed including Middleham, Bishop Auckland and Roker Sunderland.

In 1920, Sis and Spencer’s only son, John, was born. After a short stay in Bolton, the family moved back to Lynesack, Durham, a position taken largely because of his son’s ill health and the need to move him out of Bolton.

On 1st June 1930, Spencer Wade preached for the first time in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace, on the invitation of King George V. The King's private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, subsequently told Spencer, 'That is the only time I have heard the King discuss a sermon'. Two years later, Spencer preached in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace for the second time. On this occasion, the King sent a gift to the church at Wark on Tyne, north of Hexham in Northumberland, which was where Spencer now had his parish. The gift was a fine altar cross from the vestry of Buckingham Palace which Spencer had admired.

In 1935, Spencer preached at the Durham Gala Mass at Durham Cathedral. Even today, the Durham Miner’s Gala is a big event. In its heyday, the gala would attract up to 300,000 people. The Shields Daily Gazette wrote that with 'the gala speeches over, thousands of miners and women proceeded to Durham Cathedral to the annual service… an address was delivered by the Rev. Spencer Wade who held a living in Northumberland and who, before he was ordained, was employed in a coal mine…'

In December 1937, Spencer Wade preached a service to be broadcast by the BBC. Among the many congratulatory letters he received was one from his benefactor and inspiration, Rev. Thomas Allworthy.

In 1934, Wade obtained a masters' degree from the University of Manchester. In 1938, he was on the move again, this time to Whorlton, in the south of County Durham. One of his responsibilities whilst there was to support troops billeted to the parish during World War Two.

The Royal Family sent the Rev. Spencer Wade two gifts: King George V sent a fine altar cross from the vestry of Buckingham Palace, and the Queen Mother sent a half-tea set of Windsor china.

Just after the end of the Second World War in 1946, Wade was appointed to Wickham St Mary, Durham. Struggling to raise enough money for church repairs, he wrote to the Queen Mother, who had previously lived on the edge of the parish and whose brother had lived at Barnard Castle. On hearing of the need for financial support, the Queen Mother sent a half-tea set of Windsor china and this was raffled to raise the required funds. Whilst at Wickham, Spencer Wade was made Chaplain to the High Sherrif of Northumberland.


Both Hands Before the Fire: A Parson's Pilgrimage, by Spencer Wade.

Later Life

In 1956, Spencer Wade was appointed as Rural Dean of Chester-le-Street and in 1958, at the age of 70, he decided to retire from his parish role at Wickham. Staying in the North East, where he had spent so much of his life, he and Sis moved to Hamshaugh in the North Tyne Valley. On arriving at their new home, by a complete coincidence, he found that the vicar had also been a student at Slems. 

The story of Spencer Wade’s ministry doesn’t quite end there - in 1959, he was admitted to the vacant perpetual curacy of Whorlton. In April 1970, Rev. Spencer Wade finally retired, the same year that Sis, his wife of 67 years, passed away. Spencer himself died on 7th Feb 1976.

The full story of his colourful life is contained within his autobiography, Both Hands Before the Fire: A Parson's Pilgrimage. The book reflects on his faith and provides a view into the life of an ordinary country parson, whose life was anything but ordinary.

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