Woodard, Nathaniel (1811 - 1891)

by Janet Pennington

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WOODARD, Nathaniel (1811-1891) founder of the Woodard Schools, was the ninth of twelve children, born on 21 March 1811 to John Woodard, a gentleman farmer of Basildon Hall, Essex (1769-1840) and his wife Mary (1773-1836), daughter of Daniell Silley of Southampton. Rather the odd one out among his siblings, he seems to have been deeply influenced by the piety and devotion of his mother, who recorded that the young Nathaniel had visions. At the age of nineteen he went through a spiritual crisis and on 20 November 1830 entered a written 'covenant with my God, which I swear to keep by His grace.' (Woodard Correspondence, Lancing College Archives)

His education was at home with his mother, and not until 1831 did he persuade his father, not a wealthy man, to let him study with the rector of Boughton in Norfolk, with a view to the priesthood. At the end of 1832 he took a job as tutor in the family of Mr. Leicester, a Cambridge man, who encouraged Woodard in his religious aspirations. In 1833 Woodard enquired about ordination without a degree, but this was refused. However, thanks to a sudden windfall from relatives, he was able to enter his name for Magdalen Hall (Hertford College), Oxford in July 1834, the same year that he became engaged to Elizabeth Brill, also from Essex. At Magdalen he must have been aware of Keble's Assize sermon on national apostacy, given the previous year, together with Newman's first Tract. The Oxford Movement was to be an important influence on his future career; a tattered copy of Newman's Tract 90 survives amongst his papers.

Woodard married on 24 March 1836 and three of his eight children were born over the next three years. At Oxford he and an aspiring architect, Richard Cromwell Carpenter, became friendly. Woodard finally graduated BA in 1840; an MA came much later, in 1866. Ordained deacon by the Bishop of London, C.J.Blomfield, on 6 June 1841, and given sole charge, as curate, of S.Bartholomew's, Bethnal Green, a large, new district on the edge of London, Woodard set to work immediately to raise money to finish the church and equip a school. Though diffident and self-effacing in many ways, he had a personal magnetism which drew people of all classes to him and within two years William Cotton, director of the Bank of England, A. J. Beresford Hope, MP for Cambridge, Henry Tritton, a partner in Barclay's Bank, and Judge Sir John Patteson were among his many friends and supporters.

Determined to convert the "trades class" of the area, Woodard soon filled his church. In May 1843, possibly influenced by Manning, he preached a sermon, of which only fragments in published form survive, commending the further use of confession and absolution as provided for in the Book of Common Prayer. This offended a member of the congregation who made a complaint to the Bishop. There was immense hostility to the Roman Catholic Church at this time, and anything resembling "Popery" caused an outcry. A seven months' correspondence between Blomfield and Woodard ensued. The national press took sides, with The Times in opposition. Thus Woodard's name came to the attention of many powerful men, including not only the hierarchy of the Church of England but also the administrators of the British Empire.

Resigning from his post under pressure at the end of 1843, Woodard was appointed curate to St. James' Church at a neighbouring parish, Clapton. After this difficult period (the Bishop was soon to become one of his most faithful supporters) he emerged 'from the wilderness' and came in 1846 'to the promised land' - as curate to S. Mary's Church, New Shoreham on the Sussex coast (Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex), where the Tractarian vicar of the coeval parishes of Old and New Shoreham was the Revd. William Wheeler. (Handford (1989) p.11) The busy port, full of ships' captains, merchants and traders, with an agricultural hinterland, provided Woodard with his cause. He wondered why church and harbour said so little to each other, and felt that Shoreham's ignorance was a reflection of the national state of mind, particularly among the middle classes, and so he began what was to become his life's work, to provide a sound and inexpensive Christian education for England's neglected middle classes.

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