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Ilsley, Edward (1838–1926), Roman Catholic bishop and archbishop of Birmingham, was born in Stafford on 11 May 1838, the second of the four surviving children of Charles Ilsley (1792–1879), shoemaker, and his second wife, Mary Bryan (1804–1888). From the age of ten he attended Sedgley Park School, near Wolverhampton, proceeding in 1853 to St Mary's College, Oscott, Birmingham. Ordained to the priesthood in St Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham, on 29 June 1861, he was appointed to a curacy at Longton, in the Potteries, where he laboured in difficult circumstances for twelve years, gaining a reputation for hard work and kindness, and did much to help improve the spiritual and material condition of the mission. In 1873 Bishop Ullathorne made him rector of the newly opened St Bernard's Seminary, Olton, Warwickshire, which Ilsley established on a firm footing and to which he brought his natural good humour and gentleness, so that it became ‘a real home for the students, and [he] ruled over it as the father of a united family’ (The Tablet, 11 Dec 1926).

Appointed to the cathedral chapter at Birmingham in November 1876, Ilsley was nominated three years later as auxiliary bishop by Ullathorne, who described him as ‘firm of purpose, prudent in action, good in administration, healthy in body, humble in spirit, cautious in speaking, conscious of his priestly dignity’ (William Bernard Ullathorne to Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, 18 Aug 1879, Birmingham archdiocesan archives, B6762). Consecrated titular bishop of Fesse in St Chad's Cathedral on 4 December 1879, Ilsley continued as rector of the seminary until 1883, although he spent each weekday in Birmingham. When Ullathorne resigned the see of Birmingham, Ilsley was named as his successor and translated to Birmingham on 17 February 1888, being enthroned in St Chad's Cathedral on 22 March.

Ilsley had neither the genius nor the volatility of his predecessor, who had virtually retired from public life several years before his resignation and had left the administration of the diocese in the hands of his auxiliary. Ilsley was undoubtedly a fine administrator and an energetic bishop, who performed his duties scrupulously, meticulously, and well, but he was no innovator. At his first diocesan synod he remarked that there was no need to add to the body of diocesan law promulgated by his predecessor, merely to enforce it prudently, in line with his episcopal motto, ‘Just and firm of purpose’. He was endowed with a fine constitution, had great personal discipline, enjoyed hard work and long hours, and possessed a strong will. These qualities were evident in his first major and controversial decision, to close the seminary at Olton and transfer the students to Oscott, which ceased thereafter to be a lay school. He displayed the same steely determination some years later with regard to changes at St Wilfrid's College, Cotton.

Ilsley's most notable achievement was the establishment in 1902 of the Birmingham Diocesan Rescue Society, which under its first administrator, the energetic and innovative George Vincent Hudson, burgeoned into a social care agency of great complexity and size and embraced, among other institutions, a village of residential care at Coleshill and a pioneering home and school for boys with learning difficulties at Besford Court, Pershore.

To mark the silver jubilee of his episcopal consecration, Ilsely was appointed by Pope Pius X as an assistant at the pontifical throne on 17 August 1906. When changes were made to the ecclesiastical organization of England and Wales on 28 October 1911 and Birmingham became a metropolitan archbishopric, he was named the first archbishop and received the pallium in his cathedral church on 8 December; the occasion was also used to mark the golden jubilee of his sacerdotal ordination.

Increasing infirmity and decreased energy as a result of his advancing years made the years of Ilsley's archiepiscopate trying for himself and others. A strong hint from the Roman authorities in 1914 that his resignation would be accepted was ignored, as were all subsequent suggestions, leading to a growing sense of clerical frustration with the inertia of the diocese, and culminated in the unprecedented and serious possibility in 1918 of the cathedral chapter petitioning Rome for his removal. One of the protagonists described him as ‘a born coward’ who ‘always got angry with some one else whenever he made a fool of himself’ (M. F. Glancey, ‘Memorandum on the Official Catholic Directory of the Province of Birmingham, 1913’, Birmingham archdiocesan archives, D4578).

Ilsley held on, but eventually resigned the see on 15 January 1921 and was created titular archbishop of Macre on 13 June. He spent his retirement quietly at St Mary's College, Oscott, which he had made his residence (save for one short period) since 1889. He died of old age at Oscott on 1 December 1926 and was buried on 6 December in the crypt of St Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham.

Although he played no part in national public affairs, Ilsley was involved in local civic matters and took a keen interest in plans to establish a university at Birmingham, becoming one of its first governors. His courtesy, gentleness, and unruffled demeanour, combined with his imposing physical presence, certainly helped to raise the profile of the Catholic community in the midlands and to make it more acceptable in public perception than had been the case earlier, as evidenced by his obituary in The Times, which noted that the death of one who ‘had won a high reputation, both for his ability and his personality’ was a matter of ‘deep regret’ not only to his co-religionists but also to the ‘people of the Midlands’ (The Times, 2 Dec 1926).

John Sharp

Sources  

Roman Catholic archdiocesan archives, Birmingham, B and D series · The Times (2 Dec 1911) · The Tablet (11 Dec 1926) · M. McInally, Edward Ilsley: Bishop of Birmingham, 1888–1911: Archbishop, 1911–21 (2002) · B. Doolan and A. Bellenger, The Catholic bishops of Birmingham (2003), 11–13

Archives  

Roman Catholic archdiocesan archives, Birmingham, personal and administrative papers


Likenesses  

W. S. Wainwright, portrait, Archbishop’s House, Birmingham · photographs, Birmingham Roman Catholic archdiocesan archives, Birmingham

Wealth at death  

£1523 9s. 6d.: probate, 15 March 1927, CGPLA Eng. & Wales