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  Henry Russell Wakefield (1854–1933), by unknown photographer, c.1910 Henry Russell Wakefield (1854–1933), by unknown photographer, c.1910
Wakefield, Henry Russell (1854–1933), bishop of Birmingham, was born at Sherwood Villa, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, on 1 December 1854, the only son of Francis Wakefield, a county magistrate in Ireland who was sometime resident at Broomfield, co. Wicklow, and his wife, Emily, née Howard. He was great-grandson of the Unitarian, Gilbert Wakefield. He attended Tonbridge School. To prepare for a career in the diplomatic service, he studied at the Lycée Bonaparte in Paris and afterwards at the University of Bonn. Though he regretted his lack of an English university education, he acquired a fluency in French and German. After deciding to enter holy orders, he undertook theological training at Cuddesdon Theological College between 1875 and 1877, when he was ordained, serving his first curacy at St Peter's, Vauxhall. He married on 10 October 1878 Frances Sophia (1856–1919), daughter of Henry Dallaway, gentleman. They had three sons and one daughter.

After serving two further curacies at Barnes (1878–81) and Swanscombe, Kent (1881–3), Wakefield was appointed vicar of St Michael's, Lower Sydenham, in 1883. He also lectured on English philology and literature at the Crystal Palace School of Art, Science, and Literature from 1881 to 1895 and published on Shakespearean topics. In 1888 he became vicar of Sandgate, Kent. His pastoral care of those who suffered from the landslip which struck his coastal parish in March 1893 attracted the attention of the prime minister, Lord Rosebery, who nominated Wakefield, an active Liberal in politics and broad churchman, to be rector of St Mary's, Bryanston Square, London, in 1894.

As a London incumbent Wakefield was active in local parochial work. Standing as a progressive and in favour of undenominational religious education in schools, he was elected in 1897 for the Marylebone division, as a member of the London school board. In 1900 he was elected to the Marylebone town council, and was twice mayor of Marylebone. Prominent in the Church of England Temperance Society and poor law administration, he was elected chairman of the central (unemployed) committee, established in 1904 to co-ordinate assistance to the unemployed in London. In 1905 he was nominated a member of the royal commission on the poor laws and by 1907 was identified, along with the socialist George Lansbury, as a supporter of the Fabian Beatrice Webb's scheme to break up the existing poor law administration. Wakefield signed Webb's minority report of the commission, in 1909, and became president of the national committee for the promotion of the break-up of the poor law, to promote the minority report's objectives.

Having in 1905 declined the Conservative prime minister Balfour's offer of the position of vicar of Leeds, Wakefield was made prebendary of St Paul's in 1908 and accepted in 1909 the Liberal Asquith's nomination of him to be dean of Norwich. He took a Lambeth DD in the same year and in 1910 enrolled as a fellow commoner at St Catharine's College, Cambridge.

In 1911 Asquith nominated Wakefield as bishop of Birmingham to succeed Charles Gore, who had been first bishop of the newly created see. Like Gore a Liberal concerned with social issues, Wakefield was more moderate in churchmanship than his ritualist predecessor. He promoted positive relations with the nonconformists of Birmingham, and was willing on occasion to allow corporate communion between Anglicans and members of other churches. However, he realized the impracticality of intercommunion in the later years of his episcopacy, acknowledging that it did not match the reality of ecclesiastical difference. He was an enthusiastic supporter of lay governance in the church, and of the permanent diaconate.

During the First World War Wakefield contributed a patriotic reflection on a visit to the front, which was published in The Times in September 1915 and later reprinted as a pamphlet. He reported on the high morale of the troops, and believed that the war had ‘enhanced’ religious feeling among them, while dissolving denominational barriers. He concluded:
The religious England to which I look forward is one which has been taught by the awakening of the spirit of Christian patriotism, that in life the beginning and the end of perfection, for nation as well as individual, is the willing offering of body, mind, and spirit in order that it shall be easy for humanity to be free and for right to triumph over evil. (Wakefield, A Fortnight at the Front, 1915, 43)
Subsequent addresses treated wartime sacrifice as an antidote to the materialism of the pre-war world. In an address in 1916 dedicated to his three sons who were all serving in the armed forces, he spoke of war as encouraging the highest qualities of character. However, he discouraged clergy from joining the combatant ranks, preferring them instead to serve as military chaplains or, if remaining at home, to undertake tasks that would relieve men of military age to undertake active service. In 1918 he undertook a tour of the United States and Canada to set out Britain's moral case in the world war.

Wakefield was noted for sharing the leisure interests of the mass of the population in his diocese. He attended football matches at the Birmingham clubs, and during the war encouraged the keeping open of theatres and music halls for the encouragement of civilian morale. As president of the National Council of Public Morals he chaired a commission of inquiry into cinema, which reported late in 1917, and which he regarded as showing the potentially beneficial educational effects of cinema, while also showing the need for state censorship. On a second trip to the USA in 1919 he visited Los Angeles where he met stars of the film industry. In the immediate post-war years he chaired two inquiries conducted by the public morals commission, which produced the reports Problems of Population and Parenthood (1920), investigating the declining legitimate birth rate, and Prevention of Venereal Disease (1921). He was made CBE in 1920. During the war he was increasingly concerned to promote class harmony and was a vice-president of the patriotic, pro-war British Workers' League. Following the Bolshevik revolution, he took a leading part in the Christian Counter Communist Crusade.

Wakefield resigned the Birmingham see in 1924 following a severe stroke which rendered him ‘never capable of another hour's work of a serious kind’ (Barnes, 155). He was regarded as ‘the layman's Bishop’, more interested in social reform than ecclesiastical controversies. He was not much at home in church politics or the convocation, and was not regarded as being a partisan or having a distinctive churchmanship. Despite taking a leading part in promoting a declaration on ritual, which was presented to the newly appointed archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, in 1903, as an attempt to promote accord between clergy and bishops over the use of the ceremonials in worship, he preferred to urge that Christians should focus more upon ‘larger matters in which they agreed’ than on their differences. As bishop of Birmingham, he did not enforce church discipline with regard to certain ‘high church’ practices, including the reservation of the sacrament, taking the view that ‘not even locked chapels and brick walls would prevent people showing reverence and saying their prayers’ (ibid., 164). Arguably, this paved the way for conflicts between his successor at Birmingham, Ernest Barnes, and leading Anglo-Catholics in the diocese over liturgical practices.

Wakefield died at his home, 20 Palmeira Court, Palmeira Square, Hove, Sussex, on 9 January 1933. He was buried at Wimborne Road cemetery, Bournemouth. His second son, Herbert Russell Wakefield (1888–1964), was a noted author of ghost stories. His youngest son, Gilbert Edward Wakefield (1891–1963), was a playwright and married to the actress Isabel Jeans.

Stephen G. Parker


The Times (10 Jan 1933) · Birmingham Post (10 Jan 1933) · Birmingham Mail (10 Jan 1933) · J. Barnes, Ahead of his age: Bishop Barnes of Birmingham (1979) · B. Webb, Our partnership, ed. B. Drake and M. I. Cole (1948) · J. Harris, Unemployment and politics (1972) · R. Dalby, introduction, The best ghost stories of H. Russell Wakefield (1978) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


BL, letters to Marie Stopes · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir James Marchant


photograph, c.1910, Mary Evans Picture Library, London [see illus.] · B. Munns, portrait, 1918, Bishop's Crypt, Birmingham · Lafayette, half-plate film negatives, 1926, NPG

Wealth at death  

£4394 0s. 11d.—with £12,050 settled land: probate, 10 May 1933, CGPLA Eng. & Wales