In 1913 North Town was a remote working class hamlet of Aldershot separated from it by the steep slopes of Redan Hill. Along the foot of the hill ran the old drovers' route to London. The drovers had named it long before the Military Camp was built " North Lane ".
To the East of North Lane stretched nothing but pleasant green pasture land through to the village of Ash. The very remoteness of the "Hamlet behind the hill" attracted Aldershot planners. Where better to build the Cemetery (1860), the Isolation Hospital (1900) the Gas Works (1865) and best of all the Sewage "Farm" as it was then called.
North Town's 3,000 inhabitants didn't seem to mind the combined obnoxious smell of the Gas Works and the Sewage "Farm" indeed some ancient folk lore still persists in North Town that it was positively therapeutic for chest ailments in children!
They took comfort to, in the fact that they had their own church of St. Augustine. It was true that it was incomplete and the Church Hall was an improvised iron structure but its very existence marked them as a separate community.
In April 1913 there arrived in North Town one Rev. Edward Stephen Gladstone Wickham. His name is used in full solely to give a clue to his ancestry. He was the son of Canon Edward Wickham Master of Wellington College and Dean of Lincoln. Perhaps even more significantly he was a grandson of the great E. Gladstone four times Prime Minister of England. Like his illustrious grandfather he was a High Church Anglican and as such would much preferred to be known as plain Father Wickham the title by which North Town remembers him today.
What is puzzling is what a man of such a distinguished background and with his own impeccable academic qualifications in an age of notorious preferential advancement should be doing in a place like North Town? The only clue one can offer is that many distinguished priests of Anglo Catholic persuasion chose the less desirable areas for their ministry. The fantastic work done in the Holborn slums by the priests of St Albans remains a historic example.
Previous priests of St Augustine’s had chosen to live near the Vicarage of the mother church of St Michael’s in the more affluent area of Church Lane. Father Wickam decided he must live with his people. It was to be another twenty years before St Augustine’s could afford a Vicarage so he took up residence in a modest house in North Lane opposite the "White Swan" public house.
Wickham, by the standards of his time, did everything wrong and North Town loved him for it! For example, we find him organizing a hop picking expedition among his Sunday School children and their parents. He writes in his news letter of Oct. 1913.
"The Building Fund Hopping Expedition caught on and roped in many willing workers quite 50 adults and as many children contributing to this splendid piece of co-operative enterprise. In all £2.15s was .made." (The going rate for hop picking was then 11/2 pence per bushel old money - so they must have picked about five hundred bushels)
At a time when Higher Church Authority preached nothing but temperance or alcoholic restraint here we have Father Wickham picking hops with his Sunday School children and their parents!
On a more serious note, Father Wickham saw as his first task the building of a permanent Church Hall. The ever increasing size of his Sunday Schools and the need for a communal centre for his parish gave this a priority over the Church Completion Project.
So it was that on June 29th 1914 North Town had its first - and only Royal Visit. Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria arrived with her escort of 5th Dragoon Guards to lay the Foundation Stone of St Augustine’s Church Hall. There is, perhaps fortunately, no record of what the Princess said to the grandson of the Prime Minister her mother hated most!
Everyone went away happy, blissfully ignorant of the tragedy that was about to overtake them. Within four months the Princess was to lose her son at the Battle of Mons and over the next four years Father Wickam would lose fifty eight of his parishioners killed in the Great War that was about to overshadow the rest of his Ministry in North Town.
In the very first War Time edition of the Church Magazine, Sept 1914 he wrote this message to his people,
“What will the War mean to us here?
It means anxiety in almost every home. There must be over a hundred residents already gone to the Front besides many sons and relatives of residents. We pray that it may bring us nearer to God and to one another.”
We hope these days, when all feel the call to prayer, many young and old will learn the privilege of dropping into the Church at any time for the odd five minutes just as the moment finds us. Collarless it may be or without our Sunday go to meeting bonnet but just to pray!"
In more general public matters he founded in Jan 1917 what he called "The North Town Public Welfare Association". This was no eccentric parson 'going through the motions'. One of the first matters it tackled was a very real social problem. At that time North Town was linked to the Camp by a rough sandy track under the railway arch at the end of North Lane. In bad weather this track became a quagmire and since 90% of North Town worked in the Camp the state of this track was a real social problem. His Welfare Associations representations to the then District Council received scant, sympathy and much pontificating about there being 'a War on’.....
War or no war! This simply wasn't good enough for Gladstone's grandson. So he ignored the District Council and went personally to General Ellison, then Head of Administration, Aldershot Command. As a result of this meeting action was taken and tons of earth and rubble used to ensure that the track was made passable for the workers of North Town.
The "track" in question is now a fine but unnamed concrete road. It should, of course, if we had any sense of history be called “Wickham’s Way ".
Much of Father Wickham’s work was of a spiritual nature that we will not dwell on here. Sufficient it is to record that he established in St Augustine’s the roots of the Anglo Catholic traditions so beloved by his grandfather. Upon them his successors have been able to build and from which the church in North Town has never departed...
In 1918 Father Wickham, at long last released from the restrictions the Bishop had placed on Aldershot clergy, dashed off to the war and served as a Chaplain with the Royal Tank Corps in France.
Father Wickham survived the War and went on to a long and distinguished career in the Church of England. His death was as dramatic as much of his ministry had been. In 1960, then in retirement, he was knocked down and killed in a road accident while on his way to Evensong.