RAMSEY (Arthur) Michael [1904 -  1988]

Michael Ramsey was one of the outstanding theological minds of his day. He became the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury in 1961, holding the office until 1974. But it was in Liverpool that he began his career in the clergy and it was from a Liverpool pulpit that he made his first sermon.

Having graduated from Madgalene College Cambridge in 1927 with a first class degree in theology he looked around for a suitable church post. Being of clear academic bent he was considered for the post of chaplain at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge but nothing came of it. So, on 23rd September 1928 he was ordained deacon, to be the curate of St Nicholas’ the parish church of Liverpool, on a stipend of £200 a year.

Though the parish had some 7,000 souls, at least half of these were Roman Catholics of Irish descent. The religious divisions did not stop there as the diocese was very much split between the stoutest of Irish protestants and some doggedly Anglo-Catholic parishes. Many of those attending St Nicholas were poor dock workers, a world notably removed from that experienced by the young Ramsey whose upbringing had been one of relative comfort.

Ramsey found lodgings some distance from the church, at 13 St James Road L1 (now demolished), adjacent to the rising edifice of the Anglican cathedral. His landlady was a Mrs Fitzsimmons, a censorious woman with Northern Ireland Protestant origins. He found the lodgings neither convenient nor happy, having to catch a 6.50 a.m. tram each morning. On one occasion a Tory canvasser called at the house and was advised by Mrs Fitzsimmons that everybody in the house would be voting Conservative. Michael Ramsey said forcibly that he would be voting Labour and the atmosphere in the house became even sourer. Eventually he had to move out, spending his final few weeks in the city in a small hotel on Mount Pleasant.

Ramsey had mixed feelings about is time in the city. He did not enjoy the hours spent in Bible class, activity at the boys club or his couple of hours weekly teaching as inn all these activities the children misbehaved. His diaries made frequent reference to “tiresome boys”. He relished the time available for him to study and to craft his first sermons. Notes of his first ever sermon survive, the text being Peter 2:9. It had no digressions of humour and one wonders what the reaction of his dockland-dwelling  audience was to being told that they lived “in a garden near the slopes of the heavenly mountain”.

A positive aspect of his Liverpool sojourn was that he came into contact with the then Dean of the Cathedral, Charles Raven. Raven was considered by many to be the most powerful preacher in England and was an outstanding philosopher of religion and science. Ramsey seized the opportunity to study under Raven and the men became close, Ramsey frequenting the Raven household for meals. (Which were probably prepared by my great-grandmother who was the cook for the Ravens).

 Ramsey left Liverpool at Easter 1930 to take up a post as sub-warden of Lincoln Theological College, raven and other prominent figures having lobbied for him to leave his parish post earlier than was the norm to allow him to take up an academic role. He was glad to leave Liverpool but later in life realised how much he had learned in his short stay. In short, given his sheltered upbringing, it introduced him to the human race.

Arthur Michael Ramsey was born on 14th November 1904, the son of Arthur Stanley Ramsey, a mathematics fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge and his wife Mary Agnes, who was the daughter of a vicar. His parents were liberally minded for the time, his mother being a socialist and suffragette. His brother Frank, who died aged just 27, was an outstanding economist. Michael Ramsey was an intensely shy and withdrawn child but his academic prowess in some way compensated.

After various pastoral and academic posts he was appointed Bishop of Durham in 1952, and Archbishop of York in 1956. After his time as Archbishop of Canterbury he remained in the House of Lords as Baron Ramsey of Canterbury. He died on 23 April 1988 at Oxford.

This view of St James Road L1 shows the arrival of Great George, the Bourdon Bell, in 1951.

Theis aerial view of the cathedral dates from 1965 and shows St James Road running along the south face of the building with a number of the original houses still standing.


There is a comprehensive entry for Adshead in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The Wikipedia entry is reasonably detailed. Fir his time in Liverpool I have mainly consulted the biography Michael Ramsey: A Life [Owen Chadwick, Clarendon Press 1990]. There is a host of material on Ramsey on the web but I would particularly recommend a clip on YouTube of his appearing on the Dick Cavett American chat show with fellow guest Jane Fonda. It gives an interesting insight into the man, and whilst his view on homosexuality (it is sinful but people should not be treated as criminals) would nowadays be pilloried. he was at the time adopting a much more liberal stance than most in the church, having campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1960s. It is also worth noting that the chat show had about 20 minutes of serious discussion of theological issues - fat chance of that in today's dumbed down world.