Daily Telegraph 15th February 2003
Prebendary Bill Atkins
Prebendary Bill Atkins, who died on Thursday aged 91, was for 45 years a notable Rector of St George's Church, Hanover Square, in Mayfair, having previously spent nine years as a Minor Canon of St Paul's Cathedral. He was a scholarly High Churchman of the Church of Ireland school who valued St George's links with high society.
Built in the early 18th century, St George's was the church of Handel, who lived nearby in Brook Street; and it saw the weddings of Emma Hamilton, Shelley, Disraeli, George Eliot, Theodore Roosevelt and Asquith. When Atkins arrived at St George's in 1955, there were still many fashionable weddings; during his long stay, however, social changes, among them movement to the country at weekends, led to a decline in their number. There were, however, plenty of other duties.
When, after Atkins had completed 40 years in the parish, the then Bishop of London inquired gently if he had ever contemplated retirement, he replied immediately, "No, I have never regarded this as a temporary appointment." Atkins was deeply attached to the Anglican Church's traditional forms of worship, accompanied by high standards of music and preaching. He had not been at St George's long before sung Eucharist took the place of sung Matins on Sunday mornings. His sermons, too, were much appreciated. He was at once a sensitive pastor and a clubman who became a well-known figure in Mayfair. His appointment as chaplain to the Reunion des Gastronomes reflected his love of good food and fine wines. He told members from the pulpit that when St George's was first consecrated in 1725, it had been possible to shoot snipe from its elegant portico. Indeed, the view to the west at that time was over open fields, while to the south the parish ran down to the river at Pimlico.
At St Paul's after the war, Atkins had held the post of Librarian. On his arrival he found the library in poor condition - the result of a long period of neglect and the perils of the wartime Blitz. With the aid of grants from the Pilgrim Trust, he carried out an extensive programme of binding and treatment of manuscripts. He also played a major part, with Dean W R Matthews, in the co-editing of an acclaimed History of St Paul's (1957). When the historian responsible for the section "The Age of Reason, 1831-1934" fell by the wayside, Atkins took over his assignment and produced from the cathedral's archives a mass of fascinating material, arranged with impeccable scholarship and discussed with delightful wit. He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1957.
William Maynard Atkins was born on August 13 1911 in Leicestershire, where his father owned a shoe business. He was educated at Dover College, and then, after a spell in his father's firm, secured an MA at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1935 he was ordained by the Archbishop of Armagh to a curacy at Dundalk, in County Louth. Five years later he was appointed Incumbent of Clonfeacle, in County Tyrone, where he remained until 1946, exercising a greatly valued ministry. Appointment as a Minor Canon of St Paul's was a recognition of his musical talents - he had been assistant organist at Armagh - and of his concern for dignified worship. He taught in the cathedral choir school, and in due course held the traditional offices in the College of Minor Canons - first Junior, then Senior Cardinal. From 1949 to 1955 he was also a curate of St Sepulchre's Church in Holborn.
When he moved to St George's, Hanover Square, in 1955, Atkins continued to serve as chaplain of the Mercers' School in Holborn, a post he had taken on in the previous year, and in 1962 began a five-year stint as chaplain of the City of London School. In 1968 he was given additional responsibility for the parish of St Mark, North Audley Street.
When Atkins arrived at St George's in 1955, the church was in bad financial trouble, which gave him the chance to show his flair for business. The church's old burial ground, behind the Roman Catholic Tyburn Convent to the west of Marble Arch, was sold and the proceeds used to set up the Hyde Park Place Estates charity. This was divided into two parts - a civil section run for the benefit of the residents of Westminster, and an ecclesiastical section on which churches in the old parish of St George's could draw.
Atkins remained Librarian of St Paul's until 1960, and was appointed an Honorary Minor Canon - a post which he retained until his retirement in 2000, extending his association with St Paul's to 54 years. He was appointed a prebendary in 1996. Atkins was also senior past President of Sion College, the former theological library. Afflicted by failing eyesight, he retired from St George's in 2000.