Christopher Woodforde

by Richard Dalby

(from Ghosts & Scholars 14: "Writers in the James Tradition Number 11")

The Very Reverend Dr Christopher Woodforde has always been regarded as one of the more controversial and unusual members of the 'James Gang'. His 'curious' and fantastic stories were originally narrated to schoolboys under his charge, and although they were revised and written for a much wider public, many readers still tend to pigeon-hole them as juvenile tales.

His collection of twenty stories, A Pad in the Straw, was published in 1952 by J.M. Dent & Sons as a follow-up to their William Fryer Harvey titles Midnight Tales and The Arm of Mrs Egan, and similarly marketed as eerie "strange tales for the connoisseur". A Pad in the Straw was brought to Dent's attention and introduced by the eminent literary critic Lord David Cecil, who championed many other neglected writers (notably Barbara Pym) and - like Woodforde - was a Fellow of New College, Oxford.

Although Woodforde has been compared to Harvey (especially when A Pad in the Straw and The Beast with Five Fingers were reissued by Dent as 'Aldine Paperbacks' in the early 1960s), he is certainly closer to MRJ with a distinctive antiquarian flavour, frequent settings in East Anglia, a vivid sense of the atmosphere of country churches and of the wealth of tradition symbolised by their medieval antiquities and everyday adjuncts: "hassock and cassock, paraffin and pew".

The first edition is enhanced by an excellent dustjacket and several drawings by (John) Yunge-Bateman (best known for his illustrations in the Golden Cockerell Rubaiyat). The 1964 Aldine paperback retains his internal drawings, but has a cruder front cover design by C.W. Bacon.

Christopher Woodforde's career shared many similarities with that of his distant kinsman, the celebrated clerical diarist Parson James Woodforde (1740-1803), who held curacies in Somerset, was a fellow of New College, Oxford, and spent many years as a rector in Norfolk.

He was born on 29th November 1907, brought up in Somerset (where he quickly developed a keen interest in antiquarian lore and church history), and educated at King's School, Bruton, then on to Peterhouse, Cambridge, and finally Wells Theological College. Ordained in 1930, he took up a succession of curacies in King's Lynn (1930-2), Louth with Welton-le-Wold (1932-4), and Drayton with Hellesdon on the outskirts of Norwich (1934-6). In 1935 he married Muriel Forster, and they had one son.

Returning to his beloved Somerset, he was rector of Exford (1936-9) and Axbridge (1939-45); then back to Cambridgeshire where he was vicar of Steeple Morden (1945-8).

His antiquarian interests now focused specifically on the study of stained glass, and he was soon regarded as a leading authority on the subject. His earliest publications were popular and ephemeral booklets - A Guide to the Medieval Glass in Lincoln Cathedral (1933), The Medieval Glass of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich (1934), and Stained and Painted Glass in England (1937) - and he spent most of his spare time at Exford and Axbridge researching his first major book, Stained Glass in Somerset 1250-1830 (1946). This volume and The Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth Century (1950), both published by the Oxford University Press, were immediately recognised as the definitive works on these subjects. He became Litt.D.(Cantab) in 1947, and D.Litt.(Oxon) in 1948.

On the strength of his Somerset volume, Woodforde was invited to New College, Oxford, as chaplain by Warden Smith in 1948: a fortuitous appointment which brought him in regular contact with Lord David Cecil (a fellow of the College for 30 years).

His third major opus, on The Stained Glass of New College, Oxford, appeared in 1951. He also served as Canon and Wiccamical Prebendary at Chichester Cathedral from 1950 to 1953.

Woodforde's wife died prematurely in 1951 after a painful illness, and during his remaining eight years at Oxford he felt isolated and very depressed. This depression affected his last major work, English Stained and Painted Glass (1954). In spite of being a thorough survey of the whole field, the book disappointed some critics. One commented that Woodforde's style had now "become so terse as to be almost unreadable". These criticisms probably dissuaded him from continuing his pioneering research into the history of stained glass.

The offer of the deanery at Wells, which that other notable Jamesian writer Richard Henry Malden (Nine Ghosts) had occupied from 1933 to 1950, came as a very welcome change for Woodforde, but sadly he was destined to hold this position for only three years, terminating in his death from cancer at the age of 54 on 12th August 1962.

He had recently completed two novels, one of which was published just before his death: Record of John (Dent, 1962), a sensitive and ultimately tragic study of a schoolboy. The Times obituary noted that A Pad in the Straw and Record of John "were the expression of a sympathetic humanity which at Wells found its other main outlet in his contacts with the cathedral school. He was always at his best with young people - with them he knew real happiness."

As in the stories of more professional and successful writers, notably Robert Westall and Joan Aiken, young people have leading roles in the majority of Christopher Woodforde's tales. "Stories for the young, except fairy-tales and fantasies, belong to the same categories as stories for grown-up people: only they are, as it were, transposed into a treble key," wrote Lord David Cecil in his Prefatory Note to A Pad in the Straw. "We have seen this process applied to thrillers, historical romances, detective stories, and stories of domestic life. Dr Woodforde is the first writer I know of to have applied it to the ghost story: or, if ghost story be too exclusive a term, stories in which the supernatural, whether in the form of something elemental and malignant or of apparition from the past, intervenes in ordinary modern life. The result, rightly and inevitably, is not the same as a ghost story in the usually accepted sense. It is not so frightening for one thing. A waft of the uncanny blows through these tales, just enough to make the spine agreeably tingle. But never very dreadfully and never for long. The general atmosphere is at once eerie and friendly."

Setting aside the few tales which veer from the weak to the ridiculous, at least half of the twenty stories are excellent. Among my own favourites are "Ex Libris", "Lost and Found", "Richard", "Jeremy", "The 'Doom' Window at Breckham" and "The Chalk Pit".

Some of the scholars in these stories are obviously based on Woodforde himself, especially Charles Hawthorn who researches ancient stained glass in "The 'Doom' Window at Breckham". The demonic imps, portrayed in this window taking damned souls into the mouth of Hell, exact their revenge invisibly but appear on Hawthorn's photographs at the scene of a rail disaster.

"The Chalk Pit", one of Woodforde's best Jamesian stories, is situated at 'Dunworth' on the Beds/Herts border where he served as Vicar of Steeple Morden and Dunton in the late 1940s. The chalk pit is badly haunted at night by "large things which flew and hopped", naturally explained by Latin inscriptions in the local church.

Other remote country parishes, based on those Woodforde served as curate or vicar throughout the 1930s and 1940s, constantly recur in these tales, especially those areas he loved most, in East Anglia, the Cotswolds and Somerset.

"Ex Libris" is another good antiquarian ghost story, centred around an ancient book bound in the skin of a Dane who was flayed alive a thousand years ago.

Several Jamesian touches can be found in the other stories. In an allusion to the bedclothes in "Oh, Whistle...", Woodforde's schoolboy "Richard" is attacked by an evil serpentine signpost - "The top of it was bending over his head in a very horrid way..."

Antiquary Henry Selkirk is almost killed by an equally weird entity, in the form of an ancient toby-jug, in "Lost and Found", set in the area around King's Lynn. Dr Poynter, a Cambridge fellow, researches English holy wells in "Robert and Andrew", one of the weaker tales, where two boys discover an Anglo-Saxon treasure. Latin inscriptions and puns are frequent devices in the final twists of these tales, e.g. the 'delivery' of Dr Summers's body in "Expert Devilry", and the "No Coaches" sign in "The Old Tithe Barn" (a pleasant Christmas ghost story).

Only half the stories in A Pad in the Straw are genuine ghost stories. The others range from witchcraft (used by a vengeful schoolmaster in "Jeremy", and a choir school matron in "Tony, Ian and Co."), to fantastic events which border on the ridiculous in "Sacrilege at St George's" and "Roderick". The latter is a particularly outlandish tale in which the boy Roderick saves the lives of airmen devoured by a large green dragon (or is it a pterodactyl?) which he had previously seen in dreams. Some readers may judge this to be the silliest tale in the collection, but at least one noted critic and writer (R.W. Ketton-Cremer) has called it "a masterpiece"!

Although A Pad in the Straw was specifically described by the Publisher (Dent) as "a book for the young", and the stories may not be to everyone's taste, this collection is undoubtedly an essential part of the James canon, and has gained many admirers over the years. The first of these, Lord David Cecil, concluded: "The intimate apprehension of landscape and the past gives his tales an unexpected weight and depth. Slight and fanciful though their action is, they are the expression of an imagination soaked through and through in the English scene and in English history.

Copyright (c) 1992 Richard Dalby

(The two drawings accompanying this article are by Yunge-Bateman and taken from A Pad in the Straw, where they illustrate the stories "A Pad in the Straw" and "Cushi".)

Postscript (July 2000) by Rosemary Pardoe

In The Times of June 23, 1936, Christopher Woodforde responded to M.R. James's Obituary, which had appeared ten days earlier. Although MRJ's ghost stories are referred to only in passing, the piece does supply solid evidence for the connection between the two men, and it's also highly amusing, particularly on the problem of MRJ's infamous handwriting. Woodforde notes that:

"To young archaeologists working among the old churches and houses of East Anglia [MRJ] was a constant inspiration and source of information... His letters were nearly always enlivened by a spark of his own special brand of humour. One letter, intended for Hellesdon [Woodforde's curacy at that time], owing to the hurried addressing of the envelope, arrived at Hethersett. He began his next letter 'Either I write very ill - which is the opinion of some so-called friends - or someone in the Norwich G.P.O. is a poor palaeographer'."

(These same "so-called friends", critical of his handwriting, also appear in Eton and King's!)

MRJ's love of Suffolk, continues Woodforde, "shows clearly in... some of his ghost stories, but most of all in that gracious guide-book 'Suffolk and Norfolk'... What other writer of a guide-book has had so vast a knowledge upon which to draw and yet has felt compelled to mention a place solely because it once had an incumbent named 'Blastus Godley'."

Copyright (c) 2000 Rosemary Pardoe

back to top

back to Ghosts & Scholars Archive
back to Ghosts & Scholars Home Page

Bar by Syruss