Dean of York
Eric Milner-White was Dean of York from 1941 until his death in 1963 and a leading figure in the religious, educational and cultural life of the city.
He was born on 23 April 1884 in Southampton, the eldest of the four sons of Henry (later Sir Henry) Milner-White, a barrister, and his wife Kathleen Lucy, née Meeres. His mother died in January 1890 when he was only five, four days after the birth of her youngest son. The two younger brothers died in childhood; Algernon in 1895, aged seven, and Basil in 1896, a few days before his sixth birthday. Eric was educated, with his surviving brother Rudolph, at Harrow School and, in 1903, went up to King’s College, Cambridge to read history, obtaining a double first-class honours degree. He then spent a year at Cuddesdon Theological College in Oxfordshire before being ordained deacon in 1908 and priest in 1909 at Southwark Cathedral. He served as curate at St Paul’s, Newington, from 1908-9 and at St Mary Magdalene, Woolwich from 1909-12 when he was appointed chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge and lecturer in history at Corpus Christi College.
Chaplain in the Great War
Milner-White volunteered as a forces’ chaplain at the outbreak of war in 1914, serving on the Western Front and in Italy. He was mentioned in dispatches in 1917 and awarded the DSO in the 1918 honours list. On his return to King’s College at the end of the war, he was appointed Fellow and Dean. In thanksgiving for his own delivery from death when under fire, he transformed one of the side chapels into a memorial chapel for those who had lost their lives during the war. An Anglo-Catholic, he was a founder member of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, a community of Anglicans both ordained and lay which had been formed in Cambridge in the first decade of the 20th century, and served as its Superior from 1923 to 1938. He remained at King’s College until 1941 when the Archbishop of York, William Temple, installed him as Dean of York.
During the First World War it became clear to Milner-White that the ministry of the Anglican Church, and particularly the services for the burial of the dead, did not meet the needs of the troops in the trenches. He made his views clear in an essay ‘Worship and services’ published in The Church in the Furnace in 1918. He continued to press for prayers additional to those in the Book of Common Prayer to meet the needs of modern congregations. Of his own prayer publications probably the best known is Daily Prayer which appeared in 1941 and contains a selection of prayers for public, private and school worship. Towards the end of his life he published two books of prayers: My God, My Glory in 1954 and, in 1960, Let Grace Reign dedicated to the Vicars Choral of York Minster ‘with my deep love and gratitude’. From 1948 to 1962 he was on the literary panel of the committee that produced the New English Bible.
Advent service revived
Dean Milner-White also pushed for greater imagination in the staging of important ceremonies in the church. He arranged the first service of nine lessons and carols at King’s College Chapel on Christmas Eve 1918 when he was the newly appointed Dean. The idea had been pioneered in Truro as early as 1880 but Milner-White revived it and the service soon became first a national and then a world-wide favourite following the radio broadcasts begun in 1928 and later television transmissions. He also introduced the processional Advent carol service at King’s College Chapel in 1934. As Dean, Milner-White devised a number of services for special occasions in York Minster such as an improved service for the enthronement of new archbishops and the televised wedding of the Duke of Kent and Katherine Worsley on 8 June 1961 attended by 62 members of the royal family.
Stained glass restoration
He took great interest in the preservation and restoration of the stained glass in both King’s College Chapel and York Minster. During the Second World War, he came to York. The most important glass had been removed from the minster for safety but he was able to direct the post-war restoration and re-installation, rearranging the medieval glass which had been mis-ordered over the centuries. His work in this field was not without its critics, particularly amongst art historians, but the Dean continued to work with the glaziers in their workshop for 18 years, supervising the restoration. Subsequently, in 1967, the York Glaziers Trust was formed. It is dedicated to the care of the minster’s windows and the preservation of historic stained glass nationwide: the vision of Eric Milner-White. In 1948 he was made an honorary member of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and was granted the Freedom of the City of London.
Not only did he take close interest in the mediaeval glass of the minster but he was also instrumental in initiating a school of modern glass painting in York. Soon after the end of the war he invited Harry Stammers, whose work he had admired at the Royal Academy several years previously, to move north. Milner-White had considerable financial resources of his own so he was able to offer Harry a studio close to the minster, a kiln and a flat which proved irresistible to the artist. Among many other works, Harry designed the striking east window for the reconstructed church of St Martin-le-Grand in the centre of York which had been destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1942. He also decorated the ball of the earth and the east and west spandrels of the new astronomical clock in the north transept of the minster, unveiled by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1955. In 1947 Eric invited another glass painter, Harry Harvey, to join Stammers in York. The most familiar example of Harvey’s work in the city is perhaps the window in the Guildhall, which replaced a 17th century one, again destroyed in the 1942 air raid.
Although he left others to deal with the restoration and maintenance of the fabric of the minster, Milner-White continued to be involved with the design of furnishings and decorative textiles to adorn the interior. Fittings were added to the nave, north transept, choir, Lady Chapel and crypt during his time at the minster. He was also responsible for what has been described as the “little renaissance” of the Minster Library. Due to his initiatives, funds were forthcoming from a variety of sources and he was himself a most generous donor, supporting the conservation and expansion of collections and the extension of the reading room. He also created a library endowment to ensure that it could acquire new publications. Almost all of his personal collection of books was given to the library on his death.
Another area of great interest to Milner-White was education both in the choir school at King’s College and, when he moved north, in the Woodard group of Anglican schools. The Woodard Corporation was founded by the Anglo-Catholic Canon Nathanial Woodard in 1848 as a result of noticing that the Church was providing education for poorer families but not the middle classes. He established schools with a strong religious ethos that addressed the needs of the whole child: mental, physical and spiritual. From 1945, Milner-White was provost of the Northern Division of the Woodard Corporation, travelling widely between schools and suggesting improvement and modification to buildings.
He was personally very generous towards school projects in which he had a special interest including ones at Queen Ethelburga’s in Harrogate, Queen Margaret’s in Escrick (these are no longer Woodard Schools) and Queen Mary’s, originally in Helmsley and now at Topcliffe. He was chairman of the governors of St Peter’s School in York for 22 years until his death in 1963. At the memorial service, held in the school chapel on 15 June 1963, the headmaster paid tribute to the tremendous support he had given to himself and the school. ‘He was always there to give advice and guidance – and indeed, if need be, instruction and direction.’
Legacy to York
Milner-White owned a large collection of modern ceramics much of which he donated to Southampton Art Gallery (the city of his birth), the City of York Art Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. He also purchased a number of paintings, which he seems to have kept for only a short time before donating them to the Fitzwilliam or the York Art Gallery. From 1944 until 1959 he was a member of the Advisory Council for the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Dean Milner-White was a founder member of the York Civic Trust and chose the 1423 assay mark as the trust’s badge which is still in use today. The trust came into being for ‘preservation, amenity and design’ and, from the outset, was concerned with cooperation with the City Council. Eric’s first action was to meet with the City Engineer, reflecting his practical approach to the implementation of his ideas. The trust encouraged the development of several of the important institutions in the city, notably the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research and the York Institute of Architectural Study and gave enthusiastic support to the resurgence of the city’s art gallery and the reintroduction of the medieval mystery plays.
From its inception, an aim of the trust was to establish a university in York. Dean Milner-White was elected chairman of the trust’s Academic Development Committee – subsequently the York Academic Trust – and made it clear he thought that the university should be collegiate and set in sympathetic surroundings. He donated a small field called Dean’s Acre to the university on the condition that it should not be built on and thus preserve the view of Heslington Church. Although he was aware that all the plans had come to fruition, he sadly died the year the university was opened.
Dean Milner-White received a Lambeth Doctor of Divinity degree in 1952, the year in which he was also awarded the CBE. In 1962, he was made an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Leeds. He never married and died of cancer on 15 June 1963 at the Deanery, York and was cremated. His ashes were interred in York Minster.
R.T. Holtby (ed.), Eric Milner Milner-White, A Memorial (Bognor Regis, 1991)
G.E. Aylmer & Reginald Cant (eds.), A History of York Minster (Oxford, 1979)
The Peterite Vol. LV (October 1963)
Philip Mason, Modern Glasspainters of York (undated)
I should like to thank Geoffrey Geddes for his help with initial research.
© Dinah Tyszka