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Jim Godfrey, Verger

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Behind the scenes header image


Photo of Jim Godfrey

Emily: Translate for me- what is a verger?

Jim: It's interesting that you use the word ‘translate’ because the title Verger does actually come from the Latin word ‘verge’ which means rod or wand. One of our distinguishing features as vergers is that we carry around a silver wand.

The silver verges we use were made in 1660 for the return of the monarchy after the Civil War, and have been used in services here ever since. All of the pre-reformation verges would have been melted down during the time that Charles I lived at Christ Church as he was so desperate for money. So these new verges were commissioned upon Charles II’s return.


Emily: Why do vergers carry a wand anyway?

Jim: It began in Medieval times when people in the streets were pretty rowdy, and important people: clergy, sheriffs, mayors, would have a bodyguard walking in front of them with a heavy stick which they used to shift people to the sides of the road. Hence we refer to the sides of the road as the ‘verge’! Our verges aren’t that heavy though- we just have a ceremonial version.

Jim holding a Verger's wand



Emily: You’re sort of a liturgical bodyguard!

Jim: Exactly! If you watch carefully at a church event, even something like last month’s Royal Wedding, you might notice a verger hovering discreetly in the background, but when the Dean of Windsor -- or any of our own canons -- walk anywhere during the service, the verger always leads the way. We do this for all the clergy, but also people giving sermons or doing readings. It’s particularly interesting at services where we have celebrity readers: some are very well behaved, others we might call ‘the Un-verge-ables’! I won’t name names, but I will say this: you never try to overtake the verger; that’s what the wand is really for…


Emily: So how does someone become a verger?

Jim: I think everyone comes to it differently. Actually it was just by chance that I saw a job as Cathedral Verger being advertised with the caveat: ‘no one under 25 need apply’. Being 23 at the time I thought this was a perfect opportunity to apply for a job without any danger of actually getting it. But against all my plans the interview ended with the words: “you’ll start on Monday morning”.


Jim (left) with verger colleagues, photographed when he joined Christ Church in 1987.

Emily: A bit of an accident then! How did it go?

Jim: Well on a very snowy Monday morning 31 years ago I cycled into Christ Church to meet then Head Verger, Edward. He showed me around the Cathedral and then took me out into the gardens to show me something ‘unique’. He pointed to a horse chestnut tree just over the wall in the Dean’s garden and told me: “that is the original Cheshire cat’s tree”. I think I was supposed to make some exclamation of wonder and awe but I think what I actually said was: “no, it’s not”!

I was brought up in a village in North Yorkshire called Croft-on-Tees which was the village in which Charles Dodgson’s father was the rector of the church. (Charles Dodgson is Lewis Carroll’s real name.) I knew that the tree in the Dean’s garden wasn’t the real tree because every summer we would walk down the road to the rectory where Lewis Carroll lived to see the real Cheshire cat’s tree. It was the tree that he used to sit under to write.


Cheshire Cat's tree in the Deanery garden.Another interesting fact: You might remember that Alice in Wonderland begins with a white rabbit running through Christ Church Meadows saying: “I’m late!” And why? Well, only in 1852 was time standardised throughout the country. Before then each different area had its own mini time zone, but because of the railways, people were travelling across the country faster and it was very confusing. So everywhere in the country agreed to use the same time – then known as ‘Railway time’, now ‘Greenwich mean time’ or GMT – everywhere, that is, except for Christ Church, Oxford!


Emily: Why did Christ Church not change?

Jim: There were two reasons: firstly because we insisted upon keeping God’s natural time, not this new-fangled mechanical idea! And secondly because, as everyone knows, Christ Church is the centre of the universe, and in the light of that London seemed like such a random choice!

Jim dressed as the White Rabbit, next to twin sister Mary dressed as Alice. Croft-on-Tess 1977 fancy dress competition.

Oxford is 1¼ degrees west of Greenwich, and for every ¼ degree East or West you would add or subtract a minute, so Christ Church operated 5 minutes behind the time of everything else in the country. By 1862 it was a big joke in Oxford that everyone from Christ Church would be running late whenever they ventured out into the rest of the world. And so now you know exactly how many minutes late the white rabbit was running!


Emily: So take me back to Croft-on-Tees; you grew up in the same area as Lewis Carroll- that’s pretty cool!

Jim: Not just the same area, we took quite similar paths, geographically speaking. Charles Dodgson’s father (also called Charles Dodgson!) built the village school that I attended: his legacy was to look after the local children. Lewis Carroll didn’t actually attend that school, but he taught maths in the holidays. We both attended Richmond School and eventually found our way to Christ Church.


Shrine of St FrideswideEmily: And now that you’re here one of the things you’re best known for is the research you do on historical figures like Lewis Carroll. When did you become so fascinated by history, or is it something that always interested you?

Jim: It wasn’t always my thing. When I studied theology at University I wasn’t much interested in any church history post-Bible! I only really became interested after coming here, and in fact – unusually for my protestant background – the thing that really sparked my interest was the shrine of St Frideswide in the Latin Chapel. I loved the carvings on the shrine and the stories associated with Frideswide’s life.


Emily: Your pen portraits don’t just have interesting historical insights, though, they also contain fantastic drawings of the historical figures. Where did you learn to draw so well?

Jim: As children, my twin sister and I would just draw for hours and hours. They say that it takes
10 000 hours to master any skill and I’d probably put in that many by the time I was six years old!


Emily: Final questions! What’s the best thing about having been at Christ Church your whole career?

Jim: When students come back twenty years after they graduated, the only people likely to still be here are the porters and the vergers. I love being part of that continuity.

Illustration of Alice Liddell by Jim Godfrey


Emily: What’s the best part of your job?

Jim: It’s actually sort of a favourite time: I always try to arrive by 6:45 in the mornings which gives me at least 10 minutes before anyone else appears. I get the Cathedral to myself! I also like to spend half an hour after Evensong just tidying up and putting the Cathedral to rights. It’s pretty special to spend time alone in such a wonderful place.


Emily: Thank you, Jim, for taking the time to talk to me and for all that you have done and continue to do for Christ Church.


To hear more from Jim about Alice in Wonderland and how the classic story came to be written, check back on Alice Day, 7 July.


Next month I will be interviewing Martyn Percy,
Dean of Christ Church.