History remembers Algy Robertson as a warm and caring pastor and a powerful preacher. His vocation focused on the caring of homeless and disadvantaged people. As co-founder of the Anglican Franciscans, who had a Friary in Cambridge, his work still resonates in the city today.
William Strowan Amherst Robertson was born into a Congregational family in Ealing on 16 October 1894. During his schooldays at Westminster, he acquired the nickname of ‘Algy’. He studied at Queen’s college, Cambridge. After graduating in 1916, he went to Calcutta to teach.
On his return to England, he studied at Westcott House and was ordained in 1921. He served his curacy in the coastal village of Cullercoats in North East England. Working closely with the fishing community, he gained a clear understanding of the harsh and dangerous life at sea.
In 1924 he left parish work to became a travelling secretary to the Student Christian Movement (SCM). At a conference in Swanwick, Derbyshire, he met Jack Winslow, a missionary who was recruiting Oxbridge graduates to strengthen a multi-racial religious community which he had set up in India.
The Society of the Servants of Christ (CSS) was based in Poona. Robertson, who was becoming convinced of his call to the religious life, decided to join the community.
Some years later, however, his health began to suffer from the climate. He was forced to return to England where, in 1931, he became vicar of St Ives, Cambridgeshire.
The vicarage became a centre where those wishing to join the community in India could spend some time in preparation. Members of the CSS returning to England on leave also used the vicarage as a base.
Meanwhile, an Oxford economics don, Douglas Downes who was also a priest, had formed a small religious community with a few friends at a small farm property near Cerne Abbas in Dorset. They were concerned for victims of the depression and offered shelter to unemployed wayfarers – men and boys on their way from town to town searching for work.
The founding of the SSF
Robertson was prominent in bringing together the two communities to form a Franciscan religious order within the Church of England. The Society of St Francis (SSF) was founded in 1936.
Gradually the partnership took shape, modelling itself more consciously on the Franciscan tradition of prayer and study, as well as working with the poor. It started to look like a religious order in formal sense, with habits, a chapel, and regular worship. The following year Robertson left St Ives and moved to Dorset. There he took charge of the novices – those joining the Society – who would spend a year under his guidance.
Thus he began to fulfil his desire to recreate the full Franciscan life of brothers or friars, enclosed sisters and a ‘Third Order’ of people not living communally. His delicate health drove him to move quickly to realise his vision of Franciscan life: a brotherhood committed to evangelism and to the care of the poor and disadvantaged. He trained every brother to preach, and to lead missions and retreats.
Robertson continued to revisit Cambridge, especially after the founding of a large SSF friary in Lady Margaret Road in 1939. After the war, he sent some of the younger brothers to the city, with the intention of attracting undergraduates and ordinands to the Order.
In 1943, the Franciscan’s took over St Bene’ts Church. One of the Friars became Vicar and the community moved to St Francis House in Botolph Lane.
He also worked hard to create a closed community of sisters. The Society of St Clare came into existence at Freelands, near Oxford, only a few months before his death.
Robertson died in Dorset on 23 November 1955, aged 61. At his requiem service, the then Bishop of Exeter described him as someone who had lived ‘a splendid life. “Splendid in its obscurity and humility,” he said, “splendid in its strength and charity, splendid in its achievements.”
Renowned for the power of his preaching, Robertson had been a sought-after spiritual director and missioner. Alongside his organisational skills, his theology of sacramental friendship provided a strong foundation for the Franciscan approach to Christian living. This proved to be one of his greatest contributions.
The Franciscan brothers were committed to holding together a blend of catholic devotion, evangelical preaching and a concern to work among and live alongside marginal and dispossessed people.
In 2005, due to a decline in vocations, the SSF decided to close their Cambridge Friary. They had been ministering in the city for more than sixty years. However, Robertson’s pioneering spirit and the work of the Franciscans have left a strong liturgical and spiritual legacy that still lives on within Cambridge.