Rattenbury family

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John Rattenbury, WM minister (1806-1879; e.m. 1828) was the founder of a ministerial dynasty. Born on 26 June 1806 in Tavistock, he grew up in Manchester and was converted by Robert Newton. He was an almost hypnotic preacher and revivalist, who attracted many hearers, had many conversions and adopted the penitent form and the prayer meeting following the service. A family tradition asserts that the first railway excursion on the Stockton and Darlington line was to hear him preach. It was he who at the 1849 Conference seconded the motion to expel James Everett. He launched the Metropolitan Chapels Building Fund and was elected President of the 1861 Conference. He died at Highbury, London on 22 December 1879.

His son Henry Owen Rattenbury (1843-1904; e.m. 1863) had two sons, J. Ernest and Harold Burgoyne Rattenbury, who became ministers. (See below.) A third son, Owen Rattenbury, was a local preacher and journalist, and a Christian Socialist who wrote Flame of Freedom: the romantic story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (1931). Their sister Helena Rattenbury (c.1893-1979) entered the Wesley Deaconess Order in 1913 and was consecrated in 1917. She was assistant secretary at the Deaconess College, Ilkley 1914-1923 and her later appointments included the Leysian Mission 1929-1936 and theNewcastle upon Tyne Mission 1943-1945. She retired in 1945 and died at Bury St. Edmunds on 30 December 1979.

John Ernest Rattenbury (1870-1963; e.m. 1893) was born on 10 December 1870 at Stanningley. He was closely associated with Central Halls. He was responsible for setting up the Albert Hall, Nottingham (1902-7) and was sent to revive the West London Mission after the death of Hugh Price Hughes. He was Superintendant of the West London Mission from 1907 to 1925. He built the Kingsway Hall and filled it with 'fiery sermons rebuking eminent sceptics'. In 1903 he helped to found the WM Union for Social Service. Favouring wider ecumenical links, he led the WM opposition to Methodist Union in 1932 and was President of the Free Church Council in 1936. He was very active in the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship and was its President from 1939 to 1950. At the Methodist Church Congress in 1929 he spoke on 'Sacramental Grace and Evangelical Experience'. Notable among his writings are The Conversion of the Wesleys (1938), his Fernley-Hartley Lecture The Evangelical Doctrines of Charles Wesley's Hymns (1941) and a pioneering study of The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (1948). He died in London on 19 January 1963.

Harold Burgoyne Rattenbury (1878-1961; e.m. 1902) was born at Witney on 15 February 1878 and served as a missionary at Hankow in the Hupeh District, China, 1902-35, arranging for the first Chinese national to become Chairman of the District. As Missionary Secretary in London he advocated decentralization of the Chinese Church, facilitating its survival under Communist rule after 1949. But he has been criticized for ignoring the advice of the British Consul in Shanghai and the policy of other Missionary societies of withdrawing their missionaries from Japanese-occupied territory. His instructions to missionaries to stay at their post resulted in a number being interned throughout World War II. In 1949, when the Communists swept to power and ties with the West were severed, his insistence that missionaries should stay at their posts had disastrous results both for those missionaries who were instructed to remain and for Chinese church leaders. He wrote a number of popular books about China and was Presidentof the 1949 Conference. He died at Barnet on 24 December 1961.

H.B. Rattenbury's son, Harold Morley Rattenbury (1915-2005; e.m. 1938), the last of the ministerial line, was thus the son, grandson, great-grandson and nephew of Methodist ministers. Born on 23 August 1915 at Kuling, China, he was educated at Kingswood School and read medieval history at Oriel College, Oxford before training for the ministry at Wesley House, Cambridge. During World War II he served as an RAF chaplain. While teaching church history and History of Doctrine at Headingley College 1954-1967, he led the way in establishing a Methodist International House in Leeds. He retired to Otley and then to Silverdale, Lancs., and died in Lancaster on 6 May 2005. His younger brother, Arnold Rattenbury (1921-2007) became a Marxist poet and exhibition designer, and along with two contemporaries at Kingswood School, E.P. Thompson and G.M. Matthews, the Shelley scholar, sold the Daily Worker to their fellow pupils. With their socialist leanings, they remained lifelong friends.

A cousin of Ernest and Harold Rattenbury, Francis Rattenbury, became an architect, who emigrated to Canada. He made his name and a fortune through designing the parliament buildings and other public buildings in Victoria, BC, but his personal life went disastrously wrong.


'John Rattenbury: Limited attainments, yet extensively useful. - Sweet, warm feeling; - a good voice; - an impressive manner; generally attractive and correct.'

Wesleyan Takings (1840), p350

'Dr. (then the Rev.) J.E. Rattenbury, having been in Leicester nearly a decade, though three years in one place is the normal term decreed by the Methodist itinerant system, remained to give "Clarendon Park" a good start. Despite his pronounced stoop and shiny baldness - we irreverently called him "the Wooden Doll" - he was only in his early thirties. But he had already made his reputation as a preacher of great oratorical and dramatic power: a reputation which, after his transfer to London, was to become nation-wide. In London, until Kingsway Hall was opened, his services were held in the old Lyceum Theatre; and such was still the attraction of great preaching that the Sunday evening queues were often as long as those for a Martin Harvey or an Ellen Terry on weekdays… Of Dr. Rattenbury's integrity there could be no doubt. Equally, however, he cannot have been unconscious of his mastery of preaching as an art in itself: an art that did not build up our church, but, while he remained with us, drew eager appraisers of pulpit passion and fire from every quarter of the town…

'In private life Dr. Rattenbury was excessively shy and absent-minded. Many were the stories, true or apocryphal, of his aberrations… What most deeply impressed me, however, was his air of moving - not only in the religious, but the mundane sense - in realms larger than any I had yet known… I remember Dr. Rattenbury so vividly, not because of any more specific or definable influence, but because, just when my horizons were naturally beginning to broaden, he appeared as an original, vital and challenging figure.'

Gilbert Thomas, Autobiography (1946) pp.55-58

  • Gareth Lloyd, [catalogue of] The Papers of the Rattenbury Family (Manchester, 1995, 1996, 1997,1998)
  • H. Morley Rattenbury, Rat Rhyme: a Screed (Silverdale, 1994)

John Rattenbury:

  • H. Owen Rattenbury, The Rev. John Rattenbury Memorials (2nd edn., 1884)
  • Methodist Recorder, Winter Number, 1895, pp.40-41

J. Ernest Rattenbury:

  • Methodist Recorder, 24 & 31 Jan 1963
  • P.W. Chilcote, 'The Legacy of J. Ernest Rattenbury', in Methodist History 21 (1982-3) pp.207-24
  • John A. Newton, 'J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Evangelical Doctrines of Charles Wesley's Hymns, and The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley', in WHS Proceedings, 50 pp.171-74
  • Brian Beck, 'Rattenbury Revisited: the Theology of Charles Wesley's Hymns', in Epworth Review, 26:2 (April 1999) pp.71-81
  • Norman Wallwork, The Gospel Church Secure: the official history of the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship (2013), pp, 14-16
  • Leslie J. Griffiths, 'The importamce of being Ernest: Kingsway Hall and the ministry of J.E. Rattenbury' in Methodist Sacramental Fellowship Bulletin, no. 140, Epiphany 2013 pp.4-16

Harold B. Rattenbury:

  • Methodist Recorder, 7 July 1949, 4 Jan 1962
  • Conference Handbook, 1949

H. Morley Rattenbury:

  • Methodist Recorder, 30 June 2005

Arnold Rattenbury:

  • Guardian, 30 July 2007

Francis Rattenbury:

  • Methodist Recorder, 15 September 2011