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The human “ancient treasure” at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral

Posted on: July 15, 2016 3:35 PM
Maurice Sills, about to celebrate his 101st birthday, is listed as one of St Paul's Cathedral's treasures.
Photo Credit: Graham Lacdao / St Paul's Cathedral

[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] There has been a church on the site of St Paul’s Cathedral in London since AD 604; but the current famous domed building is just over 300 years old. And the cathedral’s oldest member of staff has been alive for a third of that time. Maurice Sills has worked in the cathedral’s school, educational visits department, and library; but is listed in the staff directory simply as “Cathedral Treasure”.

Maurice, who will celebrate his 101st birthday later this month (28 July) still takes the train and Tube from his home in north London for his thrice-weekly commute to the Cathedral where he continues to work in the cathedral’s impressive library.

When builders completed Sir Christopher Wren’s new cathedral in 1710, the library was empty. Its previous contents destroyed along with the rest of the cathedral in the Great Fire of London. But over the years it has built up an impressive collection of documents and manuscripts – including copies of all the cathedral’s orders of service.

“One of my jobs is to ensure that we have two copies of every service, I put them all in order and file them away,” Maurice Sills said in an interview with Spitalfields Life. “I look up letter queries for the librarian. When people write to say, ‘I believe my great grandfather was in the choir at St Paul’s,’ I go through the records. Usually they hadn’t, they had sung here but with a visiting choir probably.”

His involvement with St Paul’s began in 1978, after he had retired from an office job with the Co-op bank. He began doing evening classes where he met another volunteer who invited him to join her. “I came for a few months every Thursday and one day I took a school party round,” he told Spitalfields Life. “Evidently, they wrote and said they had an interesting time, because the Dean asked me the next day if I could come more often. . .

“After the Dean asked me and my wife said, ‘Of course you can,’ I took it on and for twenty-odd years I did all the school visits to the cathedral. But eventually they decided that the modern idea was to have an education department which meant they wanted a full-time paid person.

“I had been working twenty years for nothing and, because I worked for nothing, I enjoyed it – I didn’t have to worry what the other people thought. So I wouldn’t have put in for the new job and, fortunately, the headmaster at the Cathedral School said, ‘If they don’t want you, you can come here every day.’ So then I moved to working in the school.”

He continues to work in the St Paul’s Cathedral school in the mornings before moving to the Library in the afternoons.

“Many years ago the librarian decided we ought to have a list of all the books. And so, in my spare time, for about five years I wrote down on sheets of paper all the books. The ones in Greek were difficult, I just had to copy the alphabet. Those records are kept and the librarian still consults them today.

“I was lucky I had a librarian who chased me around in good fun and called me rude things, saying, ‘Get some overalls on you lazy so-and-so and get some work done!’”

  • Click here to read the full interview with Maurice Sills on the Spitalfields Life website.