PEOPLE IN PORTSMOUTH

 

BILL SARGENT (1926-1989) - MINISTER & CO-FOUNDER OF PHA

The foundation of Portsmouth Housing Association (PHA) in 1973 marked the launch of a major social housing project in Portsmouth which was destined to grow until by 2010 it was responsible for some 5000 properties for rent, houses for disadvantaged groups, and shared ownership schemes. One of the founders and leading lights for the first 16 years of it's existence was Bill Sargent, the vicar of St. Mark's Church in North End.
 
William Richard Gerald Sargent was born in Battersea, London, on 19th July 1926. His father was a Protestant Irishman from Galway, who had a military background, being commissioned in the field during the First World War. He married a Cockney girl with whom he had two children, Bill and an older sister Eileen. In the early 1930s, the family moved to Long Melford in Suffolk, where Bill's father ran a pub with his mother. They lived in a small cottage and found life hard, factors which remained with Bill throughout his life. The family worshipped at the medieval church of Holy Trinity where Bill joined the choir, music remaining an important part of his life.
 
By Bill's early teens the family had moved to Braintree in Essex, where Bill attended the Grammar School. Although bright and performing well there was a rebellious streak in him which showed when, with World War 2 raging across the world he briefly refused to join the school Cadet Corps. Within a few years both his parents died; his father whilst on active service, leaving Bill with a profound sense of insecurity. He left school with a School Certificate and achieved a place at London University to read Russian, a choice of subject probably being influenced by his left-wing tendencies. He did not take up the place however, instead joing the Indian Army.
 
The army seems to have replaced the security lost with the death of his parents and at the age of 19 he was promoted captain. In 1947 with the independence for India and Pakistan he left the army and returned to England. He had no career to resume and nowhere to live. By chance he joined a friend who was returning to Middlesbrough where within a short time both had joined the Police Force. He found this a fulfilling occupation but when the opportunity to join the colonial police in Mayasia cropped up he jumped at it. It was perhaps a strange choice for someone with radical left-wing sympathies, given that the police were required to fight communist terrorists. In September 1952 he met Jill Redwood, a professor of Anthropology studying aboriginal peoples in the jungle, and on 9th April 1953 they were married. In time they had three daughters, Jane, Ruth and Kate, born in 1954, 1956 and 1958.
 
After leaving Malaya the prospect of ordination arose, though not for the first time, and Bill obtained a place at Lincoln Theological College. He enjoyed his time there coming under the influence of Oliver Tomkins, a leading Christian ecumenist. Bill came to see 'ecumenism less as a movement towards Christian unity and more as a universal alliance of people of goodwill'. In addition to his studies Bill's natural vivacity led him to make many friends, often at parties held on a shoestring at the small accommodation he shared with Jill.
 
Bill's ordination as Deacon came in September 1957 following which he was licensed to the parish of St. Augustine, Newland, in Hull. This was a time of much political unrest which included the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which Bill joined. In September 1958, the year of the Notting Hill Riots, Bill was ordained as vicar and took up a post at Holy Trinity with St Philip in Dalston, East London. Whilst there, Bill became interested in housing issues and, with a few friends formed the Hackney Housing Association. Bill's political convictions came to the fore once more during the Vietnam War, a subject he dwelt upon in several editions of the parish magazine.
 
In early 1970 Bill Sargent left Hackney and moved to Portsmouth, just in time to take over the parish of St. Mark's in North End and it's newly constructed church. This replaced a large dull, poorly lit and heated building and though it was of a very modern, versatile design had little character. The posting suited Bill who had had a very busy ten years at Dalston and yearned for a more traditional parish ministry.
 
In his biography of Bill Sargent, Terry Louden says the "Bill quickly developed an extensive ministry to the sick, elderly and housebound. By 1975, his sick communion round, usually in late morning after he had seen to his letters and parish administration, often involved more than a dozen calls per week. Afternoons involved more visiting and being visited. Bill earned a reputation as a sympathetic listener to those seeking marriage in church after divorce, at a time when such a practice was far less widespread than it is now. He took care not to offend more traditionalist colleagues by refusing to marry couples who did not have a proper residential qualification, but he was always prepared to look for reasons to say yes to such requests.... He taught the value of a balanced Christian life....He took Thursday as a regular day off, and would often be found digging his allotment or baking bread in the kitchen listening to Haydn's string quartets, or Test Match Special in summer. He argued that kneading bread was an excellent way of getting rid of the frustrations of parochial life. He kept a radio in the clergy vestry during the summer months so that he could keep up with the cricket scores."
 
During his first few years in Portsmouth Bill concentrated on his pastoral duties whilst never forgetting the wider social issues around him. He became involved in the Alpha House project in Stubbington Avenue which had been set up as a residential unit for the rehabilitation of people with drug problems. There was much local opposition but Bill was an enthusiastic supporter as a way of reintroducing a vulnerable group of people to community life, and spent time and effort reassuring reluctant neighbours of the value of the scheme.
 
Anticipating the Housing Act of 1974 a group of seven people, including Bill Sargent, each invested 1 and became the founders of the Portsmouth Housing Association (PHA) on 28th March 1973. Within two years they had purchased and refurbished their first properties in Daulston Road and Church Road. There was some resistance from the Housing Corporation who viewed the group as having little expertise but Bill and others resisted their attempt to bring in outside assistance.
 
The PHA policy of renovation and refurbishment was at odds with the local authority Housing Department who's approach was one of demolition and slum clearance. This came to a head over the Northumberland Street/Canal Walk part of the city. PHA had by 1977 accumulated so much property that a re-organisation was urgently needed. Bill, somewhat reluctantly, became chairman of PHA, and began the process of rationalising staff and voluntary management structures. By March 1979, PHA had 200 housing units: the 500th home being opened in June 1982. A large increase in staff meant a move to larger premises was essential. In 1982, it moved to Hampshire Terrace in Southsea, and then, in January 1987, to the old St. Mary's Institute in Fratton Road.
 
1979 had seen the election of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher who took a radically different view of national housing policy. Rented housing was no longer a priority and was to give way to private ownership and that in turn meant Council houses were to be sold. This created a problem for PHA as it was being asked to provide housing for families with some money to invest, in other words become a business rather than a charity. The Management Committee of PHS was split between the idealists who wanted nothing to do with the Thatcherite proposals, and the pragmatists who felt it was important to achieve whatever they could. Bill Sargent was of the latter persuasion. The outcome was the formation of the Southlands Housing Association with Bill as its first chairman, a post he retained throughout the early 1980s.
 
Bill combined his work at SHA with a PHA project known as the Care and Repair Scheme which gave practical support to elderly owner-occupiers to enable them to remain in their own homes. It also provided jobs for the long-term unemployed. A major problem at this time was the increase in homelessness caused by the changes to government policy. Local authorities moved families into temporary bed and breakfast accommodation with few amenities and a requirement for them to be out of the property during the day. Bill, Bob Paterson (chief executive of PHA), and local Councillor Jo Sugrue visited a scheme in Brighton which gave respite care to these families after which Bill resolved to create a similar facility in Portsmouth.
 
Bill secured initial funding for the project from the Anglican Bishop of Portsmouth, Timothy Bavin, who had received a bequest, the terms being that it should be used for the poor people of Portsmouth. Further funding was found at the Housing Association Charitable Trust. The project became known as the Phoenix Centre, variously located at St. John's Cathedral, St George's Church and eventually in a building in Crasswell Street that had once been St. Faith's Mission. It was re-named the Roberts Centre and was opened in 1991 by Diana, Princess of Wales. Bill thought of it as his pride and joy.
 
PHA was not set up to run a scheme such as the Roberts Centre, so it formed a charity, the Portsmouth Housing Trust (PHT) with a commitment to the relief of poverty, sickness and distress. Bill gave up the chair of Southlands Housing Association, and became the first chair of PHT which then took over all the PHA housing stock that had been built or renovated for use by disadvantaged groups, including people with special needs such as physical disability or mental health problems. PHT's work continued with the establishment of a Direct Access Hostel for young homeless people, built on the site of the All Saints Vicarage. It was completed in 1991, but Bill did not live long enough to see it.
 
Bill had been an active member of the PHA group for 16 years by the time he died; he left behind a well established organisation which continued the work including the foundation of the Portsmouth Foyer, a scheme to provide young people with a base whilst finding work. In 1999 PHT became fully independent and renamed itself the Southern Focus Trust, which carried on much the same range of work.
 
Terry Louden described Bill as having "...the vision to grasp the potential of each new project, and the drive and determination to turn new ideas into practical reality. He was at the forefront of each new initiative in the group.... He was an efficient committee chair, though he never suffered fools gladly... He could not stand the hand-wringing, 'conscience on the sleeve' approach of some of his committee colleagues. He wanted decisions made, usually in the direction he had decided beforehand, and he usually got his way. Sue Anderson, who succeeded Bill as chair of PHA, pictures him sitting at the chairman's place in the boardroom, with an ashtray close at hand, listening attentively, whoever the speaker, and always able to extract the point of what was being said, no matter how convoluted the delivery."
 
Bill was always the solid christian presence at the heart of the PHA Group but he never used his position to 'Christianise' the organisation, rather he used his position to gradually bring the church community onboard as active contributors to the provision of social housing. He was deeply involved in the recruitment and support of staff, participating with them in social events such as the jazz cruises on the Solent.
 
When Bill died, his family and PHA naturally wanted to perpetuate his memory but were mindful of his dislike of personal memorials. For many years the sole reference to him was a small plaque on a bench outside the PHA offices in Fratton Road but in the autumn of 2006, a PHA development arose on the Glebe Field just behind the offices and it's access way was named Bill Sargent Crescent. A plaque remembering his contribution stands at the entrance. Bill would probably have disapproved, though the foundation of the Bill Sargent Trust, the research arm of the PHA Group, may have been more acceptable.
 
A full version of "Imperfect love, The life and times of Canon Bill Sargent (1926-1989)" by Terry Louden, on which this article is based can be found at http://docs-eu.livesiteadmin.com/f24550d3-4bec-4e68-9c5b-b95112e06273/bill-sargent-biography.pdf
A page on the Bill Sargent Plaque can be found on the Memorials.InPortsmouth website