AN almost full hall greeted the family of George Wilson for his funeral on May 17th. People came from Scotland, Oldham, Gloucester and Bristol to farewell this great example of Salvationism.
On the platform were Majors David Woodman and Noel Wright supported by a band comprised of members of Hadleigh Temple and London North East Fellowship Bands under the baton of Bandmaster Ken Hillson. Hadleigh Temple Songsters were augmented by visitors under the leadership of Songster Leader Liz Brewer of Bristol Staple Hill – one of George’s ‘girls’ from the Bristol Divisional Music School in the 1970s. Another person from the music school days was Bandmaster Cliff Mathews from Gloucester, who accompanied the Songsters and gave a tribute on behalf of the music schools saying how George’s big heart delivered a level of musical excellence whilst caring for the individuals. ‘He developed the young people both musically and spiritually’, he said.
Many references were made to ‘the big number’ that George had every year and the untiring way he prepared for it. A recording of an example was played: ‘The Magnificat’ written by Eric Ball and conducted by George in the 1976 music school. Some of the participants in that choir were present for the funeral celebration.
Songster Edith Wayman of Oldham Citadel told of George’s time as Songster Leader there and how he confidently led the songsters but was just as willing to take on duties such as washing up.
A tribute from Lt. Col Diane O’Brien (née Lillicrap) from the USA, was read by Helen Elliot, a former member of the Bristol Music School. The colonel spoke of all the hard work George would put into the preparation for the music school, especially the ‘Big Number’ and paid tribute to his unfailing commitment and enthusiasm. Helen’s sister, Liz, brought the thoughts of a fellow music school member, Tina Shepherd, who recalled being a nervous 11 year-old attending her first music school and how George welcomed her. The girls’ singing group was 80 strong and was always over-subscribed. Tina had brought together memories from a number of school members, finishing with the comment ‘George was a top quality choral leader’.
George’s grandson, Andrew Johnson, said how proud he was to have had George as a grandfather. He told how George had been born into extreme poverty and developed his life moving first to the seaside at St. Ives in Cornwall. George eventually received a job offer back in the North and was expecting to return home but he changed his mind and accepted another offer – to be the live-in caretaker at ‘101’ – The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters in London. He was the first non-officer to hold this appointment. Finally on retirement he moved to Hadleigh so he could be near his family.
Major Noel Wright recalled George’s willingness to help the Annual Appeal effort by obtaining donations from local businesses, how he would distribute leaflets for a forthcoming event and take every opportunity to engage with the people he met. George’s last position was as a welcome sergeant with a cheery smile on a Sunday morning given equally to regular members of the congregation as to newcomers. With George, everyone who attended felt welcome. Major Wright explained that he could not work out why he had been chosen to lead the funeral service. ‘Perhaps’, he said, ‘it was because George knew that what I had to say would not focus on the servant, but the One whom he served.’ Major Wright certainly lived up to the expectation and spoke very directly about the power of Jesus in George’s life and asked the congregation ‘Why wouldn’t you want that?’
This man of humility and great skill, enthusiasm and commitment, touched all with whom he came into contact. And that included Generals, who worked in the office he so diligently cared for. Two sent tributes, which were read by Major David Woodman. General Eva Burrows, now living in retirement in Australia, was in post when George arrived at ‘101’. She spoke fondly of how George was so dedicated to his role of building supervisor, but his influence went beyond that and he showed his care for every person who worked there or visited the building.
General Shaw Clifton apologised for not being present in person, but he had visited Jean in her new home in Elizabeth House. He first met George when he went to work at ‘101’ and described him as a ‘model Salvationist’. As a major, Shaw Clifton was the Army’s legal secretary and Jean Wilson became his hard-working and effective secretary. Having lost his spouse not too long ago, the General had special words of encouragement for Jean to help her through the days ahead without her spouse.
George was a very positive and cheery man and very much a lover of Salvation Army music. It was therefore a blessing to know that the music for the celebration of his life was chosen by George himself. As Major Wright recalled, George would often say, ‘They don’t write them like that anymore!’ The celebration was topped and tailed by joyful marches, starting with George Marshall’s ‘Soldiers of Christ’ and finishing with Leslie Condon’s Festival March ‘Celebration’. During the final section of this march, ‘We’ll keep the old flag flying’, the pall bearers retrieved the coffin and left the building as the congregation clapped along to the music. Songs that could be called ‘good old Army songs’ were chosen, including some penned by Albert Orsborne. The final song was, predictably, The Founder’s song.
View a video of the final march:
Major David Woodman led the short committal service at Pitsea crematorium which contained George’s choice of song: ‘Let me love thee, thou art claiming’.
(media published by kind permission of George's daughter, Barbara)