My father, Canon Tony Williamson, who has died aged 85, was one of Britain’s leading “worker priests”, seeing his job as a forklift driver in a car factory as his Christian calling. A lifelong activist, he was a Labour politician, lord mayor of Oxford, and trade unionist for more than 60 years.
In 1960 Tony became the first Anglican priest to be ordained while in factory work. He was a founder of the Worker Church Group, a network of clergy and their spouses inspired by French Catholic priests who had taken factory jobs. Tony was a pioneer in this group, in taking on prominent political and trade union roles.
During Britain’s postwar boom, he was incensed that the church was ignoring the alienation of ordinary workers. In a 1961 sermon he said: “Instead of being an individual of the utmost value to God … I am one of 12,000 [Oxford car factory] employees, each easily replaceable. My clock number is 261092.”
Tony was born in Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire, the youngest of three children of Joe Williamson, an Anglican minister, and Audrey (nee Barnes), a nanny. His father campaigned in the 1950s in east London to clear slums and open refuges for prostitutes, and Tony inherited this instinct for fighting injustice.
After attending Trinity College, Oxford, and theological college at Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, Tony started work in 1958 at the Pressed Steel car body factory (later part of British Leyland and Rover) in Cowley, an Oxford suburb. His workmates treated him as a colleague and he saw his worker priest role as solving practical problems. He was a union leader at a time of industrial conflict and UK car industry decline, chairing the largest branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union for 16 years.
Always well briefed, Tony was a housing expert on Oxford city council between 1961 and 1988. In 1977 he was appointed OBE. He became Oxford council leader and joint leader of Oxfordshire county council. As lord mayor in 1982-83, he mixed civic duties with clocking in at 7.15am daily at Pressed Steel.
In 1959 he had married Barbara Freeman, a careers adviser, and they had four children. She shared his life fully and gave Tony vital advice and support.
Driven by Christian socialism rather than deeper theology, he took church services in Cowley and in Watlington, the Oxfordshire town where he later settled. In 1989 he became Oxford diocesan director of education, managing 270 church schools. Even while living with cancer, in his final weeks he was active as a union representative for the faith workers’ branch of Unite.
Barbara died in 2015. The following year Tony married Jill Sweeny; she died in 2018. Tony is survived by his children, Ruth, Paul, Ian and me, and eight grandchildren.