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Square Mile and Me: St Paul’s Charles Williams on Cathedral life, from royal funerals to daily duties

Charles Williams, Dean's Virger at St Paul's Cathedral
Charles Williams, Dean's Virger at St Paul's Cathedral

Each week we ask a City figure to take a trip down memory lane. Today Charles Williams, Dean’s Virger at St Paul’s Cathedral, tells us about his role in the Square Mile, from Princess Diana’s funeral to daily Cathedral duties.

What was your first job?

My first job was with St Paul’s Cathedral as a temporary summer relief worker. I was only meant to be here for three months. However, the Cathedral kept offering me further opportunities and the occasional promotion, until eventually I became the Dean’s Virger.

What were you doing before you became the Dean’s Virger?

Before joining the Cathedral, I had been at University at King’s London, reading Theology. I came away with a BD AKC and then went travelling around the United States.


What does a typical day in the life as the Dean’s Virger look like? What are your main duties?

The best analogy I can give is if you were to think of the Cathedral as a theatre, then my team and I would be the stage managers for all services and events taking place on the Cathedral floor. We have 30 regular services every week, and every year we stage manage over 120 ‘special’ services, ranging from weddings and memorial services for members of the Orders of Chivalry based in the Cathedral, to live broadcast services of national importance with Royal attendance.

Added to that, the Cathedral is a place where those who are vulnerable or are in difficulty or need in some way, often find themselves, and my team and I are the link on the Cathedral floor to our clergy and our safeguarding team. After the security staff, the Virgers are the first on duty on the floor in morning and the last to leave at night, every day of the year.

What’s one thing that surprised you about the job?

The extraordinary variety of things that go on here. Even after 38 years, there are constant surprising and new challenges to face, and it always has been, and continues to be, a privilege to be a part of it.

What’s one thing you love about the City?

Definitely the hustle and bustle of the streets which has greatly increased since I first joined. Thankfully, after Covid this is very much returning.

And one thing you would change?

The empty buildings, whether they are shops or offices, I’d like them to be filled or even turned into flats.

What’s the most memorable event you’ve been involved with at St Paul’s?

There are so many. The Golden, Diamond and Platinum Jubilees, the Queen’s 90th birthday, the funeral of Lady Thatcher, the service for those killed and injured after 9/11 and then the London bombings, and all those killed or affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower. At every point, St Paul’s has been there, with a service needed to meet the mood of the nation.

What’s been your proudest moment?

Perhaps the most difficult service we have ever faced came after the sudden death of Princess Diana. It was so unexpected and there was no plan. It was the end of August and a lot of key people were on holiday. Our own choir was on holiday and we had a visiting choir in their place. It was a Sunday. The BBC rang the Dean and asked for a live broadcast service at 1pm. He said 1pm was not possible, but we could do 6pm.

After the main Sunday Eucharist had finished the Dean, a Minor Canon, the conductor of the visiting choir and I sat down and planned a skeleton service and all that went with it, and then set about trying to deliver it. The BBC set up their director’s box in our aisle. During the service, I watched as the director cut to a shot of the first glimpse of the plane carrying Diana’s coffin as it began its approach into Northolt, but kept the sound from the Cathedral of the music we had chosen, going on underneath it. It was the most moving thing I have ever witnessed or been a part of here at St Paul’s.

And who do you look up to?

Again, there are so many people I meet and have met, who are inspiring in so many ways. Anyone who can keep calm in even the most stressful situations always has my admiration.

Are you optimistic for the year ahead?

I am, by nature, an optimistic person. There is always hope. Every year brings its own unique set of challenges, but whatever happens, there is always hope.

We’re going for lunch and you’re picking. Where are we going?

I like places where there is not only good food, but an atmosphere where people can feel relaxed. We would go to the Dove on the river at Chiswick.

Where’s home during the week?

Because of the nature of my role, I live on site where all the clergy I work alongside live.

And where might we find you at the weekend?

Almost certainly in the Cathedral, as I work most weekends.

You’ve got a well-deserved two weeks off. Where are you going?

I absolutely love Italy, so anywhere at all there.


Favourite book? Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island

Favourite film? Any of the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns

Favourite artist or musician? All my colleagues and friends would be astonished if I said anything other than The Beatles, and their solo material, too.

Favourite hymn? All my hope on God is founded.

Favourite place in London? Hampstead

Favourite part of St Paul’s? The Gallery above the Great West Door and the view down the length of the Nave.

Coffee order? Americano, no milk