The Revd Professor Jack Martin Plumley, MA, MLitt
Jack Plumley was born on 2 September 1910 and went to Merchant Taylors’ School, then in the City of London, where he was a member of the Hebrew sixth form which produced some of the country’s most distinguished orientalists. He graduated in theology from St John’s College, Durham, and then went to King’s College, Cambridge, to take an MA. Ordained deacon in 1933, priest in 1934, Plumley served in various London curacies until 1941 when he became vicar of Christ Church, Hoxton, in the East End. Throughout the war he shared the danger and grief of the blitz and doodlebug attacks with his parishioners, a rock of a man to be in adversity with. Chaplain to Great Ormond Street Hospital when it was bombed, his devotion to the afflicted and complete disregard for his own safety are still remembered there.
Plumley had been interested in ancient Egypt since childhood and, while regarding Egyptology merely as an enthralling pastime, he spent his leisure hours studying the subject at University College, where he was taught by Stephen Glanville, FSA. As luck would have it, among the debris and carnage of the air raids, Plumley met a kindred spirit, Jaroslav Cerny, an émigré Czech attached to his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who later became Professor of Egyptology at London and then Oxford. Under his expert guidance, Plumley’s hobby developed into a serious study and, when he was appointed vicar of St Paul’s, Tottenham, in 1945 he published a grammar of Coptic, the language of early Christian Egypt, which rapidly proved indispensable to students. Meanwhile, Stephen Glanville had been appointed Professor of Egyptology at Cambridge and Provost of King’s and soon persuaded the college to offer Plumley the rectorship of Milton, near Cambridge, so that he could assist his former tutor. For almost a decade, Plumley combined his two loves, pastoral work and Coptic studies, until Glanville’s untimely death in 1956.After months of indecision by the authorities, Plumley was elected to the chair, to his own surprise. Though it was a wrench to give up the parish he continued to help numerous churches in the diocese and to conduct services in the college chapel, while playing a full part in college activities, particularly coaching the boats.
He conducted rescue excavations for the Egypt Exploration Society at Qasr Ibrim, Nubia, ahead of flooding by the Aswan Dam and spent seven seasons digging in Egypt between 1963 and 1976 in conditions of great discomfort, reminiscent of the London blitz with the addition of scorpions, jackals, snakes and sandstorms. His team measured and analysed the remains of an old Nubian cathedral, churches and villages and proved, among much else, that Christianity survived and thrived in Nubia after Egypt was conquered by the Arabs. Finds were prolific: coins, pottery, a clay lamp, beads, tools and scrolls from the tomb of a bishop. From 1963 to 1987 Plumley was chairman of the British Committee of the International Critical Greek New Testament Project set up after study of new-found papyri rendered revision of the New Testament necessary. Plumley was responsible for the readings from the Coptic versions. After retirement from the professorship in 1977 he was elected president of the International Society for Nubian Studies from 1978 to 1982 and continued to visit Egypt regularly. He kept in close touch with Coptic bishops and Egyptian research students, who always visited him in Cambridge when they came to this country. Aged seventy-one, he reverted to his roots and became priest-in-charge of Longstowe, a tiny village near Cambridge, where he was held in great affection. He died in Cambridge on 2 July 1999.