ONE HUNDRED years ago next month, on 9 June 1914, Geoffrey
Studdert Kennedy was instituted as Vicar of St Paul's, in
Worcester. He was later famous as Woodbine Willie, the chaplain who
won a Military Cross in the First World War, and as perhaps the
Church's best-known opponent of poverty in the 1920s.
His early life explains how he reached these achievements. His
father, William Studdert Kennedy, was a priest of Irish extraction.
As Vicar of St Mary's in Quarry Hill, Leeds, he was devoted to the
poor in a deprived area. Geoffrey was not sent away to boarding
school, and, until his late teens, lived close to those in poverty.
After studying at Trinity College, Dublin, Geoffrey taught for two
years at a grammar school. He then went to Ripon Theological
College, was ordained, and served his title at St Andrew's, Rugby.
There he concentrated on the residents of the slums.
He was happy in Rugby, but returned to Leeds after four years.
His mother had died, and his elderly father needed support at St
Mary's. A woman parishioner later summed up his ministry: "He
looked after the poor of the parish. I knew people he gave a pint
of milk a day because they could not afford it."
It was not just the poor. At this time, there were open-air
debates and meetings in Victoria Square, in the centre of Leeds.
Atheists argued against religion, and the Church responded with
eminent academics - plus Geoffrey. His Irish brogue, sense of
humour, and ability to think on his feet enabled him to hold the
rapt attention of more than 1000 people at a time.
His father died in 1914, and, now married to Emily Catlow, the
daughter of a coal merchant, he was ready to lead a church. One
invitation was from St Paul's, Worcester, and he said to his wife:
"St Paul's has the smallest income and the poorest people. Go and
look at the house, and, if you think you can manageit, I will
accept." Emily gladly approved, and 100 years ago Fr Geoffrey, as
he was called, moved to the parish.
He was there for a year-and-a-half before he left for the war.
Yet,in that short period, he and his wife made a huge impact. St
Paul's was surrounded by factories and rented houses, each group of
12 sharing one washroom. Most days, Fr Geoffrey knocked on doors,
and was soon known and well-liked.
He regularly took groceries tothe needy. Finding an aged invalid
sleeping on an uncomfortable couch, he brought pillows from the
vicarage, then sheets, and finally, with Emily's help, their
mattress and bed.
More working-class parishioners were drawn into the church by
his friendship and dynamic preaching. After the services, people
would queue to speak with him. This counselling was not confined to
Michael Grundy, in Woodbine Willie, Padre and Poet
(Osborne Heritage, 1997) reported that "A constant tide of folk
came to the doors of the large vicarage - not just regular members
of the congregation,but the lonely, the anxious, alcoholics, the
suicidal, drug takers, the conscience laden and the penniless."
Emily sometimes had to rescue him to ensure that he got some
Fr Geoffrey had his limitations. There is little record of his
co-operating with other denominations. He appeared to avoid
politicians. But his involvement with poor people was
One hundred years later, at a time of increasing poverty and
inequality, many churches have responded by criticising the
Government and providing services. Fr Geoffrey also showed that
Christianity needs leaders who live close to and are able to
communicate with poor people.
Professor Bob Holman is the author of Woodbine Willie
(Lion Hudson, 2013). He is speaking about this at the Bloxham
Festival of Faith and Literature on Saturday 31 May.