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Woodbine before the war

23 May 2014

Bob Holman looks at Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy's early ministry

Friend of the poor: Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy

Friend of the poor: Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy

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 the church.

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 sleep.

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 outstanding.

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.

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