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Our topic was 'Woodbine Willie', speaker Dudley George, chairman of the branch. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was born in Leeds in 1883, the son of a rector.
After gaining a degree in Classics and Divinity in 1904, he was determined to work with the poor. After a year at Ripon Clerical College he became a curate in Rugby, working in deprived areas, preaching and helping the needy. On his mother’s death he returned to Leeds and married Emily Catlow, who was to be his unfailing support throughout his life.
The couple moved to Worcester to take up work in the poorest parish. At the outbreak of the First World War, Geoffrey supported the war effort by preaching to recruits. By the end of 1915 he was appointed an official military chaplain, and would address troops in every British army base in France. He realised the importance of listening to soldiers fears, and would hand out Woodbine cigarettes along with a New Testament bible, becoming known as “Woodbine Willie!
Although not allowed to bear arms, he was in the front line trenches at the Somme, carrying dead and injured. His preaching style endeared him to the ordinary soldier. He understood their need for alcohol, and even sex before they attacked, often to almost certain death. He started to write poetry in the language of the troops, rather than the style of the more well-regarded war poets. “Rough Rhymes of a Padre” was published and became popular on the front line and at home.
By June 1917 he was back in the thick of the action at Ypres. Despite many around him being killed or injured, he miraculously survived. His actions resulted in him being awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”.
On his return to England he preached to huge audiences about the plight of the war widows, orphaned children and badly maimed men. In 1921 Geoffrey became spokesperson for the Industrial Christian Fellowship, which tried to mediate between unions and employees at a time of Great Strike.
He visited US and Canada where he was welcomed as a major speaker, war hero, author and poet. Sadly in March 1929 after a life of hard work, ill health and unimaginable stress he died aged just 45. There was major public sorrow his death.
When his funeral took place in Worcester Cathedral, services were held in London, Liverpool, Manchester and South Wales.
A fund which raised £700 to support Emily and sons received a personal cheque from the King.
The next meeting will be on Tuesday, July 3, at 7.30pm. The topic is “The other Side of Elvis”, speaker Stephanie Yearnshire.