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“Woodbine Willie” and St Martin’s

News St Martin – Talking Points

Friday 1 August 2014

Studdert Kennedy got his nickname, and his Military Cross, for bravery, spending hours with dying soldiers, often in “no man’s land”, giving them a Woodbine cigarette for comfort in their last moments, usually with complete disregard for his own safety, frequently to the annoyance of senior officers, but to the admiration of the troops whom he served.

I grew up during the Second World War, but my family and others told me about “Woodbine Willie”, his friend Dick Sheppard, Vicar of St Martin’s 1914-1927, and Tubby Clayton, founder of Talbot House/Toc H, in Poperinghe, Belgium. It was long after that I discovered their commitment to “Practical Christianity” and their associations with St Martin’s and each other.

To my delight, a friend, James, who had been in touch with us about the Memorial Service held in the church in 1944 for a Second World War ace pilot Charles Pickard and his navigator Alan Broadley, wrote to me about the book ‘Woodbine Willie’ – an unsung hero of World War One by Bob Holman, publ Lion Hudson. It is appropriate that this book should be featured in our shop’s collection of books about the First World War.

Studdert Kennedy’s story of his contribution to the well-being of troops in WW1 is a remarkable one which has survived throughout WW2 and beyond. His friendship with Dick Sheppard led him to make a real contribution to the life of St Martin’s after WW1 until his death in 1929. He was an inspired preacher and speaker and could hold an audience of believers and non-believers alike spellbound.

Studdert Kennedy had a living at St Paul’s, Worcester. However, Dick Sheppard and the Revd PTR Kirk of the Industrial Christian Fellowship (ICF), which regularly met here at St Martin’s, enabled Studdert Kennedy to be freed from routine clerical duties of a parish and devised a means whereby, after 1 October 1921, he could devote 50% of his time working with the ICF, and the remainder associated with St Martin’s. This enabled him to speak in many venues around the country devoting his gifts of speech on behalf of the Church and great causes. He was nominally on the staff of St Martin-in-the-Fields from 1921 until April 1922, though his contribution to life here extended well beyond that limited time.

He regularly wrote for the parish Magazine. Articles such as Co-operation and Liberty (Aug 1919); a series on Are there any Christian Economic Principles? (Apr, Aug, Nov 1921); contributed poetry I was a stranger and ye took me in (Feb 1922); The unutterable Beauty (Mar 1922); a challenging article with poetry A New Year (Jan 1923); The Vision Splendid (Jan 1925); Carol – Come Worship the King (Dec 1925). He also wrote books of his own, reviewed in the magazine, such as the novel Pronounce Them. He preached at St Martin’s; often at the Three-hour Good Friday Service and during Advent; ran a Mission for St Martin’s with the Bishop of Stepney; ran courses at the church; and contributed to panel discussions.

Although Studdert Kennedy was appointed to St Edmund-the -Martyr, Lombard St, in the City, and therefore had to resign membership of the St Martin’s staff (April 1922), his associations with our church did not in any way cease. Dick Sheppard was delighted he would remain in London but expressed his wish that the press should stop calling him “Woodbine Willie”, saying the nickname may have been useful during the war, but it gives the wrong impression of one of the greatest forces of speech and intelligence which the church possesses. He added that Studdert Kennedy remained humble too, a tribute which cannot be paid to all successful orators!

A biography of “Woodbine Willie” by William Purcell was reviewed in the St Martin’s Review (June 1962) describing the two characteristics which distinguished his life to the end – his lilting eloquence and his deep love of the poor.

A number of us here look forward to reading Bob Holman’s latest interpretation of, yes, still after 100 years, “Woodbine Willie”. There can be few more worthwhile ways of commemorating WW1 than that.

Michael J Hellyer
Archives Team