Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, MC (1883-1929)
‘Woodbine Willie’ - Priest and Poet

Woodbine Willie‘Woodbine Willie’ became something of a legend in the First World War, an Anglican priest who dispensed cigarettes alongside spiritual help and comfort, was a beacon in the darkness, and provided a voice for the men whose experiences he shared in the trenches. His real name was Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (Anketell was his mother’s surname), and he was born and brought up in Leeds, in the slums of Quarry Hill, where his father William Studdert Kennedy, originally from Ireland, was vicar of St Mary’s Church. Geoffrey, born in 1883, grew up in a large family, the twelfth of fourteen children. His early experiences in Leeds were to set the direction for his future.  

St Mary’s has gone now: only some graves remain, on a quiet hillside by the thundering York Road. In the late nineteenth century this was a deeply impoverished area of squalid back-to-backs and one-room cottages, cramped yards and courts with foul open drains and shared middens – all swept away in later slum clearance. Outbreaks of cholera were particularly bad here. Smoky mills and the vast Hope Foundry in Mabgate polluted the air. This was the environment in which Geoffrey grew up, helping with his father’s parish work, getting to know the people, their lives, and their language. The experience gave him a profound affection for the poor, a deep admiration for their spirit and courage, and a fierce hatred of social injustice.

He worked hard at Leeds Grammar School, and, like his father, won a place at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated in 1904 with first class honours in classics and divinity. After two years teaching, he felt called to the ministry. He was ordained in 1908 and appointed as curate in Rugby, where he soon became known for his work among the poor streets and tenements, and for his instinctive generosity – he was always giving away his money, even his clothes. In 1912 he returned to Leeds as curate at the Parish Church, but was allowed time to help his father, now 87 and still vicar of St Mary’s, in the familiar streets of Quarry Hill. In 1914 he married Emily Catlow, and in the same year his father died. Local people wanted him to take over at St Mary’s, but he went to Worcester, where he chose to work in the most impoverished parish. Everyone was in need – once he even gave away the family bed, assisted by his patient wife!

When war was declared, he like so many others was fired by patriotism and a sense of duty, and offered himself as army chaplain. He arrived in France in 1915, sent first to Rouen, where he held impromptu services for the men, joined in sing-songs, and saw the troops off to the Front with gifts of bibles and Woodbine cigarettes – winning him his enduring nickname. Soon he was at the Front himself, living with the men in the trenches, sharing their exercises, talking, supporting, comforting. He went into the thick of battle, believing that as padre he had to be where death was closest, although he was often afraid. In 1917 he won the Military Cross for his courage during the attack on Messines Ridge when, under heavy fire, he helped to find and rescue the wounded, British and German. Sent home for illness or leave, he always returned to the Front, and endured the bloody horrors of the Somme, his role often to kneel in the mud, burying the dead. He became an inspirational wartime legend.

During this time he was writing powerful colloquial verse about the horrific experience of war, in the plain language of his fellow soldiers. These poems struck a deep emotional chord. In 1918, using his nickname Woodbine Willie, he published some of them in ‘Rough Rhymes of a Padre’ which sold 30,000 copies in a few months, followed by ‘More Rough Rhymes…’ and then a series of further books of poetry, as well as books promoting his passionately-held Christian beliefs.

After the war he returned to Worcester but then went to London to join the campaigning crusade for Christian Socialism. He travelled the country and abroad, speaking to small and large groups, always a popular down-to-earth speaker, provoking laughter and tears. As the Depression worsened, this was a dark time. His health suffered, flu exacerbated his chronic asthma (always a smoker) and he died suddenly in March 1929, away on a speaking tour in Liverpool.

He is remembered annually at Leeds Parish Church, and there is renewed interest in him in this centenary year of remembrance. While some of his work is forgotten, his poems stand as a powerful, passionate evocation of the waste and futility of war.

Eveleigh Bradford
August 2014