Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy was born in Leeds on June 27th 1883, the seventh of nine children born to Reverend William Studdert Kennedy and his second wife, Joan. Geoffrey also had five half-siblings from his father’s first marriage and this large family lived a happy life in the poor parish of St Mary’s Quarry Hill, Leeds. The only blot on Geoffrey’s childhood was the development of severe asthma, which would plague him for the rest of his life. Otherwise he was a contented child, attending Leeds Grammar School and then Trinity College, Dublin. Throughout his education, he was a hardworking and popular student who graduated in 1904 with a First in Divinity and Classics.
Although he began his working life as a teacher, Kennedy soon decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and was ordained at Worcester Cathedral in 1908. He immediately warmed to his duties as the curate of Rugby Parish Church, his kind, generous nature automatically drawing him to those less fortunate than himself. Renowned for his generosity, Kennedy would often give away his own money and clothes to the needy and eventually he set up a mission in the town, starting an appeal for people to donate boots and shoes to the poor.
In 1910, Kennedy was ordained as a priest and returned to Leeds to assist his ailing father in the parish in which he had grown up. Kennedy’s mother, Joan, died in 1913, followed by his father the following year. Despite his grief, Kennedy also found happiness in his marriage to Emily Catlow on 25th April 1914. Two months later the newlyweds arrived at their new parish: St Pauls in Worcester, where the locals welcomed them warmly.
When the First World War began that August, Worcester housed one of many Army training camps and before long Kennedy sought the permission of the Bishop of Worcester to enlist as an Army Chaplain. Consent was finally granted in November 1915, so Kennedy left behind his wife, their baby son Patrick and his parishioners and travelled to France.
At that stage of the war, the clergy were not permitted to go near the front lines, so Kennedy was sent to Rouen, where he mixed with the men in the canteen at the railway station. He would sing with them and join in their jokes. He offered to write letters home to their loved-ones and when the men boarded the trains that would take them towards the front lines, he would pass along the carriages handing out copies of the New Testament and packets of Woodbine cigarettes. As the trains pulled out of the station, he found himself alone and frequently in tears, knowing that many of the men would not return. The soldiers soon got to know Kennedy and he was fondly awarded a nickname: Woodbine Willie.
Despite the comfort that he gave the men, Kennedy wanted to do more and was transferred to a training camp where he soon earned the men’s respect by joining in with their exercises. In 1916 the Church changed its policy, permitting clergymen to go into the front lines and Kennedy immediately took up this opportunity. He saw the action on the Somme and in mid 1917 was awarded the Military Cross. The citation read as follows:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell-holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the Dressing Station and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all the ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”
Throughout his service at the front line, Kennedy felt a natural and understandable fear, which he tempered with the belief that he should share whatever the men had to tolerate and that to serve them from safety would provide them with no comfort whatsoever. Kennedy’s asthma proved a constant worry and occasionally resulted in the requirement for him to return to England for treatment. He also wrote poetry, publishing Rough Rhymes of a Padré in 1918, the royalties for which he donated to St Dunstans Society for the Blind.
When Kennedy returned home at the end of the war, he was a changed man. His beliefs had been tested to the limits and he had become unpopular with the hierarchy of both the Church and the Army for the style and content of the sermons he had given during his service. He was sad, bitter, disillusioned and angry with the generation who had sent so many young men to die. Having found “fame” as Woodbine Willie, he sought to use this to bring about a real change in society and to benefit the poor, seeking no personal benefit or acclaim for his work.
In 1921, the King appointed Kennedy to the role of Royal Chaplain, describing him as “an asset to the nation”, and he began to travel all around the country, preaching Christian compassion. His only regret was that his work now kept him away from his family, which by 1926 had expanded to include two further sons: Christopher and Michael.
Kennedy spoke in factories, town squares, street corners and cathedrals, preaching human decency, respect and tolerance. He also travelled to America, where his message captivated a new audience. In March 1929, Kennedy travelled to Liverpool, despite feeling unwell with the beginnings of influenza. During his visit, his illness became worse and his wife was summoned. By the time she arrived, however, Kennedy was unconscious and died on 8th March.
The whole nation grieved; messages of condolence poured in; thousands travelled to Liverpool to see his coffin and many more lined the streets as it was taken back to Worcester. On the day of Kennedy’s funeral, local shops were closed and the streets were bathed in silence as the crowds stood in quiet remembrance. Wreaths, flowers and telegrams came from many, including the King and poor war widows who recalled his kindness. At the cemetery, former soldiers threw packets of Woodbines into the open grave.
Shortly after Kennedy’s death, it became clear that, having given away almost all of his money and many of his possessions to the poor, the Kennedy family themselves had little to live on. A fund was set up which raised over £7000 (worth approximately £350,000 today), with the very first donation coming from the King.
Despite the very clear and genuine affection in which Woodbine Willie was held, he evidently underestimated his own value, maintaining a sense of personal failure and doubt that he had really achieved anything. In reality, he brought laughter, solace, kindness, understanding and tolerance to many, at times of extreme hardship and difficulty, when all other sources of comfort seemed to have failed them. He was able to hold an audience of hundreds spellbound with his words, or sit quietly with a solitary individual offering them whatever assistance he could. The awful horrors he had witnessed during the war had changed him, but still left a man undeterred in his efforts to help anyone who needed him. Those who looked deep into his eyes, however, caught a sense of his bewilderment and, above all, the most unutterable sadness.