Remembering the vicar they called Woodbine Willie

The Rt. Revd John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.
The Rt. Revd John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.
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TO thousands of troops during the First World War he was known as the friendly chaplain who dished out cigarettes.

The famous gesture earned the Rev’d Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy a unique place in history as well as his nickname “Woodbine Willie.”

The Rev'd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the World War I chaplain who was famous for his habit of giving the troops the Woodbine cigarettes.

The Rev'd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the World War I chaplain who was famous for his habit of giving the troops the Woodbine cigarettes.

Now that name will live on in bricks and mortar after a plaque commemorating the former college where the Yorkshire-born cleric trained was unveiled in Ripon yesterday.

One of the most distinctive figures of World War One, Woodbine Willie, was born in Leeds and read divinity and classics at Trinity College, Dublin, before enrolling at Ripon Clergy College.

On the outbreak of the First World War he volunteered to become a chaplain to the armed forces on the Western Front.

Joining the Army the cleric was often in the midst of the fighting, assisting the soldiers and offering comfort, both spiritual and in the form of his legendary cigarettes.

He described his chaplain’s ministry as taking “a box of fags in your haversack, and a great deal of love in your heart” and said “you can pray with them sometimes; but pray for them always.”

In 1917, Mr Studdert Kennedy won the Military Cross at Messines Ridge in Flanders after running into No Man’s Land to help the wounded during an attack on the German frontline.

The decorated war hero wrote poetry about his experiences which appeared in the books Rough Rhymes of a Padre and More Rough Rhymes.

After the war he became a prominent Christian Socialist and pacifist.

Mr Studdert Kennedy, who at one stage was a curate of Leeds Parish Church, died on a lecture tour in Liverpool in 1929.

The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds John Packer joined representatives of Ripon Civic Society and guests yesterday to dedicate the green plaque on a boundary wall of the imposing late Victorian red brick terrace which housed Ripon Clergy College from 1898 to 1915.

Bishop John said: “The Ripon Clergy College was founded towards the end of the 19th century as part of the general movement at the time towards developing professional training for clergy for the Church of England. The Bishop at the time here was a man called William Boyd Carpenter. He founded it and then, when it came to the 20th century, we moved towards a system of national training rather than every place having its own individual training. The clergy school moved from here to Oxford in 1925 during the First World War.

“It has stayed in and around Oxford ever since.”

Ripon College Cuddesdon still exists in a village outside Oxford and today trains both men and women.

In a nod to its Yorkshire roots, the door knocker of the college is a representation of the Ripon Wakeman, who in the 13th century was responsible to the Archbishop for arrangements within the town and for its security.

Bishop John said that clergy training is important and that it is crucial that clergy are properly trained for the job they do now.

“That story of training which developed in the last years of the 19th century is important, I believe, and to remember the places where it started is important for us now in terms of our own commitment to training within the life of the church,” he added.

The plaque, which was organised by Ripon Civic Society, has been funded by donations from the Bishop, from the former Archdeacon of Richmond, Janet Henderson, who is to become the Dean of Llandaff, and from Ripon College Cuddesdon, the successor to Ripon Clergy College.

David Winpenny, chairman of Ripon Civic Society, said: “Ripon Clergy College was a feature of the city for only a few years but in that time trained many men for the Church of England – and among them Army chaplains like Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. The society is proud to mark the college’s history and its most famous alumnus with this plaque, and we are very grateful to everyone who has contributed to it. We have a continuous programme of putting up plaques on historic buildings in the city. The clergy college has been on our list for a while. Now seemed a good time especially as we are approaching the centenary of the First World War. We like people to know the associations the city has with the wider world. It is nice when we can single out individuals who have had an association with the city.”

The society was also behind a plaque to Wilfred Owen at the cottage briefly occupied by the First World War poet.