‘We have not forgotten you’: Christmas, Charity and the Leeds ‘A’ Division.

In my last blog post, I stated that there were many Vicar led charities for the poor in Leeds, but that Vicar led charities for the disabled ex-servicemen of the First World War in the same city appeared non-existent. Whilst continuing to look through the parish records held at the West Yorkshire Archives to help prove or disprove this claim, I stumbled across the Leeds ‘A’ Division. Hidden in a box containing blank paper rolls (amusing both the archivists and I!), was a book containing letters from the Reverend S. M. Hankey of Leeds Parish Church and his ‘A’ Division. This was not a division in the Army as I had first thought, but a men’s group run by the Reverend every Sunday afternoon at the church hall. Any male members of the Church could attend, and whilst holy matters were discussed they were not necessarily the primary focus. After conscription was introduced in 1916, however, the Leeds ‘A’ Division became a charitable institution. Reverend Hankey wanted to help ‘his men’ who had not chosen to fight by sending them letters of encouragements, monetary gifts and reminding them that their ‘church had not forgotten them and that they never would’. (1)

Whilst it can then be suggested that those who had volunteered for war were considered less deserving of help by their parish and Reverend, frustratingly, there are no documents in this collection prior to 1916 to show otherwise. As a man of God, it is likely he showed all soldiers from his area the same kindness, but the lack of available sources makes it difficult to trace charitable acts towards members of the congregation who were serving or who had served in the war. This is especially so as there are no documents in this collection dated after 1918. As my research progresses, it is becoming increasingly apparent that archival documents, whilst essential, often raise more questions than they can answer. Despite the lack of information, however, this is a useful case study for understanding how a local religious organisation supported servicemen, even if the focus is not specifically on disability, as my research is.

This said, members of Division ‘A’ placed advertisements in the Church magazine every week and in April 1917, ‘TO CONVALESENT SOLDIERS, Leeds Parish Church, ‘A’ Division – A Meeting For Men is conducted in the Parochial Room every Sunday afternoon at 2:30 by the Reverend S. M. Hankey, You are Warmly Invited’, was published. Special prayers were said in these meetings ‘for servicemen to be used privately and at Holy communion’.(2) Whilst there are no details of what was said in these prayers, many convalescent soldiers would have been injured because of the war. As this invitation extends beyond members of the Parish, the advertisement and ‘warmly’ particularly, suggests that this church group and Reverend actively wanted to help and include in social activities men impacted and/or injured by warfare. In my analysis of Leeds and disabled ex-servicemen so far, this appears unusual. It is also interesting that these prayers were said privately and not as part of the regular church service. Perhaps Reverend Hankey felt that doing so would cause more upset to the female friends and family of those serving as they were said only in the company of men, or perhaps he felt he could not dedicate enough time to those serving as he would like in the regular service. It is impossible to tell.

Also, the date of this advertisement is significant. Division ‘A’ became a charity in 1916, but 1917 appears to be when ideas were put into practice. At a committee meeting held on October 26th 1916, it was thought that members of the ‘A’ Division would ‘welcome the opportunity of sending a small Christmas gift to each of our men on War Service. The response that has been made by our soldier friends to our efforts to correspond with them leads us to conclude that a gift at xmas would be greatly appreciated.’  Hence, ‘to meet the expense (and postage will be a considerable item) a box of contributions will be placed in the Parochial Room each Sunday afternoon or subscriptions may be sent directly to the Leader. We shall require about £10’. With little money therefore, they aimed to do a lot. Christmas was chosen because of its significance in the Christian faith – the birth of Jesus Christ. This was not unusual. In the parish charities of Leeds, sending money to those in need (in this case soldiers but often the poor) on days of religious significance appears traditional. For example, the Reverend Joseph Swain Charity based in Farnley, Leeds ‘gave bread and money to the poor of Farnley at Christmas and Good Friday’ from 1891 to at least 1919 (1919 last date recorded in the Joseph Swain documents).(3)  Because of this decision to give money in 1916, soldiers of Division ‘A’ received this letter from the Leeds Parish Clergy House, at Christmas 1917:

‘The leader committee and members of the ‘A’ Division send you their best wishes for a very happy Christmas and a bright new year.
These wishes will perhaps seem strange and almost inappropriate to you who are still fighting for your King and Country and passing through the terrible experiences of the world’s greatest war. We feel that this may be the case, but we should like to remind you that to men of goodwill, whatever their immediate circumstances may be, the Christmas message of comfort, joy and hope is ever the same: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to men of Goodwill’.
We all feel that you are at your posts of duty bearing the brunt for us who are spending our xmas quietly at home, but there is not a member of the ‘A’ division but will be thinking of you, wondering just where you are and what you are doing when xmas day arrives.
The xmas A Division Corporate Communion will be celebrated in the Parish Church on Sunday, December 30th at 9am when all our soldiers will be remembered by name. we are enclosing you a P.O. for a small amount as a simple xmas gift.
We trust that it may please God soon to restore peace on earth and that you and all our boys may be brought safely back to us.
On behalf of the Committee and members of the ‘A’ Division,
Yours very sincerely,
S. M. Hankey. Leader. T. Moss. Hon. Sec. R. G Pemberton. Hon. Treasurer’. (4)

A following letter was then sent by Reverend Hankey and not the committee later in the year:

‘First of all let me say that we have not forgotten you; you are just as much a member of the ‘A’ Division now that you are away from us on War Service as you were when you were at home and in your place on Sunday afternoon. We constantly think of you and trust that when this dreadful business is over we shall have you with us once again. I need not tell you how very pleased we shall be to hear from you. If I can be of any personal service to you please let me know and when you get your next leave come and see me. Will you also let me know whether you received a small bronze cross we sent from the parish church. The members of the ‘A’ Division send you their brotherly greetings and heartily wish you good luck. Ever your sincere friend, leader of the ‘A’ Division.’ (5)

Disappointingly, no replies to either letter are available, meaning that no conclusions can be drawn about how servicemen interacted with and experienced religious charitable institutions. This correspondence however, demonstrates the dedication and charitable willingness of the Reverend towards those fighting in the war. Although you could argue that care and compassion were skills he presented because of his occupation, his desire to remember every man fighting and place them on his ‘Roll of Honour’ goes beyond this duty, particularly when in other Leeds parishes, such as Armley, this need does not appear to exist. (6) This is also demonstrated by internal church correspondence when Reverend Hankey writes: ‘I am sending another general letter to all our soldiers. Before I go further I should like to say that I will write to each man personally as often as I can but I am kept very busy with not only A Division and General Parish work, but also in ‘trying to do my bit’ of War work as one of the Chaplains to Leeds infirmary. In the Infirmary, there are about 500 patients of whom 180 are wounded soldiers.’(7) Hence, through acts of kindness and charitable giving, Leeds Parish church and Division ‘A’ did not forget those fighting, or those injured and disabled by the First World War. Because of this level of care towards the soldiers during the war, you would expect it to remain when these men returned home on a permanent basis, rather than disappearing with distance from the conflict which was the case with some local war charities.

These sources therefore raise more questions for my research than they answer because of the limited information and time frame.  Thus, if anyone knows anything more about the Leeds ‘A’ Division, Reverend Hankey or ex-servicemen of The Leeds Parish Church, then please do get in touch via The Men, Women and Care Website.

1:RDP68/ 87 C/2: Leeds Parish Church, ‘A’ Division.
2:RDP68/ 87 C/2: Leeds Parish Church, ‘A’ Division.
3:RDP25/ 62: Reverend Joseph Swain Charity.
4:RDP68/ 87 C/2: Leeds Parish Church, ‘A’ Division.
5:RDP68/ 87 C/2: Leeds Parish Church, ‘A’ Division.
6:See previous Blog Post ‘ Research, Impact and the Local Area’, for more information about Armley as a case study.
7:RDP68/ 87 C/2: Leeds Parish Church, ‘A’ Division.