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St Anne, Wandsworth, 1830.

London Parish Magazines and the Home Front 1914-1920

Dr Jane Platt, Lancaster University

The London Metropolitan Archives' (LMA) vast numbers of parish magazines are a treasure trove for those researching the history of the First World War in London. The response to the war at home may be examined through reading parish news; of equal interest is the large number of soldiers’ letters describing experiences abroad. Because of the size of the resource, this article concentrates on evidence from a small handful of London’s war-time parish magazines: in particular, Camden Church, Camberwell (P73/CAM/1/05-128), St Anne, Wandsworth (P95/ANN/308-330) and St James-the-Great, Bethnal Green (P72/JSG/118/1).

During 1914-15, London’s parish magazines underlined the Church of England’s support for what was termed a ‘just’ war which would stamp out Germany’s ‘barbarism’ and ‘satanic philosophy’ (Camden Church Camberwell, Feb. 1915). Many magazines published photographs of the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, in uniform as chaplain of the London Rifle Brigade, a battalion of which was made up of members of the Church Lads’ Brigade. Letters from its commandant, Lord Grenfell, urging church lads to join the CLB, were published in parish magazines in 1915. Those who volunteered were praised, but derision was expressed for those who hung back, Holy Trinity Chelsea magazine, for instance, criticising the supporters of professional football clubs: when the recruiting officers addressed a crowd of 15,000 at Chelsea’s ground in November, 1914, ‘not a man was induced to join’ (P74/TRI/073-094).

Local pages frequently printed soldiers’ letters, echoing the practice of local newspapers, but more intimately. At first, many correspondents used the cheerful language of boys’ adventure stories: letters in Camden Church, Camberwell’s parish magazine in 1914, for instance, described being trapped behind enemy lines or fleeing with Belgian refugees to Holland in the best Boy’s Own Paper tradition. In spite of the censor, later soldiers’ letters gave examples of ‘awful conditions’, injuries, heroic rescues and ‘marvellous escapes’ from death (Camden Church, Camberwell, 1916; St Anne, Wandsworth, Feb. 1918). Many soldiers had once been choristers or altar boys. At Camden Church, Camberwell, a stream of cheerful letters from one of them, Ernest Terraneau, only ended when he was killed in action, prompting his grief-stricken parents to praise his chivalrous heroism by altering a verse from one of the popular war-time poems of John Oxenham to read, when published in the magazine:

Heedless and careless still the world goes on
And leaves us broken. Oh! Our son! Our son!
... He died as few men get the chance to die,
Fighting to save a world’s morality;
He died the noblest death a man may die,
Fighting for God, and Right, and Liberty;
And such a death is immortality.

(Camden Church Camberwell, Oct. 1914–Jul. 1917; John Oxenham (1915) ‘To You who have Lost’: ‘All's Well!’Some Helpful Verse for These Dark Days of War (London).

After London’s first daylight bombing raid in June 1917, Camden Church’s vicar remarked on the heroism of the female teachers of the church schools: ‘an honour to their country’ (Camden Church Camberwell: July 1917).The parishes depended on a community-focused discourse of heroism to make the conflict appear intelligible and bereavement bearable. To that end, London streets witnessed the mushrooming of wayside crucifixes, and war shrines containing the names of those who had gone to fight, foreshadowing the later ubiquity of war memorials (St James-the-Great, Bethnal Green, Parish Scrapbook, 1916).Though encouraged by Anglo-Catholic Churchmen who hoped it would lead to greater Christian commitment, the erection of such shrines was usually community based, even in the poorest streets, where people donated money or gave their labour for free, to provide themselves with a focus for expressions of anxiety and grief (Mark Connolly (2002) The Great War, Memory and Ritual: Commemoration in the City and East London 1916-1939 (Woodbridge), pp. 25-35).

London churches often became local centres for the war effort, and their clergy, in the roles of local official and religious leader, the men to whom many turned. The vicar of St. Philip’s, Arlington Square, and his female congregation continued to carry out charity work, despite the departure of most of the men – clergy, choristers, lay helpers – to the Front (P83/PHE/27-9: Jan. 1916). Like many London parishes, Camden Church Camberwell wholeheartedly supported local war work, praising the elementary schools which collected eggs, jam and cigarettes for the wounded; responding wholeheartedly to letters from royalty requesting Christmas presents for soldiers abroad; and housing Belgian refugees (Camden Church Camberwell PM, Oct.-Dec. 1914). Parish magazines began the war by congratulating themselves that the capital contained plenty of food: they were said to be ‘giving away plums’ at Covent Garden in October 1914 (Camden Church, Camberwell). By 1917-18, however, when food shortages were making themselves felt, parish-magazine readers were asked to ration their foodstuffs, and recipes for bread made with potatoes and other economy dishes appeared (St Anne, Wandsworth, Feb. 1918).

Many London curates enlisted as chaplains. Sentiments about their welfare expressed in the parish scrap-book of Saint James-the-Great, Bethnal Green, typify the affection in which they were held. Though many of its earlier pages were devoted to its continuing love-affair with ritualism and its notorious sympathy for socialism, from 1914 the scrap-book concentrated on the war, in particular on the deeds of its three curate chaplains: one ‘somewhere in France’, another onboard HMS Orion. Described in the parish magazine as ‘one of the family’, the latter became light-weight boxing champion of the British Fleet. This popular ‘Fighting Parson’ went on to become vicar of his old parish in 1922, exemplifying the endurance of the concept of muscular Christianity and the ‘manly parson’. The notice of the death of the third curate praised his bravery for remaining with his men during heavy shelling, his death ‘the death of honour’ (St James-the-Great, Bethnal Green, Parish Scrapbook: 1916, 1917, 1922).

Throughout the war, parish magazines published rolls of honour and correspondence from senior officers to the families of the dead (see P97/MRK/030-033: St Mark, Plumstead Common: June 1917). Each month the lists of dead, missing and injured in parish magazines grew longer, amidst great anxiety about the continuance of life after death. In February 1918, a letter in the St Anne, Wandsworth, magazine, began: ‘My sweetheart was killed in the war. Can you tell me whether he knows what is happening on earth?’ The response was a conventionally Christian one, which extolled the happiness of the soul in paradise, but it declined to answer the actual question. Thus, the need for the bereaved to get in touch with their dead did not result in a wholesale return to church worship, as the London clergy desired (St Mark, Plumstead Common, Jan. Sept. 1919). The diffused Christianity which had long been in evidence amongst the poor in London involved belief in lucky charms, servicemen writing in parish magazines to tell how they had been saved by pocket watches or prayer books (St Anne Wandsworth, Feb. 1918). People trusted in guardian angels, leading to widespread belief in the appearance on the battlefield of the Angel of Mons (see David Clarke (1981) The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians (Chichester). Parish magazines had much to do with the spread of this famous story as it spread virally from pulpit to pulpit, magazine to magazine. In September, 1915, it was published in one of London’s popular parish-magazine insets, The Sign, its support for the concept of miracles and repudiation of atheism clearly pleasing the Church. It was accepted as fact by thousands, filling a vacuum created by the horrors of the war and a growing retreat from traditional worship.

In 1920 the vicar of St. Michael and All Angels, Paddington, recalled the Angel of Mons when reporting that members of his congregation were conscious of ‘a Something in church on Michaelmas Day. Some heard, some “saw”, and to some of those present a door was opened in heaven, an Apocalypse was vouchsafed. Seraphim stabant super illud: et clamabant alter ad alterum.’ (Angels were in attendance above him... one called to another) (P87/MAA/033-038).Yet the thrust of the vicar’s remarks did not build on the spiritual gift of the congregation’s epiphany, but reverted immediately to a dominant pre-war narrative: anxiety about the size of the offertory, which, he hoped, would contain the pennies of the poor as well as the ‘paper and silver’ of the rich.

Despite its devoted parochial work, the Anglican Church fared badly as a result of the war. One reason was the expression of national guilt known as the ‘National Mission for Repentance and Hope’ (The National Mission), inaugurated by Archbishop Randall Davidson in 1915. A traditionally Christian means of expiating a country’s sin, the National Mission switched the focus of attention from German atrocities to the godlessness of the British people as the cause of God’s wrath and British military failure (see S. T. Bontrager (2002) ‘The Imagined Crusade: The Church of England and the Mythology of Nationalism and Christianity during the Great War’, Church History, 71:4, 774-98). London parish clergy embraced the Mission; it appealed to Anglo-Catholics particularly because they anticipated that it would encourage a greater reliance on ritual in worship (St James-the-Great, National Mission Poster 1917). ‘The historian of the future will record how in 1916 the Church of England ... began to awake’, wrote the vicar of St Mark, Plumstead Common, in May 1918. But the Mission was a failure: the prominent socialist vicar, Conrad Noel, called it the mission of ‘funk and despair’ (see Alan Wilkinson (1978) The Church of England and the First World War (London), p. 78). The people who responded to it were those who were already keen churchgoers. Most others, after some initial interest, stayed at home; many may have cavilled at being stigmatised as the enemy while their loved ones were fighting and dying for their country.

War-work at home; soldiers and chaplains abroad; response to the National Mission; and the move towards diffusive Christianity, are just a few of the themes to be uncovered by researchers who delve into the cornucopia that is LMA’s parish-magazine collection. This article is offered in the hope that readers will expand on these themes while uncovering yet more of what parish magazines have to offer at LMA.

Further information

If you enjoyed reading this, you might be interested in reading another article: Parish Magazines, 1860-1918, by the same author.

  • You can explore our parish holdings in depth by searching the LMA Catalogue.
  • For more articles on archives relating to religion, visit our collections pages.


04 November 2014
Last Modified:
23 August 2018