Item of Interest: “A flame of love” – the Revd Dick Sheppard and the First World War

This month’s Item of Interest post by Tom Kennett (Assistant Archivist) delves into the archive of the Very Revd Hugh Richard Lawrie “Dick” Sheppard (MSS 3741-3750), one of the most inspired and gifted Anglican churchmen of the 20th century.

Born in 1880 at Windsor Castle (his father was a Minor Canon of Windsor and later Sub Dean of the Chapels Royal), an unhappy education culminated in graduation from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1904. Sheppard later confessed he had a “mis-spent University career”; one of his primary achievements was earning membership of the Bad Eating Club by ingesting jelly through his nose. Sheppard’s gregarious character was matched by a reputation for outstanding generosity. Post-graduation, he spent four formative years working with the poor in the East End of London before being ordained in 1908. Having made a name for himself by reviving the moribund St Mary’s, Bourdon Street (curate-in-charge 1911-1913) and the Grosvenor Chapel, South Audley Street (1913-1914), in July 1914 he was offered the living of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square.

The Revd Dick Sheppard, early 1920s

Dick Sheppard by Howard Instead, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery NPG Ax25005

St Martin-in-the-Fields, the parish church of the Royal Family, was known as a church with a great past but no future: Charles II’s baptism had taken place there and George I had been a churchwarden. After two discouraging visits to the church, Sheppard spent a day and night walking the parish, visiting Charing Cross Hospital, the tenement buildings, pubs, and shops. As night descended he continued his tour, speaking with the sad and the lonely and those with no home to go to. He watched dawn break whilst sitting on the steps of the National Gallery: “that night’s impressions persuaded me that no square mile could provide a more thrilling or adventurous pitch”. In August he accepted the living, the same month that the First World War broke out, and the courtyard of St Martin’s soon became crowded with men waiting to enlist. As Sheppard was not due to be instituted as vicar until November, for the intervening three months he agreed to serve as chaplain to the Australian Voluntary Hospital on the Western Front.

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Recruits wait for their pay in the churchyard of St. Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, August 1914, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum Q 53234

On 23 September he sent a long letter to Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of York (Lang 189 ff.315-20). On first arrival he had to bury six men and felt “like some kind of hideous cemetery chaplain”. Though he was often “very, very miserable” he soon found his purpose in comforting dying soldiers: “when doctors can only give pain I – with God’s help, can give peace”. He ended his missive to Lang in a typically effervescent style:

I’ve sat, on a box expecting the Germans at every moment all through one night, I’ve held a leg & several other limbs while the surgeon amputated them, I’ve fought a drunken Tommy & protected several German prisoners from a French mob, I’ve missed a thousand opportunities & lived through a life’s experience in 5 weeks.

Unfortunately, the last statement proved only too true, as by October Sheppard’s health had completely broken down and he was forced to return to England to recuperate. As an army doctor at the time stated, he “identified himself with every dying man, and in consequence nearly killed himself”. Such overwork was to be a running theme throughout Sheppard’s ministerial career.

During his induction sermon on 14 November, Sheppard outlined his vision for St Martin’s as it had come to him whilst lying in a trench, waiting for the firing to cease:

I saw a great and splendid church standing in the greatest square of the greatest city in the world. […]I saw it full of people, dropping in at all hours of the day and night. It was never dark, it was lighted all night and day, and often and often tired bits of humanity swept in. And I said to them as they passed: “Where are you going?” And they said only one thing: “This is our home. This is where we are going to learn of the love of Jesus Christ. This is the Altar of our Lord, where all out peace lies. This is St Martin’s.

Sheppard instigated sweeping reform, removing the moribund churchwardens, opening the pews and introducing shorter services of no more than an hour. Never a popular preacher, Sheppard’s delivery was nevertheless a departure from the usual, and one disgruntled parishioner commented: “what with air raids outside the church and you inside there’s nothing but explosions”. Nevertheless Sheppard made a profound impact. From an average of seven attending Matins and twelve Evensong, Sheppard soon had hundreds attending, drawn by his unique approach to ministry. Sheppard’s archive contains numerous examples of letters from congregants drawn by his preaching: “I have never been in your church before but from the first minute was conscious of something real”; “your sermon appealed to me as being one of the best I heave heard for a long time in its breadth of view & its spirit of going straight to the sort of things that matter”.

Sheppard also oversaw the transformation of the Crypt, removing coffins from the vaults and refurbishing the whole to the tune of £12,000. For the duration of the war the Crypt was used as an air-raid shelter. As one of Sheppard’s team commented:

“Five minutes after the ‘Take Cover’ sounded the Crypt would be crowded, mostly with girls from the streets and soldiers. … Air raids gave us many a welcome introduction to residents in the parish, but they were noisy, horrible affairs, and it was not always easy to control some of those who sought refuge in a state of excessive stimulation”

Sheppard took inspiration from the tale of St Martin and his cloak, depicted on the lampposts of Trafalgar Square. His aim was to make the church reflect its namesake and spread its cloak over those who had fallen down, and it soon came to be known as the “Church with the ever open door”, an appellation it retains to this day.

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Lamppost detail, Trafalgar Square

An instigator of church reform, pioneer of religious broadcasting and popular religious journalism, and a leading pacifist, Sheppard became known as ‘the People’s Padre’ and a friend and supporter of the down and out. Following his death in 1937, his body lay in state in St Martin-in-the-Fields for two days and nights as 100,000 people filed past paying their last respects, a testament to the extraordinary impact Sheppard had on the religious life of England. Lang, by then Archbishop of Canterbury, commented: “he burnt his way through this world in a flame of love”.

Lambeth Palace Library holds Sheppard’s correspondence and papers (MSS 3741-3750), and his correspondence also appears in several other collections including the Lang and Bell papers.

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