Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929) was an English Anglican priest and poet. He was nicknamed Woodbine Willie during World War I for giving Woodbine cigarettes along with spiritual aid to injured and dying soldiers.
Born in Leeds on 27 June 1883, Studdert Kennedy was the seventh of nine children born to Jeanette Anketell and William Studdert Kennedy, vicar of St Mary's, Quarry Hill in Leeds. His father William Studdert Kennedy was born in Blackrock, County Dublin, Ireland in 1826. Geoffrey's paternal grandfather, Robert Mitchell Kennedy, was Dean of Clonfert in County Galway, Ireland from 1850 until his death in 1864. One of Geoffrey's brothers was Hugh A. Studdert Kennedy, a biographer of American religious leader Mary Baker Eddy.
Because of his Irish forefathers, Geoffrey always maintained he was an Irishman. He was educated at Leeds Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin, where he gained a degree in classics and divinity in 1904. After a year's training at Ripon Clergy College, he became a curate at St Andrew's Church, Rugby and then, in 1914, the vicar of St. Paul's, Worcester.
On the outbreak of World War I, Studdert Kennedy volunteered as a chaplain to the army on the Western Front, where he gained the nickname Woodbine Willie. In 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross at Messines Ridge after running into no man's land to help the wounded during an attack on the German frontline.
During the war he supported the British military effort with enthusiasm. Attached to a bayonet-training service, chaplain Kennedy toured with boxers and wrestlers to give morale-boosting speeches about the usefulness of the bayonet. One of his inspirational speeches is vividly described by A S Bullock as 'the most extraordinary talk I ever heard'. Bullock notes that the listeners 'were a very rough, tough lot, but they sat spellbound', and quotes a section of the speech, at the end of which 'everybody sprang to their feet and cheered him to the echo'.
He wrote a number of poems about his experiences, and these appeared in the books Rough Rhymes of a Padre (1918), and More Rough Rhymes (1919).
His collected works were published under the title The Unutterable Beauty.
After the war, Studdert Kennedy was given charge of St Edmund, King and Martyr in Lombard Street, London. Having been converted to Christian socialism and pacifism during the war, he wrote Lies (1919), Democracy and the Dog-Collar (1921) (featuring such chapters as "The Church Is Not a Movement but a Mob", "Capitalism is Nothing But Greed, Grab, and Profit-Mongering" and "So-Called Religious Education Worse than Useless"), Food for the Fed Up (1921), The Wicket Gate (1923), and The Word and the Work (1925). He moved to work for the Industrial Christian Fellowship, for whom he went on speaking tours of Britain.
His appointment as missioner for ICF released him from routine clerical duties to become an outspoken advocate for the working classes. One of his celebrated quotes was: "If finding God in our churches leads to us losing Him in our factories, then better we tear down those churches for God must hate the sight of them."
It was on one of these tours that he was taken ill. He died in Liverpool on 8 March 1929, exhausted at the age of 45. His funeral took place in Worcester, to which poor working people flocked to pay their respects. The Dean of Westminster refused burial at Westminster Abbey, because he said Studdert Kennedy was a "socialist", even though he had distrusted most politicians and had refused to join any political party.
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 ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.
The Museum of Army Chaplaincy at Amport House, Hampshire, also honours Kennedy with a large display about his life. In February 2013, John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds unveiled a commemorative plaque in Ripon, North Yorkshire, to honour the Ripon Clergy College and Studdert Kennedy.
War! Lies! And a Packet of Fags! is a play by David Gooderson about the Great War and its aftermath--the story of "Woodbine Willie". The play is based on extensive research into the life of Studdert Kennedy, including meetings with members of his family, and a detailed study of the background of the period.
He is mentioned in the Divine Comedy song "Absent Friends": "Woodbine Willie couldn't rest until he'd/given every bloke a final smoke/before the killing," and in Finnegans Wake by Irish author James Joyce: "tsingirillies' zyngarettes, while Woodbine Willie, so popiular with the poppyrossies" (351).
Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen quoted Studdert Kennedy's 1918 poem "Indifference" (from the collection called "Rough Rhymes of a Padre") when Sheen spoke publicly about the need for enthusiasm in all of one's life. Studdert Kennedy "wrote this poem during what was called 'the great disillusion' of the 1920's". Sheen's point was that the "world is suffering from indifference" as "apathy, not caring." Sheen noted that he wondered if Jesus Christ "did not suffer more from our indifference than he did from the crucifixion." To make his point he recited Studdert Kennedy's poem "Indifference."