Disabled Ex-Servicemen of the First World War and Christian Charity in Inter-War Britain

Bethany Rowley is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research examines religious charity and the experience of disabled ex-servicemen in inter-war Britain. She is a team member of the European Research Council funded ‘Men, Women and Care’ Project at Leeds University.

One of the evident, but often forgotten, legacies that the Great War left to Britain was the unprecedented number of disabled ex-servicemen. There was no armistice on the war against the misfortune of mind, body, disease and deformity. Teachings on equality and kindness to the sick and lame are enforced throughout the Bible. With over one and a half million men receiving a war disability pension by 1929, this blog post questions whether Christian charities neglected these principles, arguably, at the very time they were needed most in twentieth-century Britain.

As well as providing guidance on how to behave towards the disabled, all Christian denominations define domestic relations. Being head of the household, the male provides for his family. Yet, many men were unemployable because of their disablement. This personal and financial loss was felt more intensely by those accessing charity. Seeking charity contradicts self-reliance. Yet, by giving charity, those providing care had power over the veterans receiving it. Gender historians Jessica Meyer and Wendy Gagen have examined correlations between First World War disability and masculinity, arguing that men became ‘child-like’ in their dependency on others. Whether religious identity declined because of an altered sense of masculinity through war disability, however, remains unexplored.

In 1918, there were six-thousand charities for the war disabled registered with the Charity Commissioners, and in 1936, Ministry of Pensions produced a directory naming more than five hundred charities still operating on behalf of ex-servicemen and their dependants. Jeffery Renznick’s John Galsworthy and Deborah Cohen’s The War Come Home, examine British charities formed during and after the war for disabled ex-servicemen, such as The War Seal Mansions, The Star and Garter, Roehampton, and St Dunstan’s. Whilst the religious aspect is again neglected by the authors, the number of charities highlights the importance of extending arguments of dependence to charities and welfare organisations. This is because in the literature, the ‘others’ whom disabled men were dependent on, refers predominantly to family members, largely women such as wives and mothers.

Leeds in West Yorkshire is a useful case study to highlight such issues. This is because parish records with charity subsections are available for every area in the city, providing insights into how Christian charities enforced or bypassed biblical teachings towards the injured servicemen of the Great War. Like the Poor Law, charities pre- 1914 were structured to distinguish the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’ poor. Unsurprisingly therefore, there were many Vicar led charities which aimed to help the poor in Leeds before and after the war. These include the Kirke’s Charity in Adel and the Eyres Park Charity in Armley. Yet, a specific disability or disabled ex-serviceman charity in the West Yorkshire Archives Parish records could not be found. This is problematic and highlights a disparity in religious aid. Why didn’t religion play a larger role in the rehabilitation process when religion was dominant in Christian charitable work aimed at the disabled prior to 1914, as demonstrated by Carmen Mangion’s analysis on Catholic care-giving and Mark Freeman’s work on Quaker charitable care? This is an interesting point which has not been studied.

In the latter example, Miss E. Eyre Park left a Legacy to her Vicar and Churchwardens for ‘the benefit of the poor’. The net amount received was £412 9s 6d, but instead of it going to the local poor, it was ‘invested by the Charity Commissioners as 5% War Stock’ (1916). Charities, even religious charities did not always act in alignment to what was requested of them by Christian teachings on equality and truth. It is therefore ironic that in the Armley Parish magazine of 1916, the Vicar stated:

‘Thousands of men are risking and some laying down their lives to save England. We must share in their self-sacrifice by making England a better place to live in, by bringing the nation back to obedience to the Christian Law for this is and always has been the Church’s work. Can anyone be so indifferent, slack or cowardly as to refuse to take a share in such a work?’

The vicar and parish he is preaching too does not take a share of this work. They offer no financial or social helped to the disabled veterans on their return to Armley. Fittingly, in the Armley Centenary Church Magazine (1877– 1977), there is no reference to the First World War or the immediate years following it. The disabled veterans appeared forgotten by their parish on their return to this part of the city.  Whilst more work needs to be done to draw any conclusions about how and why certain parts of the same city or different cities within the same county responded differently towards disabled ex-servicemen, this highlights how not all ‘heroes’ were offered help from their religious community and thus had little access to religious charities that understood the needs of disabled ex-servicemen. Christian attitudes to helping those in need appear neglected in this case study. However, to argue that Christian organisations on a national level abandoned their religious principles is perhaps misguided. Charities for example, may have believed in and preached the Christian vison but could not fulfil it for material reasons such as human and financial resources.

Themes identified by this blog will be examined further as my research progresses. For further information on Leeds and religious disability charities please see the ‘Men, Women and Care’ research site at: http://menwomenandcare.leeds.ac.uk/

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