A Manchester Clergyman’s Perspective on the First World War

A Special Collection volunteer, Isabel Sinagola, has been working on one of our less explored archive collections, the John Jowitt Wilson Papers. Isabel has found that the collection contains a wealth of interesting material on the social and religious impact of the First World War on Manchester’s citizens.

Postcard from the John Jowitt Wilson Papers
Postcard from the John Jowitt Wilson Papers

Isabel writes:

“Over the next four years there will be numerous explorations of First World War, both historical and commemorative, across every medium imaginable, from radio and television, books and newspapers, to interactive exhibitions and social media. For my part, I have been involved with a small but fascinating archive relating to local people during the First World War, the papers of the Rev. John Jowitt Wilson. Wilson donated these papers to the Library in 1928, believing they would be valuable “for the student of the atmosphere of the ordinary soldier’s mind during the war.”

The letters are particularly interesting for the information they provide – both directly and indirectly – on the role of faith and religion in the lives of these correspondents during wartime. These range from small, apparently incidental comments – “God be with you” etc. – to longer discussions of God’s role in the War. These brief snapshots of opinion illuminate the larger history of people for whom the War was uncontestably a devastating cataclysm for their lives, shaped not just by the far distant events in Serbia, Belgium, France, and Greece, but by the conditions much closer to home.

We know relatively little about the Reverend John Jowitt Wilson, but apparently he was a “stalwart figure, with the big, kind genial face, so well-known to every man, woman and child in Saint Michael’s parish”. His parish was St Michael and All Angels, Manchester, where he was Rector from 1913 until 1927; he died a year later ‘worn out’ from his tireless work in what was one of the poorest parts of the city. St Michael’s was in the heart of industrial Manchester, built next to the pauper’s graveyard of Angel Meadow, which Friedrich Engels described as having “a black irony to its name”, when he visited in 1844.

The letters in the collection make clear the trials of life there; a number of correspondents appear to have borrowed money from Wilson, which he (sometimes unsuccessfully) attempted to have repaid. Some of the loans were to help couples marry – for instance to a sergeant named William because he had left a girl “in disgrace”. It seems Wilson reached the end of his tether with William who borrowed money to ‘do his duty’, neglected to show up at the wedding when he was granted furlough, and finally when the couple did marry, failed to repay the Rector: “you have broken every undertaking and treated the funds of this poor parish disgracefully.”

However, Wilson’s role – like other clergy across the country – was not restricted simply to weddings and loans. He increasingly provided active spiritual support, as the War lengthened and casualties mounted. Wilson supported parishioners who enlisted, some of whom joined the local Manchester Regiment; for them, he was the man they could turn to for help with anything from the provision of religious materials and prayers, to hunting down missing earnings and helping care for elderly parents back home. Wilson also corresponded with the military authorities to get leave for important family events or to help search for missing soldiers for their families.   One envelope, tattered and browned with age, contains Wilson’s notes on a search for a missing husband, and includes a small card reading “Thy Will Be Done, announcing: “In Loving Memory of My Dear Husband, John Woodward Broadfoot, (49,295, 1st Batt. Lan. Fus.) Who was killed in France on April 11th, 1918. Aged 27 years.” Wilson’s role in engaging with the authorities was therefore vital in supporting these parishioners, in both spiritual and material matters.

The Wilson papers, which contain several hundred letters from many correspondents, provide extremely valuable insights into the myriad roles and influences of organised religion during the War, as well as on how the conflict impacted on one small, under-privileged Manchester parish.

James Peters

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