In this blog post, historian Dr Bethany Rowley writes about an often-overlooked part of Leeds’ religious history: the response of Christian and Jewish charities to the needs of disabled veterans in the aftermath of the First World War. Based on her archival research, she demonstrates that Leeds was a picture of religious vitality after the war and that religious organisations in the city provided help and care to ex-servicemen between 1918 and 1939, which contradicts the popular idea that the Great War ‘ended faith’ in Britain. This piece was originally written on behalf of the Leeds Church Institute.
Less than two hours before the Armistice was signed, Private George Edwin Ellison was killed by a German sniper on the 11th of November 1918. From Leeds, he was the last British soldier to fall in the First World War. Along with the other 705,000 British men who lost their life, the question of how and why soldiers such as Private Ellison died, has been the focus of many histories of the Great War. However, the two million British men who returned from military service with a disability are an often-forgotten legacy of the conflict.
Despite the unprecedented numbers of disabled men, Britain, unlike Germany, did not accept full responsibility for the healthcare of her “war heroes”. Veterans had to rely on charitable organisations for medical and social care. This was often in place of government help because, in many cases, the amount of state pension a veteran received was not enough to sustain himself or his family. Consequently, many people – including religious leaders and veterans themselves – believed that disabled veterans deserved better from the nation that they had fought to protect.
This belief prompted the birth of a wealth of charitable organisations. In 1918, there were 6,000 charities for the war disabled in Britain. Many of these charities were faith-based and more than 10% of these charities in Leeds after the war were Church of England or Jewish organisations. For two reasons, this is not surprising. Firstly, Anglicanism was the most dominant form of Christianity in Leeds at this time, followed by Roman Catholicism and non-conformist groups. Secondly, Leeds had a large Jewish population of over 25,000 in 1914, which made up 5% of the local population and 25% of all Jews who had settled outside London at the outbreak of war.
There are no known statistics on the number of Christian or Jewish disabled ex-servicemen who returned to Leeds. Yet, how religious organisations and charities in the city, such as the Jewish Blind Society, A Division (a men’s group at Leeds Parish Church), The National Sunday School Union, and The Jewish Board of Guardians mobilised to help veterans between 1918 and 1939, shows how the First World War did not ‘end faith in Britain’: a populist myth that stubbornly remains.
Church of England and synagogue attendance figures fluctuated after 1918, but any decrease is not representative of a decline in faith or a loss of religious significance in society. The care provided by the church, synagogue and religious charities was significant to the veterans and their families who received this aid, whether it be prayers, clothing, food, help finding employment, or medical equipment, such as prosthetic limbs. Also, many who identified as Christian, or Jewish did not attend a church or a synagogue after the war and are not included in the official figures. Disability or caring for a disabled relative rather than any loss of faith, helps to explain this absence after the war.
Jewish and Christian Charity for Ex-Servicemen in Leeds
Faith was both a help and a hinderance for disabled veterans seeking care. In Leeds, many organisations which helped disabled veterans did not admit Jews as members. A prominent example was the international Christian charity, Toc H. Two Anglican chaplains created Toc H on the Western Front in 1917. Neville Talbot and Phillip Clayton did not want the ‘happy friendly spirit and brotherhood of the trenches’ to be forgotten in times of peace, and they opened a ‘Toc H’ house in London for ex-servicemen in 1919, where specific prayers were said on behalf of disabled veterans. By the early 1920s, there were at least five branches in Leeds, with the largest groups in Harehills and Roundhay. Roundhay is also the birthplace of the Leeds Wounded Warriors Welfare Committee which formed in 1916 to provide entertainment and support to injured veterans. This charity helped over 20,000 servicemen from across the Allied Forces. Toc H supported the Wounded Warriors Welfare Committee, and in Roundhay Park in 2021, the Toc H Garden is a memorial to their work with veterans.
From 1919, Jewish membership was a source of contention for Toc H. This included when Jewish charities, such as The Jewish Blind Society, wrote asking why those they helped could not join Toc H, even though the Jewish Blind Society believed that, in doing so, the health and wellbeing of these individuals, including disabled ex-servicemen, would improve. In response, Toc H reminded The Blind Society that Toc H was a ‘Christianising society,’ and that while Toc H would co-operate with Jewish men in meetings, Toc H believed Jewish men needed to ‘become more loyal to their chosen faith’. Toc H denied some disabled veterans help because of their faith rather than their disability.
However, the Herzl Moser (a Jewish hospital) in Leeds only admitted Jewish men who suffered from certain conditions. In the 1920s and 1930s cases of ‘epilepsy, insanity, idiocy, permanently blind, Tuberculosis and infectious disease’ were ineligible for help. This is significant as many veterans – because of the nature of trench warfare – suffered with these very conditions, particularly shellshock. Herzl Moser denied disabled veterans help because of their disability and their faith (they would not admit Christian men). These two examples show the complex relationship between religion and care for the disabled in Leeds, and how difficult it could be for veterans to access charitable aid. In comparison to other Northern cities, Leeds was unusual because it had three hospitals created especially and exclusively for the treatment of disabled veterans: Beckett’s Park hospital which moved to Chapel Allerton in the 1920s, a convalescent hospital at Temple Newsam House and a hospital at St Edmund’s Church in Roundhay led by volunteer nurses. After April 1919, the latter became an Anglican Sunday School. All three hospitals treated veterans from any faith or background.
The Jewish-Christian Charitable Relationship and its Religious Significance
To help combat difficulties over religious memberships and charity support (as in Toc H), Jews in Leeds founded various Jewish charities and invited Anglican priests to support these organisations. For example, Jewish ex-servicemen who fought in the First World War formed the Major Clive Behrens Branch of the British Legion in the 1930s, and after the Second World War, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women became active. In another example, sixteen Anglican Chaplains served on the Jewish Ministers Visitation Committee which helped hospital patients. They carried out regular visits to hospital and prison patients and ensured that medical staff did not send patients to hospitals where Kosher food was not on the menu.
The strengthening of Christian-Jewish relations was particularly important for Jewish charities in Leeds following an anti-Jewish riot in 1917. This stemmed from the wide-spread belief that Jewish men and women in the city were not helping the war effort, despite at least 160 Jewish men from Leeds dying in the war. In the riot, Jewish shops were looted, property was damaged, and people were injured. There are also many articles in the Yorkshire Evening Post written by Jewish women in defence of Jewish men accused of further wounding disabled veterans in Leeds. Jewish charities believed that with the support of the Anglican Church and clergymen, the public and press would see Jewish organisations and veterans in a more favourable way. Helping the war wounded was a way for Jewish organisations to show that Jews were invested in helping the war effort and those affected by the war. For all the Anglican and Jewish charities examined in Leeds, it is significant that fewer Christian charities invited Jews to sit on charity boards or become involved with charity work than Jewish charities who asked for Christian involvement. In Leeds then, inter-faith charitable networks did not only help those in need, including disabled ex-servicemen, but they had a wider religious significance to the community.
For Anglican charities, helping the war disabled was also a way for Christians to realise the Church’s aim of becoming a more socially progressive organisation. After 1918, the Church wanted people to see Christianity as ‘a way of salvation for communities as well as for individuals’, and because of the sheer number of disabled ex-servicemen who returned, disabled veterans were a ‘new’ community to help and/or to save. This is reflected by the fact that many Anglican charities across Leeds which were not formed to exclusively help veterans, such as Eyre’s Park (Armley) or The Joseph Swain Charity (Farnley), supplied emotional, educational and/or financial support for disabled veterans.
Although Christian education as a form of rehabilitation is an understudied topic in comparison to emotional and financial support, an analysis of the National Sunday School Union charity which held its annual meetings in Leeds, revealed that many disabled veterans became Sunday School teachers which helped them reintegrate back into the community. The Church also paid for theological college courses to help veterans gain employment. Along with advertising in the parish magazines for employment opportunities and supporting veteran’s families through donations, this was one of the ways the Church in Leeds tried to mitigate the impact of the depression and rising unemployment among ex-servicemen in the 1920s.
The First World War came to an end on 11 November 1918. But for many servicemen, this was not the end of their war. There was no armistice on the war against the misfortune of mind, body, disease, and deformity. They returned to Britain with life-changing injuries, and they had to fight against pain, prejudice, disease, and inadequate government support. Charities which offered food, money, clothes, accommodation, companionship, help with finding employment, and medical supplies were a lifeline for thousands of ex-servicemen. Many of these charities were faith-based, and in Leeds, with its strong Anglican and Jewish population, various Christian and Jewish organisations were created, such as the Major Clive Behrens Branch of the British Legion, and others adapted their focus, such as The National Sunday School Union, to support disabled ex-servicemen who lived in the city.
Although Anglican-Jewish relations in the city were not straightforward, Jews and Christians often worked together on charitable causes. Of course, as Toc H highlights, this was not always the case, showing how faith could be a help and a hinderance for disabled veterans seeking care. For this reason, a study of charitable care for disabled veterans is also a study of the social construction and mobilisation of religion in post-war Britain. Leeds was a picture of religious vitality after the war and how religious organisations in the city responded to the needs of disabled veterans between 1918 and 1939 contradicts the popular idea that the Great War ‘ended faith’ in Britain.
For more information, please see the Parish, First World War, and Jewish Charity records held at the West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds. The Toc H archive is held at the Cadbury Library, The University of Birmingham and it includes documents relating to the activities of the charity across Yorkshire. For more information on the history of Judaism in Leeds, please see ‘Leeds Jewry. Its History and Social Structure’, by Ernest Krausz. I would like to thank Dr Helen Reid, Director of LCI, Tim Friedman, Chair of CCJ, and local historians, Nigel Grizzard and Carole Davies for their support with this research.
Dr Bethany Sarah Rowley is a Postdoctoral Research Associate with the Centre For Cultural Value, and a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of History at the University of Leeds. Please follow her on Twitter: @bethsarahrowley.
Written by: Dr Bethany Sarah Rowley
Image credit: Dr Scott Palmer
Image caption: During the First World War, six-hundred and fifteen wounded English, Irish and Belgium soldiers received treatment at Temple Newsam Hospital which closed on the 23rd of November 1917. The hospital occupied all the South Wing of the House, where over forty Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses from across the country worked. This is a picture of Temple Newsam House, taken during a project where students from the University of Leeds re-imagined and re-enacted the stories of nurses and patients who lived in the house during the war. Photo taken by Dr Scott Palmer, Associate Professor in Performance Design, The University of Leeds.