I am delighted to be contributing to a programme for the BBC Radio World War One At Home series which is to feature the work of Dame Agnes Weston – The Sailors’ Friend.
Agnes Weston is one of the women featured in my new book Scandal Salvation and Suffrage – The Amazing Women of the Temperance Movement. Although Agnes was 74 when WWI broke out, she and her fellow workers at the Royal Sailors’ Rests in Plymouth and Portsmouth had a great deal to contribute to the war effort. They had an established operation to accommodate sailors and provide rest & relaxation in comfortable surroundings, with plenty of good food, tea and coffee but no alcohol.
Agnes and her partner Sophia Wintz were excellent organisers, with a meticulous attention to detail. A card index system helped them keep tabs on the thousands of sailors to whom they sent monthly letters. Ashore & Afloat, edited by Sophia and largely written by the 2 women, was a popular monthly journal with a circulation of almost 1 million during the war. The packing office at the Devonport Rest despatched over 60 tons of written material, and that’s without taking into account the mufflers, gloves, scarves, socks etc which were sent to grateful sailors.
As well as numerous hospital visits, Agnes would also write a personal letter of condolence to every widow or bereaved mother. After the Battle of Jutland, this involved other 5,000 letters of sympathy.
Agnes was a devout Christian who worked tirelessly for the benefit of sailors and their families. She advocated teetotalism with a passion, believing alcohol abuse was the cause of much distress and poverty. But her Sailors’ Rests were open to all soldiers and sailors, whether religious or not. And they weren’t sent away if they were drunk – just helped by coffee and kindness to sober up or crash out.
Agnes Weston was made a Dame in 1918 but sadly did not live long enough to receive her award in person. She was the first woman to be granted a funeral with full naval honours.
It’s great the BBC Devon are putting together a programme about her as part of the WWI At Home series. I believe it is likely to be aired in the autumn but I’ll let you know when I know.