Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Half Shilling Curate

This book was sent to me by the author, Sarah Reay, the granddaughter of the Revd Herbert Cowl aka The Half Shilling Curate.  It tells the story of him as a young Wesleyan minister, serving as an Army Chaplain in WW1. It is carefully researched and lovingly written.  Sarah is fortunate to have many original letters and photographs from Herbert and his family, which makes the narrative come alive. You often feel you are listening in to conversations that took place 100 years ago.  At the same time, she has found corroborative evidence from a range of sources, ensuring that this personal story is anchored in the wider historical context and the Wesleyan Church of the era.

I found it an easy read, which helped me to glimpse something of the work of those early chaplains. Herbert and many others won much admiration from the serving men for their bravery in being alongside them in the trenches and tending to their practical, pastoral and spiritual needs.

The most moving part of the story, for me, was when Herbert was being transported home after a sudden and serious injury (Chapters 5 and 6).  The hospital ship carrying the wounded was hit by a mine, four miles off Dover and the 400 injured men on board were in danger of being lost in the sinking ship or in the freezing ocean.  Barely able to walk and having witnessed horrific scenes, Herbert finds himself trapped in a dead-end corridor with water rising.  Not only did he manage to get to the deck but he also got life rafts into the sea for a group whose lifeboat had failed.  Although 139 of the 400 people died that day, the death toll would, almost certainly, have been higher had it not been for his swift and self-sacrificing action.  For this, he received the Military Cross. 

The Methodist Church Heritage News has featured this book in its Autumn edition (2016) because it tells something of our rich history as a Church.  For in addition to Herbert’s story, there is a tribute to many others with whom he served.  The account also gives some insight into the training and stationing of ministers and the work of the Wesleyan Church in a time of war.  
Not many in Methodism have experienced the work of chaplains first hand.  I would be one of those, having never served in the military and never having been a chaplain to the forces.  But having recently spent a few days with the RAF chaplains in East Anglia, I am full of respect for this group of people and what they bring to this sphere of life and work.

I commend this book to you.