A.S.H. Smyth

A reverend at war

This evening – Armistice Eve – Ben Fleetwood Smyth (no relation) and Hugh Brunt will be putting on their annual British Art Music Series concert: this year, in aid of St Paul’s, Knightsbridge.

Narrated by Judith Paris, and interspersed with Victorian and Edwardian music from the BAM Consort and the BAM Ensemble, the event will tell the story of one London community’s life, both at home and abroad, across the full span of the First World War, focussing on extracts from the parish magazines of the time, read by the current vicar, Fr Alan Gyle, and by yours truly.

The Rev Wilfrid Hannay Gibbins is my guy: a St Paul’s assistant clergyman who spent a year or so after the outbreak of hostilities as the chaplain of HMS Tiger, before being invalided out on the grounds of ‘an old illness’.

Gibbins (by his own hand) is a somewhat Golding-esque character. He can seem a little foolish when mistaking ‘excitements dodging submarines’ for what is in fact a school of porpoises, and his frequent (and unembarrassed) requests for parishioners to kit him out with the garb for each liturgical season – at their own expense, presumably – might strike the 21st century sensibility as something less than a front-rank priority in wartime. (At one point he actually suggests that somebody donate him a piano.)

But his dozen or so letters – despatched from ‘Anywhere’, ‘Prowling’, ‘The Cathedral Ship’ (he was terribly pleased with the folderol of official visits) and so on – are full of good Royal Naval trivia, such as the habit of saluting the quarter-deck (per se, when formerly what the sailors were saluting was the crucifix erected on it…). And if he appears to have perceived the war as first and foremost an opportunity for recruiting souls, then they do seem to have come to him willingly enough.

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