Robert Featherstone Wearmouth (1882-1963)

Miner, Soldier and Minister

Unlike other Primitive Methodist chaplains, Robert Wearmouth, who started work down the mine at the age of 12, had already served as a soldier.  In 1901, having run away from home, he enlisted in the Northumberland Fusiliers, who were recruiting for the Boer War.

It was while home on leave that he went to a Christian Endeavour meeting at the little chapel in Oxhill, Co. Durham, and had a conversion experience. After leaving the Army he joined the PrimitiveMethodistChurch at Oxhill. He now had a passion to educate himself, working down the mine by day, and studying by night.  Eventually he was able to go to HartleyCollege to train for the ministry, leaving in 1909 for his first circuit in Grimsby.

Outbreak of War

When war broke out in 1914, he immediately wrote to the General Committee of the Primitive Methodist Church to ask for permission to rejoin the army. However, it had not yet been decided whether ministers should be allowed to enlist in the fighting forces, and his request was refused.

He later wrote ‘the year of 1914 will never be forgotten. It was the year of a national catastrophe, the beginning of a suicidal war, the unfolding of a “Grand Illusion”.

Embarks for France

However, it soon became evident that there was a need for Primitive Methodist Chaplains, and with his previous army experience, Wearmouth was an obvious candidate. On 15 May 1915 he received his commission for the War Office.

He embarked for France on 30 July 1915, the only United Board chaplain in a Division of 22,000 men. He sought home service in August 1916, but his request was refused and he continued to serve in France until he was invalided home in 1918. Wearmouth used a bicycle, but noted that the Wesleyan methodist chaplain had a horse!  

Work of a Chaplain

After the war he wrote Pages from a Padre’s Diary, giving a fascinating insight into the work of a WW1 Chaplain.

For the most part the Padre’s job was diverse, difficult and dangerous. On occasion he had to run the Officers’ Mess, superintend the men’s canteen, sell the cakes, the tea, the Woodbines at five a penny, accompany the troops on their long marches, footslog it on the cobbled roads, be exposed to the sweltering sun or the pouring rain, grope his way through the intense darkness, live with the lads in the narrow trenches, the flimsy shelters, the battered houses, the destroyed villages, the shelter of the ridges. Although unarmed he sometimes went with them over the top, into the fury of the battle, not to fight, but to rescue the fallen, attend the wounded, minister to the dying, reverently bury the dead, write to their loved ones, break the sad news about wounds or death, and to comfort all who suffered or who were in distress.’

Chaplains also had freedom to move about, talk to the troops, visit them in their billets, go with them into the trenches, organise sing-songs and concerts, and arrange religious services whenever and wherever possible. Wearmouth played his concertina to provide entertainment to the troops.

Extracts from his Diary

His diary reveals a mixture of horror and elation.

Wednesday, August 18, 1915

‘Had little sleep. The gun battery behind the house bellowed all night. On the way to Armentieres I passed several patches of blood on the roadway. Some lads of the Suffolk Regiment had been caught by shell fire. Three of them died during the day. The front was rather lively after dark, snipers, machine guns, and gun batteries being very busy. To feel that one’s life is perpetually in danger gives a new meaning to life and provides a bit of excitement.’

Sunday, November 7, 1915

‘First service in a barn where the company butchers were busy preparing for dinner. I arranged with them they should use the chopper while we sang and the knife while we prayed and preached. About 130 men turned up and we had a good service.’

Tuesday, November 23, 1915

‘Spent the whole day in the trenches. In one place I saw a human skull with two holes in it the size of a penny, and it was cracked. On my way back a whiz bang burst about five yards away from me, a bit too near to be comfortable.’

Comments about this page

  • Having recently become interested in the Second Boer War (October 1899 to May 1902), I read the above article with interest. I have now discovered his early Army Service Record on FindMyPast.

    Robert Featherstone Wearmouth enlisted in the Northumberland Fusiliers in June 1901. He attested at Newcastle-upon-Tyne 26th June 1901 and having passed all the medicals immediately reported for 12 years’ service (7 in active service followed by 5 in reserve). His attestation form says he was born in Stanley, County Durham and he was 19 years of age at the time. He also gave his father, William living at 3 Parmeter Street, Southmoor, Chester-le-Street, County Durham, as his next of kin.

    After two months basic training he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion. Despite the on-going conflict in South Africa, Robert remained at “home” until the 30th April 1902 (a month before the conflict ended) when he and other members of the Battalion embarked for Antigua where Boer Prisoners of War were being held. Whilst there the conflict ended and Robert then embarked for South Africa on 23rd July 1902 helping to repatriate the Boer PoW’s. He returned to the UK on 28th October 1902 when he was totally discharged from the Army only having completed 16 months of the 12 years he had originally agreed to.

    A note against his discharge date tells us how he achieved this: ”Discharged having claimed it on payment of £10, within 3 months of attestation”. I think new recruits were allowed a free opt out at 7 weeks but it would appear this had elapsed before Robert returned from the Christian Endeavour meeting and a deal was done whereby, he avoided being directly involved in the conflict but partly repaid his obligation to the Army. A good compromise and hats off to both parties. The question remains how he came by £10 (£1,260 in today’s money) – I suspect his parents aided by a collection amongst members of the Primitive Methodist congregation at Oxhill.

    By David Redhead (05/01/2022)
  • Thank you . I found the entry very useful. I am researching Primitive Methodism’s early years and greatly admire Wearmouth’s scholarship, heroism and pastoral career. His work is very interesting to compare with that of E.P. Thompson, who gave his work minimal attention in the “Making of the English Working Class” though his Methodism trilogy seems to me of equal interest and importance.

    By Tony Seaton (13/05/2020)
  • Wearmouth was Minister of Berkhampstead Circuit from 1938 to 1946 and was chaplain to RAF Bovingdon, then occupied by Americans.  His diaries are at Beford County Record Office.

    By Neil Rees (08/01/2016)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *