Congregational Soldiers Institute

When we remember those who paid the supreme sacrifice serving their country, it is interesting to look back through the pages of the Messenger as to how the then Otley Congregational Church offered themselves in service locally during the Great War.

The outbreak of war in August 1914, caused our minister Rev. Cornelius Thompson Rae, to comment in the Messenger, “The past month will remain in our minds as one of the gloomiest and most ominous we have experienced. War, grim and terrible, has spread its wings over Europe”. By October 1914, “25 of our bravest and best men have left us to serve their country”, A number that was by 1915 to grow to over 75 .

Apart from the town having to come to terms with its men folk enlisting and going off to war, the town had to cope with the establishment of an army camp in the grounds of Farnley Hall. This brought many soldiers into our midst. As the Rev. Rae was later to comment, ‘Over a thousand men were thrown upon our town without any common meeting place or anchorage. If something was not done quickly to provide good channels, ‘questionable channels’ would soon show themselves’.

And so it was that on the 11th November 1914, the Congregational Soldiers’ Institute opened in our hall and surrounding rooms. This was to provide a place of recreation & fellowship for the duration of the war and was run by volunteers from the church. Nine committees were established to run different aspects of the Institute, with a central coordinating committee. The nine committees were – Musical, Literature, Post Office, Refreshment, Games, Rifle Range, Billiard Room, Welcome & Finance.

The musical committee arranged that a gramophone & pianist were available each evening and also they were to organize concerts. ‘Tipperary’ was always the favourite request, to which the soldiers would sing along. The literature committee provided books, newspapers & periodicals in addition to pens, pencils & paper. Encouraging the soldiers to write letters to their loved ones was the job of the Post Office committee. Each evening letters were taken to Otley PO at 8 p.m. or the station by 10.15 p.m. The railway parcel van would collect any parcels – up to 200 each day. Letters or parcels for the soldiers were also handed out. Refreshments, of course, ensured that tea, coffee & buns were available with events like a Rabbit Pie Supper being a regular occurrence. Occupying the soldiers was important and draughts, dominoes, cards & bagatelle were added to with a billiard table, on loan from the Liberal Club, and a Rifle Range, which was very popular with over 6000 shots being fired in one day. The task of the Welcome Committee was to greet soldiers when they arrived and ensure that there was a listening ear for any soldier who seemed on his own or who needed to talk to someone.

Volunteers from all parts of church life helped and ensured that the Institute functioned. In June 1915, the Messenger recorded that the Miners’ Battalion, which had been with us for 6 months had now left Farnley, but not before a farewell concert to wish them ‘God Speed’. Letters of appreciation were received from them at a later date expressing their wish to be back at the Institute with its happy fellowship and ‘at home’ feeling. The Miners’ Battalion was formed by the Yorkshire Coal Owners Association, and their official name was 12th Battalion Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) and in July 1916 they were part of the Battle of the Somme, suffering heavy casualties. They were replaced at the camp by the 11th Batt. Yorkshire & Lancaster Regiment. The war was now taking its toll on the volunteers, and more helpers were required as many of the original helpers were now working overtime on war work and unable to assist. Help was required by 5pm to open up.

By the middle of 1915, the Messenger was reporting those of the church fellowship who had paid the supreme sacrifice, and following another farewell concert, the Yorks & Lancs were by September 1915, ‘somewhere in France’. In September, the soldiers of the Volunteer Training Corps, the ‘Howitzers’ and the Green Howards organised a sit down tea, and held a collection for the Institute funds. By February 1916, it was reported that the war was requiring both men & munitions in greater numbers. Some of the men in the church were working 100 hours per week in the town’s munitions factories, and ‘even women munitions workers were having to work occasional Sundays’. More help was therefore required for the Institute, particularly in welcoming the soldiers and extending fellowship towards them. The nature of Farnley Camp had changed and many of the men there were strangers to each other, and as they were there for only a short time, had little opportunity to make friends. Loneliness was an increasing problem at the camp. Increasingly, the ladies of the church took over the various tasks.

The Institute continued to develop – part of the hall had been fitted out with easy chairs, small tables, screens, pot plants & cut flowers, creating a cosy corner. A tobacco licence had been procured. Regular concerts continued, always ending in the singing of the National Anthem. Music was very important –‘especially the rollicking chorus variety’. It was reported that even the residents of Marlborough Terrace (Manor Street) regularly enjoyed the concerts because the music was so loud. Talents shows were also popular with the soldiers displaying a number of gifts – humorists, elocutionists, dancers, mouth organ players and bone & spoon experts. Sunday evenings were a sacred sing song with the men choosing the hymns.

The fame of the Institute was spreading and it was reported that among the trenches, soldiers were recommended to go to the Congregational Institute, if they were ever in Otley. The Commanding Officer at Farnley, Major Burton regularly came and an illuminated address was presented to the church. In May 1917, the Rev. Rae temporarily left Otley to work with the YMCA in France and by 1918 he had become an army chaplain in Italy. His letters were a regular feature of the Messenger at this time.

Of course, the War came to an end in November 1918, but the Institute continued whilst Farnley Camp was open. The numbers of soldiers gradually reduced and in May 1919 the camp closed followed by the Institute. However, the church decided to reform the Institute as one for young people. A hut was erected on land at the rear of the church, which housed the billiard table, boxing & allied games. The membership was about 900.

And that, very briefly, is the story of the Institute and how the church reacted to a war time situation and reached out to many soldiers in need of fellowship and support as they prepared to face the horrors of the First World War.

If anybody has any memories of this Institute or can add to the story please be in touch.