The Half-Shilling Curate, A personal account of war & faith 1914-1918
Rev. Herbert Butler Cowl M.C.
Wycliffe’s School Chaplain, 1919 – 1922 & 1949 – 1952
This is the story of Herbert Butler Cowl, the only School Chaplain to serve twice at Wycliffe School; after the First World War and after the Second World War. There are some senior members of the Wycliffian Society who fondly remember their old School Chaplain who was often known to them, simply as ‘H.B.’. There are many other members of the Wycliffian Society who know his name or those who have heard tales passed down through the generations. However, very few will know the story behind the name of their old School Chaplain ‘H.B.’.
Five years ago, Herbert Cowl’s only granddaughter, Sarah Reay (nee Cowl) discovered her grandfather’s letters written 100 years ago during the Great War. The letters were written by a young Wesleyan Army Chaplain, Rev. Cowl in France, writing home to his parents about his experiences of active service at the front. He wrote home to his mother and signed his letters, ‘From your loving son, The Half-Shilling Curate, Herbert’.
After four years of research and writing, ‘H.B.’s story is now published. It transpired that H.B. Cowl was the only known Army Chaplain to be awarded the Military Cross Medal for gallantry on a ship during the entire war.
In 1919, when Herbert’s service with the Royal Army Chaplaincy Department had come to an end, he was sent to Stonehouse to take on his new role as the School Chaplain at Wycliffe. He had no experience with regards to school chaplaincy, but his love of education and children made him an ideal candidate:
The Wycliffe Star in August 1919 reported the following:
All who know Mr Cowl congratulate us on this appointment. He greatly distinguished himself in the army, and we are told that as a chaplain he soon won the esteem of officers and men. He was most popular with the rank and file, for he always insisted on going with them into the front line trenches and sharing their lot. No danger deterred him. He was very seriously wounded with shrapnel in the neck. An operation was necessary immediately, and then when he survived they feared he would not speak again.
Whilst so seriously wounded, he was on his way back in the hospital ship ‘Anglia,’ which struck a mine. The nurse and orderly at his bedside were killed, and he was frightfully knocked about, but in spite of his perilous condition he got on deck and put forth herculean efforts to save others from drowning, helping to construct rafts, etc. He stuck to the ship, hard at work all the time, till she sank in half an hour. He went down with her, but came to the surface and swam to a raft, and was picked up by a patrol boat and landed in an exhausted condition. For such bravery he got the M.C..
Three months into the school term and The Wycliffe Star reported Herbert Cowl had ‘already found a path to many hearts’. The article continued:
The first thing that impressed us was his brevity. His first two sermons averaged eighteen minutes each, and his first address at prayers lasted four minutes. This amazing and ever-to-be-welcomed record has been fairly maintained. The next thing that impressed us was his ‘chumminess,’ with small boys as well as big, and his general interest in everything that interests us. Next came an impression of his ability, not only as a preacher and speaker but as a thinker. What he says is always worth saying, and he says it well.
The following year, the school journal described the scene in the school chapel on Remembrance Day:
On November 11th the Rev. H.B. Cowl, M.C., conducted a simple yet beautiful service in memory of the honoured dead. He spoke a few words concerning the ceremony then taking place at Westminster, after which we knelt in silence whilst the organ played the Last Post. As we knelt we saw again those gallant lads who went so simply to their grave; we heard again the Cease-fire buglers ring out over those long miles of riven land …
In the summer of 1922, Herbert Cowl received news that he and his family were to leave Stonehouse for a new posting to Westbury on Trym, Bristol at the end of the summer term.
From the oldest to the youngest, all at Wycliffe mourn the fact that, when the School re-assembles in September, the Rev. Herbert Cowl will have gone from our midst. We have never had a more popular ‘chaplain,’ or one more loved.
The Headmaster, W. A. Sibly wrote:
I would like – unusual though the place may be – to take this opportunity of saying how much we thank Mr. Cowl for all that he has done for us. Not only in the services which he has taken here, but in every way, by fellowship and inspiration, he has touched life to finer issues. He has shown us that the things of Christ are lovely, and that religion is a great and winsome thing. He has been a true ambassador of his Lord and ours, and some there be among us who cherish a desperate but daring hope that, in a day that is not far, he may come back to Wycliffe, here to help us still.
Mr Sibly’s wishes were to come true. Following the end of the Second World War and a prolonged unsuccessful period of looking for a suitable School Chaplain, Mr Sibly finally persuaded Herbert Cowl to return to the school as their chaplain until a suitable replacement could be found.
The full story of Rev. Herbert Butler Cowl M.C. and his extraordinary experiences as an Army Chaplain in the Great War is told in the book, The Half-Shilling Curate, A personal account of war & faith 1914-18. His life story includes much detail about his time spent at Wycliffe School. Herbert Cowl became a lifelong friend to the school and to the Sibly family.
Historian and author, Allan Mallinson reviewed The Half-Shilling Curate in The Times Literary Supplement at the end of 2017 stating:
‘In many ways, The Half-Shilling Curate is the story of the 5,000 chaplains who served with the British army in the First World War, 179 of whom died during that service’.
‘Love and decency shine from the pages in both words and photographs’.
An Old Wycliffian recently wrote to me:
I have just read the moving story of your grandfather and although it is sixty eight years since I met him, I feel as though I have just met an old friend. What a remarkable man he was and how proud he would be that his Granddaughter has told his story for all to see.
Further information regarding the book can be found at: www.halfshillingcurate.com