St. Werburgh Church, Wembury 

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Aggie, ‘the sailor’s friend,’ 100th Anniversary

The charity “Aggie Weston’s” was founded in 1876 by Agnes Weston – and from the very beginning it has been affectionately known throughout the naval service, as; “Aggie's.” 

Agnes was the daughter of a lawyer and brought up in a comfortable middle-class home in Bath. Her desire to help people in practical ways led Agnes on a life long journey. As a Sunday School teacher, she felt drawn to a group of unruly boys – ‘the unmanageables’ - that no-one else would take care of. Success with this group led her to being asked to provide recreation facilities for the troops of the Somerset militia who were being temporarily stationed near the town. When these soldiers left, many for foreign soil; she took pity on some of them and promised to write them so that they had at least one link with home. As with all of Aggie’s projects through the years she started modestly. But her list of ‘pen pals’ grew rapidly and soon became too great for her to handle alone. So, she started publishing a monthly news-letter, which she called ‘Ashore and Afloat,’ and she continued to write this personally until her death. By that time over 55,000 copies were being distributed.  (* Ashore and Afloat’, now a glossy magazine, is still published and I am a regular reader). When sailors on one of the troopships saw the letters that some of the soldiers on board were receiving from Aggie they wondered if she might consider writing to them as well. Never one to turn down a request for support she duly obliged; this was her first link with the Navy.

One of Aggie’s trademark quotes was that she was always seeking the “next great thing” and when some of her correspondent sailors and a group of naval wives asked for her to come to meet and address them in Devonport she leapt at the opportunity. At this time in the late 19th century, nearly 4000 boys were being trained by the Royal Navy in Plymouth, and Agnes was distressed to see them aimlessly wandering the streets on their one day off (Sunday); there was nowhere for them to go other than to public houses – and they were not allowed to enter those anyway. So, assisted by Plymouthian Sophia Wintz, she set up a meeting room for them in Sophia’s kitchen.

The popularity of the gathering in this private house eventually led to them seeking a larger venue, and eventually to a request, from a group of sailors, for Aggie to provide a “sailors’ rest house.” She recognized that if she was to make this pioneering venture work then she would have to commit her all. She would never again have any private life. The comfortable middle-class existence in leafy Bath would be permanently given up for a life of service – seeking to bring home comforts and wholesome entertainment and teaching to the sailors of the Royal Navy in the seediest areas of the dockyard cities. It was not a lifestyle that society would have approved of for a young lady from a professional home. But Aggie had no cares for what others thought and she accepted the challenge before her.

The rest, as they say, is history. Aggie’s faith and dedication led to the Sailor’s Rests becoming a phenomenon, with presence in all the main naval bases, including several abroad. The Rests were so popular that some pubs were closed in the face of the competition and taken over by Aggie to provide yet more facilities. The value of the Rests was recognized by Queen Victoria herself, and she bestowed her patronage and the prefix ‘Royal’ to the Sailor’s Rests. The Queen met Aggie on several occasions and eventually appointed her as a Dame of the Empire.  

Aggie was innovative. She did not settle for quietly running her Rests and writing her newsletter, but throughout her life remained an active and imaginative advocate for the rights of sailors and their families. For example, she worked out ways to get the sailors’ pay directly to their families who may have lived many miles away, she ran savings banks to help the sailors to look after their money and she even sold railway tickets for the sailors on their ships so that they could get home immediately after leave was granted – thus by-passing the temptations, taverns and muggers of the sleazy area outside the dockyard gates.

Aggie was a leader, a pioneer of her time, a practical and non-judgmental servant of her beneficiaries and a devout Christian. She left a comfortable life and selflessly gave all she had for the benefit of others. Her over-riding desire was to offer Christian love to the sailors and their families – because she felt that they needed it. Her legacy was the establishment of a charitable association that continues to work with the same spirit of love for the benefit of the serving members of the Royal Navy and their families to this day. Dame Agnes Weston died, shortly before the end of the First World War on 23 October 1918 and was buried with full naval honours (this was the first time that such an honour had been accorded to a woman). Over 2000 officers and men crowded into Weston Mill cemetery to pay their respects. For over half a century she had been known to countless sailors as; ‘Mother Weston,’ ‘the Mother of the Navy,’ ‘The Navy’s Friend,’ ‘The Lady of the Navy’ or more commonly and affectionately as simply ‘Aggie.’ However, her epitaph simply reads; ‘the Sailors’ Friend.’ 

On the15th of October one of GWR’s new trains will arrive at Plymouth Station for a ceremony to name it ‘Aggie Weston’. Following on from this there will be an open-air service, attended by ex-veterans and serving naval personnel, to mark the 100th anniversary of Dame Aggie’s death. This will be held at her memorial situated just inside the entrance gate to Weston Mill Cemetery in Plymouth. (Please note that this date of 15th October is a correction to the originally planned date of 23rd October as published in the Wembury Review)

Wishing you every blessing, Martin