‘Endynamited by Christ’ Sandes soldiers’ homes

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2005), News, News, Volume 13

At a time when there is a greater acknowledgement of the role played by Irishmen in the British army, there is a group of Irishwomen with a unique claim to recognition for their humanitarian work among soldiers. Elise Sandes was the founder of a welfare movement that survives today. She was an evangelical Christian and philanthropist, and her concern for a young soldier in Tralee in the late 1860s led her to set up a centre for soldiers’ recreation and general welfare. By 1913 there were 31 such soldiers’ homes attached to army barracks, 22 in Ireland and the rest in India. Only three remained open in the Free State after 1921, but there were still 20 homes in total in the late 1920s.
Elise Sandes was born in 1851 in Oak Villa, now a convent attached to Fatima Nursing Home in Oakpark, Tralee. Her family was a branch of the Sandes family of Sallow Glen, Tarbert, with origins in the Cromwellian period. She befriended a young soldier around 1868, and invited him and friends to Oak Villa for Bible study, prayers, hymn-singing, and lessons in reading and writing. As one soldier put it: ‘To find ladies of social position and refinement coming to a soldiers’ barrack-room and inviting the men to their own house to spend the evening was like a mighty magnetism to me. Gladly did I accept the invitation to Oak Villa.’ Soon the meetings had to be moved to a new location at 15 Nelson Street (now Ashe Street).
As the scale of the work expanded, premises in King Street, Cork, were donated and it opened as the first soldiers’ home on 10 June 1877. The purpose was to draw young soldiers away from public houses and offer them an alternative centre for friendship, entertainment and self-improvement. The atmosphere in the homes was welcoming, and, while the women were clearly missionaries, prayers and religious services were always voluntary for the soldiers. On the ground floor of the Cork home was a tea-room, the next floor had a meeting room and a reading room, while the top floor had private accommodation for Miss Sandes and Miss Wilkinson.
Elise Sandes next moved to Belfast and set up a home there, with the help of John Kinahan, Maud McCausland and Miss Steen. The Belfast home was opened in March 1891 in Clifton Street, opposite Victoria Barracks. Homes in Dublin (Parkgate Street), Ballincollig, Queenstown and Dundalk next became part of a growing network, and Sandes’s dream of having a home in every garrison town in Ireland was fast becoming a reality. In 1899 the opening of a home in the Curragh, where there were 5,000 soldiers, was particularly gratifying to Elise Sandes. Experience of ‘canvas homes’ in South Africa during the Boer War led to a similar type of temporary home for the summer months in army camps like Coolmoney in the Glen of Imaal, Co. Wicklow.
The women in charge were addressed as ‘mother’, and it is clear from the many testimonies of grateful soldiers that they created a ‘home-from-home’ atmosphere for lonely men, some of whom were alcoholics. Many men came to see themselves as saved in body and spirit, and some became evangelical missionaries. Sandes was a charismatic leader who had a profound impact on all who met her—she was ‘endynamited by Christ’, according to the organisation’s literature. She proved herself a very competent administrator also, especially as more homes were established in widely scattered, remote locations of the British Empire.
There was a tradition of military service and associations with India in the Sandes family. Elise’s uncle had been registrar-general of Calcutta and a plantation-owner, and her sister, the wife of an officer, had died in Rawal Pindi. Elise was well aware of the discomfort, loneliness and tedium of a soldier’s life in India. She responded to military requests for homes to be set up there, with the aim of drawing soldiers away from the wet canteens, opium dens and bazaar brothels to more wholesome recreations. Anna Ashe set up the first home in Rawal Pindi, with £600 from a donor, and Theodora Schofield and Alice Bailey followed, setting up homes in Murree, Quetta and Lucknow, among other places. Elise Sandes now had a new objective—to establish a home in every cantonment in India. All the homes in India closed in 1947 when the British departed.
Elise Sandes was in Coolmoney camp in 1914 when war was declared. Army camps expanded with the calling up of reserves and new recruits, and she and her helpers quickly became familiar with the horror of war as reported in the many letters sent from the trenches. The scale of the casualties was appalling to these humanitarians. Their work for four years was to prepare men for death. Along with prayers, there were practical supports: parcels sent to men at the front, with food, clothing, books, magazines and treats. Women went on board troopships before they sailed, handing out postcards and pencils for soldiers to send a last message home.
With the establishment of the Irish Free State most of the homes were closed, and Elise Sandes departed from the Curragh on 3 August 1922. On her final night there she observed from a distance as a drummer from the Free State army met his counterpart from the British army, and they greeted each other warmly. She took it as a good omen for the future. She moved to the new home in Ballykinlar, Co. Down, where she died in August 1934. She was buried in nearby Tyrella, with full military honours. She and her successor, Eva Maguire, are the only civilian women to have received this distinction. Both women were also awarded the CBE. Elise Sandes’s simple headstone reads: ‘For 66 years the friend of soldiers’.
Three homes in the Free State remained open: one in the Curragh, at the request of the Irish army, one in Cobh (Queenstown) and one in Dublin. These last two closed soon after, but the home in the Curragh remained open until the 1980s. It was never fully integrated into the Sandes organisation after 1921, and seems to have survived mainly on account of the determination of the women who ran it.
In the 1950s Catholic chaplains expressed concerns about the large numbers of civilians from outside the camp attending gospel meetings in the Curragh home, and about the dangers of young soldiers losing their faith. They had no objection to soldiers using the canteen, but they were wary of the prayer house attached. In 1955 Col. A. Ó Leathlobhair, officer commanding, reported to his superiors that there had been an increase in the number of evangelical sayings displayed in the canteen and reading room. Nevertheless, he had very good relations with the superintendent, Miss Carson, describing her as ‘very much in earnest in looking after the welfare of the soldiers’. Her predecessor was Miss Magill, a niece of Elise Sandes, and the colonel wrote that ‘this old lady was a great favorite with the soldiers, and used to get young soldiers to write to their parents, and even advised them to attend the Catholic mission’.
Col. Ó Leathlobhair believed that the Sandes home was ‘essentially British’, and accepted that there was a possibility that it could unwittingly act as a recruiting agency for ‘another army’. The walls of the home were adorned with pictures of the royal family and of British regiments in famous battle scenes. Surprisingly, this was not a source of major concern to him, and he merely noted that ‘all of this, of course, had little value from the Irish army point of view’. He was appreciative of the welfare work done in the home, and its founder would have been satisfied with his conclusion:

‘In justice, I must say that Sandes Home is well run and it fills a real need. Young soldiers are made to feel at home and not faced with the cold commercial atmosphere of the canteen. A good feminine influence meets a real need where young soldiers are concerned, and the only place where some of the young recruits that I obtain receive anything approaching a motherly care is in Sandes Home.’

After World War II, there were homes in locations such as Borneo, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Malaysia and Iceland, but there are no longer any international centres. Today the organisation survives as Sandes Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Centres in Ballykelly, Ballykinlar and Holywood in Northern Ireland, and Pirbright and Harrowgate in Britain. The staff consists of eighteen full-time workers.

Bryan MacMahon writes on north Kerry history. His most recent publication is Eccentric archbishop: Richard Whately of Redesdale.

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