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. She was unusually active for a young lady of her time with a love of sport and particularly swimming and horse-riding. She was also headstrong and initially refused to accept her parents’ Christian faith, actively choosing to shut religion out of her life. She said that she had no desire to have any dogma thrust upon her, and that she considered church-going to be “90% hypocrisy and 10% sincerity.” However, when Rev James Flemming was appointed to the family church in Bath, he responded positively to Aggie’s flippant attitude. He spent time with her, earned her confidence and helped her address her difficulties and doubts. His patience was ultimately rewarded, for when Agnes came to faith, she did it with characteristic “all or nothing” commitment. She was determined to make her religion live; she felt that Christ would not want her to lead a frivolous life of ‘balls, receptions and flirtations.’ She did not know quite how to live out her faith – but she intended to help some people along the way. So began her life as a dedicated and selfless Christian philanthropist.
Aggie was never scared to give things a go and having excelled at organ lessons in her local church she was taken on as a pupil organist at Gloucester cathedral, again most unusual for a woman of her time. This skill stayed with her through the years and her own organ was later a feature in her first Sailor’s Rest.
Her desire to help people in practical ways led Agnes on an interesting journey. As a Sunday School teacher, she felt drawn to the 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.
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. The first person she met in Devonport was a pretty fair-haired lady by the name of Sophia Wintz. They quickly became good friends and business partners and continued to work together until Agnes died almost 50 years later.
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, Agnes and Sophia set up a meeting room for them in Sophia’s mother’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 was slow to respond to the request because she could see the difficulties that would arise, and the level of commitment that would be required. She recognised that if she was to make this pioneering venture work then she would have to give it 100%. By her nature, she could not start it without committing 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 taverns were closed in the face of the competition, and taken over by Aggie to provide yet more facilities. The value of the Rests was recognised 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 too. 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. In her autobiography, she noted that “my work is, to say the least, varied, and the spirit of love, and I hope common sense, runs through it like a thread of gold.” 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.’