Today marks the 176th birthday of the founder of Aggie’s, Dame Agnes Weston. Agnes Weston was a woman of devout faith. She set her heart on serving God, which dictated the life she led. She was dedicated to seeing lives of serving men and women, and their families, enhanced and improved. Dame Agnes Weston’s compassion found her affectionately known as Aggie’s, a name this charity proudly carries today. The work we do as a charity is shaped by the compassion, determination and actions of this great woman. We are celebrating Agnes Weston, by remembering some of the pivotal moments of her life.
Agnes Weston was born on 28th March 1840 as the daughter of a barrister. Many might think that she was born into a great seafront town, alive and swarming with ships and sailors, but in Agnes’ words this was not the case: “It may seem to some that I was born within the sound of the boatswain’s whistle, and the morning and evening gun, but it was not so. Dear smoky old London was my birthplace.” When Agnes was five, her family moved to Bath, and she was educated in various private schools. Agnes was a hard worker, and persevered with her studies to eventually leave school having carried the coveted title of head girl.
Agnes always felt obliged to go to church, but found herself drawn into Christ, and subsequently living a life of new meaning as a follower of God. She had great talent and passion for playing the organ. Her father even provided an organ for her, which found its way into the Sailor’s Rest in Devonport. She found herself to be one of the first females placed under the teaching of Dr S.S. Wesley, a renowned organist.
By the year 1868, Agnes was actively involved in various forms of Christian work. She received permission to visit patients at the Bath United Hospital, and held a short service in each ward once a week. After the short service was over, she would have many talks with individuals in the ward, and in her compassionate way, even present them with a bundle of flowers each. Agnes also taught classes at the Beacon Hill Sunday School, and she particularly enjoyed working with the more difficult individuals. Her class of senior lads, enjoyed her teaching so much that they insisted on remaining with her. This work turned into a Working-Men’s Bible Class, and Prayer Meeting, and it was at this time, that Agnes became an advocate for temperance. Agnes herself was not totally abstinent from the odd drink, but she was one day challenged after appealing for men to sign a pledge of abstinence from drink. From this day, Agnes herself vowed not to touch a drink again, a vow which she stuck to. With the help of her good friend Sophia Wintz, they saw a branch of the Royal Navy Temperance Society, represented in every ship in the service. Over 6000 pledges were taken in Devonport and Portsmouth alone.
In 1865, Miss Weston was approached to write letters of suitable reading material to Christian soldiers once a month. Agnes gladly accepted the offer, and her letters became so popular among soldiers, that a troopship steward named George Brown requested correspondence from Miss Weston as well. He described what the moments were like for him when he received his letters: “When I saw its kind and loving words, I went down on my knees, and thanked God that He had given me a Christian friend at last, in place of my dead mother”. Inevitably, word spread of Agnes’ letters, until she was producing 1500 a month for sailors and marines.
The first of the Royal Sailors rests was in Devonport close to the gates of the Dockyard, and opened officially on the 8th May, 1876. Agnes found the perfect building to accommodate the rest, and as news of Agnes’ project spread, sailors themselves sent their savings, in order for her to purchase the building for her work. The various Royal Sailor's Rests came as a result of a request for a temperance house, a “bar without drink”, that the sailor could go to for recreation and relaxation. The success of the Devonport Sailor's Rest led to a similar project being opened in Portsmouth in 1881, to provide baths, lodgings and recreational activities and facilities. Agnes and Sophia felt that these facilities would help to combat alcoholism in the sailors and keep them from causing mischief on the streets. Rests were also opened at Portland and Sheerness. The Rests were intended to be self-funding once they had been set up through public subscription. Soon they were able to house 900 men at Devonport and 700 at Portsmouth. To add to the satisfaction gained from the success of the Rests, several pubs had been closed and demolished due to lack of custom. The Rests were well appreciated! The captain of a training ship told Agnes, “Your Sailor’s Rest, is like a magnet. No matter where the boys land, they make for it!” Agnes didn’t forget about the sailor out at sea despite her dedication to those ashore. She printed a monthly letter for distribution among the ships, and also published a journal, Ashore & Afloat, to encourage Christian beliefs, and temperance.
Agnes was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1918. However, she died shortly after receiving this award on 23 October 1918 at Devonport. She was the first woman to be buried with full naval honours, a recognition she rightly deserved.
This year, Aggie’s will be celebrating 140 years of providing support, accommodation, and care to sailors, marines and their families. We regularly hear of memories of the Royal Sailors Rests, and of Dame Agnes, and how her work touched the lives of so many. To celebrate this millstone in the charity, we are looking back on the ever changing work of Aggie Weston’s and how the Charity has made a difference to the lives of serving personnel, past and present. We would love to hear from you and the memories you have of life in the rests, or how the work of this charity has impacted you. Please get in touch by using the form on the Contact Us page or commenting below. We look forward to hearing from you, and celebrating 140 years of Aggie’s.