‘Mothering Sunday’ has long been observed in the UK, particularly England, its roots being in the practices of the Catholic and Anglican religions.  It’s the fourth Sunday in Lent, which is three weeks before Easter Sunday, a date calculated by reference to the lunar calendar.  On Mothering Sunday people would visit their ‘mother’ church, which could be the church in which they were christened or their local parish church, or perhaps the nearest cathedral, the cathedral being the mother church to the parish churches within its diocese.  It became practice to allow servants the day off so that they could return to their mother church and in doing so visit their families, often some distance away.

Quite separately, during the nineteenth century there were attempts to establish a Mother’s Day in the USA, largely as a pacifist response to the suffering endured during the American Civil War.  Ann Jarvis had established Mother’s Day Work Clubs to improve sanitation and health in both Union and Confederate camps during a typhoid outbreak, and in 1868 she organised a committee to establish a Mother’s Friendship Day to reunite families divided by the Civil War.  There were various local observances during the 1870s and 1880s, but nothing took off nationally.  On 2 June 1872 Julia Ward Howe led a Mother’s Day For Peace anti-war observance in New York in response to both the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War.  Her Mother’s Day Proclamation was an appeal to womanhood throughout the world to unite for peace. When Ann Jarvis died in 1905 her daughter, Anna Jarvis, began a campaign in her honour to have the second Sunday in May declared Mother’s Day.  Although it was the intention to celebrate all mothers the day was to designated Mother’s Day rather than Mothers’ Day because each person was to celebrate their own mother rather than mothers in general.  By 1911 all of the US states were honouring the day, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as a national holiday honouring mothers.

The movement attracted international attention.  In April 1909 The Bolton Evening News reported that fifty million people across the United States were expected to be celebrating Mother’s Day by wearing a white carnation as a symbol of filial love.  The Commanders-in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic and of the Sons of Veterans were calling upon all members to wear the white carnation.  The 11 August 1911 edition of the Kilburn Times reported on the American phenomenon and Miss Anna Jarvis’ role in its promotion.  The paper reported that "in addition to the general distribution of white carnations, Miss Jarvis has urged the personal observance of the day through some distinct kindness - as shown by a little gift, a message of comfort, a visit or a letter; and the carrying out of this idea of service has brought practical happiness to thousands of homes.".  The Yorkshire Telegraph and Star reported on Friday 16 May 1913 “Sunday next is to be observed as “Mother’s Day” in this country.  The movement has met with great popularity in America and in the Dominions, and there is every indication that the idea will be cordially taken up here.”  The move within the UK was being headed up by the Y.M.C.A., whose secretary, Mr J J Virgo, was described as having experience of the movement in Australia and elsewhere.  Mr Virgo explained that they would be asking each of their members to “observe four points on Sunday”.  Each man was to wear a white flower in memory of his mother, to visit or write to her that day, to place white flowers on her grave if she were dead, and spend some time reflecting on his life and where he stood, or would stand, in his mother’s eyes. The Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser reported that over five hundred young men attended the meeting at the Central Y.M.C.A. in Tottenham Court Road to inaugurate an annual Mothers’ Day in England.

On 2 May 1917 the Leeds Mercury reported that on 6 May members of the local branch of the Salvation Army would be celebrating mother’s day, “now an annual institution with Salvationists throughout the United Kingdom”.  The paper commented that mothers’ day had originated in the States, but had now spread to Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, China, Africa and Palestine.  The Jarrow Express explained that children observed the day by presenting their mothers with a white flower as an emblem of the purity and fidelity of motherhood, and attached to the flower was a card inviting the mother to attend the Salvationist meetings of the day.  The purpose of the day was twofold: to foster filial affection in children, and to remind mothers of the sacredness and responsibility of their role.  While the Salvationists and other non-conformist assemblies were quietly getting on with their annual May Mother’s Day celebrations a different Mother’s Day was being more noisily promoted.

John Alexander Whitehead had been living in the United States since the 1890s but in 1914 he returned to London, the city of his birth.  Whitehead seems to have been a man with considerable powers of persuasion, and a relentless self publicist.  As outlined in the Environment Trust blog “John Alexander Whitehead, The Hanworth Years”, Whitehead, a carpenter, somehow won a contract from the Ministry of Munitions to build six aeroplanes and went on to establish two factories producing planes for the war effort.  Although he was building Sopwith Scout planes his publicity unabashedly referred to them as Whitehead Scouts.  In 1916 Whitehead began to promote the idea of Mother’s Day.  Although his Mother’s Day ideas were built substantially on the American scheme, it was promoted as a way of honouring those women whose sons were serving or had been killed in the War.  Even allowing for the high sentiment of the time the speed with which his idea took hold is remarkable.

A small item appeared in various newspapers around the country on 23 June 1916 announcing “Mothers Day is the most recent idea in wartime kindness.  It is the idea of Mr J A Whitehead, the aeroplane manufacturer, of Richmond, who wishes everyone to realise what is due to the mothers of the Empire.” Anyone interested in the idea was asked to write to the Hon. Secretary, Mr J P H Bewsher, at 47 Fleet Street.  The article sought people willing to act as local honorary secretaries.  In Folkestone the item reached the press through the Mayor, who endorsed the idea, requesting that prospective honorary secretaries contact him direct.  The 8th of August was selected to be the date of celebration as it was the new bank holiday which had been granted to make up for the loss of Whitsun. (In May 1916 the Government had cancelled all holidays until after the end of July so as not to interfere with the supply of munitions.)  By a curious coincidence 8 August was also Whitehead’s birthday, and it was made clear that this date was be fixed as the annual date for celebration of Mother’s Day. 

The coverage in the Pall Mall Gazette that day gave Whitehead himself rather more prominence:-

“MOTHERS’ DAY - A Richmond Man’s Proposal.

In these days of “days” it is a bold soul who suggests another.  Yet so greatly daring is Mr J A Whitehead, the aeroplane builder, of Richmond, but he has more than the courage of his convictions, for, in creating a new day, he alone pays all the expenses of the organisation.

He thinks that possibly the nation does not fully realise what is due to the mothers of the Empire, and therefore he desires that on Tuesday, August 8, every man and woman shall show some special act of devotion to a mother, not necessarily his or her mother, but, in particular, a needy mother who has lost her husband or son in the great war. 

To further his ideal Mr. Whitehead has opened an office at 47, Fleet-street, and he will be delighted to hear from anyone who is impressed with his Mothers’ Day movement."

On 12 July 1916 the Tatler carried a full page advertisement headed in large bold print “MOTHER’S DAY, What Is Due To The Mothers Of The Empire”.  It continued “Everyone in the United Kingdom: Everyone in the Colonies: Every Britisher throughout the World is asked to unite in this glorious idea on August 8, and make a point of doing SOME ACT OF KINDNESS (in his or her own way) IN HONOUR OF MOTHER.”  Similarly to the May Mother’s Day, there were suggestions of things to do on the day.  You could invite some mothers to spend the day at your home, or you could take them out to the country; perhaps give a small tea party; pay some bills or back rent; make a gift of clothing or a week’s supply of food; or perhaps just a kind word.  The advertisement included a photograph of Whitehead and his family together with a number of people who had taken part in a river trip for two hundred mothers which he had organised earlier as a trial run. Whitehead was identified as “the Founder”  of the idea, and it was stated that the Founder was paying the cost of administration of Mother’s Day and had appointed a “competent staff” to deal with the “enormous” correspondence received since the idea was publicised in the press.  Furthermore, Mr Whitehead had decided to print an eight-page pamphlet with ‘particulars of the inception and realisation’, which would be provided free to enquirers.

The next day The Pall Mall Gazette included a brief item announcing that the Lord Mayor of London had consented to become the chief patron of Mothers’ Day.  “Mr J A Whitehead, of Richmond, hopes that on this occasion everyone will make a special effort to do a kindness to a mother, especially the mother who is suffering as a result of the war.  No flags will be sold and no collections taken, Mr Whitehead is paying all the costs of administration as a tribute to the mothers of the Empire.

Perhaps the most extraordinary manifestation of the sweep of this movement was the announcement in The Sporting Times of 5 August that in honour of Mothers’ Day Messrs Ascherberg, Hopwood, and Crew, music publishers, of Mortimer Street, had dedicated a new song, “M-O-T-H-E-R”, to Mr J A Whitehead, of Richmond, the founder of the day.  “M-O-T-H-E-R” would be sung on the coming Sunday at the Palladium by Miss Annie Rees, and on Tuesday 8 August the song was to be played on 6,000 gramophones in music shops all over the Kingdom.  (There is on YouTube a recording of a song called “M-O-T-H-E-R (a word that means the world to me)” from 1916 but it is a different song.  There are also recordings of Annie Rees, but no recordings of the song dedicated Whitehead.)

On the day itself the Pall Mall Gazette reported that three hundred London mothers selected by the Mothers Union from all parts of London, mostly elderly and all in mourning, had been entertained at Hanworth Park by J A Whitehead, who provided them with lunch, tea, and a programme of amusements.  Fortunately Pathé news was there to catch the action, and their film “Mother’s Day - 300 Mothers at Hanworth Park 1916)" can be seen on their website.  The man with a dark tie tied in a long loose bow is J A Whitehead.  Inevitably Whitehead laid on a display of aerial acrobatics featuring his daring test pilot, Herbert Sykes, and, of course, “M-O-T-H-E-R” was sung.





Bewsher, and perhaps other local organisers, were assiduous in keeping the campaign going the following year.  The Belfast News Letter of 4 August 1917 reported “Founded by Mr J A Whitehead, of Richmond, “Mother’s Day” which was so successful last year is to be celebrated all over the country on the 8th inst.  Many Mayors have signified their willingness to assist the movement, which is to perpetuate the memory of mothers of soldiers and sailers annually on August 8.  Special sermons are to be preached in many churches tomorrow advocating the excellent idea of “honouring your mother” whilst over 500 cinemas will screen an appeal for this object.  No Money is asked for, but the secretary, Mr J P H Bewsher, of 173 St James Road, Croydon, will willingly give all details to those desirous of helping forward this admirable movement”.  The Hull Daily Mail of the same date reported “About a year ago the idea of “Mother’s Day was originated to do honour to the mothers of England by setting apart one day on which without any appeal to sect or creed, any selling of flags or jingling of collection boxes, each might stand still for a moment in the hurry and bustle of every day life and think without fear of false sentiment of the debt he owned his mother.  … …   The Queen has intimated that she fully sympathises with the objects and wishes those associated with it every success in their efforts.  Queen Alexandra has also expressed her sympathy.”

The day itself was a Wednesday, but there was a strongly orchestrated lead up.  On the Saturday Annie Rees sang “Down In The Dear Old Home” at the Palladium, a song specially composed for the occasion by Archibald Joyce and dedicated to Whitehead.  The following day the Palladium’s Sunday League concert programme included “a series of pictures referring to the day” and an explanatory speech about the movement.  It was reported that over three hundred fêtes were organised to take place on the Wednesday (Middlesex Chronicle 4 August 1917).  Whitehead’s personal contribution to the day was to take two hundred women, all over the age of sixty and all mothers of men fighting in France, for a trip up the river.  The trip started from Westminster Pier at 9am and arrived at Whitehead’s home, Buccleuch House in Richmond, at 11am.  There, according to the Middlesex Chronicle (11 August 1917), he treated them to “a sumptuous repast”.  Poignantly the paper reported that many of the women had come without breakfast for fear of missing the boat, and one said that she had done her usual day’s work - cleaning four offices - before coming, and had had to start at five o’clock in order to do so.  She said that she was having such a good time that she “had almost forgotten it”.  While the 9 August edition of the Daily Mirror included a demure picture of Whitehead standing with his wife and mother aboard the boat with crew and mothers, the Daily Record of 11 August published a somewhat startling picture of him with his arms round the shoulders of two of the mothers, one of whom he was enthusiastically kissing on the lips.

Press reports of Whitehead’s inspiration for the day ranged somewhat. The 1916 Tatler ad suggested that his inspiration had been an epitaph:  “Many years  ago the founder of Mothers Day read an epitaph in a church yard ‘Here lies a boy who never did or said an unkind thing to his mother’ and resolved to earn such a eulogy.  Another variation was that he had borrowed money from his mother to start his business, and when he had saved up the money to pay her back she refused to take it, so he used the money to create mother’s day instead.   The 1917 Newcastle Daily Journal article said that "when travelling in quest of adventure in little-known countries this idea of honouring the memory of his mother by founding a mothers’ day was ever present with him.  When he had sufficient means he set apart a large sum last year to carry out this cherished project.”

By 1918 the day was less of a novelty and the press coverage reduced.  A letter of support from Queen Alexandra was published, and Whitehead arranged another river trip, this time from Richmond to Hampton Court, stopping on the return at his new home, Poulett Lodge in Twickenham.  The end of the war brought financial ruin for Whitehead, however the 8 August celebration continued until at least the mid 1920s.  Bewsher wrote to the press in 1925 “Mother’s Day was founded in 1916 by Mr J A Whitehead and has been the means of doing very much good throughout the country - in fact throughout the whole world”.

Notwithstanding the attempt to have 8 August enshrined nationally as Mothers’ Day, many other organisations were having their own variations.  Over the years press mentions included soldiers in the Wimbledon YMCA camp on 21 August 1916 either inviting their mothers to tea or writing to them on special notepaper provided for the purpose; Baden Powell’s reminder that 3 September 1917 was Mother’s Day in the Scouting world; a Church Brotherhood celebration on 30 May 1918 when the choice of flowers was “If she lives - flowers bright, if she sleeps - flowers white”; and the Imperial Lady Workers’ “Mothers Day” held on 28 June 1920, the anniversary of Peace Day, when 7,500 parents who lost sons in the war were entertained with music, tea, and a special cinema show in the Albert Hall.  By 1926 things were getting out of hand, with florists offering to send flowers for Sunday 9 May, greetings cards being sold for 24 June, and the confectionery industry discussing the possibility of establishing a day in early October.  Letters began to appear in the press pointing out that Mothers’ Day, or Mothering Sunday, was a custom “as old as the hills” and deriding the search for novelty in these new mothers’ days.  There had also been criticism of the model used by Whitehead and others as patronising and trivialising of the women and the difficulties they faced.

So eventually we came full circle, back to movable Mothering Sunday, but now with added flowers, greeting cards, and sweets.

Herbert Sykes “doing something for Mother” with his ariel acrobatics at the Mothers’ Day celebrations, Hanworth Park, 8 August 1916. FLIGHT Magazine 17 August 1916. Image courtesy FlightGlobal: part of RBI, reedbusiness.com
Top image: Anne Logie
Sources: Wikipedia, British Newspaper Online Archive

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