Canadian Lance Corporal James Muth was lying on a hospital bed in London recovering from yet another operation on his leg when a nurse came by with an unusual question.
It was September, 1918, and Cpl. Muth’s body had been ravaged from fighting on the front lines at Vimy Ridge and Amiens in France. He’d been shot in the jaw and shrapnel from a shell had torn apart his left leg, thigh and hands. Now, as he recuperated in a Canadian military hospital in Orpington, in southeast London, a nurse wanted to know if he would take part in a new therapy: embroidery.
Medical staff saw needlework as a revolutionary way of helping injured soldiers regain dexterity in their hands and calm their rattled nerves. The Royal School of Needlework had designed a giant floral tapestry for the front of the main altar at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and it was looking for wounded soldiers to work on different sections.
The 25-year-old had never picked up a needle or thread while growing up in Port Dover, Ont., but he embraced the project. Soon he was embroidering a 14-inch tulip, carefully working on different shades of green.
“I was the only one in that big hospital with a thousand in it that could shade the leaves the way she wanted it,” he proudly recalled in a tape recording made by his family before he died in 1976. “There’s three different colours of green to work in, from dark to a real light … . It looked dandy.”
One hundred thirty-eight injured Allied soldiers, including 14 Canadians, worked on the tapestry. It was finished in July, 1919, in time for a special service at St. Paul’s to mark the end of the war. But new information suggests those who worked on it aren’t the tapestry’s only connection to Canada.
The tapestry was stored away in 1940 at the outbreak of the Blitz. When the Second World War ended, it had been forgotten and cathedral officials thought it had been destroyed when bombs hit St. Paul’s.
It would have remained lost if not for archivist Nigel Venus. In 2004, Mr. Venus was working on a book about the Royal Star and Garter Home, a First World War military hospital in London, when he came across a brief mention in the hospital’s archives of injured soldiers working on a tapestry for St. Paul’s.
No one at the cathedral knew anything about it but they invited Mr. Venus to come and search. He found the tapestry wrapped in a dusty chest. “They were really surprised,” he recalled. “It was really quite a discovery.”
The cathedral spent years restoring the tapestry and it returned to the altar in 2014 for a service to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. After the service, it was put in a display case near the front of the cathedral.
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There wasn’t much information about the men who’d worked on it or why it had been commissioned. So, the cathedral put out a call for help tracking down more details. The challenge intrigued Jane Robinson, a retired translator and church volunteer who’d had experience searching naval records. “I was just going to have a little dabble,” she recalled with a laugh. “Here I am, four years later, still at it.”
Ms. Robinson combed through service records for information about the soldiers and people at hospitals who might have come up with the idea. It was no easy task. The soldiers came from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, making record searches difficult and many of the people involved with the hospitals were Lords and Ladies who kept quiet about their philanthropy.
She eventually found a key link to Sir Arthur Stanley. He was the son of Lord Stanley of Preston who served as governor-general of Canada from 1888 to 1893 and who donated the Stanley Cup. Sir Arthur spent his teenage years in Canada, sharing his father’s love of hockey and playing for the Rideau Rebels. He returned to Britain in 1893 and later won election as a member of Parliament.
During the First World War he was head of the British Red Cross and chairman of the Royal Star and Garter Home, where soldiers made some of the tapestry pieces. His mother’s family also ran a military hospital in Scotland where a handful of soldiers worked on the tapestry.
Ms. Robinson believes Sir Arthur commissioned the project and got Canadian soldiers involved from the start in early 1918. “That’s what underpins my research … that it’s actually a personal project by Sir Arthur,” she said, adding she’s still trying to verify more information.
And she’s found one more Canadian connection. One of the needlework teachers at Orpington was Princess Patricia, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria and namesake of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. A newspaper article from 1919 shows a picture of the princess embroidering with injured soldiers at the hospital, noting she was particularly interested in helping Canadians from the regiment bearing her name.
Now the tapestry is on the altar once again this week in honour of the 100th anniversary of the end of the war. The cathedral is marking the anniversary with a series of services including one involving 1,500 schoolchildren who have studied the soldiers who embroidered it.
Mr. Muth never got to see the final work but his granddaughter, Anna Alonso, will be at the cathedral on Sunday for a Remembrance Day service along with her brother, James Muth, who is the commanding officer of Canadian Special Operations Forces.
Ms. Alonso remembers her grandfather as a quiet family man who worked as a carpenter in Port Dover. He struggled with wartime injuries all his life but rarely spoke about the conflict. “He still worked on embroidery later in life,” she recalled from her home in Mulmur, Ont., north of Toronto.
Ms. Alonso saw the tapestry for the first time in 2014 and is looking forward to seeing it again.
“I think it will be even more meaningful,” she said. “The older I get the more I realize it wasn’t that long ago.”