Project Canterbury

Charles Fuge Lowder

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

IN the year 1820 a young wife, shortly expecting to become a mother, prayed thus daily for her yet unborn child: 'Bless it, O God, in mind as well as in body; endue it with understanding capable of knowing thee; with a heart strongly bent to fear thee; and with all those holy and good dispositions that may make it always pleasing in thy sight. Make me a joyful mother of a hopeful child who may live to be an instrument to thy glory, and, by serving thee faithfully and doing good in its generation, may finally be received into thine everlasting kingdom.' And this touching prayer was answered in the fullest manner by the birth and life of Charles Lowder, who was destined to be the founder of the first Home Mission in the Church of England, and to exercise great and wide-reaching influence in the Catholic Revival.

The first-born of his parents, Charles and Susan Lowder, Charles first saw the light at Bath on June 22, 1820, and in the following month was baptized, receiving as his second name his mother's maiden name. His parents, we are told by one who enjoyed their friendship, were a remarkably 'beautiful' couple in that true sense of beauty which bespeaks nobility of character, sanctified by grace as well as in the ordinary sense of physical form. Mr. Lowder was partner in the Old Bath Bank, and a comparatively rich man, which enabled him to do much for the poor of the city, so that he was often and deservedly spoken of as 'the poor man's friend.' The failure of his bank some years later deprived him of wealth and worldly position in the heyday of health and vigorous usefulness; but the affliction was borne with exemplary patience and resignation to the Divine Will.

Charles, we are told, was a very sweet, bright, and courteous little fellow, and every inch a boy. His bodily strength and activity kept pace with mental growth. His sister says that he was looked upon as leader among his companions and was foremost in all sports, and she recalls how he used to march out at the head of his schoolfellows valiant and radiant of face, armed with a wooden sword to defend or attack the lion's den in the pretty village of Charlecombe, near Bath, where he lived.

When seven years old he was sent out to school, and his letters to his mother when he was only nine show the beginning of that interest in politics which became keen in his youth and early manhood. In 1835 he passed on to King's College School in London, under the head-mastership of Dr. Major, who wrote of his pupil's 'steadiness of character and fixedness of principle, based, I am convinced, upon a firmer foundation than mere human strength, which will enable him to resist successfully the temptations with which his career may be beset.'

It was not until October, 1836, when he was sixteen years old, that he was confirmed, an extraordinarily late age as we now regard it; but in those days bishops would not accept young candidates, even though, as in the case of Charles, evidence of preparedness was abundant at a much younger age.


At King's College he won an honourable position, standing at his final examination first in theology, second in classics and in German, and sixth in mathematics. It was during this period of his career that he had the advantage of being brought into close contact with the two distinguished men who succeeded, in turn, as principals of the college--Hugh James Rose and Dr. Lonsdale, afterwards Bishop of Lichfield.

He left King's in 1829, and before proceeding to Oxford made, in the company of his father and an old friend, his first acquaintance with the Continent, which he visited again and again with ever-increasing interest until, as it fell out, his earthly pilgrimage was brought to a close amid the mountains of the Austrian Tyrol which he knew and loved so well.

In February, 1840, Charles entered Exeter College, Oxford, having the previous year unsuccessfully competed for a scholarship at University College. No sooner had he gone into residence at Oxford than he came under the influence of the three great leaders of the Catholic Revival, which was then in its very flower and vigorous freshness--Pusey, Keble, and Newman--although their teaching was no novelty to him, but was rather the strengthening and filling in of outlines already familiar.

Before one-half of his University career was passed a severe and searching trial befell him and his family in the failure, as before mentioned, of the Old Bath Bank, in which his father was partner. Although it was caused by misplaced confidence in others, and not the slightest reflection rested on the integrity of any of the partners, the distressing fact remained that the Bank had failed, and that the means of providing for their families was gone. It was only by the generosity of a family friend that Charles was enabled to continue and conclude his University education; and by the generous kindness of the same friend he spent the long vacation of 1842 with a reading party at Heidelberg.

At Easter, 1843, Lowder took his degree, his name appearing in the Classical List among the second-class men, and he was then persuaded to try for a college Fellowship, in which, however, he was defeated by Lord Coleridge, who afterwards became Lord Chief Justice. Soon after taking his degree he accepted the offer of a title for deacon's Orders from Lord John Thynne, Rector of Walton-cum-Street, near Glastonbury, and Sub-Dean of Westminister, and on September 24, 1843, he was made a deacon by Bishop Denison of Salisbury.

While at Walton the desire for the life of a missionary was developed, and he proposed to his family that they should all emigrate to New Zealand, and work there as a Christian family for their maintenance, he devoting himself to the duties of his spiritual calling. The scheme met with ready approval, but there arose practical obstacles to its accomplishment, and the idea had to be abandoned.

The young deacon was advanced to the priesthood on December 22,1844, in Wells Cathedral, by Bishop Denison of Salisbury, acting for the aged and infirm diocesan, Bishop Law, who, by the way, lived with and was tenderly cared for by Mr. and Mrs. Lowder during the last three years of his life. Immediately after his ordination as priest, Charles entered zealously upon his new duties as chaplain to the Axbridge Workhouse, a post undertaken temporarily with the bishop's permission, while the plans for the family's migration were maturing, plans which, as was seen above, failed to materialize.

During the few months of his chaplaincy, which only lasted until the following September, Lowder directed his special efforts with conspicuous success to the improvement of the Workhouse schools, the beginning of interest in the important work of education which advancing years increased rather than diminished, and which induced him to apply for the then recently founded office of Government Inspector of Schools; but this he failed to obtain, in spite of high recommendations from his bishop and vicar.

Soon after leaving Axbridge, he was appointed to the senior curacy under the Revd. John Frampton, Vicar of Tetbury, which enabled him to provide a home for his parents and sisters in the Old Vicarage House, in which the reunited family lived happily for the next five years. While there, on his initiative, many improvements in the services of the Church were effected, including the daily public recitation of the choir offices, a point upon which he always held strong views. He also introduced public catechizing. One who knew him at that time wrote after his death: 'I well remember the first time I saw that beautiful, noble face. He was not only a perfect saint in his life, but he was so good with children, and full of playfulness towards them. All the time he was leading a life of holiness quite different from most other men.' His love of children was a marked characteristic of his whole life. 'God made flowers and children to make the world beautiful' he used to say, and his love for both never lessened.

In 1847 the Bishop of Cape Town invited Lowder to take charge of Port Natal, which the bishop described as 'a most spiritually destitute place, but a most promising opening for missionary efforts,' and this proved to be a tempting offer to the young priest, whose missionary ardour had not abated; but it was not to be. He yielded his inclinations and deferred to the judgment of those whom he consulted when they advised him that his duty to his parents required his remaining in England, and so the offer was reluctantly declined. Perhaps, if he ever allowed himself to think of himself, he was in later years thankful to have escaped being under the episcopal authority of the notoriously heretical Bishop Colenso.


In his book Twenty-One Years in St. George's Mission, Fr. Lowder tells how he was attracted to London work, and, in particular, how he ardently desired to be associated with the experiment being tried at St. Barnabas', Pimlico, of establishing parish work on collegiate lines; and how remarkably his desire was realized. He accepted a curacy at St. Barnabas' while the disgraceful Protestant riots were in full swing, which continued with almost unabated fury for ten months.

In connexion with the riots occurred an episode which influenced his whole after-life. The choir boys, inflamed by the sight of 'Vote for Westerton,' an avowed and antagonistic Protestant churchwarden, carried by a 'sandwichman,' and conceiving a fierce desire to do battle with the innocent bearer of the obnoxious placard, entreated to be allowed to throw something at the man. Charles bade them not to throw stones or anything that would hurt, but he gave them sixpence to buy stale eggs as missiles. The boys were not slow in carrying on the war in Ebury Street, and the bespattered 'sandwich' naturally complained to his employers, who speedily invoked the aid of the law against the assailants and their instigator.

Lowder took upon himself all the blame of inciting the youngsters, and when before the magistrate, he publicly repeated his admission of indiscretion and his profound sorrow for it, which he had already made privately, and the case was dismissed with more than acquiescence on the part of the prosecution; but in the then state of affairs at St. Barnabas', his fault was more than ordinarily full of mischievous consequences and distress to his colleagues and superiors. The newspapers made large capital out of the occurrence, and Bishop Blomfield took the matter up with great severity, suspending him from the exercise of his ministry for a period of six weeks.

To this harsh sentence he submitted in all humility, and wrote thus to his Bishop: 'Feeling as I do most deeply the sin of causing this scandal to the Church, I am almost thankful to be allowed to bear some ecclesiastical punishment at your Lordship's hands.' The letter (of which this is but a short quotation) seems to have touched the Bishop, who replied: 'I hasten to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, which is in all respects what it ought to be.' The Revd. W. J. E. Bennett at once wrote to him: 'Take heart and be not dispirited. I do not see that anything done by you in this affair involves an iota more than thoughtless indiscretion.' But the little episode of the 'ovation,' as the Bishop playfully called it in private, was for long a sore subject to Lowder, and one of which he never ceased to be heartily ashamed.

Soon after the sentence of suspension was imposed, Lowder betook himself to the Continent on a visit, which in his mind was a pilgrimage of penance and humiliation in reparation for the great offence which he keenly felt he had committed against the Church, but which to all those acquainted with the circumstances appeared nothing more than a boyish prank.

On arrival at Rouen on May 22, 1854, he wrote to his mother: 'It is a great deprivation to be away from dear St. Barnabas'; however, I must bear it patiently, as it is only my own fault.' Part of his time in France was spent at Yvetot in Normandy, and at the Petit Seminaire, a school for boys, where he was the guest of the Superior, the Revd. M. 1'Abbe P .L. Labbe, to whom he had introductions and by whom he was warmly received. One day in the library of the Seminary, he took up the biography of St. Vincent de Paul, the perusal of which so fascinated him that long afterwards he wrote of the deep impressions made upon his mind by the life and work of the great French churchman, and from that moment he registered his great resolve that henceforth his life should be devoted to work for and among the virtual heathen of the London slums; but not yet had come the definite call to labour in the East End.

When the six weeks' suspension was over he returned to St. Barnabas', but with a somewhat unsettled mind, as the thought of joining some kind of community of mission priests had taken hold of him, and although he performed his parochial duties with the same thoroughness as heretofore, it was with a growing conviction that the time was not far distant when his aspirations would be realized.

'It was not until the early part of 1856 that Father Lowder, while still attached to St. Barnabas', began his great life-work which made his name famous throughout the English-speaking world, but the exigencies of space put the story of St. George's Mission outside the present booklet, though it may be stated that the Mission was projected under the aegis of the Society of the Holy Cross, which a year or two previously Father Lowder had helped to found, and of which he was Superior (technically, Master) for a year, the office being an annual appointment. The actual life of 'The Father' (as later on he began affectionately to be called) and the history of his Mission are so interwoven that it is all one story, though in this booklet only the more personal features of his biography can be recorded.

Before proceeding farther it will not be out of place to interpose some notes of historical interest.

Within a few months of his return from his 'banishment,' Lowder assisted in the formation of a branch of the Guild of St. Alban, in Pimlico, from which he hoped great results. The establishment of a guild was in itself a bold thing to do in those days, and shows that the young priest was not to be deterred through fears of public opinion from making use of any opportunities presenting themselves.

It is also interesting to note that, before settling down in the East End, he attended at Dr. Pusey's house one of the very earliest of the Retreats for clergy ever held in the English Church, which have since become an established and widespread practice throughout the Anglican Communion.

A few years later, at Bedminster, near Bristol, he organized and conducted the first parochial Mission ever held in an English parish. His biographer says: 'His lack of eloquence makes his success in mission work all the more remarkable. It may have been that, as a layman observed, "the people had heard others call them brethren from the pulpit; they had never before seen anyone else become so truly and really a brother, living among them in poverty and wholly at their call and service, but Mr. Lowder was indeed their servant, as he was the servant of Christ."'

In the following Advent (of 1862) he assisted at the inauguration of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, of which he had the honour of being, with the late saintly Canon Carter, one of the founders.

In 1874 he formed one of a deputation from the E.C.U. to the Archbishop to protest against the Public Worship Regulation Act, but sorrowfully admits that little impression was made on his Grace.


The St. George's Mission, inaugurated on February 6, 1856, was conducted at first by clergy living at a distance; but in July of the same year, the newly appointed head resigned his curacy in the West End, and entered on permanent residence in Wapping, and plunged at once into the work of initiating and organizing the many activities which came into being as the Mission developed.

The coming of the Mission, to which was assigned the two outlying parts of the large parish of St. George-in-the-East, greatly strengthened the hands of the rector, the Rev. Bryan King, who for fifteen years had been carrying on a heartbreaking struggle to lift his parish out of the condition of terrible neglect, vice, and degradation into which it had fallen (there were 733 houses, of which forty were low beer-shops, and unsavoury dancing saloons, and 145 were houses of ill-fame), and the improvements effected within the first three years after the starting of the Mission so thoroughly alarmed the proprietors of these dens and stirred their hostility that they set to work, successfully, to incite their customers to active opposition to the clergy, and this quickly developed into rioting within the church itself, of a most violent and appalling character.

The rioting went on, Sunday by Sunday, throughout the year, and never a word of sympathy or help came from the Bishop of the diocese, but only reproaches that the clergy would not surrender their principles to mob law; and the police authorities refused the protection to which, at least, as citizens, the clergy were entitled. Peace eventually was attained only by the retirement of the devoted rector.

The outrages and violence and profanation that went on at this time in the sacred name of religion, however, hardly belong to the story of Charles Lowder (even were there space to recount them), as the rioters did not, except on two occasions, invade the mission districts; but its clergy, of course, could not but be adversely and deeply affected by the continued rioting.

In 1866, Father Lowder had the felicity of seeing his ten years' work crowned by the consecration of the permanent Church of St. Peter, but, alas! the rejoicings had scarce eased down when the awful plague of cholera broke out, and a terrible time for the new parish ensued. Prebendary Mackay in his recently published book, Saints and Leaders, writes: 'Of all plagues, this is the most awful, far worse than bubonic plague or the black death. ... In this visitation the Anglo-Catholics won their spurs. Dr. Pusey came down to help; laymen, among them Lord Halifax, came to help Lowder and his priest. Morning after morning they met for Communion in the newly consecrated St. Peter's, and separated for the appalling labours of the day, each recognizing that the day might be his last.

'When, at length, the cholera vanished, it left Lowder completely master of the field. Nobody wanted to attack him or his methods any more. As he was seen time after time, carrying some cholera-stricken child in his arms to the hospital, the people began to call him "Father." Thus was the title "Father" won for the secular clergy; it is a title which they will retain only so long as they are true to his ideal.'


Just prior to Easter, 1868, Father Lowder received a shock by the sudden and entirely unexpected secession to the Roman Church of three of his four assistant clergy, and it so prostrated him that he was unfitted to carry on, and was obliged to go away for four months, Father Benson, the Superior of the Cowley Fathers, as on a former similar occasion, kindly coming to take charge of the parish meanwhile. It was said that Father Lowder never got over this blow, and that it remained engraved on his heart to the day of his death.

In 1871 the Father paid his memorable visit to Oberammergau, and was present at the Passion Play, which so deeply impressed him that he wrote: 'It is very difficult for me to write just after coming from the Passion Play, for it is like coming out of a Retreat. ... I trust I shall always be better for having witnessed it.' A great ambition of his was to make the ascent of the Gross Venediger, a very beautiful snow mountain, and after his visit to Oberammergau he was able to realize his ambition, the ascent being made with Canon Body (the then famous mission preacher) and Mr. Parker. He described the view from the summit as 'a sight never-to-be-forgotten' and then he finished up his holiday by wandering among the Dolomite Mountains, where he witnessed a double rainbow, 'the grandest sight of its kind I have ever seen.'

In January, 1875, his health was so broken that he had to give in, and he again went abroad, where he remained--travelling from place to place--until Easter Day, when he received a telegram saying his sister Kate had died on Easter Eve. He at once set out for home, and travelled three days and nights without stopping, arriving very much knocked up and looking distressingly ill. He very soon broke down again, and was unable to resume residence at the London Docks for many months, but, to be within easy reach of St. Peter's, he made Chislehurst his temporary dwelling-place.

He returned to active work in his parish in 1876, and in the same year made every arrangement to go out to the seat of war (between the Turks and Bulgarians), first proceeding to East Grinstead to organize a band of sisters who had promised to accompany him. But the competent advice that the religious prejudices of the Turks would be stirred up by the sisters' dress prevented the plan being carried out.

On September 9, exactly four years to the very day when his own earthly pilgrimage would end, his venerable and saintly father died in his eighty-seventh year, a loss deeply felt by his eldest son. His sisters being abroad in 1877, he felt that after twenty-one years in East London he might take a long holiday and devote himself to cheering and helping them, but it happened to be a busy year for him in London, and he could not join them until the middle of October. A month before that he wrote: 'I shall be very glad to get off, for I am getting very tired, and though I have been away from home a good deal, I have not had a continuous rest, and the year has been a particularly trying and anxious one.' At last he was able to get away, and, with Lord Nelson's son as companion, he joined his sisters in Italy, and stayed six weeks in Florence, and for the same period in Rome. In the course of his rambles in the Holy City he picked up sufficient pieces of marble to make a credence table there from for St. Peter's sanctuary.

At Easter in the next year he returned to his parish, and in the autumn was greatly heartened by a testimonial of sympathy and confidence in him, signed by 1,700 of his people, as a set-off to the agitation which a 'Wapping Protestant' had engineered against the Vicar of St. Peters, for his 'so-called ritualistic practices, but which the Bishop refused to entertain He threw himself with renewed ardour into his pastoral work, which it delighted nun to take up again, but those about him perceived with sorrow that he was beginning to break; he shrank from society, and seemed soon exhausted if he had to talk much or listen to others. At midsummer in 1870 he took a house at Chislehurst for his sisters and generally slept there two or three nights a week.

On August 2, 1880, he left England on his last holiday, going by way of Treves to Coblentz on the Rhine, visiting many interesting places with his sister Rose, who accompanied him to the Passion Play at Oberammergau, which he enjoyed, though he admitted it had not made the same impression on him as it had done ten years before. This was on August 17 and until September I he did a good deal of walking which his companions thought he thoroughly enjoyed, but he evidently overdid it, and on the 4th arrived at Zell-am-See in heavy rain, alone, wet, and exhausted, and the next day had to keep his bed, suffering from a severe attack of colic. Some friends of his sister quite providentially happened to be staying in the same hotel, and they readily attended him in his illness, which became rapidly worse. At times there was great pain but early on the morning of the 9th, the pain was gone, and on the anniversary of his father's death, in perfect calm and peace, he breathed his last among strangers in a strange land. His body was brought to England and laid to rest at Chislehurst, which had been a second home to him for very many years whenever he was ailing.

This brief and inadequate sketch of the life of one of the many notable and saintly leaders of the Catholic Revival maybe closed with the following quotation from The Life of Charles Lowder, by Miss Trench, which has been freely drawn upon for the particulars recorded in these pages:

'They said who knew the truth, that when the tidings from Zell-am-See reached St. Peter's and spread through court and alley, there were stricken hearts in homes so poor and wretched that they might be thought beyond the sympathies of life, crouching over the few embers of the grate, too crushed to speak, almost too crushed to think, but trying in a dazed way to take in the meaning of the terrible words: "Father Lowder's dead."' And the following from The Church Review of September 24, 1880:

'The funeral of good Father Lowder took place on Friday amidst circumstances and surroundings which are described in another column. We have called it a funeral in compliance with established phraseology but in truth it was a triumphal procession through the crowded streets of East London such as England has never before seen in this nineteenth century.'

Father Lowder is dead, but that he is not forgotten was shown by the pilgrimage on the fiftieth anniversary of his death in 1930, when upwards of 200 persons, on a pouring wet afternoon, stood around his grace in Chislehurst churchyard, to pay loving and grateful homage to his memory.

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