Project Canterbury

James Pollock and His Brother

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

DURING the 'thirties' of last century there was living at Strathallan House, near Derby Castle in the Isle of Man, a retired army officer, one Major Pollock, who had served with distinction under Wellington in the Peninsular War. A cool and intrepid soldier, he is mentioned not infrequently in the military annals of that period. On March 16, 1834, there was born to him and to his wife a son, christened James Samuel; and on May 28, 1836, another son, who received the names of Thomas Benson. They were not his only children, but our immediate concern is with them, because they were destined in after years to be two of the leading pioneers in the cause of the Catholic Revival in a singularly unpromising sphere, the city of Birmingham. From the earliest days the two brothers were unswervingly constant in their companionship and in their affection for one another: to the very end of life, Thomas lost no opportunity of exalting James, and James leaned always on Thomas for sympathy, understanding, and help. Thomas used to relate an incident of their boyhood as demonstrating James' superior truthfulness. 'Tom,' said their father one day, 'did you tie those two cats' tails together?' 'No,' was the answer. 'James, did you?' 'No,' came James' reply, 'but I held them while Tom did.' Both were exceedingly fond of animals in reality, so this incident is not indicative of their characteristics in that direction. Thomas, in particular, had a passion for birds, especially for canaries and sparrows, and many stories of his later life illustrate this. In other ways, too, those early days foreshadowed the reverence for holy things, coupled with a real joy in the simple things of life, which always was a mark of the brothers' characters. If a thing was right, it had to be done: witness their discovery of a desecrated font in use as a horse-trough, and their removal of it (on their own initiative and by their own efforts) to the churchyard near their home.


Both brothers went up to Trinity College, Dublin, where James graduated in 1858 and Thomas in 1859, the latter winning the Vice-Chancellor's prize for English verse. Thomas was actually destined to be a doctor: he studied medicine and walked the London hospitals. His ordination, therefore, was somewhat delayed, though his medical knowledge and training proved a great asset in his pastoral work in after years. James was ordained deacon in 1858 and priest in 1859, working first in the parish of Bowdon in Cheshire. Three years after, his brother Thomas also felt the call to Orders. He threw up his medical studies, and was made deacon in 1861 and priest in 1862, serving first the curacy of St. Luke's, Leek, and then that of St. Thomas', Stamford Hill, where he remained till 1865. Meanwhile, James had gone to Birmingham at the end of 1860 as curate of St. Paul's in the jewellery quarter of that city. He has himself described the depressing effect of his first service in the huge, bare Georgian church; it was the Sunday after Christmas, and the parish had a devout but semi-invalid vicar, totally unable to deal with the population of 16,000. A sparse congregation was scattered drearily over a church seated (with its galleries) for nearly 2,000 people, and though there were daily services, there were almost daily funerals also. James Pollock started a mission-room, but after a year's work he broke down in health and was compelled to leave. He was ordered a year's rest, resuming pastoral work in the parish of St. John the Evangelist, Hammersmith, in 1863.

Eighteen months later the call came to return to Birmingham, which had always been in his thoughts since his year at St. Paul's. Dr. Oldknow, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Bordesley, offered him the charge of a mission district in the parish in the neighbourhood of Leopold Street. He accepted, and arrived on June 28, 1865. In the September of that year, when the mission church was opened, Thomas came to stay for a fortnight with his brother--he stayed for thirty years. The great work of the brothers' lives had begun.


Birmingham presented then, as it always has done, a rather unusually unpromising field for Catholicism. A mere group of villages during the later Middle Ages, it had not become a borough even by the time of the Stuarts, despite an increasing importance as a trade centre. It was therefore a haven of refuge for the Nonconformists, who could not (under the Five-Mile Act) hold their conventicles in such Midland boroughs as Worcester and Leicester. Unitarians and the Society of Friends in particular migrated to Birmingham in large numbers, and their descendants remain to this day among the most powerful influences in affairs civic and religious. In other ways Birmingham's rise to the position (by population) of the second city in the Empire has been due to the Industrial Revolution, with all its materialism and its attendant evils of slums and overcrowding. At the time of the arrival of the Pollock brothers, their vicar, Dr. Oldknow, stood almost alone in Birmingham in proclaiming and practising English Catholicism. Other churches were beginning to show the influence of the revival, and feeling their way cautiously to daily services and weekly early Communion; but Dr. Oldknow, arriving in the year (1841), which saw the publication of Tract 90, had by his eloquence and learning, and in the teeth of the bitterest controversy, maintained the first definite Catholic outpost in the Church of England in Birmingham for nearly a quarter of a century before the Pollocks joined him. To him must always be given the honour of leading the way of the revival in Birmingham, and to him, humanly speaking, was due the fact that the Pollocks' work was done in Birmingham. It would be difficult to say where and when the spirit of the revival first touched them, born as they were in the Isle of Man, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin; it is enough for our purpose that when they came to Bordesley they came full, not only of zeal for the conversion of men's souls and the care of their bodies, but whole-heartedly in sympathy with the theology and practice of the man with whom they worked.

Their mission church was crowded out in the first two years, so that by 1867 the project of a large permanent church was under consideration. Already, however, opposition and difficulties had arisen. Father James Pollock published in 1890 a small volume entitled Vaughton's Hole: Twenty-five Years in It, and in this describes the troubles of those early days in a chapter entitled 'The Bother.' This 'Bother' was due to two things, one accentuated by the other. It might have been thought that the mere willingness of two priests to go and live in what was then one of the most squalid and vicious districts in Birmingham (the name 'Vaughton's Hole' is sufficiently eloquent of the local conditions) in order to care for the religious welfare of the inhabitants, would have told in their favour. But as the pioneers of the movement found again and again, authority both in Church and State seemed in most cases as if it would prefer that the people should be left unshepherded rather than that Catholicism should be preached. The revival has always willingly and of set purpose turned its energies to the poor and the districts in which they live. But the Pollocks found, as many others did, that in their own day, at least, not only was there no encouragement or support for their work, but actually the bitterest opposition. Not from the people themselves: the metamorphosis of Vaughton's Hole is one of the hundreds of instances of a slum district which is still poor, as it must be, but has utterly changed its moral character through Catholic influence. Suspicion of the Pollocks' work, however, became bitter vituperation and opposition when it became known that a communicant of the new mission church had been suspended for persistent refusal either to repent or remain away from the altar. Gentle as both the brothers were, they were possessed of indomitable courage, and knew that discipline is a necessary part of Christian training.

The popular outcry became a more serious matter when the Aston Trustees, patrons of the parish of Holy Trinity, Bordesley, in which Vaughton's Hole was situated, not only refused to back the application for the severance of the new mission district, or for its erection into a parish, but were even prepared to spend large sums of money to prevent the 'ritualism' of the brothers from gaining any recognition. The story of repeated negotiations, of success almost achieved and then deferred, and of the final victory after six years' constant and wearisome endeavour (and even then largely by unexpected private influence) is too long to tell here. Suffice it to say that the parish was duly constituted at last, under the title of St Alban's, in 1873, Bishop Philpott of Worcester having licensed Father James to the incumbency in 1871, and given Father Tom (as he was always called) 'permission to officiate.'

Directly the district was sanctioned by the bishop (in 1871), and before the parish was constituted, a beginning was made with a mission church on the other side of the parish. This, dedicated to St. Patrick, was Father Tom's especial care, and the permanent churc which succeeded it and became itself a parish church was generally (and to some old folk still is) known as 'Father Tom's Church.'

In the early days of the 'Bother' newspaper agitation had aroused such excitement that from about September, 1867, to May, 1868, there were constant outbreaks in the district of mob violence, and the brothers were frequently escorted by police on their way to and from church. Moreover, there were periodical attempts to get the bishop to remove them from the parish; twice at least petitions were taken round to every parishioner, once as a protest against 'ritual' and once for the Pollocks' removal. Fortunately, they were disregarded by authority, especially when it was proved that in several cases simple parishioners had been persuaded to sign under the impression that the document was a testimonial to the brothers' work! But through it all, from the very beginning the trouble was alien trouble, the congregation, who already knew and loved Father James and his brother, remaining entirely loyal. But the cost of the initial battle had been a heavy one. Father Tom broke down after St. Patrick's mission church was opened, and Father James had already been compelled to take a prolonged rest. There is little doubt that these breakdowns, with the unremitting toil that followed, shortened their lives. That to them, however, mattered nothing. They saw their work before them, and at any cost it had to be done; and, indeed, that work already, after six short years, was firmly established, perhaps all the more firmly because of the strenuous opposition it had encountered.


St. Alban's Church did not actually come into being until eight years after the separation of the parish was officially passed; but after innumerable difficulties and delays there was added in 1881 to the ecclesiastical buildings of Birmingham a church which is still one of the most beautiful in the city. It was designed by Pearson, who built Truro Cathedral, St. Augustine's, Kilburn, and several other equally fine churches. For the building itself and the upkeep of the parish the brothers raised in twenty years something like £100,000, partly by the sacrifice of their own patrimony and extreme self-denial. But this represented only part of their activities: to the end of their thirty years' work the living remained of the value of £150 per annum, but the parish became very soon a model of efficient (and spiritually effective) organization. From the beginning the Faith was fully taught and practised (five of the 'six points' of ceremonial observance were the rule from the opening of the mission church): clubs, classes, and meetings for all sorts, ages, and conditions of people supplemented the worship of the church, the administration of the Sacraments, simple but eloquent preaching of a 'teaching' kind, and a pastoral care of the people in their own homes which to a somewhat softer and more blase generation seems little short of superhuman. Day schools were founded quite early in the story, and Sunday-Schools as a matter of course. The record of those thirty years is a story of continual development and progress, of the steady creation through the entirely self-sacrificing devotion of two men of a united and thriving (in many ways a model) Catholic parish out of one of the foulest slums of a great industrial city. At the time of Father James' death, thirty years after he came to Bordesley, there were working in the parish five priests, six lay readers, and four sisters, and there were 1,450 children in the day schools.

As always in such cases, too, the teaching of the Faith and the lives of its teachers fired a great body of lay helpers: there are many who have an honoured place in the records of St. Alban's (and surely in a more lasting record also) who, enlisted and taught by the two brothers, served their church with a zeal as great as, and a course sometimes even longer than, their loved priests. There are, too, hundreds in Birmingham and elsewhere today still who owe their knowledge of the Faith and all that is best in life directly or indirectly to James and Thomas Pollock.

In the year following the official formation of the parish their friend, Dr. Oldknow, died, after a strenuous vicariate of thirty-three years. His had been the pioneer work of 'breaking up the fallow ground' by controversy: their share was to cultivate that ground by assiduous pastoral work. But it was a tribute to the 'triumph of personality over theology' that within two years a church was erected as Dr. Oldknow's memorial in the newer part of Bordesley, known as Small Heath, largely by public (and non-Church) subscriptions. Partly through Father Tom Pollock's private influence, his successor at Holy Trinity, Bordesley, was the Rev. Richard William Enraght, a priest in every way in sympathy with the aims of his predecessor and the Pollocks. To him fell the honour of witnessing to the Faith in yet a third way, for the Public Worship Regulation Act was passed in the year (1874) of his institution, and in 1879, after a prolonged law-case, he was sentenced to imprisonment for contumacy, spending thereafter seven weeks in Warwick Gaol. The description of his departure from Holy Trinity Vicarage (in the newspapers of that date) reads almost like the story of one of the early martyrs leaving home for execution--the silent and respectful crowds, and the people kneeling for his blessing. Shortly after his release the bishop declared his benefice void, and he retired from Birmingham; so that the faithful brothers at St. Alban's, with Holy Trinity in Evangelical hands, were alone in th neighbourhood. The Enraght controversy affected them, of course, and strengthened the outside opposition to their work; but they escaped direct prosecution under Disraeli's ill-starred Act, and held steadily on their way. One of the features of the work at St. Alban's was the propaganda carried on through the Gospeller, as the monthly parish paper was called. Both brothers contributed to it, Father James mostly in a theological and devotional vein, Father Tom with poetry or trenchant criticisms of social evils. The latter was an ardent social reformer, and periodically his articles or letters on such subjects as housing roused considerable attention in the public press. His poetry in the parish was most familiar by his annual 'Prologue' to the year's parish work; and in a day when parish magazines (especially good ones) were not the commonplace they are today, the Gospeller commanded wide interest. Both brothers, indeed, were all their lives prolific writers: Father James was constantly producing devotional and theological manuals, while visiting as many as forty houses a day and sometimes paying two or three visits in a single day to anyone dangerously ill; while Father Tom wrote a good deal of poetry other than that published in the Gospeller. He is best remembered by the Daily Round (of which it is said Queen Victoria made constant use), his metrical litanies (of which he was the originator), and such hymns as his characteristic 'We are soldiers of Christ, Who is mighty to save.' It is to the Pollocks also that we owe the sheet parish calendars so general today: they originated in the Gospeller Almanac.

Both brothers were devoted to children, and the summer and winter school treats were functions which they never missed, and at which they were seen at their best. Possessed of unbounded energy and considerable organizing ability, the mark of both brothers was, conspicuously, devotion to their work and their people. Nothing was too much trouble for them to do, nothing too much for them to give. There are many stories on record of their selfless labours in the smallpox epidemic: and a characteristic incident in Father James' life was the fetching of a barrow-load of coal and wood for a sick man who lived alone, and then sitting up with him all night. Their kindness, as was inevitable, was often abused, but that made no difference to the brothers. 'There are just enough grapes in the greenhouse for our sick folk,' one of them was overheard to say once, and the remark was a parable. Father Tom was much in demand for odd medical work, and the children of the parish were generally in the habit of deferring the extraction of loose teeth until Father Tom could come and pull them out. Beyond the bounds of the parish, too, as time went on, their example and influence spread, through the Gospeller, through their books, and through their prayers and unselfish example. It was rarely that either brother preached outside St. Alban's parish: but their influence was there, all the same. So, as the torch had been handed to them, did they hand it on, with its light burning ever more brightly for their assiduous tending of the flame.

One incident in this connection is worth recording, because it opens yet another chapter in the revival in Birmingham. A young priest who had worked in Truro and then at St. James', Edgbaston, was warned by his doctors that his health would not last long without care, and that even with care he could not count on more than ten years' usefulness. He was keenly desirous of doing some pioneer work like that of the Pollocks, and went to Bordesley to consult Father James. It was near the end of that veteran's time in 1891, and the younger man found him visiting his parish in bad weather. 'Surely you're not fit for this work today?' was the question. With the merry, courageous toss of his white head that was familiar to his people, Father James replied: 'Whosoever will save his life shall lose it. That's the principle on which I always work.' It was enough: his interlocutor found a site in Small Heath, and started a mission which in time produced a great and stately church, and a work equal to that of St. Alban's itself. The young priest was James John Agar-Ellis, and the church, St. Aidan's, Small Heath: the founder worked there for ten years before a further breakdown drove him into the country. It was fitting in every way that Father James Pollock should be one of the preachers at the opening of the church his example had helped to found: a year later, and he had passed to his rest.


Enough has been said, in this very brief sketch of their work, to indicate the kind of men James and Thomas Pollock were. But it is interesting to view them on the personal side as an instance of that unity in diversity which generally achieves such great results. Both were fine 'figures of men' of commanding presence, James being somewhat the taller: both were lovable, cheerful, and optimistic, and always saw the best in others: both were ardent champions of right and purity: both possessed a keen sense of humour. Yet these common traits in outlook were grafted into characters in many ways widely different. For the elder was more impetuous, more moved by sudden enthusiasms, less calm and cautious than the younger. So it happened that, while both were intensely practical, Thomas was the better administrator: he it was who always managed the finances, private and parochial, and it was probably this that saved them from actual bankruptcy. Their tastes were similar; both, for instance, revelled in fine scenery, but whereas James would describe it in a sermon in glowing periods, Thomas with greater restraint would write a description of it in poetry. One conspicuous trait in them both, however, no one who knew them could ever forget--their complete devotion to one another. It had been a mark of their boyhood, and it remained with them while life lasted. Father James would never have dreamed of doing anything that mattered without consulting Father Tom: and the latter never lost an opportunity of exalting his elder brother. In giving they were as one. One had a legacy left him of £1,000. 'What shall we do with it?' was his question. This complete unity extended, whenever an opportunity presented itself, to other members of their family. From 1880 till her death in 1884 their eldest sister made her home with them: they were the sole survivors of a family of eleven, and they were as devoted to her, and she to them, as they had shown themselves to one another. It was a complete and loyal unity founded upon the greatest of all ties, the Catholic Faith, strengthening and uplifting the natural ties of blood. It is again by way of a parable that some old folk can still recall the feeling roused by hearing Father James' magnificent voice singing in church the alternate verses of one of his brother's litanies.


'All things, by the mercy of God, and spite of our many errors, have worked for God and made us prosper.' So Father James Pollock could sum up in a foreword to his Twenty-Five Years in Vaughton's Hole his experience at St. Alban's, and the summary is a proof, if proof were needed, both of his humility and of his devotion. Yet the last years were from the earthly point of view clouded by worry and ill-health for both brothers. The worry was connected mainly with the building of the permanent St. Patrick's and the raising of the money for it; years before, the worry would not have told so heavily, but overwork and ill-health had taken their toll, and neither of the brothers was any longer really fit for such a strenuous life. Father James preached at the opening of St. Aidan's, Small Heath, as we have seen, in September, 1894; but in July, 1895, he was too ill (for the first time) to go with the Sunday School outing to Kingsbury. On Sunday, July 12, he preached in St. Alban's on Rom. viii. 18 "The glory which shall be revealed," and then went away for three months' rest. He came back apparently better, but preached what proved to be his last sermon on November 17. On November 23 both brothers, looking very ill, were present at the laying of the foundation stone of St. Patrick's Church by Earl Beauchamp, and both were at the parish tea-party on November 27. Thereafter Father James steadily declined: and despite one or two rallies, passed to his rest on the fourth Sunday in Advent, December 22, 1895. His brother had left him in order to sing the late Mass; he was called back actually from the altar, but was too late to see him alive. Father James' body was laid to rest at Moseley on December 27, and the entire route from the church (a distance of some 2 1/2 miles) was lined with reverent mourners. It was twenty-eight years since he had walked through some of those same streets protected from mob violence by a police escort. 'I am alone for the rest of my life,' was Father Tom's cry. He would never occupy his brother's stall in church, never fill the gap on the cover of the Gospeller where his brother's name had been. Sometimes he would even return home and call 'James! James!' on entering the house, forgetting that now he was alone. He had still a year of life before him, but in fact he died with his brother. Yet the old devotion to that brother and their beloved work remained, and in March, 1896, he consented to become vicar of St. Alban's. But his own health was rapidly failing; he could not be present when St. Patrick's was opened, and on December 15, fifty-one weeks after Father James, he too laid down his burden--thirty years curate, ten months vicar of St. Alban's, Birmingham.

The great ones of the earth are not always or only those whose names live on the pages of history. Here is the record of two fine and simple souls who 'in their days pleased God and were found righteous,' whose record in hidden places can never perish, and whose work for God and his Church and the souls of men can never die or be forgotten. The Catholic Revival in England, thank God, can show many such heroes; and they have handed down a great heritage. That revival, too, has been most surely furthered by men as simple and humble as they were steadfast. There can be no more fitting summary of the lives, comparatively short as men count time, of these two brothers and of their outlook than the words of the younger in a sermon preached not long before the end, on September 8, 1895.

'Next Friday is Holy Cross Day, and we enter upon the thirtieth year of our work here. People congratulate us on what we have done here; but we ask, dearly beloved, your sympathy and your prayers for forgiveness, and that we may do better during the little time that remains to us--it cannot be very long. We mean, as we have lived, to die among you. We shall not die anywhere else. When I think of the generations of children that have passed under our influence in our schools, that there is hardly a house we pass in which we have not ministered at a dying bed, I saw it in all honesty, and in deep humility, my own feeling is one of shame, and I trust you will not fail to give us your earnest prayers.

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