Project Canterbury

Lead, Kindly Light:
Studies of Saints and Heroes of the Oxford Movement

by Desmond Morse-Boycott

transcribed by Mr Robert Stevens
AD 2000


Robert Radclyffe Dolling

ROBERT RADCLYFFE DOLLING was a judgment both upon the Anglican Communion and them who worked deeds of darkness. The latter retreated in disorder before him. The former drove him from an apostolic work, unwanted. . . "I am come to send fire on the earth." Dolling was fire.

The fire was wholly spiritual, and a few understood it. But the moderate Bishop Walsham How, who penned these gracious lines, knew what manner of man he was:

At morn he fed his soul with angels’ food
Holding with Heaven high mystic communing,
That from the mount some radiance he might bring
Down to the weary earth-bound multitude.
At night among the restless throng he stood,
Sharer of all their mirth and revels gay,
Yet holding over all a watchful sway,
And tempering every rude ungracious mood.
Not in cheap words he owned mankind his kin;
For them his life, his all, he yearned to spend,
That he their love and trust might wholly win,
And all their rough ways to his moulding bend,
Shielding them from the unholy grasp of sin,
And owned by them a brother and a friend.

The Dolling sisters were more remarkable than their brother. His bishop, he has told us in Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum (a book which social workers and clergy should study), evinced considerable nervousness when he said that he would bring his sisters to Landport. "He suggested that their dress might frighten the people. I said I hoped it would not. He intimated other difficulties. But his face brightened up considerably, when I told him that they were fleshly and not religious sisters."

These gentle women had fearful odds to contend with. They had to live in shocking quarters. They were frail, and seemingly too gentle to deal with rough girls. And the rough girls were wild to a degree. With fearless persistence, however, they laboured at Landport for ten years, seeking for wandering girls in brothels, despite the malevolence of those who made a living by wrecking souls and bodies; sharing the troubles of poor and destitute mothers; caring for, and often taking out of evil environment, little girls; praying; teaching; living lives of such saintly sweetness that in time the character of those to whom they ministered was wholly changed. And this in no spirit of puritanism, for one of the first steps they took was to inaugurate dances and bring the wild lads and lassies together. No doubt the work was the fulfilment of their hearts’ desire, but, like all who do works of splendour, they could not realize the sunshine they shed upon those who lived in the shadows. They saw their daily failures vividly. The heaviness that endures in the night-time must assuredly have overcome them every morning but for two factors, one heavenly, one human. The heavenly was Grace, the human nationality.

Robert Radclyffe Dolling was born in Magheralin, County Down, on February 10, 1851. His father was a landed proprietor, at one time High Sheriff of Londonderry, but English. His mother, a niece of the first Earl of Caledon, was Irish.

He was a deeply religious child, much interested in theology, although when a student at Salisbury he was to set up a record for theological inefficiency by spending most of his time in mission work instead of in the lecture room. His theology was of a rather concrete sort. At the age of four he said at dinner, to a guest who had expressed some difficulty over the dogma of the Holy Trinity:

"I’ve got meat and potatoes and gravy on my plate. That’s three things. But it’s only one dinner. That’s like the Trinity."

He was a lovable, unselfish boy, never a prig; and early developed a passion for helping others. Thus we find him in young manhood conducting classes and clubs for the Irish boys. Journeys to England on his father’s business gave him an opportunity to do slum work, under the direction of Father Stanton of St. Alban’s, Holborn. They called Dolling "Brother Bob."

After his father’s death he decided to seek ordination. He was a problem to the college authorities, and had little in common with his fellow-students. He was thankful to get away from the studious atmosphere to the "real work," but in after life regretted lost opportunities, and tried to make amends by reading theology for an hour every day.

He was placed in charge of a mission at Mile End, where he did a magnificent work for two years, throwing it up impetuously because he could not have a free hand. Mile End’s loss was Landport’s gain.

Landport, he says, had very narrow and quaint streets named after admirals and sea-battles, with old-world, red-tiled roofs, and interiors like cabins.

Many times I have stuck in a staircase, and could not go up or down till pulled from below . . . the far-off scent of the sea coming over the mud of the harbour, and every now and then the boom of a cannon, or the shrill shriek of the siren; sailors everywhere, sometimes fighting, sometimes courting, nearly always laughing and good-humoured. . . . I remember well how, the first night I made acquaintance with it, their uniforms and rolling gait redeemed from its squalor and commonplace this poor district, with its eleven hundred little houses and its fifty-two public-houses. Charlotte Street was, from end to end, an open fair; cheap jacks screaming; laughing crowds round them; never seeming to buy; women, straggling under the weight of a baby, trying to get the Sunday dinner a little cheaper because things had begun to get stale; great louts of lads standing at the corners—you can guess from their faces the kind of stories they are telling; then some piece of horse-play . . . slatternly women creeping out of some little public-house. . . . I think if I had paid this visit before I accepted the Mission, I should never have accepted it. The shrill gaiety was a revelation to me of utter hopelessness, such as I had never imagined before.

And yet he knew from childhood the poverty of the Irish peasant, and from early manhood the slums of Holborn. Landport a revelation! Landport must have been awful . . .

He began work in a mood of hopelessness. The children had been described as a "savage crew," and were, to his horror, old in knowledge. Prostitution was a normal feature of the drab existence of their elders in many cases, and rough louts came to jeer and swear into the church.

On my first Sunday afternoon [he says], as I was walking in Chance Street, I saw, for the first time, a Landport dance. Two girls, their only clothing a pair of sailors’ trousers each, and two sailor lads, their only clothing the girls’ petticoats, were dancing a kind of breakdown up and down the street, all the neighbours looking on amused but unastonished, until one couple, the worse for drink, toppled over. I stepped forward to help them up, but my endeavour was evidently looked upon from a hostile point of view, for the parish voice was translated into a shower of stones, until the unfallen sailor cried out, "Don’t touch the Holy Joe. He doesn’t look such a bad sort." I could not stay to cement our friendship, for the bell was ringing for children’s service, and, to my horror, I found that some of the children in going to church had witnessed the whole of this scene. They evidently looked upon it as quite a legitimate Sunday afternoon’s entertainment. One little girl, of about eight, volunteered the name of the two dancing girls; she was a kind of little servant in the house, though she slept two or three doors off, and her only dread was that the return of a sailor, who had more rights in the house, might take place before the others had been got rid of.

But in time he found his feet, and, little by little, provided the remedies needed: a derelict chapel for a gymnasium; a home in the country for little orphan girls; organizations for men and women; a Church Brigade for boys. Father Dolling had a way that extracted money from the tightest purse. His "money grubbing," as he called it, resulted, during ten years, in a little over £50,000, every penny being won by strenuous effort, by preaching and lecturing and writing, especially by praying. This part of his work must have been a terrible drain on his strength, for he often embarked upon expensive ventures of faith without the wherewithal, trusting God and his friends to pull him through, and they did so. But the strongest faith in Providence cannot wholly quieten anxiety, and there must have come upon even such a valiant heart as his the distress and darkness that follows upon courageous plunges criticized by foes and friends. I can well understand his daily agony, for behind me lie years of begging, and years more are in store. I suspect that the collapse of his work in the end, under episcopal displeasure, may be traced as much to weariness as to impetuosity. Besides a magnificent church, he founded schools, maintained a penitentiary, financed emigration, and built a parsonage (sorely needed after the wretched quarters he had been condemned to live in during the early years). His charities were only limited by his departure, and his open House was like nothing on earth.

There foregathered, day in, year out, the desolate and the drunkard, the unemployed and the sailor lad, the ex-convict and the fallen parson, in one astonishing family, breaking their bread at one table. I do not pretend to understand how he kept it up.

I shall never forget [he writes] the look on the face of Dr. Thorold one morning when I told him that the two companions he had chosen to sit with at supper the night before were both experienced thieves. One had been in gaol three times, the other twice; the former, a clergyman’s son. . . . We generally sat at meals according to the order of our coming, but I thought he, being a Bishop, and unaccustomed to our ways, had better choose his own companions. I had only seen the lads the day before, and I watched the scene with amusement, qualified with terror for his ring and watch.

Like all clergy who hold a prominent place in the eye of the public, he was pestered by men who thought they had vocations for the ministry. One so pitied him in his ill-health that he got up a little collection for his benefit, but himself took a holiday with the proceeds. The discipline of laughter—and it was a merry household—and the discipline of labour soon choked these off. He says:

Once I remember a man almost prostrating himself at my feet, and saying, "All I crave is a habit." It was before I sold my library, and I saw that the books were very dusty, so getting a cloth I made him clean them, and then begin a catalogue. Before a week was over, tired of the catalogue, he had fled. Oh, most blessed catalogue, what a number of vocations it has discovered as non-existent!

Fallen and dissolute clergy vexed his righteous soul, and he had a particular horror of the ex-Roman.

Almost my first day in Portsmouth [he writes] I was persecuted by a wretched priest, whom, as soon as he had opened his mouth, I discovered to be a drunkard and a liar. He arrived one evening about five with a little bag in his hand. When I told him I was too busy to talk to him, he said, "I will leave my bag, and return at dinner-time." Then when I told him there was only one dinner for two, and neither I nor my secretary would share ours with him, he said, "Oh, it does not matter; but I will return to sleep." And when I told him that there were but two bedrooms, and neither I nor my secretary would share these with him, the mask fell off his face. He had been received into the Church of England, and the Church of England was bound to support him; he would soon make it too hot for me in Portsmouth. I never stood face to face with a more hideous blackmailer, but it was not until I had opened the door and had taken him by the back of the neck that he retired.

Sometimes, he confesses, the devil got loose and everything went wrong. Boys stole, men came in drunk, and there was insubordination. Dolling was a firm disciplinarian when aroused, and on one of these occasions condemned the household to bread and cheese for several days, instead of the usual good meal. Once he had a Christmas dinner carried away because Blind Willie had been tormented. Blind Willie had been a mudlark, searching in the filth of the harbour for pennies which nit-wits threw him. He had a wretched stepfather and a blind and paralysed mother who lay on some rags in a hovel. His two sisters, one older than him and one younger, earned sixpence a night without daring to reveal to the bed-ridden woman how it was come by. After his mother died he went blind, and having no one to care for him became one of Dolling’s family, and organ-blower. He died in the imbecile ward of the Union, but had been a power for good in the strange household.

Dolling’s love for children is revealed in another poignant story. "There is a little boy just come into Alfred Street," the district visitor said one day.

"He is fourteen, but he looks like a child of five, and lives and sleeps in a little perambulator. There is no one to look after him, for his mother is in a lunatic asylum, and his father goes out at six in the morning, and does not come back till night."

"And so exactly I found him [says Dolling], our dear little Harry, all alone in this dark room in his perambulator, and on a little shelf, which his poor twisted hands could reach, his cold and wretched meals apportioned for the day. At first when we brought him to the house he was very timid and very nervous, but he soon brightened up . . . he was with us all day, and his little tender thread was soon woven into the woof of our common life, and on all our rough people his influence was as the influence of a little child. Sometimes, when all else fails, the roughest beasts are led by a little child. His face would wince with pain, when any boy spoke harshly to another. . . . I do not think I have ever seen such devotion to the Blessed Sacrament as in that little soul. In it he saw not only Jesus, but our Father, and even heaven as well. Strange, wonderful stories he told me of what he had seen there, for sometimes he would doze all day by the fire in the dining-room, in my study, or in Mary’s kitchen, and then only say, "I was dreaming of the Blessed Sacrament. Do you think someone would wheel me to Mass to-morrow morning?" I remember so well kissing away the last tears I saw in his eyes, as he held up in his little shrunken hands some woollen slippers, which he had made for me, a little secret for my birthday, and found that there was not work enough done, and then fell back saying, "I shall never live to finish them," and died that night.

Such was the tender priest who could soundly box a server’s ears for informing him, in holy horror, that he did not hold his fingers correctly at Mass, or a hooligan’s for some act of devilment. It was tenderness mixed with firmness that made them worship him, and his study by day and his bedroom by night dominated the extraordinary household. His immense capacity for taking pains with the detail of parochial life (I do not mean the keeping of lists and registers and accounts and the mending of lace and linen and all the minuti¾ that make an "efficient" church) shames one into wretchedness. Many souls live around one’s church, year in and out, whom one knows by sight but never speaks to. He knew all his. Mother Church reached out through him and his sisters into a thousand dark corners. How I know not. I can but confess that, ardent as I was when, like Dolling, I commenced a ministry in the slums, I saw a little cripple boy who might have been a Harry, sitting in a chair on the pavement all day long. I must have seen him hundreds of times, but he seemed to shrink from me, and, save for a few words once or twice, I never broke through his reticence. I never got him to church. But Dolling, in his great love for others, would have marked out the child at a glance as the next piece of parochial work to be done, and done it.

The close of his ministry was a tragedy. Dr. Randall Davidson, who then had no sympathy with, or understanding of, Anglo-Catholicism, became Bishop of Winchester. Dolling had built magnificent St. Agatha’s in place of the Mission church. The Bishop refused to dedicate it unless he would "bring his services into general harmony with the due order of the Church of England." It must be remembered that Dr. Davidson, as Dean of Windsor, had been saturated in Queen Victoria’s distrust of Anglo-Catholicism; to him she had deferred over many ecclesiastical appointments; and between them they had effectually barred the road to high preferment to any but Low Churchmen.

He had assisted at the trial of saintly Bishop King of Lincoln for "ritualistic" practices. And he had been sent to conduct the services in Father Tooth’s church when he was under "discipline," being turned away by the churchwardens. Dr. Davidson of those days was not the mellowed, sympathetic, helpful Primate whose memory we revere. Could he have foreseen the Malines Conversations which he encouraged as Primate he would have expired in horror. Dolling, who was ill, received the shepherd’s crook on his head with a sound and resounding clump. The Bishop would not sanction a third altar. He condemned Requiem Masses. He required at least three communicants to be present at each celebration. He insisted on a new licence and, cruellest cut of all, charged Dolling with playing fast and loose with the Church’s rules. There were protracted negotiations and efforts to mediate, but, perhaps hastily (for a sick man struggling with a tiresome and ignorant bishop would sooner fight wild beasts at Ephesus), the noble pastor threw himself to the wolves in January, 1896.

A dispensation ended, a shining light went out. Dolling was "unemployed." He was inhibited by two bishops. He wore himself out by writing and preaching to raise money for the Mission he could never serve again in person. That marks his sheer nobility of character. If we bow to the Dolling of Landport we must kneel to the Dolling exiled. He went to America, where his health was restored, but he declined to be Dean of Chicago. It seems a pity! He would have accepted the living of St. Mary the Virgin, Somers Town, but had not been the requisite span of time in the London Diocese. In the end they made him Vicar of St. Saviour’s, Poplar, and there he died on May 15, 1902, at the age of 50. He was not a success at Poplar. He had burnt himself out at Landport.

A "Dolling Memorial Home" was set up at Worthing in his memory, and there his sisters went to live and labour. I, who have penned this memoir with an aching heart, served my first Mass in its sweet chapel of St. Raphael. I had come under the gracious influence of the Misses Dolling in a curious way. Their father had managed the estates of my mother’s family in Ireland, and the Dollings and the Anketells (my mother was an Anketell) had played together in childhood. Many years afterwards, when my parents had fallen on hard times, and retired into the terrific privacy of Worthing, they lost touch. One day a lady called at our house for a servant’s reference. She was shown into the dining-room, where the family portraits hung; and when my mother entered, the visitor cried: "Good gracious, who are you?" She was one of the Dolling sisters, and the old happy friendship was renewed, and I came into it. They gave me a new cassock when I went to college, and lamented that they could do no more, saying, "If only Bob were here!"

They were the sweetest women I ever met, and I know why they converted Landport. I need not tell the Catholic reader. I will not tell the pagan.

return to Project Canterbury