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


Charles Fuge Lowder

ON the ninth of September, in the year of grace 1930, in the ¾on of motor-cars and airplanes, and other detestable enormities of civilization which make men forget the fathers that begat them, by the commotion they create, an inquiring journalist, disengaged from scooping up a crime yarn (if one dare suggest so unlikely a contingency), might, had he been by chance in the churchyard of Chislehurst (an even more unlikely event, as it was pouring with rain), have seen no fewer than two hundred persons grouped in homage around a grave half a century old.

He would have sought a clue from the grave. "Charles Fuge Lowder," he would have said; "now who was he, and why the fuss and commotion?" Then, gathering a story from the circumstances of the day (the rain being stressed) and the lips of some of the pilgrims, he would, in the manner of journalists, have missed the point completely.

I am a journalist as well as an author. I do not know the difference between a journalist and an author, any more than I know the difference between a painter of miniatures and one who paints on canvas (if there is a difference), but I know what I should have done. I should have taken the first train to wherever the remains of C. J. Blomfield, Lord Bishop of London in the fifties of the last century, lay, forgotten by the world, and drawn from the contrast a story which would have cheered the hearts of the boys of Britain, and made them love the clergy.

Permit me to present it.

The famous church of St. Barnabas, Pimlico, was, in the fifties, the scene of riotings, and, when the fightings without were ended, fears within ensued. St. Barnabas was a daughter church of St. Paul’s, Knightsbridge, and one of the candidates for the office of churchwarden at the latter was a Mr. Westerton, a bigoted Protestant, who had been no end of a trouble. St. Barnabas possessed an underground passage from the choirboys’ vestry to the crypt, and, as may be imagined, underground passages and choirboys combined are sources of trouble. In the passage there lurked, one day, a group of keen young choristers, their leader being a Christ’s Hospital boy who was a cousin of the clergyman whose grave we have been considering. He was a very angry boy at that moment, because he had seen a man in Ebury Street carrying sandwich-boards inscribed with Vote for Westerton! and something had to be done about it. In the midst of the argument the Rev. Charles Fuge Lowder, a young man of pious demeanour, whose record was exemplary, came upon the scene. The boy entreated his cousin to allow them to pelt the sandwich-man, whose only offence, had they considered the matter with as much eagerness for charity as for Catholicism (but there were riots in those days, and pelting was as familiar to suffering Catholics as Amens), was an effort to earn a dinner, and received an astonishing permission. Charles Fuge Lowder gave them sixpence to buy rotten eggs, but bade them use no stones nor dirt. With a whoop of delight they equipped themselves with political missiles, and drove the wretched man off his beat. He went to his employers, and they to the magistrate, and Charles Fuge Lowder, who gallantly took all the blame, found himself in dock. He apologized publicly, and the case was dismissed, but more trouble was brewing. The newspapers made capital out of the story, proclaiming a Puseyite conspiracy, and an ominous note arrived from the Bishop of London, thus:

The Bishop of London requests the Rev. C. F. Lowder to call at London House to-morrow, at half-past ten o’clock.


3, 1854.

The outcome was not a revocation of his licence, as he had feared, but suspension from the exercise of his functions, as Curate of St. Barnabas, for six weeks. Shortly afterwards a crestfallen young clergyman might have been seen embarking for the Continent for his holiday, fortunate to have lived in the last century, rather than the era of illustrated papers. Thus ended the incident which the Bishop afterwards alluded to as "Lowder’s ovation." The Bishop was harsh in suspending him, for publicity had been pain enough. Where are the pilgrims to Bishop Blomfield’s tomb, and why are there pilgrims to Lowder’s?

The incident of the "ovation" was curious in view of Charles Lowder’s earnest piety, and experience, and stiffness of character. He saw the light of day at Bath on June 22, 1820 (the first-born of very pious parents), his father being a partner in the Old Bath Bank, which foundered, completely altering the family circumstances, which had, throughout Charles’s childhood, been affluent. Charles had a keen desire to become a missionary, and evolved various schemes to fulfil it and at the same time support his family. They came to nothing. He was ever a leader, as a sturdy boy, and at King’s and at Exeter College, Oxford. One or two uneventful curacies preceded his work in Pimlico, and then, the pelting episode forgiven if not forgotten, with Catholic sympathies enlarged by visits to the Continent (on which he was passionately keen), came his great chance. He had helped to found a brotherhood for priests, of a secret kind, called the Society of the Holy Cross, which wished to institute a mission in Dockland. It was welcomed generously by the Rev. Bryan King, rector of St. George’s-in-the-East, whose parish contained 733 houses, of which 40 were gin palaces and 145 brothels. The terrible Ratcliff Highway was part of the parish and Bryan King, who had worked heroically for fifteen years, was glad to be assisted by Lowder and companion missioners, who ultimately lived together. The correspondence between Lowder and Bryan King which led to the inauguration of the mission reveal the former as of imperious and pernickety disposition, and the latter as a very perfect and patient gentleman, seeking only the good of the Church and the maintenance of ecclesiastical principles. Lowder would write long and tedious letters, demanding one concession after another, and Bryan King would reply with gentleness, giving way on personal matters and being firm on ecclesiastical. The correspondence is a revelation of how an elderly priest should deal with a young one. Yet such a man, though he may engender dislike among his equals, is ideally fitted for warfare with brothel-keepers.

Lowder’s work had been patiently carried on for some years when the riots broke out. He had now the magnificent Mackonochie (afterwards of St. Alban’s, Holborn) as one of his helpers. Mackonochie’s coming brought about a revival. During the riots the Mission chapels were invaded and the Mission house was attacked. Lowder and Mackonochie were required by Bishop Blomfield to officiate at the parish church, and were thus exposed to the rioters.

An eyewitness writes:

I don’t know that on any occasion Mr. Lowder lost his equanimity. He was summoned before the magistrate and fined for shutting the vestry door of the parish church upon a man who, having no right to be there, insisted upon trying to force his way in; but he made no comment upon this beyond mentioning the fact, which he did with a smile, at the incongruity of his being fined for protecting God’s house, while it seemed impossible to get anyone punished for desecrating it.

In any other part of London I do not think that these riots would have been tolerated for a month, but St. George’s-in-the-East is removed from the quiet thoroughfares of the metropolis; violence and disorder were chronic there, and months were allowed to pass before the authorities showed themselves to be in earnest in putting them down. . . .

. . . One of the most conspicuous of [the rioters] (I believe that he was the original "aggrieved parishioner") was fined at the Middlesex Sessions for keeping houses of ill-fame, and the rest were not famous for their purity or their piety.

The character of some of these men was thus set forth by a young man who attended the night school in the Calvert Street district: "It’s all a question of beer, sir, and what else they can get. We know them. They are blackguards like ourselves here. Religion ain’t anything more to them than it is to us. They gets paid for what they do, and they do it like they’d do any other job."

The Bishop of London, Dr. Blomfield, sent no word of sympathy, as the riots went on Sunday after Sunday for a year, but rather reproached the clergy for not making terms with the mob for the sake of peace. They were brought to an end only by the resignation of Bryan King. We need to study the Catholic movement in its early parochial phases if we would face with courageous equanimity the riots that occur in these days, for the Movement seems to be back where it was, and a new note of hostility is evident where for a quarter of a century there has been toleration.

Lowder’s patient work was rewarded in 1866 by the consecration of the permanent church of St. Peter’s, London Docks. His had been an uphill task for ten years. He possessed no gift of eloquence, and often preached over his people’s heads. He had become a rather stern, aloof priest, indefatigable in his routine, and not well understood even by fellow-clergy, whose lives he ordered under an uncomfortable and Spartan regime. I imagine him to have been a thoroughgoing autocrat, not untainted by that foul disease known among curates as "vicaritis," a pestilence which comes upon curates themselves with seeming inevitability as soon as they are elevated to the dignity of incumbency. His head was bald. His prayers were many. If his will was as iron, his heart was of gold. His title was "Mister" in the neighbourhood. It was to be changed to "Father" almost as soon as the bells of St. Peter’s had finished chiming for the consecration.

Cholera is far worse than bubonic plague and the black death. It suddenly came upon Wapping. Men and women and children succumbed to it on every hand there was weeping and woe. Father Lowder became the hero of the parish. No priest could have murmured the Compline psalm in a more literal sense than he, as he went about, hour after hour, day after day, ministering in fœtid rooms to the sick and dying, smoothing the bundles that served the poor for pillows, wrapping little plague-stricken whimpering children in blankets and carrying them in his arms to hospital, appealing to the outside world for funds for necessities (and securing them, thanks to The Times), shriving, communicating, burying, in peril of his life. Let the words be his epitaph who was not afraid for any terror by night: nor for the arrow that flieth by day: for the pestilence that walketh in darkness: nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noonday. A thousand fell beside him and ten thousand at his right hand, but it came not nigh him. God had given His angels charge over him, to keep him in all his ways.

When the scourge went he was Father Lowder. The people had seen through him at last, and found a saint. Though their ways lay in the vale of darkness still, and selfishness and bestiality and incest and thievery raised evil heads to leer at the Cross and those who upheld it, the battle was won. The Church—and the Church meant Father Lowder—could never again be ignored.

Hundreds of souls have been saved, and the children of Wapping, grown up and married, with tots of their own at St. Peter’s, have learnt to look upon the Father as one of the few permanencies in their life of chance and change.

Then came a day when the unthinkable happened. Lowder was abroad, seeing the Passion Play at Oberammergau. Then he was at Zell-am-See, and ill. Then came news of his death, on September 9, 1880. Miss Trench says, in her biography:

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 is dead."

The church of St. Peter’s has been full since dawn, hundreds of people awaiting the coming of the bier, communicating at the first celebration at 3. "It was the most solemn night I ever saw," said a witness. "The crowds of people in the street that night waiting for news: all poor people, with blanched faces, and the sorrow of their hearts speaking through their eyes; so quiet and resigned, and not murmuring. . . ; just hanging about in groups as people do when struck down by a common sorrow." Then tidings came of the coffin, which had been delayed in its journey from Zell-am-See. At last it came, passing [as the writer of Father Lowder’s biography says] up the lane through the crowds of weeping people to the dock-bridge, which bounds the parish. Once, during the St. George’s riots, his friends had made a line across this bridge, and held it against the mob who had hunted him down, threatening to throw him into the docks; and now, in the streets where he had been pelted and ill-treated, the police were obliged to keep a line amidst the crowds of weeping men who pressed forward to see and touch the pall beneath which their benefactor slept.

The church was crammed, and thousands stood outside, many of them setting off on foot to the churchyard of Chislehurst. When the coffin at length reached Chislehurst Common there were three thousand men of Wapping to welcome it.

My essay ends where it began, though half a century earlier.

The sun was just setting, at the close of a lovely day, as the coffin, covered with flowers, was lowered into the moss-lined grave, the choirs singing, "Brother, now thy toils are over." Slowly and tearfully the multitude of men, women, and children passed round . . . to take a last look at the resting-place of him they loved. No such funeral, it was truly said, has been seen in England in modern times. Thanksgiving and the voice of melody in the streets of East London on a working-day, the whole populace turning out, the church adorned in white and beautiful with flowers—all symbolized, not the sorrow of those without hope, but the last and best genuine earthly reward of a good man. But of all grand points in that funeral, certainly the most beautiful and touching was the little children, fringing the crowd, and weeping as if their hearts would break. . . . And they who loved him best, remembering the bright promise of his boyhood and youth, and the worn weary face of later years, could not mourn that the patient, faithful soldier should now wear the crown, and hear his Master’s gracious call: "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."

I have not been able to find an account of Bishop Blomfield’s burial.

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