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


Arthur Henry Stanton

FATHER STANTON, one of the devoted parochial clergy who, during the latter half of the Victorian era, translated the Catholic Movement into a language that could be understood by costermongers, street arabs, sluts, and harlots, and the wayfaring, simple folk who, when converted, are the riches of the Church, was for fifty years an unpaid curate at the church of St. Alban the Martyr, Holborn; proscribed, inhibited and persecuted; offered a Prebendal stall in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the evening of his days (which he declined with grace) and honoured at his passing by the most astonishing funeral within recent memory, his cortege being followed by all sorts and conditions of men, between immense crowds of weeping and awestruck people.

To write a short study of his life is to essay to describe in outline a mosaic of many colours. One must put oneself into it. From my youth up I have read the official biographies, whose pages are crammed with crises, humorous incidents (most of which have passed into the common store of religious gossip), tragedies, persecutions, and scenes of sadness. I know them all by heart, and that disadvantages me. I am tempted to be formal, lest I spoil a wondrous story by vain repetition; to begin at the beginning with the Father as a child. Shortly before his death he wrote to Father Russell, a fellow-curate:

Now I am in the house in which I was born, and old experiences of sixty-eight years ago are renewed; for then at 8.30 the drawing-room door opened, and nurse appeared and said, "It is time for Master Arthur to go to bed." Master Arthur got up and went sulkily to the room opposite, the nursery, was put to bed and tucked in. To-day nurse appears at 9.45, at the drawing-room door, and says: "It is time for Father Stanton to go to bed." Father Stanton gets up sleepily, follows nurse to the room opposite, the nursery, gets to bed and is tucked up. So history repeats itself."

Born into a well-known Gloucestershire family, the Stantons of Thrupp, on June 21, 1839, he died on March 28, 1913, seventy-four years young, as some said, but, I fancy, a man of sorrows. He must have been that. It is not given to one to be a famous preacher, and a pastor of innumerable individual souls, and a friend of youth, and to pass through bewildering changes over the span of fifty years, without experiencing poignantly the discipline of sadness. And this I assume from little incidents as well as from the fact that he was subject to periods of gloom as well as of light-heartedness. Towards the end of his life he was seen, in a railway carriage, to cover his face with his hands, as if in deep sorrow, and the very way in which he could turn painful incidents, such as inhibitions by bishops, and the failures of those for whom he strove, into merry stories indicates a pathetic and beautiful tendency to hide his wounds in the mantle of self-forgetfulness. If he was spared the suffering that comes upon those who care deeply for the young, and are ever passing through the winter of disappointment which succeeds the spring-tide of hope, as the charm and promise of childhood wither in the stress of adolescence (for Father Stanton was not a "boys’ priest") he must have known more intimately than most of us, as the march of life went on, the pain of Sir Bedivere, "companion-less, with the days darkening round him, and the years, among new men, strange faces, other minds."

He loved children, none the less, and they loved him; but he really understood youth, who evoked his deepest sympathy. Here is a story, which I have not found in any biography. It is said that, when due to preach at another church, he was late, and the crowded congregation passed through the discomfort of uncertainty. The hymn before the sermon was sung, and repeated, and sung again. Then he appeared, and hurriedly strode to the pulpit. "I am sorry to be so late," he said, "but it wasn’t my fault. You see . . . I’ve been having winkies for tea. . . ." The tense congregation burst into merriment. "As I was going to the station," he went on, "I met a little boy, who said it was his birthday, and that I had promised to go to tea with him. I could not break my promise. . . ." And then he settled down to his discourse.

His tender heart must often have been torn by failure. Punch (I fancy) ridiculed him as "Stanton with hyacinthine locks, carrying a portable confession box," but the cheap gibers knew little of, and cared less for, his efforts to redeem the hooligans that used to swarm in the mean purlieus of old High Holborn.

Once [says a writer] a class of slum lads had been gathered; one brought another, and so forth; they came on Sunday afternoon for instruction, behaved quite nicely and attentively, and persevered . . . for a long time. Stanton at the commencement . . . began asking their names, but got no reply; suspicious glances passed from one to another, and at last one answered, "We have all the same name, Jack—call us ‘the Jacks.’ " . . . They came one day bringing a large German lithograph of Christ blessing little children, framed; they said that Stanton had been very kind to them and had tried to do them good; would he accept this token of gratitude? . . . After this presentation the Jacks simply disappeared, and no one saw or heard anything of them again. What did it all mean? No one ever discovered.

Another time some of the slum lads said, "Father, next Friday is Good Friday, give us a treat." "No," replied Stanton; "on Good Friday we come to church, we don’t give treats, but if you come to church on Good Friday I’ll think about the treat." They all came, and lustily sang "The Story of the Cross." "Oh! I will follow Thee . . . unto the goal," became, to them, " . . . unto the gaol." "They kept their word," Father Stanton used to say, "for they were every one of them in prison before the year was out." He used to keep a cupboard full of clothes, and a pocket full of sixpences, for the undeserving and the disreputable, among whom he ranked himself, but he never gave recklessly. He knew too much about human nature.

One other glimpse of his parochial labours. A writer in the Protestant journal Good Words in 1868, who had been courteously received by the vicar of St. Alban’s, Father Mackonochie, and put into the care of Father Stanton for a tour of the parish, wrote:

I soon found that my animated interlocutor was no mere dreamy . . . admirer of an ecclesiastical past galvanized into seeming spasmodic vitality in the present, but firmly convinced that his form of Christianity was the only one that could get a real practical grip on living men and women—especially on the degraded ones swarming around the clergy house . . . he seemed to find more amusement than annoyance in the efforts made by emissaries of what he called "the Protestant party" to thwart the tenants of the clergy-house in their parochial labours, flocking after them . . . and placarding the parish with posters, from whose small type stood out in bloated capitals:


. . . . .


. . . . .


He recounts a series of visits, friendly rather than spiritual, two of which I quote as an example of that pastoral visitation obsolescent now in many parishes:

One more sample of parishioner's welcome will suffice. At the bottom of a narrow court we had knocked so long at the door of a little cottage, jammed up in a corner, without getting an answer that we were just turning away, under the impression that it must be empty, when the door was opened by an unshorn, lame old man. "Good-day, sir," he said, not looking over-pleased. "My wife’s gone to the horspittle to git my physic; but walk in, and set down." He hobbled before us into a little room, whose air smelt strong enough of tobacco to explain the secret of the old man’s crustiness. We had, no doubt, disturbed the poor old fellow whilst he had been puffing away at his pipe like a locomotive, to finish it before he let us in. The conversation somehow turned on Ascension Day. The lame old man made a most lame attempt to appear interested in an assertion of its equal right with Christmas Day to be kept as a general holiday, and in the announcement that there would be four early communions at St. Alban’s on that day, for the convenience of workmen who wished to communicate before proceeding to their work. The epochs of the Christian year had a very faint hold on the old man’s mind, save as associated with personal material benefit. If he could have been told that Ascension Day would bring him roast beef and plum-pudding and a pot of beer, his appreciation of its claims to respect would have been marvellously stimulated. His stolidity changed into attentive listening with droll suddenness when he was informed that henceforth he would be allowed a weekly dole out of the offertory.

I have kept the visit that struck me most for my last record. At the top of a squalid house lay two smallpox patients, in the same room with a corpse disfigured by the same dreadful disease. I started back with a sick shudder when I ascertained who and what were the occupants of that room; but my companion entered it as calmly, to all appearance, as he had entered any other. Whilst he was in that awful chamber, with the dying and the dead, I stood at an open window on the landing below. At a workshop on the other side of a dirty little yard, in which the sunshine seemed to stagnate, carpenters were whistling music-hall tunes over their planes and up-curling shavings; up the staircase every minute came the filthy, blasphemous language of a knot of sluttish women, squatting on the step of the open door, uttered with as little malice prepense as when the decently bred use "the" or "and."

Stanton’s appeal, as I have said, was to the poor and outcast. He had no fine intellectual capacities. His early career, first at Rugby and then at Trinity College, Oxford, had been uneventful. Though of fine physique, and beautiful to look upon, he was no athlete, either. But he stood the test of war in the trenches of slumdom magnificently, from the day when he joined Father Mackonochie, in December, 1862, in the old thieves’ kitchen that preceded St. Alban’s as a place of worship, to the day when that lovely church had become a city set on a hill, an oasis in the Anglican desert. As in the first days "Yah" and "O Jerusalem" were shrieked down during service time, so in the later the Protestant persecutions made a ruder noise, with a persistency that must have often been insupportable. He stood by Mackonochie throughout the persecution, and he stood by St. Alban’s, and the hosts of friends who found a home in its hallowed walls, and the postmen in his famous Guild of St. Martin, when Mackonochie was driven to resign. One of the noblest incidents in his great career was when, Father Suckling having come to be his vicar, he went on unmoved by a new subordination. One of the bravest was when, Mackonochie having been suspended, and he admonished to conform to the trumpery judgment that he should wear no vestments at the altar save (as he called it) a common choirboy’s surplice, and use plain wheaten bread, he suspended the service of Holy Communion, and led his huge congregation across Holborn Viaduct and through Newgate Street to St. Vedast’s Church, where a Solemn Mass was sung, at which he preached. And one of the funniest was when a visitor objected to the smell of incense. "Well," said Stanton, "there are only two stinks in the next world: incense and brimstone; and you’ve got to choose between them."

When he died all London was moved, and those who had set him at nought and mocked him were silent, at last, and little children and ragged old women threw bunches of flowers in front of his coffin. The Pall Mall Gazette published the Memorial verses that follow.

Cross the worn, patient hands upon his breast,
The hands so swift to comfort and to bless.
Let the tall tapers round about him glow;
The Knight of Christ has entered on his rest,
The sword laid down—the struggle and the stress
Give room to peace that none may trouble now.
Father, who kept the banner of Christ unfurled,
For fifty years of humble prayer and praise
Here in the London streets you loved and trod,
A challenge to the spirit of the world,
We shall go softly, softly all our days—
Knowing your prayers will help us up to God.

He was a great preacher [said a writer] as well as a great parish priest, and he was a very great actor. He had real dramatic genius, which was much helped by his very striking appearance, and he had one of the most beautiful—I use the word advisedly—smiles I ever saw.

He was always at the call of the sorrowful. If anyone was in trouble, there was always "Dad" to turn to. Others might fail, but he at least was sure.

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