Project Canterbury

Father Pollock And His Brother:
Mission Priests Of St. Alban's Birmingham

With A Letter From The
Right Reverend Charles Gore, D.D.
Lord Bishop Of Birmingham

Transcribed by Robert Stevens
AD 2001


"There calming all alarms,
Thy Cross of Love was traced,
Outstretching salutary arms
To bless the waste."

FATHER POLLOCK came to Birmingham in 1860. A great part of the Story of S. Alban's Mission will be best told in his own words, taken from Vaughton's Hole: Twenty-five Years in it, a little book brought out by him in 1890, and upon the title-page of which he, with singular appropriateness, inscribed the symbol of the conquering cross of Constantine. "I came," writes Father Pollock, "to Birmingham on Holy Innocents' Day, December 28, 1860, and on the following day accepted the assistant-curacy of S. Paul's, Ludgate Hill. After the mid-day service on my first Sunday in Birmingham, January 13, 1861, I asked my Vicar, as soon as we came into the vestry, whether the congregation was as large as usual. He said it was, and I began to realise what work in Birmingham meant. The Vicar of S. Paul's, the Rev. J. P. B. Latimer, was in bad health; most of the work was left in my hands. The population was 16,000: the church, which would hold 1400, was miserably attended; there were daily services morning and evening, and almost daily funerals.

"Even in those days of inexperience I saw the uselessness of a pewed church in a parish like S. Paul's. I remembered the large church in a Manchester suburb where I held my first curacy, with its great congregations on Sundays morning, afternoon, and evening; and my own little school-chapel in the country, with its very primitive arrangements and promising work. I talked with my Vicar, and asked for a small chapel or mission room, free and unappropriated. He consented; a site was chosen, and a very modest scheme proposed. But he soon put an end to my hopes by telling me, as the result of his efforts, that ‘Birmingham people did not understand mission work.'

"After twelve months at S. Paul's I broke down, and had to resign my post. A year after this I was able to take a London curacy; but my thoughts often turned to Birmingham. Every visit to my friends at S. Paul's caused what Mr. Latimer called an ‘effervescence' of the mission chapel idea, or brought up the alternative expedient of making the parish church free and unappropriated. Nothing, however, was done, and our efforts were abandoned.

"As soon as the schemes for mission work at S. Paul's came to an end, I received a communication from Dr. Oldknow's parish of Holy Trinity, Bordesley. Some members of the ‘Plain-Song Choir' were eager to assist in carrying out the wish of their Vicar, who, seven or eight years before, had selected a site in Leopold Street, and wanted a mission chapel there. The conventional district which Dr. Oldknow offered had then a population of about 4500 poor people. There was no church, Dissenting chapel, mission room, school, endowment, grant, or any other spiritual provision for the inhabitants. I accepted the work, and came into residence on the Vigil of S. Peter, June 28, 1865. I was licensed by the Bishop of Worcester on August 2, 1865.

"In my preparations for commencing the mission one thought filled my mind, and I lost no opportunity of expressing myself strongly regarding it. I determined not to build a little highly-decorated chapel for the spiritual edification of a favoured few, but to provide a large temporary building, offering a welcome to all who would come and claim their share in its privileges, trusting that the large congregation so collected would in time feel the need of erecting a permanent church. However, Dr. Oldknow, of whose kindness and generosity I cannot speak too highly, would not permit the building of anything that was not permanent. Accordingly, two friends united with me in guaranteeing the sum required for building a small mission church in Leopold Street.

"My brother, the Rev. Thomas B. Pollock, had recently given up his curacy in London. Our mission chapel of S. Alban-the-Martyr was opened on September 14, 1865, and he came to be with me on that occasion, intending to spend a fortnight at S. Alban's. His fortnight has extended to twenty-five years, and not without a reason. Year after year he has felt it his duty to decline all offers of other work, though some had real claims upon him. For S. Alban's has always been passing from one crisis to another, and we have never had a season of quiet or peace which gave us an opportunity of separating. Whenever I have thought of going away—and the thought has forced itself upon me many times—considerations of honour or duty have always made it necessary for me to hold on till some new opposition was met, or some new difficulty surmounted. And the same reasons have forced my brother to continue the struggle by my side. Because our work was thwarted, it was strengthened by his help.

"Our little church," continues Father Pollock, "was built in seven times seven days, and the opening octave gave the work a tone, right or wrong, which it has maintained faithfully ever since. The arrangement of the services was the result of a careful forecast of what would be the authorised settlement of questions in dispute. As we carried out all our arrangements on the day of Opening, and have scrupulously avoided all changes during a quarter of a century, we have been able to devote all our attention to the more serious concerns of our people.

"The mission church soon proved too small. A statement, issued in January 1867, said: ‘On every weekday since the church was opened we have had a good congregation of poor people belonging to the district; frequently the number of worshippers is nearer 200 than 100. On nearly every Sunday since the church was opened we have been obliged to send away a number of people for whom no room could be found; frequently we have had two rows of forms in the centre passage. Many of our poor people have given up coming to church on Sunday evening; having been so frequently turned away from the door, they have given up the attempt in despair. During the first twelve months of mission work the number of communions made exceeded 3000.' The need of a larger building was urgent, and an appeal issued about this time ends with these words: 'S. Alban's Church will be wholly free and unappropriated—the first church built with this design in the great metropolis of the Midlands.'"

A committee was now formed to raise money to build a larger church; a considerable sum was raised, but not enough to satisfy the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. This difficulty, though no light one, would no doubt soon have been surmounted. But the committee were spared the trouble of making fresh efforts of that kind, for a much more formidable difficulty sprung up in the shape of Protestant opposition of the most bitter and uncompromising character. This opposition did not merely take the form of hard words, or letters to the local press, or violence to the church and clergy, but was of so practical a kind that it delayed the formation of the district for six years, hindered the work of the church, and was the occasion of incalculable loss of time and money which would otherwise have been devoted to the spiritual edification of the people. Father Pollock, when referring to the great difficulties as to the forming of the district of S Alban's, says: "Every one appreciates the wisdom and justice of the good Bishop [Dr. Philpotts] of Worcester."

He also, with evident gratitude, records: "My brother, the Rev. Thomas B. Pollock, who came to spend ‘a fortnight' with me in September 1865, had worked at S. Alban's for more than four years. In that time he officiated by permission of the Bishop without a formal license. Everything was uncertain. Any day the promoters of the mission might despair, or feel themselves obliged to put an end to it. My brother wrote to the Bishop, asking his lordship's direction with regard to being licensed. On December 16, 1869, the Bishop wrote: ‘I am content that you should still continue to serve there ["S. Alban's Chapel"] without a license.' The Bishop added: ‘I need hardly say to you, in answer to your remarks about the present state of the proposal for a permanent district in connection with S. Alban's, that the subject is one of much anxious and almost painful interest to me. I have tried in vain to reconcile conflicting views, so that an end might be put to uncertainty. I can only counsel patience.'"

The counsel of the good Bishop was put in practice. The two Mission Priests were not to be daunted by any difficulty; and after six years' continual and wearisome struggles S. Alban's emerged triumphant, but hampered with a load of debt.

The Rev. J. S. Pollock was licensed to the incumbency in November 1871.

In spite of all difficulties and hindrances the spiritual work went on. The congregation so outgrew the original mission chapel that more accommodation was absolutely necessary. It was therefore decided to erect a building which, in case of emergency, might be sold and converted into a manufactory. The architect provided a very church-like and convenient structure, consisting of apsidal chancel, nave, and three small vestries, which cost £1500. It had free kneelings for 480 worshippers, and was opened with great thankfulness and rejoicing, under license of the Bishop of Worcester [Dr. Philpotts], on March 7, 1871, a few months before the district was legally formed.

Two years after this S. Patrick's Mission was opened, and in 1881 the magnificent Church of S. Alban in Conybere Street was completed, after innumerable difficulties, but burdened with a heavy debt, which it took nine years to defray.

The two devoted Mission Priests had indeed to endure hardness and to suffer persecution for conscience' sake before this result was achieved. During the years of the "old S. Alban's," Church life in Birmingham was at the lowest ebb, and narrow-mindedness and bigotry were rampant.

In connection with the opposition and violence encountered, Father Pollock tells what he calls "one of Dr. Oldknow's best stories of the early days of the Catholic Revival in Birmingham." "A parcel came to Dr. Oldknow's house; it was large, and the charge for delivery was not small; so he declined to receive it. A letter came from Bishop Pepys, censuring Dr. Oldknow for acting in a manner which excited people's feelings against him. The Bishop explained that a man had written to complain that he had sent Dr. Oldknow a halter, requesting him to hang himself with it, and that Dr. Oldknow had refused the parcel! The reprimand administered to the writer of the epistle is not on record."

Project Canterbury