Project Canterbury

Robert William Radclyffe Dolling

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933. 21 pp.

ANY movement amongst men, and especially a religious movement, must, in order to become more than a faction, inspire and produce people of widely varying types, characteristics, and position, and direct all their different talents towards the accomplishment of its aims. A movement which enlists people only of one general type remains a merely sectional effort; it may produce martyrs, it will certainly produce fanatics, but it will never be more than a side-issue, however admirable in its way. Judged by this standard, the Catholic Revival in the Church of England really counts: and history will, so far as we can judge, rank it as one of the most important factors in the development of English religion. For it has appealed to, and enlisted, men and women of all types and stations in life, and of widely varying outlook and training.

This is true of the more restricted circle of the English Clergy, as it is true of English Catholics as a body. The priests and bishops who have borne their share in the Catholic Revival bear witness to a remarkable unity in diversity; and, as always in any movement, it is those who have done the spadework, labouring often in obscure and difficult places, who have accomplished as much for the Movement as anyone associated with it.

There were few better known in the last generation, few more deserving of high honour from all Catholics, than Robert Dolling. His beginnings had nothing about them which could normally be called Catholic; the son of a land agent in Ireland, he was born at Magheralin in County Down in 1851. But the essential principles of evangelical Christianity, instilled by his mother, a true Christian gentlewoman and 'all that a mother should be,' laid the foundation, in a nature always devout and enthusiastic, of his later development. His father also was a sincere Evangelical, with strong Protestant sympathies, but characterized by a warm-hearted kindliness, which Robert inherited. At school the boy never shone as a scholar, either at Stevenage or at Harrow; but it is notable that at the former he left a reputation behind him for truthfulness and a hatred of cruelty, and that at the latter he was remembered for his conspicuously high standard of purity. His career at Trinity College, Cambridge, lasted only a year--his health, and especially his eyes, failed him, and brought him away--and although he thus sustained an irreparable loss from the scholastic point of view, he made friendships which left a great mark on his religious development. From Gerard Cobb and H. J. G. Meara he gained a knowledge of the Catholic Faith, and his original Evangelical fervour was now supplemented by a real belief in the need for, and power of, Sacramental Grace.

On leaving Cambridge, Dolling returned to Ireland, after a brief health-trip abroad, and settled down to work with his father in his land-agency at Kilrea. It was here that he first showed himself a missionary: the lads on the estate were provided with evening classes in secular as well as religious subjects; games were organized, a library established, and big 'diggings' carried out in the Manor House Garden and elsewhere. To this day the Dolling Guild at Kilrea commemorates his first and successful attempt at the work which afterwards came to fruition in London and Portsmouth.

In 1877 the family moved to Dublin, and Dolling found himself, between the ages of twenty-six and thirty, spending his time between the Irish capital and London. St. Alban's, Holborn, at once became his spiritual home. It was not only its sacramental teaching that commanded his allegiance: a great love of men, which was part and parcel of his love of the Gospel, drew him into the boldly democratic social work which St. Alban's, in common with so many other Anglo-Catholic churches, was doing, and has always done. Father Stanton had founded a club for postmen, known as St. Martin's League. This had several centres all over London, and Dolling was made Warden of that for the south-eastern district, in the Borough Road. 'Master Bob' of Kilrea had become 'Brother Bob' of St. Martin's League, and the pictures drawn of this stage in his work show a man radiating good-fellowship, understanding, and sympathy, while never losing hold on the realities of life in the midst of the most hilarious romping and fun.

So we see him at the age of thirty, rollicking, warm-hearted, full of good spirits, busy in Ireland with his land-agency, but giving every moment he could spare both in Dublin and London to what was the main passion of his life, a real eagerness to bring souls to Christ in and through his Church. His father's death in 1880 had left him more free from the point of view of his real vocation, but more restricted financially. Irish land troubles further diminished his income, and in 1881 his brother took over the agency duties in succession to his father. Dolling therefore was now free to do what he had long been feeling he ought to do, and what Father Stanton of St. Alban's had always advised--namely, to seek Holy Orders. Some course of study was essential and inevitable; but never, probably, has a Theological College entertained a student who was less in his element within its walls than was Dolling at Salisbury. He had always had a bent for the theological: it is related of him that at the age of eight he remarked to his mother one day at dinner, 'I've meat, potatoes, and gravy on my plate, three things, but only one dinner: that's like the Trinity.' But by the age of thirty he had become more conscious of the overwhelming need to apply his teaching than of the need to acquire the subtler forms of the teaching itself; and to that was added the natural difficulty experienced by a man of mature years in settling down afresh to a schooling process long outdistanced. Moreover, Dolling being what he was--impulsive and consumed by a burning zeal for his main purpose in life--college routine was irksome to him.

So he seems to have spent most of his time at Salisbury in club work among the rough lads of St. Martin's parish. But the work he had already done, and the sympathetic understanding of the bishop of the diocese and the Principal of the College, carried the day in his favour against any pedantic 'official' objections. There could be no doubt about his vocation, and he was ordained deacon at Trinitytide, 1883, and licensed to the curacy of Corscombe, West Dorset.

By a most fortunate chain of circumstances, this curacy opened up to Dolling just such an opportunity as he craved, just such a sphere as suited his particular powers. With the cordial agreement of his vicar, Archdeacon Sowter, and Bishop Walsham How, and as a means of linking town and country together, he was put in charge of a difficult mission district in the parish of Holy Trinity, Mile End Road. Corscombe provided his stipend, but his real work was done at Maidman Street Mission, Burdett Road; he went to Corscombe, indeed, less and less as time went on, as the work, which was just a development of his previous efforts, grew and prospered. He was out to capture people who told him bluntly when he first went among them that 'they did not care to have truck with parsons' down that way, and he succeeded to a marvellous degree. He secured a warehouse building, and converted it in a rough and ready fashion (to begin with) into the kind of institutional mission which has since then often been reproduced in poor and populous districts: the lower floors were occupied by cubicles for the missioner, visitors, and nondescripts, and by club- and class-rooms. The upper-floor room, bigger than most of the others, was kept strictly as a chapel. It seemed that every prayer for help, every appeal was answered. Dolling's three sisters gave up their Dublin home and joined him in the work; money was successfully begged from West End friends, and priests regularly took turns in saying Mass in the Chapel, so that there might be no spiritual aid lacking because the missioner was but a deacon. After the first year, Magdalen College, Oxford, took the effort to some extent under its care, and largely supplemented the help still forthcoming from West Dorset.

So things went on for two years, and in the summer of 1885 Dolling was ordained priest. This event heralded one of the two great disappointments and crises of his life. He had always been led to expect that when he became a priest his mission would be made a separate parish, and he regarded this as an essential condition for the development and stabilization of his particular work. He was probably right: the work was good, but to endure it had to be done as he was doing it, and he could see no guarantee of its permanence if he were to be subject to six months' notice at any time, as a licensed curate of Holy Trinity. The Bishop of Bedford fought hard to get better terms from Bishop Temple, but the latter could not see that the particular conditions which existed at Maidman Street demanded special treatment, and in the face of his obduracy Dolling resigned.

It may be argued that he was impetuous, obstinate, or self-willed; that he ought to have submitted to authority and done the best he could; but it must be recognized that he cared far more for the work than he did for his own position, and that, possessing as he did the defects of his qualities (which were those of a free-lance pioneer), a bishop might have recognized that his exceptional capacities for exceptional work in the Church could be utilized without unduly straining the cast-iron system of 'official' Church order. Dr. Temple did not recognize this: and (not for the last time) Dolling's work and Dolling himself were sacrificed on the altar of red tape. To the official eye he was just an ordinary curate, not a missioner of extraordinary powers, and on July I, 1885, Dolling left Maidman Street, broken for the time being in health and spirit. Within a short time the Mission dwindled and died.

It says much, however, for his unconquerable faith and courage, and for his Celtic resiliency of spirit, that within three months he had accepted the charge of the Winchester College Mission in Portsmouth. The slums of Portsmouth are among the worst in England. Here, in 1882, Winchester College had planted a Mission (St. Agatha's) with the Rev. Dr. Linklater in charge. On his removal to Holy Trinity, Stroud Green, the Headmaster of Winchester, Dr. Fearon, offered the charge of St. Agatha's Mission to Dolling, who was then recuperating at St. Leonards; the offer had the approval of the Bishop of the Diocese, Dr. Harold Browne.

Dolling answered the call with eagerness, and entered at St. Agatha's at Michaelmas, 1855, upon what was destined to be the greatest work of his life. It was a work which from the first was entirely after his own heart, and called, moreover, for the exercise of every scrap of faith, hope, and energy that he possessed. Landport may be squalid, like similar areas in other towns, but it could never be dull or apathetic, because of its constant touch with the sea and the dockyard. In this 'curious little island,' as Dolling himself calls it in his book Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum, there were, when he arrived, 5,000 people and 1,100 houses: among the latter were some fifty public houses and an equal number of brothels. Everywhere sailors swarmed, and everywhere were people out to amuse and exploit them. Dolling himself has described how he fared at the hands of a hostile crowd when he endeavoured, on his first Sunday afternoon, to help to their feet a drunken sailor and girl who had fallen over while dancing obscenely in the street, and how two boys had to be ejected on one occasion from church for lighting their pipes during the service, resenting their expulsion by unrepeatable profanity. These, together with the recollection of how he more than once stuck fast in the staircase of one of the queer little hovels of the place, were incidents of the early days which must have formed a violent contrast to the picture he carried away of the triumphs of later years.

How did he secure these triumphs? Simply by an expansion and development of the methods he had followed from the old days at Kilrea and onwards. His aim was quite simply expressed in the request he made to his new flock on his arrival, that they would pray and work with him for 'bringing every man, woman, and child in the district to the knowledge of the love of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.' To this end he had to fight both poverty and sin, and therefore he must live with his people where the fight was thickest. Two streets in the parish provided temporary accommodation before the constantly repeated necessity for 'more room' for a growing establishment brought the Missioner and his helpers to a wretched cottage in Clarence Street, next to the gymnasium. Damp walls and rotten floors induced bad health; and when finally one of the helpers put her leg through the floor into Dolling's sitting-room below, the conviction was forced upon them that they would have to build. An 'excellent parsonage' was obtained by utilizing the gallery of the gymnasium for bedrooms. It is interesting to note that when Dolling and his workers were saying prayers on taking possession of their new home, they could hear the harridan who kept the house of shame next door calling down curses on 'old Dolling and his pack of Catholics.'

Father Dolling's work falls quite naturally, as might be expected, under two distinct heads; and yet, distinct as his social was from his specifically religious work, they are parts of one whole, just as they represented two aspects of the one man, a Catholic priest doing his whole task. The social work presented several almost unique features. First comes the 'daily dinner'; his parsonage had to be heart and centre of his work, of the life of the Mission, so he started a daily communal meal. 'Blessed beyond all cost,' Dolling himself has called it, and, indeed, the enormous expense of money, energy, and tact that must have been needed to maintain a dinner table for all and sundry, to which (at any rate on Sundays) never less than forty or fifty sat down, must have resulted in countless lessons and benefits. It was the parsonage dinner table, not a 'charity treat,' or a casual ward: and men regained their self-respect by being treated as guests; children laid the foundation of good health and good manners by the same means.

But Dolling kept 'open house' in a wider sense. Some of his 'visitors' were Winchester boys who had leave to stay at the School Mission. For the rest, guests rubbed shoulders with Members of Parliament, clergy, and professional men who were friends of Dolling's, with soldiers and sailors who had cubicles in the gymnasium gallery, with out-of-works, the suffering and the aged, the broken in health, mind and morals, or means--all of them known to the Father, and to him only; all of them owing their presence there, and all it might connote, to his large-hearted Christian charity.

In addition to the two unusual lines of work already indicated, Father Dolling inaugurated and conducted with success unusual in so unpromising a neighbourhood, a gymnasium, a Mothers' Club and Meeting, and a Girls' Club. These are institutions which have since become a commonplace in most 'well-organized' parishes: they were a bold experiment, indeed, in Landport in the 'eighties. In the earlier days hooliganism had to be stamped out before the gymnasium could really effect its work of making weakly lads strong, teaching a sporting spirit, and weaning young men from the gambling dens and low dance halls. On one occasion, at least, Dolling and his sisters were glad to escape from identification as members of the Mothers' Party returning from its first summer outing almost entirely intoxicated. But as time went on the difference the clubs made in the surrounding parish atmosphere was little short of marvellous, to say nothing of their training of individuals. Within four years of his arrival Dolling determined to build day schools. This was another daring venture. He called his people together and told them they must pray, as they had not much to give in the way of money. They decided to have a day of perpetual prayer once a month, from 5.30 a.m. to 10 at night. They did it, and in less than three months had collected a third of the required £3,000. Who would have foretold that faith could accomplish so much in four short years?

It has been necessary to treat somewhat fully of the social side of Father Dolling's work, because it was always with him the avenue of approach in his mission work, just as it was (in his own case) the natural outcome of his faith and charity. The deadness of the poverty-stricken life, as he saw it, had to be exorcised before it was possible really to kindle 'the divine spark,' the likeness of God, which is in us by right of our creation in his image. But the mission church was his power-house, personal and parochial; and however much energy and time he used in his social activities, or his educational efforts, the best he had to give was given in his dispensing of the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Sacraments. In particular, it is encouraging to us in these days to find that his main inspiration was drawn from, and his main battles fought over, the truth and power of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. The daily Mass was one of his first introductions; he felt, as every true Catholic priest feels, that this must be the first and strongest plank in the spiritual platform of both priest and people. Later came Vespers of the Blessed Sacrament and Stations of the Cross (on Fridays). Then, after a year's preliminary training of children, adults, and servers, the Mass became the central Sunday act of worship. Solemn Evensong came later; but the picture of a Sunday's worship would not be complete without the 'after' mission service, pre-eminently Dolling's personal hour, with its congregational hymns, extempore prayers, and a straight heart-to-heart talk. The memory of those mission services still endures, and the harvest from the seed sown in them is still being reaped.

It must not be assumed that, because Father Dolling's methods were unconventional, he was not amenable to order and authority. He had the profoundest regard, as a true Catholic, for the authority of the Church and Creeds; but officialism of any kind, man-made officialism especially, and human conventions, irked him sorely. It is a magnificent tribute to the real insight and understanding of the authorities at Winchester College, that they maintained with him throughout the happiest relations, giving him their generous trust and confidence, and defending him from the criticisms of Mission supporters, whose patience was tried by his unusual methods. The school was his mainstay during the whole of his ten years in Portsmouth.

There was bound to be opposition: Dr. Harold Browne of Winchester had originally expressed the hope that Dolling would 'not do anything foolish'; some Portsmouth Protestants petitioned him in 1887 to stop St. Agatha's 'Romanizing' tendencies, and the Bishop requested Father Dolling to confine his services 'within the confessedly legal ritual of the Church of England.' Nothing further happened, however, and a similar Protestant agitation in 1889 had no further results. A lecture by the Rev. Stewart Headlam on Christian Socialism raised a different kind of storm, and when the Bishop and the Warden of Winchester wrote in disapproval of his utterances, implying that unless Dolling dissociated himself from such socialistic teaching they could no longer support him, he offered to resign. The Warden explained that his criticism was only personal and not official; the Bishop retired from the contest, and a petition of over 2,000 of St. Agatha's parishioners, praying that Dolling would remain, caused him to feel that his position was re-established, and he stayed on.

With Dr. Browne's successor in the See of Winchester, Dolling was on terms of intimate friendship. Dr. Thorold was a sincere Evangelical, consumed with a zeal as great as Dolling's own for the 'lost sheep.' He did not approve of all the missioner did, and occasionally he asked him to modify certain details of practice; but always he refused (even when badgered by the Protestant Alliance) to 'throw Dolling to the lions,' and allowed him greater liberty than anyone in his diocese. Such small clouds as arose were therefore quickly dispelled.

Space here forbids more than a very brief account of his last great accomplishment in Landport, the building of St. Agatha's Church, at once the crown of and the final crisis in his labours. It was to be, and it is, great in its proportions, to represent Winchester, its founder, and the majesty of God amid the slums. Bishop Randall Davidson had succeeded Dr. Thorold, and, like Bishop Temple years before, would not, or could not, judge of the circumstances in the light of Dolling's special gifts and amazing work. Further, he showed at that period far less tolerance of Catholic teaching and practice than was discernible in his later years as Primate. He refused to sanction the opening of the new church, though he permitted the arrangements to go forward while he considered the matter. He deemed a fresh licence necessary, and could not see his way to sanctioning the third altar in the church. Interviews and correspondence, mediation and discussions, occupied two months] and at the end of them Bishop Davidson adhered to his original decision, condemning the 'practices' (Requiems) which Dolling associated with the third altar, and his saying of Mass without the legal 'three communicants,' and charging him with having dealt at his will with the Church's rules. Dolling at once resigned, but even at this stage efforts to mediate were made. Dolling himself and his people offered to remove the third altar (the old one from the Mission Church transferred) if the services could be held at another altar; but Dr. Davidson's only reply was a request that Dolling would 'bring his services into general harmony with the due order of the Church of England.' Quietly, and without fuss, Dolling left St. Agatha's in January, 1896.

For some time he was 'unemployed'; two bishops at least refused him permission to preach in their dioceses. He gave much time, out of health as he was, to begging for the Mission, but eventually he sailed for the United States in response to an invitation and in search of renewed health. It was a happy and successful visit, and the encouragement he gained from his reception did much to put him on his feet again. The Bishop of Chicago offered him the Deanery of the Cathedral, and, fascinated by the problems of that great city, he would probably have accepted had he not undertaken the charge of St. Saviour's, Poplar, some twelve hours earlier. Here he was instituted in 1898, and for three years did his utmost, with the cordial support of those in authority, and without interference (except at his institution) from outside Protestantism, to carry on the same kind of work as he had done at Maidman Street and Landport. But even more trying than the fact that he found Poplar dull and apathetic, and devoid of the attractions of the work at Portsmouth, was the drag of permanently enfeebled health: he had spent himself too lavishly at Landport ever to be able to do the same again, and he was, in fact, physically worn out. Rest and travel were prescribed and taken; but he preached his last sermon at St. Saviour's on Easter Sunday, 1902, pleaded the cause of his parish at Berkeley Chapel a fortnight later, and within a month his heroic spirit had passed to its rest. His body lies near Father Mackonochie's at Brookwood, among the pines of Surrey.

Unique as he was in many ways, Father Dolling stands out in the history of the English Church as a pioneer of, and in a real sense a martyr to, that same primitive Apostolic Catholicism to which so many have witnessed in different ways, by diverse talents and in varied spheres. 'As God the Father wills to be known in the Incarnation, so God the Son wills to reveal himself in the Breaking of Bread,' was his own fitting summary of his Catholicism and its application. This shows us at once what he meant when he said, 'I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation,' and why it was that in the last resort the battle he fought had to hinge upon what is called especially in today's controversies the cultus of 'The Blessed Sacrament.' By that he stood, for it he was prepared, if need be, to sacrifice himself and all else. Of no true Catholic can it ever be otherwise: Christ in his Sacrament, and all that that implies, is, for the Catholic, Christ in the world, and as we do our small share for that truth today, we tread in the steps of those who have stood for it in the past. Father Dolling suffered for it, even to the eclipse of his greatest earthly hopes; and in suffering has shown to subsequent generations of English Catholics the path of the only true peace and ultimate victory.

Whether in that or in his Christian social work, as a summary of his life, we can think of what he has left us in those words of St. Paul, which are inscribed so fittingly on the memorial tablet in Merton College Chapel to a martyr in a widely different sphere, Bishop Patteson of Melanesia, 'I will very gladly spend and be spent for you.'

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