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The Story of W. J. E. Bennett
Founder of S. Barnabas', Pimlico and Vicar of Froome-Selwood
And of His Part in the Oxford Church Movement of the Nineteenth Century.

By F. Bennett, M.A.
Formerly Rector of Farleigh, Surrey.

New York, London, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, 1909.

Chapter IV. The Idea and Building of S. Barnabas', Pimlico

THERE had arisen in the lower portion of the district assigned to S. Paul's, amid the marshes of Pimlico, near the Hospital and to the east of Ebury Street, a series of deplorable slums, which extended down to the river. From 1742 to 1803 those gardens, which in still earlier times had belonged to the Earl of Ranelagh, attracted to their nightly shows, amid fashionable sin and frivolity, the princes and nobles of the land. But in that neighbourhood most unfashionable sin and brutal degradation reigned in 1850. There the streets were rugged and but half made, undrained, unpaved. The houses were not old but already ruinous. The foul sewer, which drained half of Western London, and had been originally "The Serpentine River," ran, open and uncovered, full of filth of every sort down to the Thames, between starved, half-decayed trees whose branches produced leaves that could be numbered. The appropriately named "Nell Gwynn's Court" looked down, in defiance of cholera, upon this flowing tide of abomination, and delighted in filth and foulness both of body and soul, which neither the Sanitary nor the Ecclesiastical Commissioners had been cruel enough to put to flight.

The inhabitants matched, naturally enough, their surroundings. Men, women and children were half clad, without shoes, dirty, ragged, reckless. Their lot seemed so low and miserable that they were careless with despair and without power to desire to be otherwise than they were. The low lodging-houses were dens for profligates and thieves. The small beer-shops were receptacles for the veriest dregs of society. Street rows were incessant. Drink and gambling flourished. Dirty, disorderly, ill-conditioned children filled the streets. Blasphemy met the ear at every turn. The district presented an aspect of degradation and darkness scarcely to be exceeded in London.

But within a short distance, how great was the contrast!

"'Nell Gwynn's Court' and 'New Grosvenor Place' and other such-like nests and rookeries of poverty became joined to their once parish church by an intermediate race of palaces which were springing up in the new Belgravia, and rivalling or cutting out Grosvenor Square and its surroundings."

These descriptions, derived from Mr. Bennett's own words and those of other contemporary witnesses, give an idea of the work to be done, and of the call to do it. The doer was not far off.

"It was the year 1843," Mr. Bennett says, in the preface to the Octave Sermons at S. Barnabas', "that brought the writer in contact with the two extremes of poverty and wealth, of Lazarus and Dives. Never had he seen it so before. Never had the contrast of all that was luxurious so mingled in his mind with all that was abject--all that was sumptuous and beautiful with all that was low, wretched, and foul. Many an evening walk in the still, hot summer of London, has brought me, by some pastoral duty, in a moment of time, from the one extreme right into the midst of the other. I have gone forth from the lowest degradation of squalid misery and filth, into the glittering display of festivity and magnificence. I have come forth from the sound of wailing children wanting food, and sat down in the brilliant assemblies of joyous, thoughtless, self-indulging creatures, without a desire ungratified or a want unsupplied. I have come out of houses with my ears tingling with the oaths of the profane and the coarse bold words of the wicked, and have listened, before the sounds have passed away, to the courteous phraseology of all that seemed refined and elegant."

It would have been wonderful if his spirit had not been stirred within him. Yet in this contrast he must often have had some such thought in his mind as that which Dr. Pusey once dwelt upon, and must have feared more for fashionable Belgravia in the Day of Judgment than for poor, neglected Pimlico.

It is astonishing to think that up to this time there was scarcely any provision for the poor to worship God in all this neighbourhood, unless it was that provided for them by Dissenters.

"Few would imagine," he tells us, "that the banks of the river Thames held round about them in the nineteenth century a. dense population of poor and lower classes totally unprovided with any of the spiritual aids of religion, in utter poverty both of mind and body. Yet so it was. Close adjoining Chelsea Hospital lies a district whose inhabitants until very lately went through the form of supposing that their parish church in George Street, Hanover Square, was to furnish them with room for divine worship, and that 'the Rector of S. George's was their parish priest, who would attend to the spiritual edification of their souls. Uncared for by the clergy, seldom receiving any pastoral visits, without worship, without a school for their children, their families unbaptized, themselves in ignorance, habitual sin their sole guide and rule of life:--so they were left.

"This is not meant to be any reflection on the then existing clergy. Far from it; for how was it to be expected that the Rector of S. George's, Hanover Square, could by any possibility visit or superintend the poor by Chelsea Hospital? How was it possible that he could even get through the pastoral charge closely adjoining his own rectory in Grosvenor Street? Physical powers could not have done it. It was beyond his reach. And so the Church of S. Peter was added, with two clergymen to superintend the lower or outer wards of the parish.

"But still even this was a mere nothing. What were two--to thousands? What was the cramped and fettered teaching of two 'ministers' of a church which was under the control and regulation of a parish vestry for funds and under the restraints of formality, still remaining, of the old parish of S. George's? What was a church filled with a mere colony of the inhabitants of Grosvenor Square, tied up in pews and shackled with payments for every inch of sitting room, to do for poor men and women who had not a shilling to pay? How could two pastors do work which needed twenty at the least computation?

"But while Nell Gwynn's Court had been left to make a place of worship for itself, and therefore had none, it was not so with Belgrave Square. Belgrave Square must have a church and clergyman of its own; S. Peter's was not sufficient and S. George's was too distant. And so arose S. Paul's, Knightsbridge--that is to say, it arose with all the odious system of pews and pew rents; the rich exclusiveness of the fashionable and the great, as though a man could not pray unless he were locked in and fenced round with a wooden box, and as though he could not adore his God unless he were safe from the intrusion of his brother; as though the poor by being too close would taint the air of the rich man's nobility; as though Sacraments and graces of preaching and blessings of prayer were only fitted for those who could pay for them, and return an equivalent to the minister in gold and silver.

"'Why do you not come to church?' we said to the poor labourer, the mechanic, the widow, the hard-working charwoman. 'Will you show us where we can go?' was the reply. 'Give us a church, and we will.' We turned aside, acknowledging the rebuke. They could not."

Undoubtedly they could not, for the sittings at S. Paul's were £15 a year each; and the proprietary chapels which sprang up were necessarily concerned with their own finances and so were for the good of the rich only.

"Look round for the poor," Mr. Bennett says in his pastoral letter of Easter, 1846, which "reads even now like a trumpet-call," says a writer. "In which of the churches are they? They have been driven from the pews to the open seats, and from the open seats to the door, and from the door, the door of God's house--they have been driven to the conventicle, or, worse maybe, to the preaching of the infidel in the parks and open places of the streets; or, worse maybe still, to the depth and darkness of despair in their own uninstructed hearts; discontented, ready for rebellion, alone, friendless, unloved, unloving. I do announce to you, my brethren, as God's ambassador, that 'the poor have NOT the Gospel preached to them'--and so announcing it I implore you to give heed. There is a grievous disease among us--a heavy charge against us---a fearful sin--the neglect of the characteristic of Christ's Holy Religion: THE PREACHING OF THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. And so announcing it, I implore you to come forth and help in its remedy."

His remedy was to build a new church quite free for all; the rich of the parish were to build it for the poor of the parish, and thus the extremes of rich and poor already side by side were to be brought closer together still.

The principle was to be free gifts.

"Reflect on this," he says. "There has never yet been in the whole parish of S. George's, Hanover Square, either in its original extent or in its present sub-division, any church or chapel built upon a principle of alms-giving. S. Peter's was built by a parish rate; S. Paul's, as well also as S. Michael's, was built on a principle of apportioning the pews for the service of the rich, according to the amount of their subscriptions. That cannot be called alms-giving, seeing that the poor were only accidently brought into the church, and not as a principle."

His original plan was for a church to contain 1000 persons, a schoolhouse for 600 children, and a parsonage house; a plan, however, which grew as he saw his way clearer. "The church is to be entirely free, without pews or galleries." Strange that in 1846 these were novel ideas! The Marquis of Westminster had given the land. The estimated cost was £13,700, he thinks they had better say £14,000, "to provide against contingencies." He wanted another £1000 for a small endowment. He half apologizes for asking so much!

First he tells them that the scheme is not unnecessary--which to us nowadays appears somewhat obvious; apparently it did not seem so then. The district of S. Paul's contained, he thought, 14,000 people crowded into that narrow strip a mile and a quarter long. About 6000 were in the lower part of the parish. Clearly there was not room in S. Paul's Church.

"We may safely say that there are many hundreds in our parish unbaptized, certainly many thousands unconfirmed, and more than two-thirds have no notion of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper as in any way necessary to Salvation. They have no worship, no means of grace, no hearts towards God, no hearts towards man. Is it unnecessary to attend to their wants?"

Next he points out that--

"it is not an unjust tax upon "them, for "even setting aside the great Catholic principle of preaching the Gospel to the poor without regard to locality, the existence of this poor population around you depends entirely upon yourselves. You are the indirect creators of it. It is you that have brought them here, from the magnificent dwellings in which you live, and the horses and carriages which you keep, and the many servants whom you require to minister to your wants. Belgrave Square, Eaton Place, Chesham Place, and Lowndes Street, with others of the like grandeur and comfort of dwelling, are the cause of Ebury Street and Queen Street and Clifford's Row and New Grosvenor Place being filled with a population of poor men, women, and children, striving laboring men working from hand to mouth to sustain life. It is, then, not unjust (if you will call it a tax) that you should have this tax, but remember this is only the lowest ground. I for my part speak of it as your privilege; but if you on your part will speak of it as a tax, then let it be so--but it is not unjust."

Thirdly, he shows that the scheme is not impracticable, and how the money might be got together. He makes a census of the houses of the rich, and estimates them at 367, houses of persons whose income varies from £1000 to £100,000 a year, and he thinks that--

One person may be moved to give: 1000
Two persons £500 each: 1000
Four persons £250 each: 1000
Eight persons £200 each: 1600
Twenty persons £100 each: 2000
One hundred persons £50 each: 5000
Sums under £50: 2400
Total: £14,000

And as for the clergy, they were to be maintained by some small endowment, but chiefly by the offertory.

"That offertory may be set apart in three portions--one-third for the poor, one-third for the officers and maintenance of the church, and one-third for the clergy who serve at the altar; and then also we may send down from S. Paul's one-third of our offertory for their maintenance. I calculate that from this we shall derive an income of at least £600 a year, and hence we shall be able to provide for three additional curates."

Finally, he exhorts them with these glowing words--

"Let us work faithfully together. Come with me into the lanes and streets of this great city. Come with me and visit the dens of infamy and the haunts of vice, ignorance, filth, and atheism with which it abounds. Come with me and read the story of Dives and Lazarus. Come with me and turn over the pages of the Holy Book, by whose precepts your lives are, at least in theory, guided; then look at your noble houses and the trappings of your equipages, the gold that glitters on your sideboards, and the jewels that gleam on your bosoms; then say within your secret conscience, as standing before the great and terrible God at the Day of Judgment, 'What shall I do if I give not of the one to relieve the other?' O my brethren, come and let us reason together. All these things will have an end. Your rank and your earthly privileges and your superiority above other men will have an end. Seek for some other rank than that you have here, higher privileges, a better superiority--where 'the first will be last, and the last first.' "

The appeal was not in vain.

"It pleased God to bless what I had, said," he tells us afterwards, "far beyond my most sanguine expectations. I never doubted of ultimate success. I never doubted but that in the course of time I should see the Church of S. Barnabas in existence, and all I cared for completed; but I looked to many years of toil and patience and waiting, because I took into account the many adverse circumstances surrounding the attempt. I considered the peculiar party in the Church to which I was attached, the suspicions naturally belonging to the idea of a free church, the want of personal interest in a work from which no personal benefit was to be derived, the expense and costliness of the undertaking, the times bad, hostility to S. Paul's and its mode of Divine worship, antipathy in a great portion of the parishioners to myself personally, absence of support and want of sympathy in the Bishop of the diocese."

But the answer to his appeal "was far more immediate than the most sanguine could have expected." In fact, the offertory at S. Paul's from Easter, 1846, to Easter, 1847, was £6641. Thus the foundation-stone of the schoolhouse was laid on S. Barnabas' Day, 1846, and the commencement was made of the parsonage house in the same autumn. "Soon the funds began to show themselves sufficient to authorize the whole undertaking."

Then with success came an enlargement of the original design. The idea arose of some kind of college for choristers and for four priests, with some kind of "foundation for the permanent supply of all the usual offices required in a collegiate institution."

"How could we better manifest our love for the poor than by some such plan as this? How could we better show them that we really considered their welfare our primary object than by coming down among them, and living with them in their very streets as an ecclesiastical body? If a mere church would be a blessing, and a mere ordinary priest and a common school, how much more would the aspect of a collegiate establishment? If the poor could but see their children actually brought up under the personal teaching and superintendance of clergy upon the spot; if they were taken in and made of themselves part and parcel of the Church, clothed, housed, and fed upon the Church's own territory; if the aspect of many clergy combined, many on the spot together, forming, not a common jejune service once or twice on Sunday, but every day, night and morning, and that with all the additions of a full choir and the highest ornaments of the Church's ritual,--if all this could be achieved, then how much deeper and more firmly and more enduringly would our work enter into their hearts and feelings, and how very much more quickly, with God's help, would the good work of pastoral love begin to tell among them, and spread its work of holiness! These were our thoughts, and our thoughts soon took shape, and form. The schoolhouse was enlarged so as to take in a certain number of children on the foundation, and the parsonage in like proportion for a larger number of clergy."

"These thoughts" and the "College of S. Barnabas" were, it seems, the first idea of the many "clergy houses" that have since sprung up in such numbers in so many slums.

"It was," says the Parish Choir, on July 1, 1850, "a great experiment--for surely an experiment it is, though full of hope and promise."

On S. Barnabas' Day, 1847, after Celebration at S. Paul's, the clergy, the choir, and the school-children went down in procession. The Marquis of Westminster laid the foundation-stone of the new church. The schools were opened, and each room was blessed. Daily Morning Service and three services on Sundays were then begun in the schoolroom. £7000 were still needed. On S. Barnabas' Day, 1848, the sum wanted was £5000, and in another year £2700 had been received, and the deficit was £2300.

Finally a loan of £"1000 each from two persons, without interest, enabled the church to be consecrated.

What Mr. Bennett's own contribution was does not seem recorded, but we are told, in the address of the parishioners to the Bishop, December 20, 1850--

"We have seen the great and almost unparalleled personal sacrifices by which he placed the whole of his private fortune on the altar at the head of subscriptions for the extension of the Gospel to the poor."

As he does not contradict this, it is no doubt true. The "example aroused and awakened the sympathy of all classes," and it was no wonder that

"special gifts flocked in to enrich and ornament our House of God; a peal of ten bells (each bell being given by a different individual) was set up in the belfry. The Altar of stone was the gift of another. The holy vessels for the Altar, a jewelled cross, together with the font of Purbeck marble, were the gift of another, A marriage offering at S. Paul's furnished a beautiful pair of Altar candlesticks. The whole of the church throughout decorated with painted glass shows the various gifts of others; some giving individually one each, others combining to give according to their means. The corona is the gift of one most generous, a stranger to the parish. The brass eagle is the gift of another, and one very liberally presented the whole of the linen for the vestments of the clergy and choir."

Two things were there, but unpaid for: the organ and the brass gates of the rood screen. The former was naturally and speedily presented by Sir F. Ouseley, under whose direction it was built by Flight.

To all these gifts he alludes sadly and touchingly in his farewell letter.

"Look here!" he says, "every window has its tale of some noble heart that yearning for His glory has here laid his substance and his love to be set forth. It is the noble and the poor together--faithful women and little children together--here all in one contributed. Each window marks a story known not to you, but only to me and God. Come up hither again. Do you see the most holy place, this altar and all that lies upon it--the holy vessels, the vestments, the various preparations for the holy sacrifice? There is not one, no, not one single holy thing there lying in its sacred use but swells up the bursting heart into a memory of some deed of love of those by me, their pastor, best loved in this wide world of sin. Here are some gifts of penitents gladly of their alms-giving showing forth contrition for a youth of sin, now lately learning what they never knew before;--here gifts of the innocent in Christ--babes who yet have known but little save to love, guarded by their angels standing before GOD in Heaven. I know each name. Come down again. This is the Font. There is not a chisel mark there but calls to mind the anxious hoarded alms and treasured sacrifice of her who laid it there for God's eternal use."

The total cost, exclusive of these special gifts, was £19,000. It represents, of course, a larger sum at the present day. In his sermon at the dedication festival of S. Barnabas', 1867, he seems to imply that the total cost was at least £30,000.

Till 1848 Mr. Bennett had been living at 39, Wilton Crescent. He then moved into the S. Barnabas' College, where the other clergy also lived.

"While we have been so dwelling together," he says, "we have seen, and helped in, the raising of almost every stone of the sanctuary close by, we mounted every scaffold and laid up every beam and crowned with our own hands the final work upon the highest pinnacle of the spire. The noise of axe and hammer was familiar to us as a household word, from morning to night daily, and the whole fabric grew beneath our vision as the child of dear parents grows from infancy to manhood; our very own in design, in labour, in progress, and in consummation."

The plan of "The College of S. Barnabas" is simple. In the centre, the church with its west door opening on the street; on the north side, beyond a small quadrangle, the schools; on the south side, the college or parsonage, with a part for the assistant clergy containing a sitting-room for each, and a common dining-room for all.

The architecture is of the Early English order, at that time probably regarded by Mr. Bennett as the best or most convenient of the Gothic styles. This style, however, with its lancet windows, gives but little light. "S. Barnabas'," he writes to one of his nieces, "is too dark for London." The architect was Mr. Cundy, who had also built S. Paul's, but the style of S. Barnabas' is so different from his other work that the tradition that Pugin was also consulted by Mr. Bennett is probably correct.

The plans were all submitted to the Bishop from the beginning, and Mr. Bennett's description of his interview with his Lordship throws an amusing light on the position of affairs at that period as to the decoration of a church.

"I hardly dared to entertain the thought that" he would consecrate such a church. "I could not expect, I did not expect, in my own mind, that a rood screen, a chancel highly decorated, an altar of stone, diapered work and panelling throughout, painted glass in every window and gilded capitals" (what a terrible list of enormities!)--"I hardly thought that all this would pass without censure, or at least without some expression of unwillingness to stamp it with Episcopal sanction. I hardly thought that a piscina, a credence, an aumbry, sedilia, and all the furniture appertaining could pass without some words of remonstrance. I wished the Bishop personally to inspect it. Accordingly on May 2 he came. He did not like the screen as a matter of private taste, but made no objection 'as long as there was no rood (i.e. crucifix) on it.'"

On May 17 Mr. Bennett pleaded for a "rood cross," i.e. without the Figure, and though the Bishop at first strongly objected, he "ultimately gave me my way." The only point to which the Bishop permanently objected was--the placing flowers on the altar. One is glad to reflect that flowers have now purged themselves from the charge of being of Romish proclivities, that the Pope is no longer supposed to lie concealed in a rosebud, that indulgences and papal bulls are no longer looked for among the petals of a lily, and that we now realize that we might have searched in vain for the Jesuit College even amidst the florets of the then newly evolved double dahlia.

On June 10 the Bishop objected to a movable cross upon the altar. All else had been conceded, and in view of subsequent events these concessions are to be remembered. It seems, however, that the cross remained, as it was afterwards a subject of dispute.

The work of building was at last complete.

"It is a noble work," said Archdeacon Manning in his sermon, "nobly conceived, and as nobly carried to its end; a work for God and for His poor wrought out of the costliest gifts, and with the most skilful art, in splendour and symmetry, in stateliness and beauty."

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