Project Canterbury

Twenty-one Years in S. George's Mission

By Charles Fuge Lowder

London: Rivingtons, 1877.

Chapter IX. The House of Mercy.

THE Penitentiary is now a thing of the past. Although in the earlier years of the Mission it was one of its most important works, yet that work is now done. From various circumstances, to which allusion will be made hereafter, it was necessary to remove it from Hendon, and eventually to close it. A history however of the last twenty years would be incomplete without some account of its origin and progress. And what work of mercy would more naturally suggest itself to our minds on first acquaintance with the sin of this part of London, than a Refuge for those whom we daily saw falling victims to its misery? Accordingly the removal of the Sisters to Calvert Street in 1857 gave the opportunity for providing a home for many of these poor outcasts, and the foundation was thus laid of the House of Mercy. The beginning was a very [123/124/] humble one; a few were admitted in the first instance, then the numbers rose to a dozen; and at last we managed, though not without great inconvenience, to house fifteen or sixteen. They were nearly all girls from the district, from the Highway, or adjoining streets, amongst whom the news of this Refuge soon spread. Some came ,of themselves to ask admission, of others the Sisters heard in' their visits among the poor, and others were drawn by the open-air preaching.

On one occasion a murder was committed just outside the Church in Wellclose Square, on a Sunday evening in September. Two foreigners had been fighting about one of these poor girls, and one was stabbed in the affray. Sermons in the open air and Church were advertised, and a great crowd collected, a large proportion being men, many sailors, and some prostitutes. On a subsequent occasion, a girl who lived in a court near the Square committed suicide by throwing herself into the Docks; a sermon was likewise preached in the open air to a similar congregation, and some of the girls were induced to attend the service in Church. One who seemed touched by what she heard, and was listening to a lady urging her to leave her wretched life, was carried off by her companions in sin; another, however, was so influenced that she soon after applied at the [124/125] Clergy House late one night to be admitted to the Refuge. Two friends of hers had been admitted a short time before; and now of these three, two went into service, one of whom afterwards married, and the third, though she went back into the world, we heard was dying in a penitent state of mind in her native town in the country.

The good effects of the discipline and religious instruction of the House soon began to tell on the inmates. There they first heard words of kind and affectionate warning or reproof; there the love of God to sinners was first set forth to many, and that practically, in the love shown by those who devoted themselves to their recovery. The daily prayers and services of the Church in which they also participated, had a very happy effect in calming those violent tempers which they had so long freely indulged. For at first these were their great difficulty; they had been accustomed to such rough and violent usage from the sailors, and to quarrel so fiercely with one another, that it was long before they could bear any restraint. It is scarcely possible to describe the violent outbursts of passion with which the Sisters have had to contend, the frantic rage into which the poor girls at first lashed themselves at some trivial remark or fancied unkindness of their companions. On [125/126] one occasion, after the removal of the Refuge into the country, one who had frequently given way to her temper before, suddenly rushed into the classroom where the others were at work, with a knife, which she was hardly restrained from driving into a companion who had offended her; and so frantic did she appear, that even after she had been confined to her room, and the girls were assembled for prayer on Good Friday in the Chapel, there seemed quite a sense of terror amongst them, lest she should again escape and appear in the same violent state. After this girl had returned to her old life, she was so wretched that she was found by the police on the banks of the river, intending to drown herself; and as she expressed her deep shame at returning by herself to those who had before witnessed her violent passions, she was brought back by a policeman, and again admitted on assurances of her sincere repentance; and yet again she gave way and left us. But even of such cases we are not without hope, as in many we have found that the pains taken with them have not been wasted, but have borne fruit either in inducing them to seek another home, or leave their former life and get work to support themselves; or, as in the case above mentioned, have brought them to God in sickness.

[127] But we have a little anticipated the progress of events. After a few months' trial it was found that the confinement of a house in London, without a garden, was top much for them, especially so near their old haunts, where they were continually exposed to temptations from their former associates, who congregated in the street, and calling them by name, urged them to return to their sin. It was resolved, therefore, to move into the country; and after some difficulty a house was taken at Sutton, in Surrey, and occupied at Midsummer, 1858. The Mother House, or the head-quarters of the Sisterhood, still remained in Calvert Street, where the chief work of the Sisters in visiting, teaching in the Schools, &c., was carried on, two or three taking it in turns to go down into the country.

The benefit of this change was soon apparent in the girls themselves, in their better order, happier tone of mind, more cheerful obedience, and improved health. It was indeed a cheering sight, after leaving the sad scenes of Ratcliff Highway, where these very girls were once carrying on their guilty traffic, with their uncovered heads, streaming ribbons, and gaudy dresses, to behold them "sitting, clothed, and in their right mind," as they listened to religious instruction, or were occupied with their needlework in the classroom; to [127/128] find them industriously employed in the laundry, the kitchen, or other household work; or to see them in their hours of recreation walking happily together in the garden, and enjoying the sight of the flowers and trees, and the calm, soothing air of the country, which some of them had never known, and but few since the days of their innocence and childhood; or, better still, to join with them in their prayers and hymns in the little Chapel, where their hearts seemed indeed to join with their voices in the praises of that good God Whom they once blasphemed, but Whom they were now learning to love; or to look at the attentive faces, and often streaming eyes, with which they listened to words of warning or exhortation, to assurances of a Saviour's mercy, and calls to repentance and faith in a Saviour's Blood.

Here, then, our Penitentiary work began to assume a more settled character; the Sisters became gradually trained to the difficult undertaking; the girls learnt to submit to the loving yet firm discipline under which they were placed; and the rough tempers became gradually softened. This was a work of time and patience, and of much earnest prayer.

Many reasons however made it undesirable that we should eventually continue in these premises. The [128/129] buildings and offices were small, and not sufficiently compact for the effectual supervision of the inmates. The laundry was not large enough for our own washing, much less for an amount of work which might help to support the House. These and other circumstances determined us in seeking new premises. For a description of them, as well as of the opening of the Institution, and for some account of its management, we will quote at large from the Report of 1860.

"After much difficulty our premises at Hendon were met with, and taken on a lease of twenty years. They are situated on a high and healthy spot three miles beyond Hampstead. The old buildings were originally Almshouses, to which had been added schoolrooms and dormitories, and the whole occupied by the children belonging to the Workhouse of the parish. The former portion, by throwing down ceilings and partitions, we have now converted into a washhouse, drying chambers heated by hot air, ironing, sorting, packing rooms, &c. A part, formerly the master's house, forms a kitchen, scullery, and parlour, with dormitories for probationers, infirmary, housekeeper's room, &c., while the newer portion contains a large and airy classroom, chapel, chaplain's rooms, and above these a common room and bedrooms for the Sisters, and dormitories for penitents. [129/130] The whole is surrounded by a garden for recreation and kitchen garden, high trees, fences, &c. The various alterations, having been commenced in April, were sufficiently completed to enable the house to be opened on June 21st, 1860. The proceedings of the day commenced with a Celebration of the Holy Eucharist, at which the Sisters were present at 7 a.m., the Chapel being licensed by the Bishop of London. Other Celebrations followed, at which the visitors of the day were present; and soon after eleven a procession was formed for the Dedication Service, which consisted of Psalms and Hymns, and appropriate prayers for God's blessing on the various parts of the work, and of the buildings through which the procession passed. It was a very interesting sight to behold the party assembled in the courtyard adjoining the laundry, consisting of Clergy and Choristers, followed by the Sisters of the Mission, reinforced by others engaged in kindred works of Mercy at Clewer and Highgate, with the children of the Industrial School, whom, rescued early from the temptations around them, it is our object to train in such principles as may save them from the sins which provide so many subjects for our Penitentiaries. Having sung the hymn, "Jerusalem the Golden," the congregation entered the Chapel, where the last Celebration [130/131] commenced, after which, the Litany and some. more hymns having been sung in the large classroom, a very impressive and eloquent sermon was preached by the Very Rev. the Dean of Westminster, now Archbishop of Dublin. The visitors then adjourned to inspect the buildings and laundry arrangements, after which upwards of one hundred sat down to luncheon, when speeches were made by Col. Moorsom (the Chairman), the Rev. B. King, the Clergy of the Mission, It. Brett, Esq.,. and other friends, and the proceedings of the day, which were of a very gratifying character, thus happily terminated.

"We may perhaps fitly follow up this account of the opening of the new House of Mercy with a few details of our penitentiary work. And first we may be thankful for a very marked improvement in the order and discipline of the House during the past year. The first year or fifteen months at Sutton was a time of much difficulty and anxiety in reducing to order so many untrained and violent tempers, and, as might be expected, many were lost in the attempt, some leaving of their own accord, or even running away, while others were dismissed for continued bad conduct; indeed our experience of the first year led us to dread the return of the spring and early summer, which had tempted so [131/132] many to leave us. During the past year (1859-60), however, the religious training and affectionate yet firm discipline perseveringly employed have begun to exert a more sensible influence for good upon our inmates; the proportion who have left us is remarkably diminished, and the behaviour of those in the House very much improved. Thirteen were confirmed on 8. Peter's Day, a few days after they had been removed to Hendon, of whom two just gone into service have received their First Communion and the others are preparing for it, and of these and others we have good hopes that during the coming year they will go forth again into the world as trustworthy and useful servants.

"The Penitentiary now taking a wider aim and scope than formerly, we receive all applicants from the East of London as probationers, so far as our room allows; and when the House is full we endeavour to procure them admission into other Homes. After six weeks or two months of good behaviour they are formally received with a religious service, and then are considered among the regular inmates of the House. After a sufficient term of trial they are prepared for Confirmation, most being unconfirmed, and subsequently for Holy Communion; and on going into service they are sent 'forth with special prayers and blessings."

[133] The routine of the House was as follows (1866):--

6.30 Rise.
7. 0 Private Prayer.
7.10 Breakfast.
7.30 Prayers in Chapel.
8. 0 Industrial Work.
12.15 Midday Prayers in Chapel.
12.30 Dinner.
1. 0 Industrial Work.
4.30 Tea.
5. 0 Work.
7. 0 Bible Class and Reading.
8. 0 Last Service in Chapel and Private Prayers.

Times of recreation were found at intervals in the day, and longer on Sundays, Festivals, and Saturdays. Silence was maintained during certain times; at others conversation was allowed. The Chaplain spent three or four days in each week in the House.

"The principles with which the work was commenced, of a deep and religious training, have more and more developed themselves. The object is not merely to withdraw the sinner for a short time from temptation, trusting to her natural strength to help her out of it afterwards, but to bring her to a true and sincere [133/134] repentance, to revive lost grace, and by prayer and constant religious influence--the superintendence not of mere paid matrons, but devoted religions women, with frequent spiritual advice and aid, and sacramental gifts--to confirm and establish the spiritual life, until by divine blessing the penitent be enabled to go out again into the world, and stand stedfastly against the temptations by which she has hitherto fallen. Such are the principles on which the House has been founded and carried on, the fruits of which we are already reaping among the present inmates, and more sensibly among those whom we are now beginning to send forth into service.

"The conveniences of our new House have enabled us to increase very considerably the Industrial work, which consists chiefly in washing. Not only is the washing for the Mission House done at Hendon, as at Sutton, but we are now taking in a large amount of other washing, that of a large hotel and a boys' school, beside that of private families, from which we may expect to clear an income of from £200 to 1300 per annum towards the expenses of the Penitentiary."

To this account may now be added our gratitude to Almighty God Who permitted us to carry on so important a work for thirteen years. When we first [134/135] opened our Refuge in Calvert Street, we little realized the great responsibility which we had undertaken, or imagined that it would so soon be developed into the large Institution at Hendon; and though when the Mother House of the Sisterhood was removed to Walworth, and the requirements of the parish obliged the retrenching of our expenses, it was first removed and then dosed, yet there are many souls, under God's blessing, saved through its means. Less than a fortnight ago the writer was called to commend on her dying bed one who was once a penitent at Hendon, and afterwards married. She died, we hope, in the peace of God.

Of all works of mercy this requires the greatest faith, patience, and perseverance. Many and grievous are the disappointments for which the workers must be prepared; thankful must they learn to be for partial success. If indeed they only seek to draw as many poor girls as possible for a time out of their sinful life, to salve over the ulcerous wounds, and to restore them again in seeming health to the world, they may boast of great results; but as their work goes deeper, it meets with many more obstacles. It must not be supposed that because many left unsatisfactorily, before their time of probation was expired, that therefore all our [135/136] care had been wasted upon them. In many such cases it was found that the instruction had not been lost. They either returned to friends, sought refuge in other Penitentiaries, or got into service; or even if they fell back into sin, yet they had not the heart to continue in it, but again sought to escape, either with us or in some other way. It must also be remembered that in very few cases comparatively had these girls been under any previous discipline. We took them at once from the streets, admitting all without distinction; and those who know the East of London know the character of its prostitutes, so far more hardened and degraded, rough and undisciplined than from other districts, that societies for the rescue of. fallen women refused to admit them into their refuges from inability to manage or control their tempers: With all these difficulties, and keeping in mind the frequent changes incident to the establishment of: this Houses we are thankful to know that many are now living respectable lives, and to believe that many more whom we sent forth have been reclaimed, through the instrumentality of this work.

Besides these a large number stayed for a shorter time, but either from not being able to bear the discipline, or other causes, left; and though for the most part we have been unable to trace them, yet we have reason to [136/137] hope that some proportion have been benefited by their temporary sojourn.

But beyond the actual blessing derived by the inmates themselves, we must not forget the blessing to those who were permitted to assist in this work, in teaching them the power of sin, and deepening in them the love, tenderness, and compassion with which it must be approached. Again, in the Mission work this was a great opportunity of bearing witness against this corrupting sin, and of showing that those who warn others against it, do so not only in word but in deed, by devoting their time and strength to the recovery of its unhappy victims. The Penitentiary work was also the means, if not of bringing into existence, yet of considerably extending the sphere of an Association for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality in the East of London, which worked with good effect for some time in closing brothels, and endeavoured to lessen the outward exhibition of those sins which disgrace the thoroughfares of this portion of the metropolis.

Another, and by no means unimportant effect of the existence of the House at Hendon was this, that being specially open for girls from the East of London, and primarily taking them from the Highway, Commercial Road, and the immediate neighbourhood, it was a powerful [137/138] witness among the girls themselves against their own sin. When they found one of their companions, whom they had been accustomed to meet day by day in their sinful haunts, suddenly disappearing, and they heard that she had left her dreadful life, it was a powerful warning addressed to themselves. Why should they not also seek refuge from the miseries which they all felt so acutely?

It was with great reluctance that such a work was abandoned, but many reasons combined to make this necessary. When S. Peter's Church was built and the parish formed, the duty of providing for parochial requirements, such as 'Schools and a Clergy House, as well as of maintaining these, with the staff of Clergy, the services of the Church, and the charities of the parish, obliged a retrenchment in Missionary Institutions. Ratcliff Highway and its district were no longer connected with the Mission, and though S. Peter's parish furnishes some inmates for a Penitentiary, yet these may find admittance into the Diocesan Penitentiaries and Refuges in London. When, therefore, the Sisters found it necessary to close the House at Hendon, and afterwards that at Walworth, it was deemed advisable not to endanger the prospects of parochial development by so serious a responsibility as the maintenance of a House of Mercy.

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