Project Canterbury

The Life of Father Dolling

By Charles E. Osborne

London: Edward Arnold, 1903.

Chapter IV.

He decides to take Holy Orders--Salisbury Theological College (1882)--Mission work in S. Martin's parish, Salisbury (1882-1883)--Ordained Deacon by Bishop Moberly (May 20, 1883)--Curacy of Corscombe (1883), combined with work in Holy Trinity parish, Stepney, East London.

'Pectus facit theologum.'--Latin Ecclesiastical Saying.

TOWARDS the end of 1881, the outlook of affairs in Ireland forced Dolling to choose a profession other than one connected with land, and, of course, the thought of Holy Orders was the most natural and immediate one. He was, however, most anxious that Orders should only be sought from entirely disinterested motives on his part, and not that, preferring to do good as a layman, he should be driven to seek Christ's commission in the ministry merely by a concurrence of circumstances. But, indeed, it was only his own scrupulous conscience that could have suggested such a possibility in his case.

He writes to Mrs. Tomkinson from the Borough Road, January 16, 1882:

'I am going to take Orders. We had hoped that, considering my case, my former work, and his need, the Bishop of Bedford [Dr. Walsham How] would have got me ordained, but he cannot. I have applied to Winchester, and if he will do it, all will be well. The want of a University degree is the difficulty. God bless you for your sympathy!'

At this time he stayed for a few days with an old friend, the Rev. Horace Munro, Strathfieldsaye Rectory, Winchfield, Hants, who seems to have talked with him over the question of how best to get ordained. The outcome of it all was that Dolling felt that the various circumstances which forced him to resign the Borough Boad house pointed to God's will for him as meaning clearly that he should enter the ministry. In regard to the qualifications required as a minimum for ordination, he decided, it is thought by Dr. Liddon's advice, to go to Salisbury Theological College, which he entered early in 1882. That college was then under the rule, as Principal, of the Rev. Edward Bickersteth Ottley, now Vicar of the Church of the Annunciation (formerly Quebec Chapel), Bryanston Square, London, W. Not only did Mr. Ottley, in his official capacity as head of the college, come in contact with Dolling, but he afterwards became one of his firmest friends, and Dolling was a constant visitor to the Church of the Annunciation, where his sermons were much valued and help gladly given him for his work.

His stay at Salisbury was a period of his life during which he was somewhat out of his element. His interests were not with the study of theology, Scripture exegesis, and Church history, but with questions directly bearing on the application of God's life to man's need. His type of religious character was not that of the student, but of the preacher and of the man of action, of Wesley, or Manning, or Spurgeon, rather than of Pascal, Butler, or Newman. Nor in any case do we think that Harold Browne 'On the Thirty-nine Articles,' the usual doctrinal text-book of that time, is exactly the type of theology which could have inspired his intelligence. In any case, as to matters of study, theological or otherwise, while his general mental grasp of a position was full of insight, his impatience of detail hindered his ever being an exact student. But an 'ignoramus,' as he often laughingly called himself, he certainly was not.

Soon after his arrival at Salisbury, he writes to a friend:

'The Bishop (Moberly), the Dean, and the other dignitaries have been very polite and civil. I spent yesterday afternoon at the Palace, and liked the Bishop and his daughters--very simple, kind, unaffected people.'

The Rev. E. B. Ottley writes of him as follows:

'It was some years ago that a rollicking, warm-hearted young Irishman, who had made himself an honourable name as a lay-worker in London, came to the Diocesan Theological College at Salisbury to prepare for his ordination.

'His high spirits and imperturbable good humour won the affection of all who came across him, while underneath lay a store of moral strength and enthusiasm that gradually and surely impressed the minds and affected the lives of his associates. There was some singular--as it were mesmeric--force of pure humanness, genuine sympathy, philanthropy, brotherlinoss, about him amounting to a sort of genius. No man seemed so completely to embody the spirit of the words: "Nihil humanum a me alienum." This gave him a marvellous insight into character and an extraordinary quickness to observe and understand all that expresses character, all that belongs to the clothing and framework of human life.

'He had the gifts of a great dramatist. But his power was primarily and originally of the heart--wonderful warmth and tenderness of love.' He had, in unique degree, the power of entering into the lives, thoughts, feelings of others, and particularly of what was best, truest, most human and divine in them, and this not with reference to any class or either sex, but to each and all. Men were impressed by his manliness, his strength and courage. Women found he understood them, revealed them to themselves with scarce credible accuracy of insight. Children found him ever in heart a child. Many boys almost idolised him. Rich and poor; working men in their curious reserve and outward cynicism, with their democratic independence and radicalism; men of the world, with their devotions to duty or to pleasure; soldiers and sailors of whatever rank; the shawled and hatless East End girls in their rowdy humours, and the fastidious promenaders of the park; men or women servants in smart houses; or a boy at a public school; he seemed inspired to understand the life, the ideas of each and all--to see with their eyes, to fool with their hearts.

'It must be confessed that as a student he was not in all respects successful. He was not adapted to student life, and he came to the college at Salisbury too old, after too long a spell of active mission work in London, to settle down to strenuous "reading." He threw himself into the limited opportunities of active service in the parish of S. Martin's, Salisbury, and instantly, of course, made himself felt as a lay missioner. Though his qualifications in theology were not all that might have been desired, there could be no question as to the Tightness of presenting a man of such character and such gifts for ordination. Accordingly, he received deacon's orders at the hands of the venerable and beloved Bishop Moberly in 1883.'

Since then, Mr. Ottley goes on,

'Dolling's noble and self-sacrificing service to the poorest of his brethren for Christ's sake, in combination with such unique qualities of heart, is almost without a parallel in our times.'

In his Whitsun sermon at the Church of the Annunciation, delivered (1902) immediately after Father Dolling's death, Mr. Ottley said, in reference to him:

'His mental powers were considerable, but his intellectual development was to some extent, I think, hindered by his overpowering longing for practical service to his brethren. It was almost impossible to induce him to read, and certainly he was not altogether without reason in urging, as he used, that he could and did study to good purpose in the course of his strenuous endeavours to uplift the whole lives of the poor and wretched, among whom he loved to live and work. He was certainly possessed of very extraordinary--indeed, in many respects, almost unique--gifts. But the source and centre of his power was the great love that filled his heart. It enabled him to enter into the lives of the poorest and most miserable with a fulness and reality of sympathy almost beyond imagination. In order to enter into closest union with them, he stooped, he sacrificed himself to the uttermost. To get near them, to identify himself with his people, he gladly cast aside every comfort; he gladly went short at times even of the necessaries of life. As far as possible, he shared every condition, every poverty-stricken limitation of the existence of the poorest classes. They felt and knew that he really cared for them, felt for them, longed to make them happy for this life and for the next. As one remembers him one thinks of the saying, "Greater love hath no man than this--that a man lay down his life for his friends." Not alone in its pathetic and premature ending, but truly, from first to last, he laid down his life for others.'

The present Principal of Salisbury (Dr. Whitefoord) tells us that those clergy who were contemporaries of Robert Dolling at the College have told him that

'he lived largely apart from his fellows, and was quite indifferent to the common life. He was very rarely present at any lectures, and seemed to grudge any time spent away from the Mission Church in S. Martin's parish. Nothing would sometimes be seen of him for whole days together. I think he must have regarded his time spent here as an irritating interruption or postponement of the life's work awaiting him. With all his wonderful powers in other directions, his weak point lay in a thinly disguised contempt for formal study. For myself, I have no doubt that but for this failure he'would have filled a still greater place in the history of the Church of this land. But his passion for work did not include books. I do not wish to depreciate him. How could one, since he was such a lover of the souls of men? But I think that scholarship and accurate theological thinking spelt pedantry to him.'

His greatest friend at Salisbury was one of his fellow-students, now Rev. Peter Barnes, Vicar of S. Columba's, Stratford, East London.

Dolling at first was not understood by the majority of the students, and he probably felt it a vital necessity that he should create some interests outside the College. He felt drawn to S. Martin's parish because it was poor, and because its patron saint was the same as that of the Postmen's League. The Bector of S. Martin's (Bev. C. N. Wyld, now Vicar of Grittleton, Chippenham) was wise enough to be eager to have his help. It was arranged that he should constantly preach in the Mission Church of S. Mary Magdalene, and that he should conduct a service in a small room which had been hired by some of the ladies of the close. He also threw himself strongly into temperance work, and was a teetotaler at this time.

During his stay at Salisbury, there arrived at the College a deacon of the Holy Orthodox Church of the East, a Greek, named Mons. Feroupoulos; he came to stay for a few weeks, and at Dr. Liddon's request Dolling and Barnes took charge of him. The two latter asked him many questions about the beliefs and practices of the Greek Church, in which, however, Dolling took no very direct interest. His foreign travel had not brought him to Russia, or to the portions of Christendom which are in the Communion of the East. Mons. Feroupoulos was much interested in the Anglican Church. We do not know if he took Dolling as an ordinary representative of it. We are told that, though this Greek deacon attended the cathedral services, including the Celebrations, regularly, yet he would not communicate. Some of the then students tell us that the choral services at the cathedral on Sundays, which were compulsory for them all, were a great trial to Dolling. During the anthem he invariably read some volume, presumably of a religious character, or would audibly remark to his companion on the length and weariness of the service.

His rooms in the College were continually visited by working men whom he had got to know in Salisbury. Dolling's nickname among several of the students was 'the Land Agent'; some thought that occupation an unsuitable preparation for the office of a clergyman. Few of them could sympathise with Brother Bob's ideas.

His work with the rough men and lads of Salisbury was very remarkable. It is strange what extreme 'hooliganism,' and even depravity, can cluster round the confines of a cathedral close. Some of the worst slums in England (though not, of course, greatest in extent), most overcrowded, unsanitary, and often immoral in lives of the inhabitants, are to be found in some of the cathedral towns. We are told by a gentleman who is an old resident in Salisbury that the roughest people in the town became like lambs in Dolling's hands. He says:

'His personality was felt everywhere outside the College. Immediately he penetrated the back courts and alleys, and very soon he was a friend to the rough youth, over whom he gained an enormous influence. He practically, by his sympathy, cast the mode of mission work in Mr. Wyld's, and afterwards in other parishes, into quite a new mould. The whole system of mission work now existing in S. Martin's, and, I may add, the city parishes generally, originated with him. After he left working men would constantly ask me if I had seen him, or had any news from him. His book on his work at Portsmouth was read by many in Salisbury. He often used my house for interviews, and I was struck by the strange people who used to come to see him.

The Ven. Archdeacon Sowter, of Dorset, who had as warm an affection for Dolling as the latter had for him, writes the following to explain the circumstances under which he became his curate, when he (Archdeacon Sowter) was Vicar of Cors-combe, West Dorset:

'Old memories came back upon me when I received a delightful affectionate note from Dolling, after my break-down. I was introduced to him by Bishop Walsham How about the time when Dolling's rents were reduced, and his tenants burning bonfires in his honour, at a time when many Irish landlords were much more likely to be burnt themselves. I had been taking counsel with Bishop How as to the possible combination of town and country work, to the mutual advantage of both sides. After a course at Salisbury Bishop Moberly gave Dolling a title to Corscombe, with the understanding that we should work on some mission premises which had been secured in the East of London, with the goodwill of the vicar. But I don't think that, after his ordination, Dolling spent more than a few Sundays at Corscombe. Those who knew him, and know how different he was from any other man who ever lived, will easily understand that a "country parson" was perfectly hopeless even as a temporary substitute for him in London, as the work there gathered round himself, and his personality was the secret of it all. I am bound to add that, apart from incompetence, and much as I loved him, I could not have accepted all his views.

'The things about Dolling that most impressed me were the wonderful way in which his life was a commentary on "the good shepherd going after the lost sheep until he find it," and the deep sense of the supernatural grace and of the presence of the Lord by which, mingling with a perfect freedom and a complete understanding of their needs, with the wildest and waywardesfc souls, he was preserved in a wonderful purity of character.'

Robert Dolling was ordained deacon in Salisbury Cathedral by Bishop Moberly on May 20, 1883. He entered on his ministerial work in a very original capacity, a combination of curate of Corscombe and missionary deacon under Bishop How in the East End of London, being put in charge of the most difficult district of the great parish of Holy Trinity, Tredegar Square, E., the Vicar of which (with whose consent, of course, the arrangement was made) was then the Rev. J. Greaves, now Rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire.

But, as Archdeacon Sowter tells us, the arrangement was better on paper than in reality. It was only made at all in order to afford an outlet for the desire of the Vicar and people of Corscombe at once to secure part of Dolling's services, for they all loved him heartily, and also to keep their interest up in the missionary work going on in East London, the money raised for his stipend serving, as it were, for this double purpose. However, after a little time the Corscombe Vicar and parishioners, much as they loved their strange curate, yet were content, for the sake of God's work in wider pastures and among the sheep in the wilderness, to allow him to remain almost entirely in East London, paying them only an occasional visit to tell them about the work, while they generously supplied him with part of the sinews of war in the form of a stipend. A young man now living at Salisbury has told us that when he was a little lad at school at Corscombe he used to go with the other boys to gather wild flowers to send to Brother Bob's East End boys and girls. This was because the Corscombe children loved the latter, for their dear friend, Robert Dolling, had gone to live among those children in the great city of London as for a little time he had lived among and loved themselves amid the life of country sights and sounds, among the quiet fields and trees.

Project Canterbury