Project Canterbury

The Life of Father Dolling

By Charles E. Osborne

London: Edward Arnold, 1903.

Chapter VII.

Father Dolling's band of helpers, clerical and lay--Their special departments of work--The social side of the mission--The work of his sisters and others with the women--The mothers--The girls--S. Agatha's dancing-class--Miss Wells' 'Home' at Southsea.

'I dream'd in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the
whole of the rest of the earth; I dream'd that was the new city of Friends.'


FATHER DOLLING knew well the importance of co-operation and delegation, and the absolute necessity of these in all work that is not to depend solely on the evanescent conditions of the purely personal influence of one individual. His interferences with the work of his subordinates were comparatively rare, and in the main his willingness to allow them to take their own line, within reasonable limits, was very remarkable in so active and capable a personality, and one of a temper the very opposite to that of the phlegm which often passes for patience.

On the whole, the intercourse between Father Dolling and his large staff of fellow-workers, clerical and lay, was seldom marred by any unpleasantness or misunderstanding. It was essentially the life of a family interior to the larger family of the whole district of S. Agatha's, and permeating it with a characteristic influence of which Dolling himself was the strong and genial focus.

This co-operative mode of work was the more necessary in Dolling's case as he was never at any period of his ministry a house to house visitor. It was not possible for him to be so consistently with the enormous calls upon his time for other necessary purposes, made even at Maidman Street, and, far more, at Landport. As he never visited any except special cases (and of course always including sick-beds, where his ministry was perfect in its tact and tenderness), he was forced to rely very largely on the efforts of his staff in this kind of work--seeing the people in their own homes---on which he laid the very greatest importance. He could not do much of this personally, through holding in his hands the reins of the whole work all day long, being practically hard at work at one thing or another from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., except for about an hour or two's rest, often a walk to Portsdown Hill or the sea, in the afternoon. He knew, however, the details of every case, as he was constantly in communication with his curates and lay workers, through whom he touched every room in the most crowded of the courts and lanes around S. Agatha's. Besides this, a great part of every day was devoted to 'seeing people,' as he called it, that is, interviews with all sorts of individuals sent to him by his helpers or who spontaneously sought his help or advice, seldom going away without a lighter and more thankful heart than when they came.

Some casual hearers of Dolling's sermons, or readers of his 'reports,' noting the air of strong determination which pervaded his announcements of his plans, might have conceived the idea that he was an ecclesiastical autocrat, a person of the 'aut Csesar aut nullus 'type, leaving no room for any other individuality to develop freely in his immediate neighbourhood. This impression, however, would not be true. Pew powerful religious leaders have been more tolerant of differences in mental life, and even, to a certain degree, in ideas, than was Dolling with his fellow-workers, so long as there was loyalty of action, sympathy, and a general agreement on main principles. We think that the following extract from one of his 'Quarterly Letters '(that for September, 1893) will be sufficient to dissipate any impression that his fellow clergy and other helpers were solely the pliant and unthinking instruments of one masterful will.

' There has always been a daziger lest you who kindly read these Quarterly Letters should imagine that the word "I" stands for "I myself." It is easier to write in the first person, and it is certainly gratifying to take the work of many people and express it under the word "I"; and if I have not made this explanation in every letter, yet I think I have honestly hoped that you would understand the word "I" in this more general sense.'

Whatever other troubles Dolling had, he never had to endure the trials of loneliness. God granted to him a large band of willing and devoted helpers. These workers might be divided into three classes:

Firstly, the assistant clergy (always two in number, and sometimes three, besides constant help from clerical visitors). With these may be classed the resident laymen, often candidates for Holy Orders, of whom there were always some living at the mission, and at work among the lads and men. There were also constant lay visitors, often from one or other of the Universities, who gave a helping hand with the clubs or gymnasium.

Secondly, the resident lady workers, living at 'Miss Dolling's house' in Conway Street. With these may be included the penitentiary worker, who lived in a small cottage adjoining the 'Ladies' House.'

Thirdly, there was a large band of district visitors, nonresident, whose work involved several hours' substantial labour weekly. To take a district from Father Dolling meant that the visitor was required to know the people in it, as far as possible, with personal friendship.

We think it may be said that whatever the blunders and failures of any of the above, there was a sincere desire to bring the Christian faith as a principle of life to the hearts of the people, and to do this as friends, not as patrons. Two convictions of Father Dolling which underlay all his ministry in the Church of England were also shared by his principal associates:

1. The Catholic faith must be popularised if the Church of this country is to be a thing of living souls, and not only an academic tradition existing in books. Bitualism was valued as a means of teaching by the eye.

2. The Church of Christ ought to be the main instrument for the social as well as spiritual regeneration of the people. The exclusive possession of the Church of England by certain classes of the community must be broken down if she is to be in reality as well as in name the National Church.

Hence in the main the sympathies of Dolling and of those who worked at S. Agatha's with him were at once Catholic and democratic rather than of the usual Anglican High Church type. They were at once more advanced in one sense and broader in another than the distinctively 'Via Media' or 'Moderate High' school, a school which has, of course, included devoted men and hard workers, but which still is singularly ill-adapted for kindling and sustaining enthusiasm, especially among the multitude and the ignorant.

Of the various workers (all of whose names it is impossible to mention), Thomas Greene with the lads and men generally, Rev. W. Dowglass with the gymnasium fellows, Cornibeer and Hays with the sailor boys from the St. Vincent, Miss Nance (now Mrs. Cator) with her 'roughs,' Miss Dolling and the other ladies with the girls, one and all worked on the same principle: to desire, for Christ's sake, to serve and help the people without either pietism or patronage.

The same ideals underlay also the peculiarly difficult work of Anna Waldron (now with God) among the fallen women of Landport, and the girls in danger of moral pollution, and also the labours in the cause of temperance of Miss Archer among the apparently hopeless cases of alcoholism of which S. Agatha's district, with its fifty-one public-houses, afforded such abundant examples.

But how did Dolling get his helpers? As a rule he picked them up in an apparently haphazard way. We will take a striking instance of this. Thomas Greene (then a young layman, now Rector of Kilowna, British Columbia) was one, the influence of whose strenuous and manly personality, with his large sympathies and genial humour, was inestimable among the men and boys in the earlier days of S. Agatha's. He was first attracted to the mission as the result of a visit which he paid to his friend liev. C. F. Newell (now Rector of Templepatrick in the North of Ireland, and at that time one of the curates of S. Agatha's). Greene was at first little in sympathy with much which he heard and saw at S. Agatha's. He was a sturdy Ulsterman, with plenty of that 'grit' which abounds among North of Ireland Protestants, and which, in his case, was saved from being repulsive by his large-hearted humanity and his readiness to admire good wherever he saw it. He was at that time, we believe, a member of the Orange Society, but, though strongly Protestant, he was also a Churchman, and not a mere undenominationalist. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and had been engaged in scholastic work, but also he had strong thoughts of Holy Orders. Greene had a perfectly unritualistic mind, and S. Agatha's, with its processions, its incense, its coloured vestments, and its dramatic mode of worship, must have been to him, an honest Irish Protestant, a considerable surprise. Dolling and he, however, conceived for each other from the start a warm affection. In fact, Father Dolling magnetised him as he did so many other people, although Greene did not accept everything straight off just because Dolling held or practised it. Greene was essentially manly in character; he had the mens sana in corpore sano, nor had he the slightest sympathy with the sickly sentimentalism which Catholic devotion, when perverted, is often apt to breed.

If Protestantism tends often to become hard, dull, and prosaic, Catholicism of every kind, when untempered by the healthy development of individuality, often runs to seed in the direction of an exclusively feminine or even well-nigh hysterical type of piety, the type which raised the ire of Charles Kingsley. From such a danger the presence of such persons as Greene, next to Dolling's strong manliness of character, saved S. Agatha's. The objectionable type of 'pious female' or sentimental youth had either to go to other pastures in search of their appropriate spiritual nutriment, or else, if they stayed, to add a little common-sense to their store of devotion. Unless hopeless, they soon 'got the nonsense knocked out of them,' as Dolling used to say. He generally accomplished this by setting such persons some practical work to do not involving any highly-wrought feelings; as when a High Church youth fell on his knees saying, 'Father, I crave a habit' (i.e., a monastic one), Dolling replied, 'If you want to do something useful, get up and dust and arrange those books; that will about suit you,' pointing to his large and very disordered library. The devotee soon tired of this.

It was this library of which the story is told that when a boy was sent to sort the books, putting all the volumes on Holy Scripture and religious subjects by themselves, among these latter was afterwards found Eider Haggard's 'King Solomon's Mines' wedged in beside Dean Stanley's 'Sinai and Palestine,' the amateur librarian evidently thinking the first-named work to be connected with the criticism of the Old Testament.

Greene, like his vicar, and like most of the workers at S. Agatha's, had a keen sense of humour. Certainly the incidents of the Landport work afforded many opportunities for the exercise of that quality. The sordid dulness of much of the East End of London is not a characteristic of the Portsmouth slums. Possibly the soldier and sailor element, as we have before hinted, may account for the greater vivacity of the latter, but the fact is certain.

We remember when Greene on one occasion having got hold of a band of street-arabs, the prowling skirmishers of the courts and alleys of the district, had formed them into a Bible-class, of the advance of which in religious knowledge he was very proud. One evening he invited the Father to conduct an examination to test the knowledge of the Gospel story by the members. The 'angels," as these young scamps were called, were seated in order. Great was the anxiety of their friend for their success in the catechising. Father Dolling, in cassock and biretta, sailed in, very paternal and authoritative, accompanied by an entourage of ladies. The examination began. First question, 'Who was John the Baptist?' Answer, 'He was a parson.' The catechism could not be continued.

Another of the 'rough boys,' who had been emigrated, sent back a letter from St. Louis de Feraque, from which we extract the following:

' I do not go to church very often, as there is no special minister, but they pay one when they can get the chance to find one. The last one they got preached about the Prodigal Son, and said he could fancy the old father hugging his son like he would hug a girl if he had one, which set all the people laughing outright, and he had to apologise.'

Most of the men who worked at S. Agatha's, whether clergy or lay helpers (resident or occasional) managed to catch something, without mere imitation, of Dolling's peculiar spirit, a union, not so very common, of a sense of duty with a sense of humour. They learnt to know the right time to laugh and the right time to he serious, since human affairs, in this very mixed and apparently illogical world, afford natural motives for both moods. The men who worked with Dolling became, in many cases, strong friends with the soldiers, sailors, and young artisans who were rapidly attracted to the mission by the gymnasium and other social centres. There is a frank generosity in youth, when unspoiled by snobbery or priggish-ness, which made it possible for undergraduates, or men of a similar stamp attached to the mission, to get to know young fellows of the working classes in that spirit of comradeship of which Walt Whitman is the singer. That this personal intercourse, at parsonage, club, and gymnasium, remained thoroughly manly and wholesome, absolutely free from sickly sentimentalism, on the one hand, or riotous vulgarity on the other, was due, humanly speaking, to Dolling's extraordinary gift for bringing people into right, human relations with one another, and enabling barriers of caste to imperceptibly drop aside, without, at the same time, losing the essential restraint and control without which social intercourse becomes a beargarden. This feature of the life at S. Agatha's was almost unique, and its possibility was due to the genuine and infectious genius for friendship--for it was nothing short of genius--possessed by its unconventional missioner.

Among the assistant clergy who worked at S. Agatha's under Father Dolling should be mentioned the Rev. C. F. Newell (before alluded to). His kindly nature made him a general favourite. His father, the present Rector of Kilbehenny, co. Cork, was a frequent and welcome visitor at the mission.

The work among the rough lads which Greene had commenced was well carried on, after his departure for America, by the Rev. W. P. Dowglass, now priest in charge of S. Wilfrid's Mission, Newcastle, and one whose prowess on the football field made him a representative of muscular Christianity. Men of his type do much to dissever religion from an exclusive association with tea-parties and ecclesiastical gossip. Certainly among the multitude of youths who loaf at the street-corners of Landport and lounge in its 'pubs,' Dowglass found ample material for his indomitable energy to exercise itself on. He was, like several of the other clergy and helpers, an Irishman, though ordained in England. 'Where do you go of a Sunday?' one old woman at Landport was heard to ask another. 'I attend the Irish High Church' (i.e., S. Agatha's) was the answer.

Much of the work of the mission involved office labour of an exacting kind. Statistics as to conditions of poverty, names of men out of work, arrangements for emigration, poor relief (the latter, in times of distress, of a very extensive kind), the sending out of the 'Quarterly Letters 'to friends and subscribers, the receipt and acknowledgment of money--all this involved constant desk work. Father Dolling's study was generally more like the office of the head of a great business concern, or the bureau of a department of public works than the ordinary type of clergyman's room. In all this incessant and often most tiresome and unattractive though necessary labour, he found in Mr. J. H. E. Abbott, of Hertford College, Oxon (since ordained), a strenuous voluntary helper. This help was the more valuable as such work was the most drudging, in many ways, of all connected with the mission, and the least likely to attract the notice of the public.

Much vigorous help was given, both in the parish and as to the arrangements of Divine worship, by the Revs. C. E. Roe and Stanley Gresham (both now of S. Paul's, Brighton). The latter helped much in regard to the musical character of the services. Dolling was grateful for this. He was on excellent terms with his choirmen, and with the blind organist, Mr. Whittick, to whose musical taste and skill so much of the beauty of the worship at S. Agatha's was due, yet he was not himself musical, nor was he en rapport with surpliced choirs, dreading their craving for elaborate Church music, which he detested.

No adequate account of Dolling's helpers could be given without alluding to the band of Christian women whose tact, sympathy, faith, and patience, combined with an untiring and undespairing cheerfulness, bore such splendid fruit in that work among the 'mothers 'and the younger women and girls, which was so strong an element in the life of S. Agatha's. Men's clubs cannot solve of themselves the question of home life. In fact, the older he lived the less Dolling believed in what he called 'salvation by clubs'--i.e., by such things in themselves, especially when managed in a merely mechanical and business way, without real friendship, personal influence, or religious spirit. The home and the family, the true unit of society, must be vitally touched. To do this women must be influenced, especially the wife and mother, the guardian genius of the home. This is impossible without the labours of Christian women who unite consecrated common-sense with Christ-like sympathy for the trials and difficulties of their sisters. What Father Dolling and the assistant clergy and the laymen were to the men and boys of S. Agatha's district, that Elise and Geraldine Dolling and the ladies working with them (some living with them, others non-resident) were to the girls and women--unfailing friends, at once kind and firm, weary with no drudgery, disappointed with no ingratitude. It is a long time before the gracious, womanly influence of Miss Dolling in particular will be forgotten by those who were among her 'girls' in Landport.

Miss Geraldine Dolling's gift of organisation and sound judgment had also much to do with the development of the very large mothers' meetings in connection with S. Agatha's, while her unfailing cheerfulness and sense of humour made these the occasions of a real gathering of friends, in which the ladies from the more respectable and decorous artisan quarters learnt to know better their sisters from the streets of overcrowded and unskilled labour. A 'reading aloud '(often of Dickens) by Mrs. Crowe (whom the dramatic world also knew as Miss Bateman) generally occupied the time of sewing. After this came a cup of tea and a friendly clatter of tongues (with, we think, no spiteful gossip). 'A few words' from one of the clergy--always an inevitable feature of everything at S. Agatha's--ended the meeting. When Dolling spoke, it was almost always some point of home life to which he alluded. 'My dears 'was his usual mode of address to the mothers.

If Miss Geraldine Dolling was usually the presiding spirit of the mothers' meetings, Miss Dolling was (seated beside her brother) of the dances which were so marked a feature of S. Agatha's social life. At these dances boys ceased to be rude and girls to giggle, and both learnt how to enjoy themselves without coarseness and vulgarity on the one hand, or stilted affectation on the other. Many other ladies helped well in the work among the girls, which, indeed, had been commenced by one of them before Dolling came to Portsmouth; but it is especially to Miss Dolling's influence that is due the development among the younger women of a spirit at once religious and naturally wholesome. To Miss Dolling's friendship at Maidman Street, at S. Agatha's, and at Poplar is due, humanly speaking, the redemption from evil of the life of many a young girl who would else have been too weak and helpless to avoid being easily caught in the devil's toils.

Florence Wells, whom since that time God has taken to Himself, was sister to the late Rev. Ashton Wells, an old Wykehamist, and formerly one of Dr. Linklater's curates. Possessed of private means, the business and pleasure of her life lay in the service of others. When Mrs. Kane, an old friend of Father Dolling's, and then resident in America, granted him for mission purposes the use of a fine old house with spacious grounds (formerly the Blind Asylum) in Southsea, he installed Miss Wells there as head of a home and school for little girls taken from conditions of squalor, sometimes even from surroundings of an infamous character. He wrote thus of this home to the subscribers:

' Our one object is not to fit the girls for living a life of rules in retirement, but for living honest, pure, free lives in the midst of the temptations of the world.'

It was a charming sight to see Father Dolling and Miss Wells sitting in the quaint old garden of the home, a sort of pleasance, and watching the games of the little children. For the latter the days on which Father Dolling visited them were indeed worthy of a white mark.

The real goodness of these two good people, childless themselves, seemed all the greater through their simple pleasure in the children's joy.

Although Dolling thought such a home a necessity for certain cases, yet he tried to make it as really homely and as little of an 'institution' as possible. He also wrote very wisely on this subject as follows:

'But, after all, the use of such places must be necessarily exceptional. Under all ordinary circumstances nothing can stand instead of a father's care and a mother's love. All other arrangements for children, though sometimes necessary, have a danger of becoming unnatural and artificial.'

Before we leave the subject of the women's work at S. Agatha's, it may be well to quote Dolling's own tribute to five good women, the resident women workers of S. Agatha's. It is the dedication of his book, 'Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum':

'To my sisters, Elise and Geraldine, to Lina Blair, Florence Wells, and Matilda Rowan, who for the sake of God bore with me for ten years, in all gratitude I dedicate this book, which is virtually an account of their work.'

There was one woman who filled a humbler position in the history of the mission whose name ought not to be forgotten; Mary Pursglove, Father Dolling's housekeeper, whose devotion to 'the master,' as she always called him, was only equaled by her extraordinary resourcefulness as a caterer in meeting those frequent occasions when her temper and capacity would be taxed to the uttermost. She provided for the 'all sorts and conditions of men' who were invited to sit down at the 'common table,' including, it might be, a colonial Bishop, an M.P., some Wykehamist prefects, a few man-of-war's men, a private in the Dragoons or Lancers on furlough, and always some of the nondescripts whom the Father picked up, or who gravitated to him by an inevitable attraction. But 'Mary' was equal to every emergency. She was, in her way, as unconventional as Father Dolling himself, to whom she was absolutely devoted. She did not live to see him return from America. From servants Dolling always received the most spontaneous and ready ministry. He treated them as human beings, not as machines. We have heard him preach more than once on the question of the honourableness of service, when dwelling on the theme of the 'Lavipedium,' the Christ washing the feet of His disciples, as the Servus servorum, the slave of the human race.

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