Project Canterbury

The Life of Father Dolling

By Charles E. Osborne

London: Edward Arnold, 1903.

Chapter VIII.

Father Dolling's building plans at Landport--His centres of work--Description of above in his leaflet 'The VIII. Milestones'--The Parsonage and the mode of life there--The meals at the Parsonage--The Gymnasium--Father Dolling as a promoter of healthy recreation--His critics at Portsmouth.

'Of joy in widest commonalty spread.'--WORDSWORTH.

BESIDES workers, buildings were required in order to enable Father Dolling to carry through his plans for the Landport mission. Some buildings, especially the old mission church, existed before he came, but widely extended operations demanded larger and more ample accommodation and increase of plant. The generous and unfailing support of Winchester College people and other subscribers was one great strength to him, humanly speaking; the other was his large staff of active, enthusiastic, and, on the whole, competent fellow labourers. Whatever other trials Dolling had, money poured in, and a large band of zealous friends gathered round and, in several cases, shared his life in the slums of Landport. As to the buildings, in each case, for Dolling a building was not an object in itself, but, as it were, the shell of a living social organism. We quote for a full account of these centres the letter printed in the Wykehamist (the Winchester College magazine), which Dolling addressed to Wykehamists and all other supporters of S. Agatha's Mission, dated October 9, 1895, on the very eve of the opening of the great basilican church on October 27:

'"When Linklater first spoke to us in school he took the whole school by storm."

'This was a comment made to the writer of this article when he first took charge of the mission. Of course, such enthusiasm cannot last long. Naturally, the school mission must be content with a very small place in the daily life of Winchester, but I think we may be well content with the place that it has filled in men's hearts,1 tested by what it has extracted out of their pockets. Not that the giving of money is in any sense the truest test. Love and prayer were surely a truer. But love we Englishmen have no easy way of showing; of prayer One can alone judge; and yet I am bold to say there has been no lack of these. Visits to Oxford and Cambridge, casual meetings in London, letters from India--indeed, from all parts of the world--many a handshake, sometimes even a jest, have proved over and over again that a true memory, I believe a real love, and therefore I know a spirit of prayer, exists towards the mission. But on the threshold of a great departure like the new church it is well to count up the milestones on the road we have travelled together, Wykehamists and I, for the last nine years.

'Milestone I.: Our great gymnasium, costing over £2,000, is the centre of that magnificent work of reformation, in body at any rate, of many hundreds of Landport lads. Here they first learn discipline and order and self-respect. From it have gone out soldiers, sailors, emigrants without number. It is the centre, too, of all our social worik, where every week eighty or a hundred boys and girls learn to dance together, to talk together, to know each other without embarrassment, without giggling, and with that mutual respect without which, as you will readily conceive, the thing might be a danger instead of a blessing.

'Milestone II.: The large room in Chance Street, costing over £700, witnesses the mothers' meeting, which brings into lives, sordid and monotonous beyond conception, a little light and hopefulness and change; where 200 children and twenty old people are fed twice a week. Here many of the trade and beneficial societies meet, and on disengaged nights the very roughest of our lads are here first got into hand. It is a work that more ebbs than flows, and yet leaves something better than wreckage on the shore of self-respect.

'Milestone III.: Miss Dolling's house, costing over £500, has diffused an atmosphere of true compassion and understanding over the whole parish, winning the love and confidence of girls and women without number, extracting from the very roughest and most degraded traits of self-sacrifice and devotion. Many a poor drunkard and sinner sits there clothed and in her right mind. It is this influence which has tended so wonderfully to change the factory girl of Portsmouth. In that day when the secrets of the mission are disclosed the truest seeds will be found to have been sown here.

'Milestone IV.: Our twelve almshouses, costing over £500, enable six old married couples, seven old widows, and two widows with families, to live without going to the workhouse. These are the most to be pitied of any class. All of them in their day and generation doing their best, and now, through no cause of their own, houseless and homeless, if it were not for this provision.

'Milestone V.: My own Parsonage, costing over £1,500, will be known to many of your readers who have stayed here, for it welcomes all sorts. I don't know if any house is so elastic. All day long the door is open, with a continuous stream of people wanting something--kicks or halfpence, as the case may be, both being administered with courtesy and yet with force. The meals make one think of Elijah, for the wisdom of the housekeeper has solved the problem of accurately defining--not, indeed an unknown quantity, but what satisfies an unknown quantity. It is a terrible drain on our finances--over £4,000 in nine years; but of all our expenditure by far the most useful, by far the most remunerative.

'Milestones VI. and VII. are our day schools, costing over £2,500. These were a great venture of faith, which nearly broke vis up and drove us to despair; but now all is paid except about £300. They are of infinite importance in a parish like ours. If anywhere the difficulty of children exists, it exists here. There is no discipline, love is altogether unreasonable: at one time kisses, and at another blows. The difficulties of the schoolmaster can hardly be exaggerated; the patience and tact of the teachers are beyond praise.

'Milestone VIII.: The additional site for the church, bought by Dr. Linklater at a cost of over £500, is the very best conceivable spot. In the middle of the parish, surrounded by the most sordid houses, with approaches from two streets, our only need is to extend it.

'I fear I have wearied you in this long journey, but the father is ever garrulous about his own children. May I mention just two more things? Over £1,200 was spent in penitentiary work, in reparation for our own many sins. Over £800 was spent in emigration, in reparation for the terrible waste we have made of our own life's chances. Of course, all this money has not come from Winchester; it is only honest to say that much of it has come from my own friends, much of it has been coined out of my own brains and blood. But a very great deal has come from Winchester, and, at any rate, Winchester has been the centre which has attracted all the rest.

'And now we reach the summit, crowned with the magnificent church, to be the glory of our effort and the abiding proof that Winchester believes that Jesus Christ and His religion are the only possible solution of those terrible problems which are continually suggesting themselves to every thoughtful man. I believe Winchester, through the mission, has endeavoured boldly to face these problems, and her endeavour has met with no small measure of success, a success partly due, indeed, to the efforts of the workers in Landport, but due in an equal proportion to the self-sacrifice, the faithful confidence, may I add also, the prayers of the school. Of necessity, Landport methods cannot be Winchester methods. But as I thank you for money that has fed us, for clothes that have covered us, for youthfulness that has kept us young, above all I thank you for that trustful confidence that has enabled us always to do our work here in our own way.


It is a wonderful record, and not one word of it is an exaggeration. It is wonderful as a witness to that spirit of statesmanship which enabled Dolling like a capable general to grasp position after position. Truly from his watch-tower in that extraordinary 'parsonage' he was like an ecclesiastical Cecil Rhodes, planning ever fresh developments. Each of these 'milestones,' as he calls them, witnesses to the versatility and variety of the methods adopted; each stands for a special aspect of the entire organism of S. Agatha's Mission.

The old Mission Church itself, well-nigh hidden, unlike the present imposing structure, amid surrounding rookeries and warehouses, did not in any sense outwardly dominate the life of the district. Indeed, except for its well-nigh unceasing and very unmusical bell, the building might scarcely have been noticed amid the old clothes shops, fried fish emporiums, and public-houses which hemmed it in on all the sides touching on the street. It was, indeed, the soul of the work, but, like the soul, it manifested its power, not in tangible form, but by the influence which proceeded from it. It was no temple exceeding magnifical, but a little conventicle, which, were it not for the cross over its entrance door, might well have been mistaken for the house of prayer of one of the humbler and less prosperous of the Dissenting communities.

But we shall treat more fully of the Mission Church when we come to deal with the questions which arose out of the character of the services performed in it. It is the parsonage, to use Dolling's favourite word for it, which now claims our attention. Though the present parsonage was not built till 1889, yet the system which it represented prevailed from the moment Dolling arrived in Portsmouth. No doubt failures and mistakes attended many of his practical methods, but the ruling spirit that underlay them all was a singularly beautiful one--of this the parsonage was the visible type and embodiment--it was the Franciscan spirit; the honour of poverty; the dignity of simplicity; the joy of fellowship with all men; that 'joy in widest commonalty spread' of which Wordsworth sings; above all, the glory of the service of the suffering, the reverence 'for the sense of tears in mortal things' which yet is quite compatible with natural joyousness and sunshine of heart.

Robert Dolling's place among the servants of Christ is in the group so loved and loving of which S. Francis is the chief. He was of the type of character of which the sweet saint of Assisi is the supreme model, and of which S. Philip Neri, the human-hearted saint, whose house was called 'the home of Christian mirth,' and S. Vincent de Paul, with his love for outcasts and for children, are also attractive specimens. Father Dolling's was no cloistered virtue. Like the early Franciscans his natural instinct was to get into the very centre of the people's life, to leaven the life of the multitude, sharing their feelings, their hopes, their interests, their poverty, their laughter, and their tears, sharing all save only their sins. The life of Robert Dolling owes its supreme interest to this Franciscan spirit, this mind of the 'little poor man of Assisi,' reproduced not in its temporary accidents, but in its undying principles in the Church of England to-day.

We have called this spirit the mind of S. Francis, but was it not even more the mind of Christ, who bid each follower when he made a feast 'call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind'? Few Christians along the ages have taken this literally. S. Francis of Assisi and his followers did in one age. Among those who have actually in the present day taken to their houses the poor and unfortunate with personal fraternal love (as distinct from managing or subscribing to institutions), the name of Robert Dolling should never be forgotten. His place is not with the great contemplatives, the seers in the watch-tower, but with the human-hearted saints, more helpful to ordinary humanity, the brothers and sisters of the poor.

Father Dolling's parsonage was the heart of his work, as the Mission Chapel was its soul. The parsonage communicated with the gymnasium, and was connected with it in such a way that it was possible to go from one to the other without passing through the outside street. In fact, the parsonage and gymnasium formed practically one block; partly dwelling-house, partly house of recreation, exercise, and social gatherings. The religious and the social sides of the work were thus housed together and touched each other in a natural and inevitable way. There were a number of cubicles constructed in the gallery of the gymnasium for sailor lads with leave-out permits, or for others allowed to stay at the parsonage, and there were also hammocks in another gallery, also used by St. Vincent boys and other sailors from time to time. All was so arranged to communicate with the parsonage itself, that in case of any nocturnal quarrelling the 'governor' could in a few minutes be present on the scene of action. The proximity of the parsonage to the gymnasium also associated the idea of religion with the social life and recreation of the younger members of the flock, and with that spirit of joyous health which the athletic exercises and the dancing carried on constantly in the gymnasium seemed to claim as an integral part of the religion of the Incarnation.

But the parsonage indeed touched all varieties among the parishioners, not only the young and vigorous, but also the aged, the suffering, the broken-down in mind or body, or morals or reputation, the 'out-of-works,' the human odds and ends, and strange pieces of social wreckage that naturally drifted by a kind of instinct or by a Divine guidance into Dolling's way. Much of his life was spent in what Kingsley called 'helping lame dogs over stiles,' and most of this work was done in the parsonage. Beds and food were given to men and lads in all cases where the Father felt that such help would tide a poor fellow over a difficult time, and assist him 'to get on his legs' again.

The 'common table," however, that phrase so dear to Father Dolling's heart, did not mean that anyone who wished could walk in from the street and demand a meal. Not the riches of Croesus could have financed a mission conducted on such a principle. No person was allowed to use the hospitality of the parsonage who had not first been interviewed and approved by the Father, and the usual type of worthless tramp found, in Dolling's case, that the process known 'as kidding the parson 'was not quite so easy as might have been anticipated. At times the Father appeared to combine a little of the capacity of Sherlock Holmes with the spirit of S. Francis. His natural sharpness of perception, and his extraordinary varied experience of human nature, made him a difficult person for an impostor to tackle. The tramp, the cadger, and the text-quoting beggar very soon found Father Dolling not quite so 'soft' as they had anticipated. One who knew him well said, 'I never knew any man who could "size" a fellow up so quickly as Dolling could.' His nature was a rare mixture of two qualities not often combined--shrewdness and compassion. The first was as acute as the second was profound.

There were as few rules as possible for those staying at the parsonage, but what rules there were, were strictly enforced, and were intended to secure cleanliness, decency, good conduct, and good temper. An essential rule was one which involved being in by a reasonable hour at night. The fact that the meals were often shared by such varied types of people sometimes led strangers to make ludicrous mistakes. For instance, a member of one of the old aristocratic families of England, and a man of considerable culture, was mistaken for a labourer out of work, because his clothes were almost to affectation plain and unfashionable. What was the astonishment of one sitting near him when the supposed 'out-of-work 'individual showed a considerable knowledge of the teaching of S. Thomas Aquinas on the subject of some point of economic morals. In truth, not even the regular members of the staff knew who they would meet from day to day, or who were all the men sitting with them at the table on any occasion. Individuals in uniform of one sort or another were, of course, always known, such as clergy, soldiers, or sailors.

To great numbers of soldiers Dolling was rather the kindly brother (the 'Brother Bob' of his earlier days) than the 'Father Dolling' of S. Agatha's. He was their old and dear friend. Yet in some real way they also felt, if they had any touch of respect for things unseen, that he was Christ's minister as well. There was seldom a time at which spurs were not heard clanking up and down the stairs of the parsonage. Perhaps if some good lady came to talk to Father Dolling about a case she was interested in, or about some family trouble, she would find him taking a hasty half-hour's relaxation, sitting in his study smoking with two or three of his soldier boys on furlough, part of which they were spending under the parsonage's hospitable roof. The Father would put down his cigar and say to some tall Dragoon or Guardsman: 'Now, sonny, I want to talk to this lady. Put on your cap and take a walk down the Commercial Road, and if you are in to tea I will take you and some of the gymnasium fellows to the theatre.' With a pleasantly natural 'Yes, Father; all right,' the six-foot 'boy' would adjust his cap smartly and depart for his walk, while Father Dolling would be plunged into the mysteries of a case of conscience of an intricate type, his cigar laid aside, his biretta retained.

'How incongruous!' says alike the man of the world and the devotee, and yet both would be wrong. The chaff and joke with his Tommy Atkins friends a few minutes before, the prayer and wise, loving advice bracing the will and heartening the spirit in a few minutes after were all of a piece. 'It was Dolling.' To have known him was to have known the essential harmony of his character. This double aspect of his made, on the one hand, human-hearted people religious, and, on the other, religiously-minded people human.

Quite naturally he would pass in a few minutes from the atmosphere of chaff and comradeship to that of deepest spiritual help. He could, in a good sense, 'be all things to all men.' His extraordinary comprehensiveness of sympathy made this versatility possible and natural, not forced and artificial.

Dolling's soldier-boys abounded all over the globe, their photographs lined, in part, the walls of the parsonage, and whenever they had leave and were in England, some of them were sure to be staying at the house. It was impossible to realise that many of these smart, well-set-up young fellows had once been underfed and neglected lads whom Dolling had got hold of in former years and pulled up out of the social abyss. They were all his 'dear boys,' and wherever they were, all over the world, he followed their careers with true affection, as General Gordon did his 'kings.'

Two classes of guests staying for' week-ends' were especially a joy to the staff of the parsonage. We allude to the St. Vincent boys, the young fellows from the great naval training-ship in Portsmouth Harbour, where they are taught their future work as men-of-war's men, and those Winchester prefects and boys who had leave to stay at the mission. The visits of both classes were delightful to Dolling, and, indeed, to all at the parsonage. The 'sailors 'or 'saint boys 'brought with them, as it were, into the Landport slum the breath of the sea, and the others brought that love and sympathy of Winchester which never failed to uphold the S. Agatha's workers, even when least encouraged by any other circumstances.

The atmosphere of the parsonage was surprisingly free from either officialism or pietism, the former the evil genius of Established churches, and the latter of sectarian Christianity. The house did not suggest 'the resident gentleman in every parish,' upholding the sober decencies of the National Establishment, but neither did its tone lead one to suspect that its friendliness and humanity were crafty bait, to conceal some soul-hunting design. Yet, broadly human as was the tone of the place, it was also genuinely Christian. Dolling's personality as its presiding influence secured it both from pious sentimentalism--or, in other words, cant--on the one hand, and irreligious rowdiness on the other.

The 'Bidding Gymnasium,' as Dolling called it, after Bishop Bidding, the founder of the mission, had been originally a Baptist chapel, which, having become disused through the migration of its principal upholders to less squalid surroundings, was on the point of being purchased by the Salvation Army, when he secured it. Beneath the floor of the chapel had been buried the remains of two Baptist ministers. These were not exhumed, as their representatives refused to undertake the expense of the process.

Opposite to the gymnasium stood a large slaughter-yard, to which in the summer were due the strong scent and the blue-bottle flies which visited the clergy-house. Several of the young 'butchers,' men and boys, who worked at this and other numerous places of the same kind (for 'Bloody Bow 'was the former name of an adjoining street) patronised the gymnasium, and by their means the Father and his men helpers came to know many of them. Indeed, had Father Dolling wished, he could have raised a bodyguard of butcher lads to secure him against all comers, just as S. Cyril went to the Council of Ephesus attended by a band of the boatmen of the Nile. Any attempt to interfere with 'Father Dolling' would not have been conducive to the interferer's personal comfort had the 'boys' been allowed to employ the controversial methods in his defence which would have appeared to them to be the most readily effective.

A far more serious evil than the contiguity of the slaughterhouses and the fried-fish shops consisted in the fact that the house next to the parsonage was a flagrant centre of sin. Ultimately Dolling succeeded in clearing out this nest of corruption by getting possession by sale of the house in question.

We remember a scene which took place at the dedication of the newly-built parsonage in 1889. A procession of choir, acolytes, and priests was moving from room to room with lighted candles and clouds of incense. At the end came Father Dolling, in a gorgeous cope, saying the office of benediction for each part of the building, the crowded congregation meanwhile filling up all the vacant spaces in the house and the gymnasium. In the intervals of the devotions raucous shrieks were heard proceeding from the harridan who was responsible for the house next door, and who in its back-yard was heard invoking many curses both loud and deep upon the heads of 'old Dolling and his pack of Catholics.' Like the silversmiths of Ephesus, she felt, no doubt, that her gains were likely to be interfered with.

If the gymnasium taught the men and lads that bodily strength and dexterity and suppleness of limb and muscle are gifts of God to be perfected in a right way and for right uses, the dancing-class and the 'social evenings,' which were frequently held, taught the young people that grace of movement and courtesy of manners and intercourse have also their right uses in the development of manhood and womanhood.

But all this recreation in connection with religion did not escape some trenchant criticism, which expressed itself as follows. We quote from the report of a meeting in the Portsmouth Evening News of that time:


'A very successful tea, to which about 250 sat down, was given in the Welcome Mission Hall, Edinburgh Road, Landport, on Tuesday evening. The tea was followed by a well-attended social meeting of Christians holding Evangelical and Protestant principles. The chair was occupied by the Rev. Dr. Kennedy Moore, who was supported by the Revs. H. Lindsay Young (Vicar of St. John's, Portsea), J. Kemp, J. S. Wyard, J. H. Batt, etc.

'The chairman denounced the introduction of Romanistic principles into certain sections of the Protestant Church, and contended that what Christians wished was to have the Bible taught as it was given, conveying the simple truth.

'The Rev. H. Lindsay Young, Vicar of St. John's, referred to the awful effects of theatres. He said that certain clergymen were not merely advocating the theatre as a training ground and a means of education, but were actually showing their advocacy of it by taking stalls and enjoying themselves in witnessing the performance. He contended that actors and actresses knew full well that when they were converted to Christ it was an absolute necessity to leave the stage. He also referred to the introduction of cards into so-called Christian institutions, and accused certain clergymen of actually taking cards to teach the rising generation to play. He had never seen a more awful sight during the fourteen years he had been in this town than last Saturday, when he was passing through Prince George Street and saw numerous little girls dancing and kicking up their legs round a barrel-organ; and he was still more disgusted to see, on going round the corner, a notice of a Communicants' Dancing Guild. He denounced, in very strong terms, what he called the fashion of clergymen of the present day in patronising race meetings. He believed that even now there were Jesuits at work among the Nonconformists.'

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