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The Life of Father Dolling

By Charles E. Osborne

London: Edward Arnold, 1903.

Chapter IX.

Relations of Father Dolling with Winchester College--Old Wykehamists, masters, and men.

'A royal spirit lives in thee,
So loftily descended,
Through five great centuries attended
By true posterity.
Sons on each hand,
Safe dost thou stand,
So plenteously befriended.'
LIONEL JOHNSON, Winchester College
(From 'Ireland and Other Poems').

THE following chapter has been supplied to us from the pen of the Rev. Dr. Fearon, ex-Headmaster of Winchester College. From Dr. Fearon's personal friendship with Robert Dolling, and his intimate knowledge of all the circumstances of the relations of the latter with the College, he is well qualified to deal with that side of Dolling's life which is expressed by the title of 'the Winchester College Mission' given to S. Agatha's, Landport:

"Other departments of Robert Dolling's laborious life were necessarily at times overclouded. His relation to Winchester College was pure unbroken sunshine. It is hoped that, in his pressing anxiety and earnest struggle for his fellow men, he found perpetual refreshment and buoyant hope in the bright interests of the school. Certainly his presence there never failed to bring a new joy and a larger meaning to the life of the school. Of all the blessings which, in later generations, Wykehamists have enjoyed, few have been richer or deeper than the friendship and influence of their dearly loved missioner. When, in 1885, it was necessary to find a clergyman to take charge of the Winchester College Mission at Portsmouth, the Headmaster's care was, not unnaturally, more for the college than for Portsmouth. A school mission, to attain its ends, must touch the hearts of the boys; it must bring home to them as reality of experience the need of those less privileged than themselves, and must arouse an active sympathy towards their fellow-men. Yet the barriers of school interest are so marked and strong that it is most difficult to break through them--mo t difficult to make the school really care or feel intensely about their mission work.

'This difficulty Robert Dolling completely overcame. It was perhaps the supremest of his gifts that, during the whole period of his eleven years at S. Agatha's, he succeeded in making the school feel a personal pride and vital share in the mission work; not as an alien interest, but as an essential part of the daily life of the school. The influence that this had both for the immediate good of the school and for the after-effect on the life of its members is incalculable. In the school itself his influence was perpetually felt on the side of all that was right and true and noble. When the Headmaster was searching for his missioner, he told one from whom he was inquiring that what he chiefly needed was a man who would be an elder brother to the boys, and do for them all that a best elder brother could do.

'Robert Dolling was selected to perform this service, and right truly did he carry out his mission within the school. The boys rapidly came to know him and to trust him. They made him their confidant; they discussed all sorts of topics of school politics, even school secrets, freely with him, and took his advice upon them. He lived on the most intimate terms of friendship and affection with them, and also with many of the masters; and yet there was never the smallest suspicion of his having betrayed the confidences, freely given, on either side. It required something more than gentlemanly tact to avoid the obvious pit-falls: his success was the outcome of large love and fellow-feeling for his friends. Some of the masters, seeing the dangerous possibilities of his unique position, were shy of admitting him to close intercourse. But the present writer can assert, after special opportunity for testing the truth of his assertion, that there was never any misuse of the confidence given, and that the intimacy was of unmitigated benefit, most helpful on both sides, a real power for good in the school. And there can be no doubt that many a Wykehamist has been helped by Dolling's influence and Dolling's example to form a higher resolve for life, to recognise the obligation, in whatever profession he might adopt, to do something for the bettering of his fellow men--to find his ideal in serving rather than in enjoying. It is difficult to measure the influence on their after-lives of his unselfish service, but it was unquestionably great.

' Whence came this influence? No doubt, in the first place, it may be said that the unselfishness and the devotion could hardly fail to impress. But boys are not always ready to mark or appreciate these things at their real worth. Again, it may be said that there was a magnetic influence in his personality which appealed to young as well as old, and this, no doubt, is true. And, analyse the situation as we may, there is much, after all, that defies analysis, and, in the end, all that we can say is_that it was Dolling; yet it may be worth while to try and fix some of the factors in this unique result.

' And, first of all, we would say that Dolling was essentially a boy to the end of his life. With all the profound sympathy he had for the sufFering and outcast, with all the intensity with which he felt the deep problems of life, he had the boy's power of throwing off, or seeming to throw off, for the time the thought of these things, and entering with frank abandonment into mere boys' fun and jokes. His laughter on these occasions was a joy to hear. Indeed, sometimes at Winchester he seemed so light-hearted that he has even been charged with ignoring overmuch the graver side of life's problems. But the fact was that he was most fully alive to the danger of allowing a morbid feeling of overconscientiousness to grow up in his young friends. And one of the most touching and pathetic features of his intercourse with them, both in his more public addresses and in his private talk, was the perfectly natural intermixture of the grave and the gay. It was natural and effective because it was true to the man--indeed, it was the man himself. One who knew him intimately as a boy at Winchester writes:

'" I think what used to strike us first was the ease with which Dolling accommodated himself to our enjoyments and interests. There was no feeling of restraint on our part, no posing on his. He never improved the occasion except by infusing the natural course of conversation with a wider and more vivid interest than usual. One was influenced without knowing it--without, so to speak, seeing the works. I think why he helped one so much was because one felt that there was no aspect of life (certainly of boy's life), no part of human nature which he could not sympathise with and sec the good in. All our enjoyment of school life--the games, the jokes, whatever it was--he appreciated so intensely. One knew he had no desire to curtail any impulse which was frank and healthy. He never was a superior person come down to do us good and because he had to tell us of work which we did not wish to hear about, but a friend who was keenly concerned in all we did."

' And again the same boy friend writes:

'" I suppose one can hardly conceive a person who could with greater ease and less jar turn from jocularity to gravity, and who could at one moment be holding you in helpless laughter, and at the next be touching straight home to your conscience. I suppose it was because the secular and religious were not nearly such distinct spheres as with most people. I shall not forget him in his church the night before it was consecrated, walking about it radiant with joy, patting the architect on the cheek, joking with the workmen and laughing aloud, and then immediately turning into the old church and addressing a congregation of men on the end and purpose of religion in that stirring way of his, with his whole presence, which we had all been laughing at in turns, transfigured with enthusiasm."

' Then, secondly, Dolling was always most excellent company. He carried out most completely S. Paul's rule of becoming all things to all men. Wonderful was the power he had of adapting himself to the temper of those around him, gauging at once their interests and attitude, and throwing himself into their point of view. His varied experience of life, his copious knowledge of many men and many cities, his large store of anecdotes, his own personal adventures, all helped to make his visits to Winchester, whether to boys or masters, refreshing incidents in the daily routine of life. "Is Dolling coming!" would be a common question asked if any interesting day were expected. If he were, the school were sure, not only of the sight of that kindly and sympathetic presence, but also of some increase of fun which would add to the gaiety of their life.

'For, tempering all his utterance, all his intercourse with the school, was that salt of Irish humour which gave piquancy and tone, and not infrequently strengthened the impression even of his most solemn words. The Irish qualities of character deserve to be popular with boys, and in the best sense of the word he was every bit an Irishman. Warm-hearted, generous, absolutely self-forgetting, he never failed to seize the humorous aspect of life's incongruities, and especially enjoyed the joke of any situation that concerned himself. "Will I come in the pepper and salt, or in the cassock?" was a post-card sent to the Headmaster when asked to some special function at his house. His other garments were in pawn.

' But, after all, what won him his unique influence with the boys was the man himself; they knew him, they trusted him, they loved him, largely because they were certain that he loved them and cared for them, and would take any pains and go through any self-denial to help them in any difficulty. He was their ideal of what they meant by a religious God-fearing man--a true man, without the smallest suspicion of cant or professional piety, yet one who could with the utmost naturalness and ease suddenly raise the whole tone of the company among whom he was by striking a higher, truer note than was common to them--a higher note which they knew to be true. The boy friend, who has been already quoted,

'"Certainly, though Dolling revelled so in all the pleasures of life, and we liked him because he did, one could never mistake what was the basis of his life and the focus of his actions. I think he was able to see the good of more things than most people and to enjoy them, but only because he was able to bring more things within the range of religion. That is what, I think, lifted much of what might strike people as vulgar on to a higher plane. His conversation was so daring, he was so honestly human, that you were tempted sometimes to wonder whether he was the man you had taken him to be. But when you knew him, you saw all that against the background of his generous affection, his courage, his love of life, and, above all, his burning sympathy with all sorts and conditions of men. That was the extraordinary fact. He had got an unerring eye for the 'smug' and the blackguard, and could criticise them roundly, and yet could love them all. At the back of our minds I am certain that many of us had the assurance that, however wrong we might go, we might go to Dolling, and that he would go to the very depths with ns, and stay there till he had brought us out. I think it was in this sense of support, of somebody to fall back on, that Dolling's influence could most clearly be marked."

' So healthful, so invigorating was Dolling's intercourse with the school. But what was the machinery of that intercourse? There were three regular and systematic methods by which it worked, and perhaps the least important and effective was that which was most regular and systematic. Twice every year, in January and September, at the beginning of the two main terms, he officially visited the school, addressed the boys in the big school on Saturday afternoon, and preached in the College chapel, and generally also in the junior chapel or chantry on Sunday afternoon, having usually driven up from Portsmouth, after taking a whole series of services at S. Agatha's from early dawn till midday. His sermons in the chapel, still more in the chantry, produced a considerable impression, and were no doubt largely helped by that hqikh pistiV, which is, after all, perhaps, the most valuable asset of the preacher. Even those younger boys, who had not yet come to know him, had heard that he was a man to believe in, and knew that Dolling's sermon was a great school institution. He rarely made any allusion to the mission work itself--some of us thought too rarely. His sermons were rough, direct, and simple, appealing to his auditors as Christians, rather than as schoolboys, and therein largely lay their force. But he was, in the opinion of the present writer, a better speaker than preacher, for an audience of boys. His addresses on the Saturday afternoons no doubt at times shocked some of the elder members of his audience by bis utterly unconventional mode of speech, and his daring allusions to subjects of school gossip; but they not unfrequeritly rose to heights of most pathetic eloquence through the transparent love he had for his people, while his rapid passage from some humorous incident to some parish tragedy would send the whole audience into peals of laughter, and the next moment bring tears into many eyes.

' His second regular method of intercourse was by periodical visits to each separate school-house. His rule was to visit each house where the house-master was willing to welcome him, as nearly all were, once each term. He would come up early in the afternoon, and spend the afternoon and evening with the boys, living in the boys' part of the house, taking his evening meal with them, hearing all their gossip, engaged in banter and fun with them--boy with boys. This gave a wonderful opportunity for studying the social life of the school, and the influence and character of the seniors, and he knew the way to make most full use of the opportunity. By seeing boys in their natural school surroundings without any restraint, he was able to gauge accurately their relations to one another; occasionally he was able to remove some misunderstanding, or to strengthen some hesitating prefect, or to check some too masterful spirit; but his main purpose in these visits was not to act or to correct, but simply to enjoy the boys' society, and share their life with them.

'But probably the most effective--certainly the most original--of his ordinary methods of intercourse was through the weekly visits which the seniors paid to him at Portsmouth every Saturday and Sunday. Very early in his time at S. Agatha's the practice was begun of allowing two of the seniors to go down to Portsmouth every Saturday afternoon, to stop at the mission till Sunday evening. Many qualms were felt about this practice; there was no little opposition offered to its commencement--and no wonder. There were obvious difficulties and dangers to be risked. It was pleaded that parents might object, that infection might be brought in, that the liberty might be abused; and yet, in spite of initial opposition, the practice has gone on most happily for sixteen years, till it has long ago been regarded as one of the established usages of the school. It is equally to the credit of the boys themselves, and to the influence of the mission over them, that during those sixteen years there has been no instance recorded of any misconduct, or any abuse of the leave so freely given. It is probable that during those sixteen years four-fifths of the boys who have left Winchester in the upper part of the school have made personal acquaintance with the mission, have done some'work in it, and have seen the people; while not a few have paid frequent visits, in which they have acquired an intimate knowledge of the mission life, and have gained a personal interest in some individuals in the district, which has lasted on after they have left school.

'There were other more sporadic, more special ways in which Polling's influence was felt. He was rapidly adopted within the Wykehamical family, and was what the school would have called 'a most patriotic Wykehamist." At the football matches, at Eton match, and all other school contests, he was, of course, a prominent figure on the ground, more angry than most if our side lost, jubilant in victory. Again, at house suppers he was an invaluable guest. Friends at Winchester still love to remember "his warm, affectionate speeches, now brimming with fun and merry Irish humour; now, while the laughter and the cheers were still ringing, turning with sudden and yet marvellously skilful transition to some thought which in the mouth of anyone else would have seemed almost too solemn and serious for such surroundings, only to change back again to the hearty rollicking Jun which made him so uniquely welcome in all festivities." Or, again, to pass to another sphere, when the boys remained at school in 1891 and in 1894 after Easter, it was natural to turn to Dolling to give solemnity and reality to the observance of Holy Week. On the first four afternoons of each week he came up to Winchester and held a short special service of his own arrangement at half-past five each day. The service, to his own special joy, was entirely voluntary. It was very largely attended, especially in 1894, and contributed greatly to making those Holy Weeks important epochs in the religious life of the school. But more valuable, probably, than all was the spontaneous and unlooked-for interest and affection of Dolling for the individual boy. He very rapidly came to know the individual, and somehow he knew of his difficulties; and, if he knew, this was enough to insure his help. What exactly his practice was at the time of the school Confirmation the present writer does not know, but it is within his knowledge that certainly in some years he either wrote to or saw very many, if not all, of the boys who were to be confirmed, and thus gave each boy the joy of knowing that at this most solemn hour of his school-life he was thinking of him and praying for him. Anyone who came into close contact with him could see most easily what effect he produced on the religious life of the school. To quote once more the boy friend in reference to this influence: "Here was a man," he says, "who was obviously one of us, who enjoyed what we enjoyed, and knew the temptations which met us, and yet who equally obviously lived his life in the presence of God, to whom religion was an intense reality."

'Only one word more. Dolling's religious methods and ritual were much out of harmony with the staid orthodoxy of the school religion. No doubt at times some strain was put on the consciences of parents, masters, and boys by the claim to support a mission conducted on such lines, and at times, also, some strain was put upon the school authorities in meeting what were reasonable objections. But what stands out most in the memory is the extraordinary forbearance of many, and the extraordinary loyalty of their acquiescence in much that was distasteful to them. What strengthened and justified this loyalty was, in the first place, the absolute certainty on everyone's part that Dolling would never attempt any propagandism in the school; he was himself far too loyal to the settled sobriety of the established rule, too proud of everything Wykehamical, to dream of disturbing the accepted conditions; and, in the second place, the knowledge that, if their scruples had to swallow something, it was worth doing it for the sake of the school. If Bishops or parents complained, the answer that could be given, and that often was given, was, "You have no idea of the blessing he is to the boys. There has not been for many a long year past any such aid to a better and truer life as Dolling's presence among us."'

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