Project Canterbury

The Life of Father Dolling

By Charles E. Osborne

London: Edward Arnold, 1903.

Chapter XII.

Father Dolling as a temperance reformer in Portsmouth--Penitentiary and preventive work--Public-house licensing question (1894)--The Social Purity Association--The open letter to the Justices (August 18, 1894)--Tribute to Dolling's work as a social reformer by a Nonconformist (Rev. E. C. Chorley).

'The zeal and talent of thousands of young men who would dare and do a great deal for Jesus Christ, but who are now kept back from want of an inspiring voice that would tell them "Go, and throw in all your resources of mind and body to destroy the empire of Belial, and to extend the empire of Christ."'--REV. P. A. SHEEHAN: The Triumph of Failure.

WE now proceed to deal with Dolling's action in regard to those questions of intoxication and moral impurity which faced him, as all other Christian ministers and workers, in the streets of Portsmouth. Dolling's love of the people was, next to his love of God, the deepest passion of his nature. Every lad staggering in drink through the Landport slums, every poor girl flaunting her tawdry finery along the streets by the Hard, was to him a brother or sister. 'Not in cheap words he owned mankind his kin.' The social sense, the conviction that we are members one of another, was as strong in him as it is weak in most men. A passion for social well-being was as much the mainspring of his nature as regard for self-interest is of that of the majority of mankind. He writes thus in his Annual Report for 1887 (September 27). As to 'the elder girls, from fourteen to seventeen years of age, we want badly more personal influence to be brought to bear on them, I am more anxious about this class than any in my parish. I noticed something shifty in one of my Confirmation candidates, a girl of fifteen. I found that nearly every night she was at a singsong in one of our worst publics, getting drunk with boys and loose girls.'

The honour due to the human body was a strong conviction of Dolling's life and principle of his teaching. He thought, with Kingsley, that many Christians are, in practice, Manichees, not realising that the Incarnation is God's supreme witness to and manifestation of what Browning calls 'the value and significance of flesh' ('Fra Lippo Lippi'), and that, in the words of Martensen, 'corporeity is the goal of God's way.' Hence Dolling's keenness about gymnastics and swimming-baths as ministering to the grace, health, and strength of the bodies of the people, and his encouragement of dancing as helping the lads and girls he worked among to be less hulking and awkward in their movements and rude or suspicious in their manners.

To Dolling the drunken or immodest man or woman was a living sacrilege, defiling the flesh, the shrine and sacrament of the soul. The defacement of the Divine in man, this was to him well-nigh the unpardonable sin. Hence he was remorseless in tracking down with unsparing punishment the wilful injurers of the purity of others, the crafty tempters of innocence for the sake of gain. He held strongly the conviction that God wills the perfecting of the physical, mental, and spiritual nature of man, and so, as he fought against such conditions of labour as dwarfed the mind and weakened the body, so he also threw himself into the conflict against the twin devils which possessed so many, and especially the young, in Portsmouth--drunkenness and uncleanness. He was able during his ten years at S. Agatha's to close at least fifty houses of shame. He said of such places that in several instances quite respectable people (to outward appearance), living at a distance, were the landlords of them, and did not want to have the truth about their property brought before their notice, because the existing occupants 'paid more rent than others, and paid it regularly.' Dolling never rested until he found out the person actually owning disreputable property, whether shameful houses or drinking shops where intoxication was encouraged. In one case, having all his facts, he threatened to name in public a highly respectable individual who owned such property, and, we believe, he did name the gentleman in question at one of the men's addresses in S. Agatha's. Legal proceedings were threatened, but Dolling said he would welcome this as an opportunity of making a terrible exposure, as the person in question had been frequently informed of the facts. The result was that the landlord improved the moral condition of his property instead of prosecuting its critic.

So also with regard to the low public-houses which swarmed in S. Agatha's district. Most of them were 'tied houses,' so that the publican generally had to sell as much of the brewer's beer as possible in order to retain his position. Attached to many of these places were (or are) sing-song rooms, where boys and girls were encouraged to sing songs of often the lowest kind for the delectation of those who wished to sit and drink at leisure.

The fact that Dolling, though no fanatic on the drink question, was yet, for a considerable part of his life, a total abstainer is significant. He felt, with most of those who live among the working classes, that the fact that almost all the best leaders of those classes are abstainers proves the importance and utility of this as a measure of precaution for those exposed to the constant 'treating' temptation, and also as a means of help that others can give to the tempted by themselves being abstainers. He believed, however, with regard to this, as to other evils, that decent and wholesome recreation is necessary, and reform as to housing vital, and that mere negative precautions by themselves can little avail.

Much of this state of things was due to the presence in the Landport streets of the soldier and sailor element to such a large degree. The easy good-nature of Jack Tar and Tommy Atkins, and the absence of all moral restraint or healthy public opinion in the district where the mission began its operations rendered possible such a scene as the following, which Dolling describes in his book as greeting him shortly after his entry into Landport:

'My first Sunday afternoon, as I was walking in Chance Street, I saw for the first time a Landport dance. Two girls, their only clothing a pair of sailor's trousers each, and two sailor lads, their only clothing the girls' petticoats, were dancing a kind of breakdown up and down the street, all the neighbours looking on amused, but unastonished, until one couple, the worse for drink, toppled over. I stepped forward to help them up, but my endeavour was evidently looked at from a hostile point of view, for the parish voice was translated into a shower of stones, until the unfallen sailor cried out, "Don't touch the Holy Joe; he doesn't look such a bad sort." I could not stay to cement our friendship, for the bell was ringing for the children's service, and, to my horror, I found that some of the children in going to church had witnessed the whole of this scene. They evidently looked upon it as quite a legitimate Sunday afternoon's entertainment.'

Again, he writes in his 'Quarterly Letter,' September 29, 1888:

'We have in our district 1,321 houses, contained in thirty-six streets, and about ten small courts. This is. the oldest part of the town, and so the great improvement which has taken place in South-sea, and in the newer parts of Landport, has left these streets what they were fifty years ago. Few of the streets have more than two lamps; some have only one; the courts, as a rule, have none. Sir Charles Warren has just pointed out how terribly this want of light may explain much of the dangers of East London. Then we have nineteen slaughter-houses in our very midst. Amongst our boys it is no uncommon thing to find one who eats raw meat and drinks blood. Our little children are continually acclimatised to the smell of blood, and the sight, if not of the actual death of animals, at least of their after-preparation for the market; and many of their toys are actually part of this refuse, and their games are connected with the sights of death thus constantly presented to them.

' Then, you know, we are a town really existing for soldiers and sailors, and therefore the licensing Justices have supposed the chief object of our streets is to contain public-houses; our little area is blessed with fifty-one. I do not venture to blame the people who keep these publics--they are mostly all in the hands of the brewers; the business of the keeper is to sell the brewer's beer, to make the house pay; if he does not, he soon gets his conge. You must presuppose fifty-one men of immaculate virtue, if for a moment you would imagine that they would not use every method, legitimate and otherwise, to attract customers. Advisedly I use the word legitimate, for I suppose the only legitimate use of a public-house is to supply needed refreshment to people as they pass by, or to enable people who cannot keep casks of beer to have beer brought to them in their own homes. But this would hardly, I conceive, make a public here pay. What the publican must do is to induce people to remain in the house and drink. Some of these publics have regular sing-song rooms attached, where regular concerts of a kind are held on certain days during the week, and nearly all encourage itinerant musicians, and thus create, from time to time, sing-songs in the bar or elsewhere. There is generally some sailor or soldier good-natured enough to stand treat, and so free drink is often an added attraction. I believe it is a fact that very many young girls, as well as grown-up women, spend their evenings in these places. I leave you to guess the result; but if you had the patience to take a walk any evening through our crowded thoroughfares, you could see the result in these very women, now lost to all shame.

'Again I say I do not blame the publican--he must live; but I wish I had the power to compel the brewers to face the awful responsibility that lies upon them. Surely they are bound to see whether the money that comes to them has been gained by pandering to the worst vices of men, and practically been earned at the cost of many a young girl's womanly hope and everlasting salvation. Have they ever visited, during the night-time, one of their own publics? Would they allow their wives or their daughters to go down and spend the evening in them? I know many of them to be good and religious men, and therefore I would plead, if only I had the chance of making them hear it, that, for their own sake, and for the sake of my poor people here, they would try and realise what the gaining of their money costs us.'

In Dolling's book, 'Ten Years,' he shows how with a population of 159,255 Portsmouth had 1,040 places licensed for drink, or one license to 153 people, or, deducting 25 per cent, for children and total abstainers, one license for every 115 people. He points out that this average is greatly above that of almost all the other large towns in England, even including seaports and the other dockyard towns.

Towards the end of 1893 an important movement was set on foot in Portsmouth by Dolling and the Rev. C. Joseph (then pastor of Lake Road Baptist Chapel) to grapple with this state of affairs, which they found to be so injurious to the young people among whom they worked.

The dangers to young girls from the condition of many of the lower type of public-houses, and the undisciplined way in which the latter were carried on, were known directly to Dolling from the untiring labours of a noble-minded Christian woman, the late Mrs.Waldron, who came to live in S. Agatha's district as penitentiary worker, and to use every effort in order to save girls from the hideous dangers of the Landport streets. Anna Waldron was one of the most unselfish and devoted of souls, never sparing herself, hoping always for the women and girls among whom she laboured, and tending leprous and tainted souls with delicate womanly tact, combined with Christ-like patience and Christ-like hope. She lived in a few rickety rooms in the very heart of the district where she worked, and her house was a home to the most degraded of her sisters whenever better thoughts led any of them to sicken of their miserable condition and grasp at the hope of rescue. Left a widow, Mrs. Waldron had no family claims, and so was able to devote herself to this noble work, which Miss Dolling well continued after the former had left the mission through failure of health in grappling with the difficulties of Land-port. Anna Waldron literally wore herself out in the service of her sisters, and many a woman now living a modest Christian life remembers her as her earthly saviour. She had Christ's passion for sinners and Christ's compassion for them as well.

Like several other workers at S. Agatha's, Mrs.Waldron was Irish. Her brother, the late Prebendary Grier, formerly Vicar of Eugeley, was one of the best of those clergy whom Ireland has given to the English Church. He was an honoured and welcome visitor to S. Agatha's whenever he came to see his sister. He practically shortened his life by his labours in the rough colliery parish of Hednesford, Stafford, which he undertook when no longer young, having resigned the less arduous work of Eugeley by an act of splendid self-sacrifice.

When Dolling took up these matters other ministers of religion and several well-known citizens, including some of the leading doctors responded to his initiative. Strength was given to the movement bj the adhesion of Canon Jacob (the present Bishop of St. Albans). As a result a 'Portsmouth Social Purity Organisation' was formed, consisting of clergy, Nonconformist ministers, doctors, and other citizens, as well as some of the working-class labour leaders. Canon Jacob acted as president and Mr. Joseph as secretary. The first conference was held on November 28, 1893, and the Be vs. Canon Jacob, Dolling, and Joseph threw their energies into the difficult struggle. A committee of twenty members was appointed to make a thorough investigation of the condition of the whole borough of Portsmouth as to intoxication, breach of licensing laws, number of licensed houses in proportion to population, manner of conducting public-houses, dancing and singing saloons, etc., and the moral condition of the streets.

On February 26, 1894, the committee presented their report, showing that the investigation amply justified the apprehensions entertained. A deputation was appointed, which waited on the Mayor and Town Council on March 15, and brought to their notice a series of facts to which immediate attention was called. The Mayor, Mr. Emmanuel, had not long before pronounced Portsmouth to be in quite an excellent condition as to sobriety and moral temptation. This was in denunciation of Dolling for having in a sermon in London, to which we shall afterwards allude, described the town as 'a sink of iniquity.' The Mayor was in a somewhat difficult position. He might attempt to treat Father Dolling as a fanatic; but he could scarcely ignore this influential committee of citizens, with the Vicar of Portsea at its head, presenting a document full, not of sentiment, but of hard facts--a document the result of thorough investigation, and proving up to the hilt those statements of Dolling's which had raised the virtuous indignation of the municipality at his daring to besmirch the fair fame of their ancient town.

The immediate result of this deputation was certainly an increased vigilance on the part of the Chief Constable of Portsmouth. But, not content with this, the organisation, on August 18 of the same year (1894), addressed an 'Open Letter to the Licensing Magistrates,' who were about to sit for the granting of licenses, and this 'Open Letter' was circulated through the whole borough. Amid a mass of hard facts in this pamphlet--facts as to the enormous proportion of public-houses to the population--there occurs such a terrible sentence as this: 'Our evidence goes to show that in some parts of the town licensed houses are used as recruiting-grounds for this unholy calling.'

The chief use of this 'Open Letter' was in developing and strengthening a better public opinion in Portsmouth, and in giving encouragement to the magistrates in refusing to grant or renew licenses--at least, to the lavish extent previously prevailing. It let in the light, which is the chief thing required in such cases, as there are modes of making gain which, like most kinds of noxious creatures, only thrive in the darkness, when they can pursue their operations unobserved and un-harassed.

Shortly before this, on August 10, Dolling delivered an address in S. Agatha's on the question to a crowded congregation of men. He claimed that the working classes themselves must take up the matter of licensing reform. He told his audience that apathy when righteous citizenship is called for is a sin. He concluded as follows:

'I speak for myself and for many other ministers in the town. I love Portsmouth, though some people think I try to pull it down. Do you, men, go round to the public-houses in your districts, and see if the law is infringed. If you discover what is illegal, write and give us (the association) the benefit of your opinions. Do this for the sake of your little children--the lads and girls--the men and women who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, and who are going to death ruined by the sins which you can make less.'

We add to this chapter some interesting recollections of Father Dolling at this time and his action in connection with the events related above from the pen of the Rev. E. C. Chorley, a Wesleyan minister, then stationed in Portsmouth, but now in the United States.

'During the years 1893-1896 I was stationed in Portsmouth as a minister of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and in that time was brought into very intimate association with Mr. Dolling. I saw him under many conditions: in the room in the parish-house which he used as an office and a study; seated at the head of his table in the dining-hall with a motley collection of guests, ranging from a visiting clergyman to a soldier on leave, a bluejacket, and a newsboy from the streets; at his famous Sunday afternoon services for men only, when old S. Agatha's was packed with men anxious to hear his unconventional talks; in the mass meetings held in the noble Town Hall to discuss some aspect of the social problem; and in the quiet of committee rooms, where his wisdom in counsel was equalled by his boldness in action.

'As is well known, Mr. Dolling's parish lay in the lowest parts of a crowded district in old Portsea. He had to deal with all those evils inseparable from life in a great military and naval town. To reach his church on Sunday mornings you had to walk down a street where not only was every shop open, but the streets were almost impassable because of the costers' barrows. Houses of ill-fame abounded and carried on their trade under the shadow of the Mission Church. In those days Portsea had a population of 15,260 people, and there were 145 licensed houses. When I knew the late priest he was a sworn foe to vice in any shape or form, and the saloon-keepers and those interested in brothels feared him more than all the police and magistrates put together. I well remember one instance of his fearlessness which created an immense sensation in the town. He discovered in his parish that a house used as a brothel was the property of one of the senior magistrates of the borough. He then wrote to the magistrate, informing him to what a vile use his property was put, and asking him to exercise his rights as landlord to eject the tenant. No notice was taken of the communication, and the evil practices still continued. He sent a second letter, which was likewise ignored. Righteously indignant that a justice of the peace should thus openly violate the law, Mr. Dolling, on the following Sunday, stated the facts thus recited at his men's service, and announced the name of the offender. He was threatened with an action for libel, but was unmoved, and in a few days a lame apology from the solicitors of the man in question appeared in the public press, and the house was closed.

'My main purpose, however, is to outline the story of Mr. Dolling's connection with the Portsmouth Social Purity Association, in which he took a very prominent part.

'In those days the police administration in Portsmouth, to say the least, was extremely lax. There was one license to every 153 of the population. Deducting 25 per cent, for young children and total abstainers, it gave one license to every 115 people. Owing to the laxity of the police and the unwillingness of the magistrates to convict publicans for breaches of the licensing laws, the conduct of the liquor business left much to be desired. In certain low parts of the town the congestion of licenses was almost incredible, as, for instance, in the old parish of Portsmouth, where there was one license to every sixty-nine people. In that parish there were seventy-five drink-shops and only thirty-one food-shops of all kinds. In the military and naval districts prostitutes were allowed to stay for hours in the public-houses; and in those licensed houses possessing music and dancing licenses grave disorder and graver misconduct were allowed. Solicitation was openly carried on in the streets, and the social condition of the town was deplorable.

'The situation became so intolerable that a private meeting of representatives of the Churches was convened, and presided over by the present Lord Bishop of St. Albans, then Vicar of S. Mary's, the mother parish of Portsea. It was then decided to form a Portsmouth Social Purity Association, and two committees were appointed, one to deal with the licensing problem, and the other the question of prostitution and solicitation. Of the former, I was appointed Hon. Secretary and Mr. Dolling a member. Canon Jacob was President. Both committees set out to collect facts, and in that work Mr. Dolling was by far the most valued helper, for he had an unrivalled knowledge of the actual state of affairs. It was largely owing to him that when the ascertained facts were made public, though the trade showered abuse upon us most plentifully, not a single statement made by the Association could be controverted.

'Dealing specifically with the licensing work of the Association, an "Open Letter to the Licensing Magistrates of the Borough of Portsmouth" was prepared and published in August, 1894. The preparation of that letter involved an enormous amount of labour. The facts were collected mainly from the official records kept, as directed by law, by the clerk to the licensing justices. At first every obstacle was placed in our way. The register of licenses, which the Act requires to be kept up to date, had not been entered up for seven years. I vividly remember the mornings Mr. Dolling spent with me at the Town Hall studying the documents and books, and compiling the facts and figures, and the informal lunches we had--sometimes in the kitchen, because we were late, of the parish-house--are among the most pleasant recollections of life in Portsmouth. In so far as the information collected concerned municipal administration it was presented to the Town Council at a private meeting of that body specially convened for the purpose.

'One other matter arising out of that agitation deserves mention. One of the leaders in the movement was the Rev. Charles Joseph, the popular pastor of a large Baptist church close by S. Agatha's. In a speech Mr. Joseph made some reference to the action of the magistrates who had just dismissed a charge against a publican brought by the police. An action for libel was brought against the speaker, and was heard before the Court of Queen's Bench before the late Justice Hawkins and a jury. The case went against Mr. Joseph, and he was condemned to pay £75 and costs, the whole sum amounting to about £900. It was widely felt that Mr. Joseph should not be left to face the music alone, and a fund was started to raise the money. At that trying period we had no warmer friends, wiser counsellors, and stronger helpers than Canon Jacob and Mr. Dolling. The entire sum was raised and presented at a mass meeting in the Town Hall.' Looking back upon my three years' association with Mr. Dolling I found him unconventional, true as steel, absolutely fearless. He was to a remarkable degree the friend of all and the enemy of none. He had an unrivalled influence on the immense number of artisans in the Dockyard, He was a helper of the helpless and a friend to the friendless. His name was a household word in Portsmouth, and men who hated his ecclesiastical views yet loved and respected the man. In the annals of that borough there is no name more respected than that of Robert Radclyffe Dolling.'

This agitation of 1894 was naturally not likely to bring Dolling into friendly relations with the brewing interests of the town. It is therefore interesting to know that the following letter was received by him, shortly before he left Portsmouth, from one of its chief brewers:


'While perhaps there are many who have not agreed with all your methods in carrying out the very difficult task you undertook amongst us, yet on all hands it is granted that you have done a great and noble work while in charge of your mission, and have courageously faced difficulties before which many an earnest, good man would have quailed, and have overcome them. You have undoubtedly set a great and noble example to your brother clergy, who are possibly too ready to believe that there is a stratum of society which their ministrations can never hope to reach. This, you have proved, is a fallacy, and we earnestly hope your successor will emulate your courage in following on after you. I am not aware of any personalities that have left any sting behind, and I don't think that such exist. Anyhow, you may be sure we shall only remember what is good of you after you have left us.

'Yours faithfully,


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