Project Canterbury

The Life of Father Dolling

By Charles E. Osborne

London: Edward Arnold, 1903.

Chapter XIV.

Parochial excursions from S. Agatha's to Winchester--The day-schools--The almshouses--Personal dealing with the suffering and poor.

'How best to help the slender store,
How mend the dwellings of the poor;
How gain in life, as life advances,
Valour and charity more and more.'
TENNYSON: To the Rev. F. D. Maurice.

THE history of Dolling's work at Portsmouth is so marked by storm and opposition, culminating in the circumstances which led to his resignation, that one who had not been a resident at S. Agatha's might have imagined from the newspaper reports that there was a harsh and combative temper dominating and embittering the life of the mission. Two things, however, prevented this from being the case, either in regard to Dolling himself, or to the mission generally. The first was, that there was in some real sense a religious spirit, an instinct of worship in the place. The other was the human fellowship, kindliness, and sense of humour which Dolling created, and without which opposition so easily breeds uncharitableness, and zeal becomes corrupted into fanaticism. Dolling's sense of enjoyment, and his appreciation of the need of recreation for the people, balanced that side of his nature to which fighting was congenial. His warfare against various public evils might have made him a Puritan were it not for his love of the colour, sound, movement, and laughter of all the varied drama of life. Few men so laughter-loving and urbane as he have also been such keen fighters against evil. As a rule the two types of character are seldom combined in one personality; but they certainly were so in Dolling's case.

The various excursions organised in connection with the mission also supplied an element of wholesome enjoyment which became more rational and civilised as years went on. In the earlier period of the mission it was not unknown for a rather too boisterous hilarity to suggest suspicions in the onlookers as to this or that person on the brakes returning through the Landport streets. Even Dolling, whose stentorian voice and imposing presence could quell the most undisciplined of his flock, often found it difficult to keep some within bounds; but this became easier the more the mission-workers and the people came to know and understand one another, and the life of S. Agatha's developed as that of the social existence of a Christian family.

Treats and excursions are, of course, in the present day a necessary feature of the social side of any religious organisation, and therefore there is no need to linger over those held in connection with S. Agatha's. An exception, however, must be made in regard to those delightful excursions to Winchester College, which had a special charm as distinct from expeditions of a more ordinary type. They served to sustain the links between the mission and the College, its original source.

At Winchester the various parties of people from S. Agatha's were greeted as friends by friends. These visits were long looked forward to at Landport, and long remembered. They were days full of difficulty at first--some shyness, perhaps, on the part of the entertainers, not quite understanding the tastes and expectations of the guests, some rudeness on the part of the guests not quite realising the genuine friendship, the simplicity and cordiality of the welcome of the hosts. As Dolling himself wrote in his book:

'In 1886 Mrs. Richardson--I had rather say Mrs. Dick, and I am sure she won't mind--invited me to bring a party of mission men to Winchester to spend the day in college. About sixty went. They broke into the Warden's garden, and stole his fruit; they climbed over the wall of the bathing-place and laughed at the men who were learning to swim; they tried to kiss the ladies who waited on them; they most of them got drunk before we Avent home.

'Mrs. Dick's invitation is as elastic as her own heart. Year by year more and more men have wanted to go. This year we limited it to 160; we had to refuse an equal number. All of them paid their own journeys, except a few old men out of work, and some of the better-off men clubbed together so that no expense should fall on the mission. I don't suppose men ever had a more delightful day. I am quite sure no lady ever entertained a more delightful company. We visited the Cathedral, S. Cross, and all the places of interest. We had two splendid meals. One whole day's perfect enjoyment, everyone sober, not a rude or rough word, and yet some of us were the identical people who had gone ten years before, and all of the same class, all the mission's children.'

In his 'Quarterly Letter' for June 24,1893, Dolling describes a little token of affection and respect which was made to Mrs. Kichardson by the men of the mission. He wrote:

'Our Men's Outing in Winchester was a great success; about 130 of us went. Mr. Attree (the Dockyard organist), who kindly plays for us on Sundays at two of our many services, took his camera and made a very good photo of us. The men were very anxious to show Mrs. Richardson how much they appreciated her great kindness; for though she is helped by many of the Winchester ladies, we know the greater part of the trouble and management falls on her shoulders. So we got the photographs pasted into a book, and wrote her a letter, all signing our names.'

On the outside of this book appears these words:

'In memory of a very happy day spent at Winchester College. To dear Mrs. Kichardson.'

Inside is written the following, no doubt of Father Dolling's own composition, and in his own handwriting:


'June 10, 1893.

'We want you to keep this book in remembrance of many happy days we have spent with you and other kind friends at College. We hope you will like our pictures, and if ever you are sad, our happy faces will show you many that you have made glad. We are your affectionate friends.' (Here follow the signatures, E. Rad-clyffe Dolling's being the first.)

We quote the following description of one of these 'men's outings 'at Winchester from the pen of an old Wykehamist:

'At one o'clock the company would assemble, ready to do full justice to the ample fare provided for it. When all were assembled Dolling would say grace, and paternally advise them to eat slowly, Mrs. Dick interrupting him with a genial "Make it as long as possible let them gradually fill up." So the meal began. Great was the bustle, carving and filling of plates and glasses. Great was the heat, for it was high midsummer. Every guest had four or five helpings--one is recorded to have had seven--so that the waiters and waitresses were busily employed. Not only the College servants were there, but masters with their wives and daughters. Even the Headmaster handed round potatoes as if to the manner born. One of the young ladies was a special favourite of the soldiers and sailors, and when the older folk were not supposed to be looking plenty of innocent chaff went on. One would beckon to her, "I say, miss, won't you marry me?" and another would interrupt him, "No, no, miss, don't take 'im; Vs no good; 'ave me," and so on. She was quite able to hold her own, and smilingly replied: "That's very kind of you. I'm very much flattered, and I will think about it. In the meantime won't you have some more beef?"

'In and out among the tables hovered Mrs. Dick. Her comfortable and sympathetic presence invited confidences, and one and another would beckon to her. "What have you got to tell me?' she would say, and the burden of their reply would be, "Isn't he splendid, that Dolling! How we all love him!" Then one or another would tell her of something he had done for them, and she would answer, "We don't know what to do without him, either." After some songs Dolling said grace, and in a beautiful little speech--the total silence of that noisy throng while he spoke was very impressive--dwelt upon their visit there and the entertainment given to them as a proof of the love which united them to Winchester, the parent and supporter of the mission.

'So the meal ended, and the men dispersed, some to climb "hills," others to visit S. Cross, others to play cricket. The infirm and crippled sat under the trees, watched the others, and enjoyed the scene. Dolling himself has described it in his book: "There is, perhaps, no playfield as beautiful in the whole of England. In front of you S. Catherine's Hill, with its crown of trees. On one side the College Chapel, on the other S. Cross; everywhere gleams of beauty, and even on the sultriest day a delightful breeze."'

Miss Dolling's factory girls' club went also for very happy days to Winchester, where Mrs. Bramston (wife of one of the masters of Winchester, the Rev. John Trant Bramston--' Mrs. Trant,' as Dolling often calls her in his book) used to make the same sort of kindly and ample preparation for the girls as Mrs. Eichardson did for the lads and men. Dolling says in his report for 1887:

'Our "social" for factory girls has answered splendidly. We never giggle now. Mrs. Bramston entertained fifty of them at Winchester this summer. These out-days are splendid!'

There is one feature of the work at S. Agatha's of which we have as yet said little, and yet it was one of the most important of all--i.e., the Day Schools. The reader may remember that among the 'eight milestones 'which Dolling had planted during his ten years' progress (from 1885-1895), were the Boys' and Girls' Schools. These, which were situated in Thomas' Street, Landport, or at least the then school buildings on that site, were known originally as the Bell Schools, and had been worked as Church of England Schools in connection with All Saints (the mother parish) by its then Vicar, the Rev. E. B. C. Churchill, who was succeeded in 1890 by the present incumbent, the Rev. W. Hawksley, always a kind friend to the S. Agatha's Mission, the daughter district of his own great parish. When Mr. Churchill was about, in 1889, to offer these schools to the Board, as the buildings had been condemned, and there were no resources to fulfil the requirements of continuance, Dolling offered to take them over. He found that £61,000 must be raised at once to effect repairs or practically to erect new buildings. As he was then engaged in some differences as to ritual with Bishops Harold Browne and Sumner, he had to appeal to the public, without episcopal or archidiaconal backing. In two months the £1,000 required was subscribed, and the schools became the S. Agatha's Church Schools, being among the very best in the borough of Portsmouth. It was for the purpose of getting this money that one of the special days of intercession was observed in S. Agatha's, the church being used by many persons, for this purpose, in turn, from morning till night.

In Mr. Saunders Dolling secured one who was at once an efficient headmaster, a keen educationalist, and an intelligent and enthusiastic Churchman. The influence also of Mrs. Berrow, the headmistress, with the girls was regarded by Dolling as only second to that of Miss Dolling herself, and as an admirable foundation for the latter's subsequent dealings with them. The boys' fife and drum band and the large boys' Bible class were due to Mr. Saunders, and next to Dolling himself, few have done more for the lads of S. Agatha's than the headmaster of the Boys' Day Schools.

Not only was Dolling an enthusiastic educationalist in regard to his own schools, but he also held an important position on the Portsmouth School Board. He was never a believer in undenominational education, or the Cowper-Temple clause, but he was a strong advocate for efficiency as being in the long-run the most economical policy for education, and he totally rejected the alliance of the Church with the 'cheap and nasty' line in this matter.

In the very midst of his ten years at Portsmouth, Father Dolling was able to report (March 24, 1891) to his subscribers the following results, as far as such things could be tangibly estimated. He knew, of course, there were deeper results beyond the power of being reckoned:

' One hates publishing statistics, but I think at a time like this it ought to be right to let you know what your subscriptions have enabled us to do in the last five years.

' We have put into the army 39 young men, into the navy 57 young men. We have emigrated to Australia, America, and elsewhere 63. We have started in life over 100 young men who lived with us. We have reformed 25 thieves just out of gaol. We have sent to service and into shops about 100 girls. 25 girls have passed through our training home for from two to five years; there are 19 in it now. We have turned many drunkards into self-respecting, church-going people. We have rescued 144 fallen women, and got them into Homes. We have maintained, and are maintaining, in preventive Homes 124 children, snatched from the brink of ruin. We have shut up in the district over 50 brothels, and have changed the whole aspect of the place. We house 6 old couples free of rent.' [Some others were for an almost nominal rent.] 'We feed for a halfpenny a meal 180 children, and 25 old people free, twice a week during the winter. We teach over 500 children in our Sunday-schools, and 600 in our Day-schools. We have a large gymnasium, clubs for "rough lads" and "smooth lads," for intellectual young men, and for card-playing old men. We have "socials" for our factory girls, mothers' meetings for our older women. We have a nigger-troupe, an acrobatic troupe, dancing-class, and glee club; a sewing-class; a large temperance society, and Band of Hope; a lending library, and three penny savings banks.'

It is certainly a remarkable record, and although a good deal of it was rendered possible by his large staff of assistants, clerical and lay, male and female, yet the oversight or bird's-eye view, as it were, of the whole plan of the campaign, and the entire raising of the sinews of war, were due to Dolling alone.

Nothing in S. Agatha's district was dearer to its priest than a row of clean and tidy cottages in Chance Street, which, when he came to Landport, were mainly houses of shame. He raised money to buy them, and to make them decent in every sense. Having done so, he put in some of them five or six old ladies, and in the others a few aged couples. Sixpence or a shilling a week was paid by each tenant, which was enough to refund rates and repairs. He writes in his 'Quarterly Letter,' June 28, 1895, referring to the purchase of such houses:

' I am sure that if any of you could have seen the joy and peace of one old widow over eighty, Lavinia Myrtle, who died of cancer after a very long and painful illness, you would have thought that the whole of the money spent on the two houses was well spent. I thank God continually that I had no holiday last year, otherwise this poor old soul would have died in the workhouse.'

The workhouse of all English institutions Dolling liked the least. As a prominent member of the Portsmouth Board of Guardians he tried not merely to consider the interests of the ratepayers (though he was a man of business and opposed to needless extravagance), but still more the decency and peaceful comfort of the aged poor, and the healthy conditions of the 'House 'for all its inmates. But even at its best the workhouse seemed to him not to be a really human institution, but one to a great extent unnatural in its vast barrack arrangements and its separation of aged married people. Dolling, with all his organising powers, believed in its being best, when possible, to leave people under a roof of their own, and in a room of their own. He disliked all herding and cataloguing of human beings. He respected the idiosyncrasies of each. Lavinia Myrtle, mentioned in the above letter, was, though the inhabitant of a Landport slum, yet by nature an old gentlewoman, as quaint and gracious as her name.

Perhaps the most Christlike trait in Dolling's character was his extraordinarily tender respect for the suffering and the unfortunate. All poor human 'odds and ends 'and wreckage on the stream of life were the objects of his special devotion. Before suffering he bent with reverence as if before the mystery of Calvary. The lonely, the misunderstood, the scorned were the objects of his special and peculiar regard. He used to say of such,' They find a home within the Heart of God.' Cardinal Newman, in one of his 'Parochial and Plain Sermons,' has beautifully described the Christian Church as 'the home of the lonely.' It was Dolling's ideal for S. Agatha's that it should be such. Hence his detestation of the invasion of the Church of England by that spirit of smug respectability which is as much the evil genius of reformed Christendom as unbridled superstition often is of the unreformed type. We think that the above largely explains Dolling's love for the 'Stations of the Cross,' on the one hand, or for extempore leadings in prayer, on the other. Anything, he thought, to drive out this self-satisfied gentility from that supremacy over Anglicanism which has been as much the curse of the latter system as ecclesiastical absolutism has been of the Papacy and of the great Communion of Rome.

Three of the suffering and unfortunate ones who were specially dear to Dolling were either altogether or almost entirely inmates of the parsonage. He describes them in his book, in the chapter 'Our Saints,' and certainly all of them were touched by what he called 'the sacrament of pain,' and their religious devotion was entirely without affectation or pretence.

Of these the first, and the dearest to Dolling, was a young man named Henry Boss. Bad health had made the ordinary life of a young artisan impossible for him. He had been for some time a tram-conductor. When that calling had to be abandoned, as he became still weaker than before, Dolling took him into the parsonage, giving him some light pieces of work to do for the household or for himself. He was a youth of high principles, of true refinement of mind, and of a very affectionate nature. The patience of Boss's life under much suffering, and the spirit of simple religion which sustained him, made him a sort of good genius in the parsonage. After his death, it was as a memorial to him that the painted panels were inserted in that special altar, which, when moved into the new church, became the occasion of so much difficulty.

Willy Dore had been a mudlark on the Portsmouth common Hard, wading in the slime of the harbour for halfpennies tossed to him and other boys by the sailors. He was taken up by the Rev. J. Lloyd, then of the Mission of the Good Shepherd, Portsea, and was by him introduced to S. Agatha's, where his strange appearance became known to all the congregation. He had a feeble intelligence, being well-nigh halfwitted, and yet his features, which seemed only to indicate a wandering mind, and were at first sight almost repulsive, used to light up when he was asked any question bearing on religion, of which, indeed, he had an extraordinary knowledge. His almost negro-like appearance was the outward mask of a soul that sincerely loved God. He was a living proof that. there are many secret avenues by which God wills to reveal Himself to the soul besides the intelligence alone. Though at the time of his death he was in years a young man, Willy remained a child in mind and in body, and he also became first partially and then entirely blind. Yet 'Blind Willy,' to use the name by which in love and compassion rather than in scorn he was universally known in that part of Landport, had that strange ardour of passionate religious devotion which, at the present day, is rarely found out of Russia or of Ireland. For the Sacrament of the Eucharist he had a wonderful spiritual appetite; he seemed to grasp the idea of Christ as its mysterious gift, and his devotion towards the Blessed Sacrament seemed the result of a sort of instinct, for the channel of intelligence became more closed as time went on. He died in the imbecile ward of the Union Infirmary, to which he had to be removed; but even when all else of mind had gone, he could still whisper a prayer into Dolling's ear as the latter bent over his death-bed. His devotion to his friend and benefactor was doglike in its patient fidelity.

With these two (Boss and 'Blind Willy') Dolling classes the crippled boy, little Harry, fourteen years old, yet looking only seven, who was his special and tender charge. Harry was always wheeled in daily to stay at the parsonage while his father went to work, his mother being in a lunatic asylum.

Resembling the great Dr. Samuel Johnson in some other respects, as in his delight in town life and crowded streets, and also in the union in his character of sincere religion and of the spirit of humour and humanity, Dolling also resembled him in his love of filling his house with persons whose only claims upon him were their infirmities and their helplessness, and the only reward they could give him their affection and their prayers. Ross, Willy Dore, and little Harry were, in a humble way, to Father Dolling what the blind Anna Williams and Mrs. Desmoulins and Levett were to the great-hearted Johnson. Amid the incessant conflicts and turmoils of the priest of S. Agatha's, his 'battles civil' and 'battles ecclesiastical,' as he calls them, he yet could always find time, by some playful expression or by some thoughtful suggestion, giving them some little thing to do for him, to bring a ray of sunshine into the lives of these his poor pensioners--lives neglected by the world, yet in which his unerring spiritual instinct discerned the mark of the friends of God.

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