Project Canterbury

The Life of Father Dolling

By Charles E. Osborne

London: Edward Arnold, 1903.

Chapter XX.

Vicar of S. Saviour's, Poplar (1898-1902)--Instituted (July 22, 1898)--General circumstances of district--Dr. Chandler, Bector of Poplar--Will Crooks, Mayor of Poplar (1901)--Past history of the parish--Money-raising for necessary improvements--Social questions in Poplar--East London Water Famine (meeting in S. Saviour's, 1898)--Overcrowding--Vaccination and the small-pox epidemic (1901).

'But welcome fortitude and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be borne!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here:
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.'
WORDSWORTH: Picture of Peal Castle in a Storm.

THE patron to whom Dolling was indebted for being enabled to resume his ministry in the Church of England with a settled sphere of operations was the then Rector of Poplar, the Rev. Arthur Chandler, now Bishop of Bloemfontein, South Africa. Dr. Chandler, while quite dissimilar to Dolling, as being a man of books and having been of high academic distinction as an Oxford Don, was yet in complete sympathy with him as to the two main interests of his life and work. The Rector of Poplar, like the new Vicar of S. Saviour's, was both a thorough-going Sacramentalist and an uncompromising teacher of Catholic beliefs on the one hand, and on the other, in strong sympathy with the upward advance of the manual workers of this country and with the Labour Movement generally, in which, indeed, he took a practical part in Poplar, being treasurer to the Poplar Labour League.

After Dolling came to S. Saviour's there were for some years three men of high character who were in that part of Poplar leaders in every movement for the redemption of the inhabitants from bad conditions of life. Unlike what is often the case, two of these were clergymen of the Church of England, who were certainly not content to do what the clergy so often acquiesce in doing--i.e., reflect the prejudices in these matters of the comfortable middle classes of this country, and be satisfied with the position of chaplains to the bourgeois, rather than trustees of the moral, and therefore social, interests of the people as a whole. These three were the Rector of Poplar (then Mr. Chandler), Father Dolling, the Vicar of S. Saviour's, and Mr. Will Crooks, himself a working man, who became Mayor of Poplar in 1901, and who is now M.P. for Woolwich.

Dolling writes of Dr. Chandler thus in the S. Saviour's Parish Magazine:

'I owe Mr. Chandler a great deal. He had the courage to present me to this living, but I owe him a great deal more than that; the sight of an Oxford Don, giving up all his delightful, intel lecfrual surroundings, concentrating his well-balanced and instructed mind on the social problems that beset us here is a lesson that no one ought to forget.'

As to the Mayor, Dolling writes in 1901:

'I am rejoiced to find my dear friend Will Crooks, the Mayor of Poplar. I have not seen him with his gold chain and red robes, though I half believe he ought to come to our "social" on December 3 thus dressed, notwithstanding that I like to see him best in his shirt-sleeves and carpet slippers, having just jumped from his breakfast to give advice, counsel, comfort or help to some poor soul standing at his door. No one knows as he does the needs of Poplar. No one has greater tact in representing those needs, greater courage in demanding that they shall be satisfied.'

Certainly no district more required disinterested and unselfish leaders, social and religious, than the region in which Dolling now found himself after his institution as Vicar of S, Saviour's by the then Bishop of Stepney (Dr. Ingram), acting for the then Bishop of London (the late Dr. Creighton).

A Protestant gentleman in the congregation, a non-parishioner, objected to the institution on the ground that the new Vicar was a notorious ringleader of the sect of the Ritualists, 'who are everywhere spoken against.' Dr. Ingram, however, assured the objector that the Bishop of London was quite aware of Mr. Dolling's past. The gentleman in question came into the vestry after service to renew his protest, but without effect. Dolling politely asked him 'to come into the vicarage and have a cup of tea. It is such a hot night.'

The truth is that Dolling knew that the 'Church Crisis,' so called, which was then beginning, was largely artificial and 'faked up,' as he said, by various newspapers and individuals, some of them acting through honest prejudice and misunderstanding, and others from less excusable motives. He knew that in the minds of most of those who really think, and therefore ultimately in those of the multitude, the days of pure and simple Protestantism, as a doctrinal and disciplinary system, are numbered, and that the real religious struggle of the future lies between Historical and Catholic Christianity, in some form or other, on the one hand, and 'Undenomi-nationalism,' or indifference to definite belief, combined with a vague residuum of Christian sentiment, on the other. Dolling was therefore not much distressed about Ladies' Leagues or Reformation Societies, and he says with truth (in February, 1899):

'As to the present so-called crisis, the real crisis, the one that ought to make Churchmen, cleric or laic, on their knees in penitence before God confess their negligence, is that the vast majority of English people care nothing for the Church, many even nothing for God. If we learn this lesson, then all the present distress is cheaply purchased.'

The apathy, the numbness of soul to higher interests, spiritual or even mental, which marks such great districts of East London, as so many other similar regions, was accentuated in Father Dolling's new parish by its peculiar situation and circumstances.

It is a district cut off by a network of small intervening streets from the two great arteries of East End traffic near it, the East India Dock Road on the one side, and the Burdett Road on the other. The parochial buildings, as Dolling received them, consisted of a church to seat eight hundred people, schools for nine hundred children, a vicarage, a mission house (exclusive of a house for clubs in Giraud Street). These buildings form a little oasis in the parish, and are surrounded by rows of mean and small houses of that dreary sameness so usual in the East End, and which makes that part of London so much more dull and uninteresting in aspect than many of the old English towns and cities in which survive here and there touches of the enchantment of the Middle Ages, or of the quaint ornate domesticity of the Elizabethan period, or of the old-world soberness of Hanoverian times. Portsmouth, for instance, is not without several of these embodied and localised reminiscences of the past. S. Saviour's, Poplar, has no link with history on the one hand, no direct touch with the great thoroughfares of modern life and business on the other. The old-world air of much of Portsmouth, the fierce new-world feeling of such a centre as Chicago are alike lacking. If a slum, S. Saviour's parish is without the constant shifting movement and colour of the slums of a naval and military centre such as Portsmouth. It is, as one called it, a 'back slum 'in the East End. To anyone who has lived or worked in that part of London no further description is needed to show the kind of place and the sort of people with which Father Dolling, now nearly fifty years old, and already feeling the effect of years of overwork, had to grapple at this time.

The very fact that S. Saviour's district was already a settled ecclesiastical parish was rather an added difficulty to a man of his temperament and methods. He was essentially the zealous pioneer, evangeliser, and missionary rather than the patient, plodding pastor of a fixed and stereotyped region.

Owing to the decline of the Port of London, the labour of the inhabitants had become every year more of the unskilled and casual type, the men picking up odd jobs at the docks, but being often out of work, in many cases, for days or weeks together. The parish covers forty-four acres, and contains 10,000 people, packed very close together. Though a crowded district of working-class people and of others of a more shifting and nondescript population, it was, as we have hinted, quite unlike S. Agatha's parish, Landport, Dolling's former sphere of action. There was none of the variety and fierce excitement that marked S. Agatha's district on a Saturday night--no flash or touch of colour from the uniforms of soldiers passing continually through the crowds, or of the 'lads in blue 'swinging leisurely along the streets. 'This dullest, grayest parish in East London,' so Dolling pathetically describes his Poplar charge. He had here no glimpses as of Portsmouth Harbour and the Isle of Wight; no strolls to Portsdown Hill; no crowds of summer visitors to Southsea, vulgar often, but always amusing; no St. Vincent boys on leave-out days; above all, no weekly joy of the visit to Winchester College. The docks themselves, which afford the only touch of picturesqueness to the neighbourhood, are on the other side from S. Saviour's of the main artery of thoroughfare. That kind of quaint riverside Thames life touched off so inimitably in Mr. Jacob's tales, the 'Many Cargoes,' or earlier described in some of Dickens' novels, is conspicuous by its absence from the sameness of the district over which Dolling now took charge, and which was not on the river, although most of its people gained their livelihood by it.

'A tale of mean streets,' rather than of a riotous slum, is a true description of the work in this his new parish. It was no Alsatia, no Landport Charlotte Street, with the excitement of the incursions of the picket after some strayed reveller in the form of a sailor or marine. The very vice of such a district is lacking in passion; it is bloodless and anaemic. We do not mean that there were not and are not a number of true-hearted and earnest men and women in the district in question, as well as everywhere else, but certainly the prevailing element is one of moral and mental drabness.

Soon after he arrived, Dolling writes of the vicarage garden, 'the piece of ground, the filthy grass-plot, with two or three mangy trees, called a garden for the same reason for which the street I live in is called "Arcadia Street." 'The latter title was certainly given on the principle of lucus a non lucendo. The nomenclature of this street so struck Dolling's old friend Mother Kate that she inserted in the pages of her admirable little magazine, the Orient, the following lines written hy a contributor:


'To the shepherds of Poplar we ought to wish well,
In a manner both cheery and meet;
For I find that they all most appropriately dwell
In Arcadia--a pastoral street.
And we hope that this flock in a thoroughfare bold
Neither virtue nor colour will lack,
But that good Brother Bob will ne'er find in his fold
Any sheep that is palpably black.'

In the midst of this teeming, semi-heathen population the former clergy of S. Saviour's had tried for thirty-four years to keep up some public witness to the Christian religion. Dissenting chapels are non-existent in the parish, so entire is the religious indifference which prevails. The S. Saviour's Schools were opened and a mission district formed in 1864, the work being started by the Rev. E. Bray, who was before that time curate of the mother parish of Poplar. In 1874-1875 the church was consecrated and the district formed into a separate parish. Mr. Bray, who is now Rector of S. Paul's, Shadwell, was succeeded in 1882 by the Rev. Vivian E. Skrine, now Rector of Leadenham, Lincoln, who resigned S. Saviour's in 1889 in order to take the charge of Dingley, in the Peterborough diocese. The Rev. J. Beardall, Dolling's immediate predecessor, became Vicar in 1889. His resignation in 1898 was caused by his accepting the living of Southgate, Middlesex. The fact that so many people came to S. Saviour's on Monday, June 12, 1899, to take each a period of the continuous intercession for Mrs. Beardall's recovery from a serious illness (a recovery which happily took place) proves the feeling of the congregation towards her husband when he was Vicar of the parish. Indeed, it ought to be recorded that from the first a quiet but none the less real and self-sacrificing work had been done at S. Saviour's, and a band of helpers had been gathered round the clergy, some of whom remained with Father Dolling and still continue with the present Vicar, the Rev. Mark N. Trollope.

The fact that Dolling had to raise money by appeals to his friends and subscribers, in order to alter the drainage of the schools, vicarage, and mission-house, and to practically rebuild the schools (the latter item costing £3,000) was a circumstance for which his predecessors could scarcely in fairness be blamed. They had worked well, but had not the same number of wealthy subscribers as Dolling managed to retain all through his ministry. It seems, indeed, to be almost a necessary incident of any priest's taking over a new sphere of work in the Church of England that he has at the start to lay out a considerable sum of money on drainage or similar matters, so strange are the present business arrangements of the 'Establishment,' and so prohibitive often of any man without private means taking one of its benefices. It would have been to almost anyone except Dolling a crushing weight, handicapping all spiritual and evangelising work at the start, to have had to raise the large sums reported by the architect as absolutely necessary for alterations required for the health of the workers, the teachers, and the school-children. As it is, the huge weight of this money-raising for drainage alterations, building reconstruction, etc., was a burden that loaded even Dolling, that coiner of money, with extra difficulty. It is one of the weights that no Church managed on sensible principles ought to impose upon the shoulders of the priest who undertakes a mission, or any other spiritual charge, rightly involving necessary anxieties to the mind of its pastor without these extra difficulties.

Two questions of larger interest--the one locally important in the East End, and the other of a pressing character everywhere--thrust themselves upon Dolling's notice immediately after his entrance upon his Poplar work. The first was the East London water famine of 1898, the second, that ever-present and most complex problem, the overcrowding question. With regard to the first of these matters, the new Vicar of S. Saviour's helped to stir up, as usual, 'divine discontent 'by printing the following characteristic notice in the parish magazine:

'The East London Water Company divides a dividend of 7 per cent., oftentimes more. They have a monopoly to supply us with water. We are bound to pay our rates, whether we get the water or not. In the very worst time of the year, at a time when diphtheria and scarlet fever always increase among us, at a time when we are sweltering in heat, and when little children are at death's door continually, they restrict us to six hours a day, and that not regularly supplied. Our good churchwardens feel with me that it is our duty to invite all male parishioners to express their opinion on this point, and I thank God that it is in His house that we are going to meet; and I hope that we shall not cease from our agitation until this Company is dispossessed of its powers, and they are placed under public control.'

The meeting had an excellent effect, but the fact that it was held in the church (for want of room elsewhere) was resented by some of the more strait-laced. Dolling, however, maintained that the bodies of the people, being the temples of God, are even more sacred than the stones of a building, and that the health and decency of the physical life of his parishioners were in danger through the action of the Water Company. Like the great medieval Churchmen, who even sanctioned the performance of religious dramas with humorous episodes in them in the churches, he wished to see each parish church in England what it once was before what Dr. Jessopp rightly calls 'The Great Pillage,' perpetrated by the ultra-Protestants of Edward VI.'s reign--the house familiar to, as well as venerated by, all the spiritual family of the parishioners, and not, as it too often is in country districts, the spiritual annexe of the squire's mansion. His ideal was that each parish church, as such, ought to be the common roof-tree, as it were, of the Christian family in the place, and, as such, the centre of social righteousness to the whole district. But the prim type of High Church person, who writes indignant letters to the Church Times if some waif who has strayed into S. Paul's Cathedral is seen munching an apple within the sacred building, or a tired woman is observed sitting during some part of the service at which the rubric says to stand, was now on Dolling's trail. If his Prayer-Meetings in church would call down from such the condemnation, 'Mr. Dolling is a regular Dissenter,' his meetings about the Water Company would lead them to utter a more severe judgment--'Mr. Dolling is an irreverent Secularist!'

The following indignant anonymous letter, received from some person who was probably a dividend-holder in one of the water companies, as well as a horrified High Churchman, is characteristic of a certain type of ecclesiastical mind:

'September 19, 1898.

'Will Mr. Dolling permit one who was a Catholic member of the English Church before Mr. Dolling was born to recommend to him the use of the collect for rain as much more likely to attain the desired end than holding meetings for the abuse of laymen at least as honourable as Mr. Dolling] The withholding of rain from a district is God's punishment, and to ninety-nine Catholics in a hundred the present visitation upon the East End of London is consequent upon the appointment of Mr. Dolling to S. Saviour's, whilst he has not done penance for his misdoings at S. Agatha's.


The initials stand for the well-known Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament.

It would fill pages to quote the extraordinary letters, anonymous and otherwise, which Dolling received from time to time all through his ministry. The tone of some of them was one of antagonism, of others of enthusiastic approval, of a third of critical inquiry, whether real or pretended. A clergyman wrote to know if the rumour which he had heard was really true--that at the men's services, instead of a hymn, such songs as 'What ho! she bumps' were frequently in use. A zealous Ritualistic lady, during some of his many difficulties with the Bishops, wrote a postcard urging no concession in these terms: 'Sit tight, dear Father--sit tight!'

Of the evils of overcrowding, Dolling writes in December, 1899, as the result of years of an experience of life among the poor unrivalled in England:

'In this London, the richest city in the world, there are districts to live in which is actual pollution for body, soul, and mind; in which all wholesomeness, modesty, and godliness is impossible; in which is bred that army of loafers, gaol-birds, and "Hooligans," which is the greatest of national disgraces. There must be a cure, if it were not that personal interests--and these oftentimes the interests of quite good and respectable persons--make the drastic remedies which alone can effect a cure impossible. The majority of our own Poplar people must live in this neighbourhood; their work, such as it is, lies here. Bents have enormously increased, partly because the Jews are getting nearer and nearer to us.'

This is a most serious and growing difficulty, as most East End clergy and social workers can testify. The greatest rack-renters among East End landlords are, it is well known, foreign Jews, who are the most numerous among the swarms of aliens that have lately poured into that part of London.

'To meet this increase of rent, our own people are forced either to sub-let, or to give up their three rooms to go into two.'

He goes on to suggest two remedies---the power of such authority as the London County Council to acquire land at its present value beyond the overcrowded areas, and the means of creating cheap and quick means of transit. He says:

'There must be compulsory purchase of the land at its present value, without the unearned increment which the approach of population always creates. That, of course, has been the initial wrong; the value of land has sometimes multiplied itself many hundredfold without a penny being spent upon it, and all that profit has gone to the owner. Unless, therefore, the present letting value is taken as the basis of compulsory sale, any creation of really cheap houses would be impossible.'

After stating that ultimately the railway monopoly must also be dealt with, he adds:

'What is needed, of course, is a system of light railways and of electric cars run continually along every great thoroughfare which leads out of London, for the cost of travelling must not only be very cheap, but the opportunities of travelling must be constant.'

The words with which he concludes are a sort of summary of the work of his own life:

'But when statesmen have spoken their last word the Christian has still a word to speak. Create within the respectable poor the longing for all these things; stir the soul till it is utterly discontented with and abhors its present surroundings; make the father and mother realize that all duty to their children is impossible as things are. The task seems well-nigh impossible. The truth is we have not got the vigour of body or the keenness of mind to care about these things. We have always lived in them; we feel we cannot alter them. And nothing but Christian enthusiasm can alter them--ay, Christian enthusiasm could alter even the loafer and his slum. And so, while we must do our best to insist upon present legislation being put into force and future legislation being created, Christianity must labour on in making the heart and conscience of the man right, and then he will insist upon an environment which will be possible for himself and his fellows.'

The following leaflet was distributed at Berkeley Chapel, Mayfair, on one of the many occasions when Dolling was invited to preach for his work:


'Everything here makes for health and happiness.
'Everything there makes for sickness and sorrow

'Here you have good houses, good air, open spaces, amusement, pleasure, and plenty of money to buy everything you want; there we have bad houses, ill-drained, overcrowded; no baths, no amusement, no money. You are all going for a holiday; none of us can, unless someone pays for us.'

He goes on to tell of 600 Poplar children whom he wants to send for a good fortnight's fresh air to the country.

A special question on which he came into collision with the Poplar Board of Guardians was the vaccination one, owing to the small-pox outbreak of 1901. The anti-vaccinators had, strange to say, a majority on the Board, and their influence, and that of the general apathy--the main characteristic of the district--had to be fought against. The dispensary at the Mission House was largely used at this time for vaccination, as Dolling believed that sufficient facilities were not given by the local authorities for this purpose. The importance of this precaution was urged on the people by him as a most necessary duty for themselves and their children in view of the possible spread of the epidemic.

His attitude at Poplar, as at Landport, was the same as that of a well-known London priest of similar convictions, who, when accused of using his office as a spiritual teacher to interfere in merely secular matters, said: 'I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation.' 'The redemption of the body' was to Dolling essentially a practical truth, and a most vital part of the Christian religion. It supplied to him the motive power of his ceaseless efforts as a social worker. He was a scourge to anyone who degraded, dishonoured, or ill-treated the body of any human being, just as to those who stunted the mind, or polluted the soul, or made money out of others' innocence or happiness or peace. Such people felt for Robert Dolling the instinctive dislike that a rat does for a terrier. They accused him of unceasingly worrying them, and with great truth, for he gloried in doing it. They hated him as vermin do the light.

He regarded all such as enemies of Christ whom He would have denounced as He did the Pharisees, and whom His Church ought to expose in every way. He had a grand sceva indignatio against injustice, which explains his love for Amos' Prophecy, and his contempt for the action or inaction of many of the clergy in the presence of complacent wrongdoing. His ideal of the clergy was that they were to be, like the prophets of Judaism, 'Domini canes' (the Lord's watch-dogs), not 'dumb dogs that cannot bark,' sleek with domesticity and 'fulness of bread.' He had a complete contempt for that 'sober worldliness' which paralyses the tongue of the minister of Christ when he ought to speak for those who have no one else to plead for them.

Dolling could have made, as has been said, Hecker's motto his own--' I am always for the under-dog.' The cross uplifted in his hands as an evangelist was also the sharp sword, the sword of Michael, to smite and spare not in the name of the Crucified. His ideal was not that of a Church that gives offence to nobody, that never startles any vested interest, or annoys any wealthy individual who could finance the institution. His ideal of the priesthood was not of men who regard discretion as the better part of moral courage, and when the helpless are stripped and wounded pass by with decorum upon the other side. He had 'not so learned Christ.'

Project Canterbury