Project Canterbury

Received with Thanks.

By H. A. Wilson.

London and Oxford: A.R. Mowbray, 1940.

Digitized by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2016


[173] “ALL may; some should; none must” is a comfortable theory held by some members of the Church of England in regard to her teaching about the Sacrament of Penance, of whom the majority place themselves among the “none-musts.” The chaplain at my public school (O si sic omnes!), who, in the year of grace 1904, prepared me for Confirmation and First Communion, made it very clear to me that, in his opinion, I was among the “some-shoulds.”

On a Spring day I knelt at a desk by the wise priest’s side in the lofty and gracious public school chapel, in which the stone altar on the summit of a long flight of broad steps and its reredos depicting the crucifixion dominate the large building, and made my first confession. I still remember the Sussex sunshine slanting upon me through one of the tall south windows, and the sound of other boys’ laughter as they punted a football about in the North Field, while I stammered through my list of not very heinous offences.

Happy are the children who know their parents to be penitents, and who learn in childhood’s days to follow their example! Blessed be Nathaniel Woodard, who when a curate at New Shoreham in Sussex in 1846, conceived the idea of building public schools for boys and girls, whose parents were not [173/174] over-blessed with this world’s goods and wished their children to be taught the real doctrine of the Church of England!

Before the year was out my godmother, who took a serious view (again, O si sic . . .) of the “solemn vow, promise, and profession” I made by her when she held me—a screaming infant—in her arms at the font, wished to know what I intended to do about my future confessions. When I replied that I had not given the matter much thought, she answered, “So I imagined! You had better go, as I do, to Father Pollock at St. Peter’s, London Docks”; and took very good care that I did.

“The life of man,” wrote Emerson, “is a self-evolving circle.” Thirty-six years later a circle was completed when it was I who heard Pollock’s last confession on the night before he died.


So I began to make acquaintance with Wapping and the famous church of St. Peter in Old Gravel Lane. In school holidays and Oxford vacations, when I was “down” from Ely Theological College, in curate’s days at Ashford and in Westminster, as a Haggerston incumbent, Pollock was my confessor and director, and, notwithstanding, my friend for five and thirty years.

Sometimes I would make the journey to him by rail and emerge from the bowels of the earth at Wapping’s smoke-filled, grimy, echoing station by Gun Wharf.

More often I travelled on foot from Aldgate, because, then as now, to walk in East London is one [174/175] of my chief delights and relaxations. I would pass the famous foundry where were cast “Big Ben” of Westminster, “Great Paul” of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and most of the bells in English cathedrals; and turn down Cannon Street Road towards the river. There is a synagogue in that road which still gives me a mild thrill, with its air of furtive secrecy: in one of the many Cohens’ shop-windows stands to this day—I know not why, for it is a tailor’s shop—an enlarged photograph of a man with staring eyes, who, when I was a boy, always seemed to look at me with the air of “Ah! I know what you’ve been up to! It’s high time you went to confession again”: and in later years as I crossed the junction with Cable Street I recalled, with a delicious shudder, what I had read, according to The Morning Courier, [*Quoted in Thomas Burke’s The Real East End.] happened there in 1812:—

The hole, about four feet deep, three feet long, and two feet wide, was dug precisely at the crossing of the roads.

The body of the murderer (who had committed suicide) was pushed out of the cart and crammed neck and heels into the hole, which, as will have been seen from the dimensions, was purposely so formed as not to admit of the body’s being laid at full length. The stake was immediately driven through the body, amid the shouts and vociferous execrations of the multitude, and the hole filled up and well rammed down.

The concourse of spectators on this awful occasion was immense. Every window of the streets through which the procession passed was crowded beyond example, but there was not the slightest interruption or tendency to disorder. For the most part a general silence prevailed, as the procession moved, being only [175/176] interrupted by occasional ejaculatory curses. A hackney-coachman who had drawn up near the top of Old Gravel Lane, bestowed two or three cuts on the body with his whip as it passed on its cart, accompanied by an ejaculation which it is unnecessary to repeat.

The three victims of the murderer were buried in the churchyard of St. George’s-in-the-East. The trussed remains of their assassin lie at the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road, unmarked and rolled upon night and day by East London’s traffic.


Nicholas Hawksmoor’s fine eighteenth-century St. George’s-in-the-East, with its memories of Lowder and Mackonochie, was on my left before I crossed the former Ratcliff Highway and turned down Old Gravel Lane (so-called because, in 1535, gravel and sand were dug there for purposes of ballast by an Admiral who challenged the authority of the Lord Mayor over the Thames in East London) [*H. Llewellyn Smith. History of East London.]. If I was lucky in the matter of the swing-bridge over the dock-water, that marks the boundary of St. Peter’s parish and makes, with the Thames, an island of Wapping, I was soon ringing at the door of St. Gabriel’s House.

It was a tall narrow house of three storeys, with a dark stone staircase at the foot of which leaned against a dingy wall Pollock’s sorely-tried bicycle. Before I, or for that matter any one else by day or night, was half way up the steep ascent to the top floor, I would hear his greeting—which never varied in all the years that I knew him, again for me or any one else—”Well! Dear one.”

[177] He lived in three poorly-furnished and untidy rooms, one of which was his Christmas Card Office by means of which he made considerable sums of money during many years, every penny of which he gave to St. Peter’s: (for years he drew no salary, since he considered that he had enough to live on—as he had, just). He was, I think, always in a hurry; he appeared always to have a cold in his large nose; I never saw him look well, but he was one of those fortunate men of small stature who appear to be able to go on for ever; and out of his eyes—which were, as in all humans, the windows of his soul—looked out the kindest, most lovable, and merriest heart that could be found anywhere in Cobbett’s “Great Wen” of London. “Yes! Dear one. I will be in church in a few minutes. It is very nice of you to come”; even an awkward schoolboy could not be shy at making his confession to such a priest.

Occasionally, as I waited in the homely church that seemed to be soaked in an atmosphere of prayer and praise, of worship and a sacrifice that was both human and divine, old Fr. Wainright would come shuffling in. Then the west door opened and closed with a bang, hurrying footsteps sounded along the aisle, I heard a prodigious sniff; and I would be kneeling once again at the plain prie-dieu under a small plaster crucifix, hearing my friend and father giving me advice and absolution, blessing me, and always concluding by asking such an one as myself to pray for such an one as he. In adolescence it is, perhaps, not easy to remain faithful to the Sacrament of Penance; it is difficult not to, if one [177/178] has the fortune to have a confessor like Pollock. I wonder how many hundreds of young men of East and West London, but principally of East, he held up by his ministry to the feet of him who was crucified for the pardon of us all, and simply refused to let them go.


There is a disadvantage in having such a home as was mine, which is perhaps greater if one is a celibate priest.

I infer that it is considered old-fashioned nowadays to love one’s parents, or at any rate to speak of them as if one does; and that it is hopelessly Victorian to have affection for the place in which one was brought up. If I am right in this assumption, I rejoice to be both démodé and nineteenth century.

The thirteenth house in a certain short quiet road in Croydon always held, and I think will always hold (even though it is now in alien hands), a place in the affection of us four children that can be filled by no other structure of bricks and plaster. But I appreciated it most fully when I became an incumbent in East London; for within a little over an hour, on my weekly day of rest, I could be within its familiar walls, where I knew that a welcome always awaited me, and where were invariably to be found peace, love, and re-creation of both body and spirit. (To this day, as I walk back through the dusk or at night to a gaunt barracks that calls itself a clergy-house, I find myself more than half-envious of small houses in which the living-room [178/179] curtains have not been drawn, and one catches a glimpse of firelight, children, parents, and home.)

The disadvantage lay, as I doubt not some of my readers will agree out of their own experience, in the fact that when the mother and the father had died, and the old home was perforce sold, one felt for some considerable time completely lost. It was as though one stood on a stage before a great audience, looked round, and found that the familiar wings and backcloth in front of which one had always been accustomed to act had been removed. It was almost, I think, as a person must feel who suddenly goes blind. One was alone in the world, as one had never been before; and the new situation took some getting used to.

Pollock knew what was in my mind. I do not remember having told him of it, until he asked me to do so; but it is not possible to hear a person’s confessions over a number of years without becoming fairly well acquainted with that person’s mind.

He made me go abroad with him, and with a young layman who was one of the many born in Wapping and set up in life by him. It was for me a memorable fortnight at Heyst-sur-Mer, Ypres, Coo, and Bruges. In one of the intervals between behaving more or less like three schoolboys both in and out of the sea, he asked me to tell him about my trouble. I did; as we sat, with a brace of bières at our elbows, looking out through his window across the sea to the sunset behind the mole of Zeebrugge.

“Yes, dear one,” he said, when I had finished; “but life is like that.” He told me, at some length, [179/180] about the home and parents which he too had loved long since and lost awhile. He concluded: “And now, I suppose, you want to leave St. Augustine’s, Haggerston?”

“Yes,” I answered; “ I have no more heart left for it. But how did you know?”

“Because,” he replied, “when my trouble came to me, I thought that I had no more heart left for St. Peter’s.” “But,” he continued with his infectious smile, and a sniff of his nose, “I didn’t leave. And I soon found that all the heart, and more of it than ever before, came back to me. You see, as time passes, God has a way of taking from us priests, quite gently, one by one of the things that we love. He takes them from us in love; not because they are wrong, as they could not be—seeing that he gave them to us, and he himself loved both his mother and his Nazareth home—; but in order that we may love him more and more whole-heartedly and without any distraction, and so be able to bring to him more and more of his children whom he has put us in charge of and who are led to him more by loving priests than by anything else on earth, except of course the grace of God himself. Sorry to preach you a sermon! But I don’t want you to leave Haggerston, at any rate just yet. Now finish your drink, and let’s go and find Joe.”


But greater trouble soon came to him.

At Fr. Wainright’s death in 1929, and again in 1935, he was offered the living of St. Peter’s. Most unselfishly he refused it on each occasion. [180/181] “To become vicar of St. Peter’s, London Docks,” he wrote, “has been the ambition of my life; but the opportunity has come too late. The parish must have a younger vicar. All I ask is to be allowed to live and work here until I die.”

I think that his decision, though actuated by the highest motives, was wrong, at any rate on the first occasion; but it was not, and is not, for me or for any one else to judge him.

At the end of 1936 he was asked to resign his work as Radley College missioner, the work that lay for many years nearest to his heart, because it was felt that the time had come for a younger priest to take over the important work amongst the boys and young men of Wapping. At Easter, 1937, he decided, against his wish, to live outside the beloved parish. He accepted my invitation to live with us in the clergy-house in what The Church Times has described as “dead-end Haggerston”; but he retained until his death his licence as a curate at St. Peter’s, and continued to hear confessions there.

Perhaps—I use the word deliberately—this refusal of “all I ask” was unavoidable. Again, it was not, and is not, for me to judge. Perhaps, too, God was treating him according to his own words at Heyst-sur-Mer. I only know, and shall not soon be able to forget, that when I went to Victoria Station to see him off on a short holiday in the Holy Land before he came to us in Haggerston—Easter Sunday is not precisely a day of leisure for clergymen, but I felt that I could not allow him to leave London without a single friend to wish him God-speed—, [181/182] I looked at a priest whose heart was almost broken.


During the two years for which he was with us in E.2 we did our best to make him as happy as he could be outside Wapping; and in some measure, I think, we succeeded. He never failed to say his daily Mass; occasionally he would preach for me; on nearly every afternoon he would hurry down the stairs, slam the front-door, and rush off to some distant part of London to see one or other of his St. Peter’s “boys,” either in hospital or happy in his own home with wife and children. St. Augustine’s churchgoers grew to know and love him, in some measure as did those of Old Gravel Lane. But I knew, in common with his friends, that the old buoyant enthusiasm and impetuous joie-de-vivre were gone. At times I would find him sitting idly over his fire with the door open. “Aren’t you cold?” I would ask, “let me shut the door.” “No, dear one,” he would answer, “I like to hear Fox moving about the house, and Rab and Michael barking in the yard—I don’t feel quite so lonely then.”

But during the evenings he brightened up, and became something of his old self. For it was seldom that an evening passed without one or more—and sometimes a dozen—of his St. Peter’s “boys” coming to see him. They will never know, until they meet him in eternity, what their visits meant to him. He made tea for some of them, and insisted on washing and drying their cups after they had gone, in order to give no extra trouble to my housekeeper: [182/183] for others he had bottles of beer waiting. For all there were cakes, chocolate biscuits, and a selection of table-games. But only one of them came for what he could get, and he was the last of the probable many to impose on the old priest’s well-known inability to turn a deaf ear to the plausible tale of any young man. The rest made the not short journey from Wapping, Hammersmith, Becontree, and elsewhere, after a long day’s work, because they loved him nearly as much as he loved (and, I think, still loves) them.


He was not seriously ill for more than a fortnight, though during this time he suffered acutely. When the ambulance came to take him to The London Hospital, he at first refused to be carried down the two flights of stairs. But when he reached the landing on the first floor he turned with a smile to the uniformed young man holding his arm, and said, “Yes! Carry me, dear one.”

After an operation it was obvious that the remaining days on earth of the devoted priest were few. “Send Fox to me,” he said to me one afternoon. Directly I reached my house I told the ex-soldier, who is my housekeeper, and who had been very kind to him, to go to the hospital at once. The nurse announced him as “Father Fox.” “Not yet, dear one,” said the dying priest; “you would have to travel some way before that became true, wouldn’t you?”

He died on the next morning; May 17th, the eve of Ascension Day, 1939.

[184] St. Peter’s Church was filled almost to overflowing on the night when some of his own “boys”carried his body into it for his last home-coming. After the choir had sung Vespers of the Dead, a sermon was preached.

Judges 18, 19. They said unto him, Go with us, and be to us a father and a priest.

Do you remember that figure which stood on Fr. Pollock’s mantel-piece, under the photograph of Fr. Wainright: the figure of a smiling old white-haired village-priest, clad in cassock, cotta, and white stole, his right hand raised in blessing?

One day a merchant of a neighbouring town travelled to the village to see its priest. On his return he was asked, “Well! What did you think of him? What are your impressions of the Curé of Ars?” The merchant answered, “I have seen God in a man.” So have you and I. For God is Love.

Forty-seven years have passed since Harold Arthur Pollock, a young layman, first walked along Old Gravel Lane. Forty-four years ago he was ordained priest to the church of St. Peter, London Docks; and the people of Wapping said to him, “Go with us, live amongst us and share our joys and sorrows, our pains and poverty: be to us a father and a priest, tell us about God, show us in yourself—in your manhood, by your wisdom, by your patience with us, in every department of your life—something of what God is like: give to us East Londoners some of the love of God.” Nearly forty-four years after, still by his wish an assistant-priest of St. Peter’s, London Docks, he said to me, “I think that I love even the lamp-posts in Old Gravel Lane.”

How he loved you! How he loves you still, and will always love you—for death is only an interlude in life, an incident between finite life here and infinite [184/185] life just on the other side! “Yes, dear one”; do you remember that that was always his answer, whatever it was that you asked him to do?

To-night, as you sit in his and your St. Peter’s, and his body is here for the last time, you are thinking of many things. You remember him preparing you for confirmation, first confession, and first communion. You recall the trust and confidence that he placed in you; especially, perhaps, in you who are still his “boys,” though you are grown to manhood. You remember, some of you, how you went to him when you were in trouble, told him things that you would have told to nobody else in the world; and he always understood. You are thinking about your wonderful camps with him at Bognor, about the old days in the C.L.B., about the countless happy evenings with him in the Radley Club and across the road high up in St. Gabriel’s House. You are thanking God for his never-failing sympathy, for his complete understanding-ness as he went with you through life, and was to you a father; (and it is not given to every one to understand us East Londoners).

But you are also remembering that always he was also a priest to you. A man’s man, all of him; with his sense of humour, his keen interest in all that makes up an East Londoner’s life, his own joy of living, his constant and indefatigable alertness and enthusiasm, the impetuous hurry in which he always was— generally humming a gay little tune—, and his magnificent courage which showed itself especially in the last not very easy years. But a man of God; a priest always and everywhere; showing you, in and through his priesthood, God’s love of you, God’s implicit trust in you, God’s need of you; revealing to you God, who is Love, in a man.

Consequently, you and I who are privileged to be still Fr. Pollock’s friends—I was a schoolboy when [185/186] I first made my confession to him here in St. Peter’s, and I love him as dearly as does any one of you—, are never going to let him down. This is to be our best memorial to him, the memorial that we know he would like best, that we live our Christian lives, right to their very end in this world, as he taught us and showed us how to live them: faithful to the Church and the sacraments, pure, brave, true, gentle, and kind. Because you and I have known him, by the grace and love of God which alone enabled him to be the sort of priest on earth that he was, we are to go straight on, in the Christian way, by the road along which our priest and father has gone before us; straight on, until the dawn of the eternal morning.

Late last Tuesday night—in a small ward high up in The London Hospital, from the window of which one looked down on to St. Augustine’s, Stepney, and the tower of St. George’s-in-the-East, and across to the cranes of your London Docks—I heard his last confession, anointed him, and gave him his last Communion. As I was leaving him, I said “Good-bye.” He answered, “No, dear one. Not Good-bye. Only Good-night.” Is not that one of the greatest wonders and happinesses of the Christian Religion: that for him, you, me, and all our dear ones in the next world, it is “Not Good-bye. Only, for a little while, Good-night”?

On the following evening two small Brownies were leaving my church when they met the verger. “Oh, Bill!” they said; “is it true that Fr. Pollock has died?” “Yes,” he answered. Without another word, the two small girls turned back to the church-door. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “Say our prayers,” they replied. “But,” he remarked, “you have just said them.” “Yes,” they answered; “but then we did not know about that nice old priest. We must say some more, that he may sleep well to-night.”

[187] That shall be our prayer for him, to-night and on many nights to come. After we have said it, with all our hearts we will add for the rest of our lives, “Thank God for Fr. Pollock, who went with us, and was to us a father and a priest.”

He lay in his coffin, clothed in white vestments. They belonged to Fr. Walker, another saint-like priest of St. Peter’s, London Docks, who had bought them for his own burial; but whose protestant relatives refused to allow them to be used. During his last illness Pollock asked me to see that they should be put on him; and added, “I think you will find that the stole is missing.” At my request one of the good Sisters of St. Saviour’s Priory washed and ironed the amice, alb, girdle, maniple, and chasuble; made a new stole; and subsequently went to the hospital after his death and clothed him in them.

His biretta and stole were on the coffin, which was surrounded by masses of fresh Spring flowers.

St. Peter’s men kept the long hours of the night-watch. After the Solemn Mass of Requiem, followed by the Absolutions for the Dead, six of his own “boys”—according to the tradition of St. Peter’s for their departed priests—carried the coffin through the silent crowds in Old Gravel Lane to the swing-bridge over the water that marks the end of the parish. I laid him to rest in St. Peter’s Plot at Plaistow—which is next to that of St. Augustine’s, Stepney—side by side with Fr. Wainright; and his same “boys” carried him to the grave-side.

To be loved by the poor is the surest sign a priest can have that he is not unlike his Master. For the [187/188] people heard him gladly. Their love is a great reward. When the world is dark and hostile, a priest takes sanctuary among his poor. Almost all the great in Church or State were against St. Thomas of Canterbury, but the poor priests and the poor people were always with him. [H. E. Manning. The Eternal Priesthood.]

O father, father, gone from us, lost to us,
How shall we find you, from what far place
Do you look down on us?
Who shall now guide us, protect us, direct us?
After what journey through what further dread
Shall we recover your presence? when inherit
Your strength?
[T. S. Eliot. Murder in the Cathedral.]

Every morning, as I go, vested, to an East London altar in order that I may offer the Sacrifice of him who was lifted up to draw all East Londoners to himself, I pass through a door above which stands, on a small bracket, Pollock’s figure of the Curé d’Ars.

It reminds me, should I need reminding, of the humble slum-priest who gave all that he had to God and God’s poor; who ended his last will and testament with the words:

I crave forgiveness of any I may have injured, knowingly or unknowingly, by word or deed; and I ask all my friends for their frequent prayers for my soul, especially at the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar;

and of whom was written in the official record [Crockford’s Clerical Directory, 1939.] of both the high and mighty, and the humble world-forgetting by the world forgot, who serve the Church of England in the threefold ministry, the splendid epitaph:—

POLLOCK, HAROLD ARTHUR.—Keble Coll. Ox. B.A. 1894, M.A. 1897. Ely Th. Coll. 1894. d. 1894, P. 1895 Lon. C. of St. Pet. Lon. Dks. Dio. Lon. from 1894.

“There are men and classes of men,” wrote R. L. Stevenson, [Underwoods.] “that stand above the common herd: the soldier, the sailor, and the shepherd not infrequently; the artist rarely; rarelier still, the clergyman.”

It seems to me that among the “rarelier still” was the seventy-year-old Wapping curate of Old Gravel Lane.

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