Project Canterbury

Bryan King and the Riots at St. George's-in-the-East

By William Crouch

London: Methuen, [1904]

Chapter III. St John's, Bethnal Green

HAVING entertained, from his earliest childhood, an earnest wish to receive Holy Orders, Bryan King was ordained deacon by Bishop Bagot, of Oxford, in 1836, and admitted to the priesthood by the same bishop on Trinity Sunday, 1837, Dr. Pusey being one of the priests assisting in the laying on of hands. Immediately afterwards he was presented by his college to the Perpetual Curacy of St. John's Church, Bethnal Green, then, in common with several other East London incumbencies, in the patronage of the college.

It was a strange position for a young man only just ordained to have the spiritual charge of 8,000 souls. He himself had serious misgivings as to the wisdom of a young man without parochial experience accepting such a charge. It must not, however, be regarded in the same light as it would naturally be at the present time. The circumstances of the large London parishes were very different from those which now exist. The rectors of the [20/21] important parishes of Stepney, Bethnal Green, Bow, and Shadwell were all non-resident, generally on the ground that they held other preferment in the country, and the Rector of St. George's-in-the-East was an invalid and had for some years taken no part in the duties of his charge. Those incumbents who were residents were, to put it in the mildest terms, not quite what parish priests are generally expected to be now, either in their personal conduct, or in their conception of pastoral work. The curates in charge of the non-resident incumbents were, as a rule, neither of such social status or education as to command respect.

The following anecdote was current in Brasenose Common Room about the Rector of one of their East End parishes. Soon after Bishop Blomfield was translated from Chester to London he sent for this gentleman, and told him that he had received a complaint that he kept a cask of beer on tap in his study, adding that this naturally was the cause of very grave scandal. The Bishop, to his surprise, received the following reply from the indignant Rector: "A cask of beer, my lord! I should like to know the author of this monstrous scandal. I venture to say that it is a cask of as good ale as was ever brewed."

The church of this genial Rector had the privilege of possessing a very fluent Irishman as lecturer, who when preaching on the parable of the Prodigal Son [21/22] edified his hearers with this statement: "Now in those countries the houses had a sort of tower, as it might be thus" (setting his Bible up on end), "and the poor fellow's father mounted to the top of this tower on the look-out for his son. Now there's many a father who would be ready enough to hail the return of his son if he came back in a carriage and four. But how did this poor son come back to his father? Why, quite naked, and all in rags."

The curate in charge of the parish church of Bethnal Green, the Rector of which was Bryan King's uncle, the Rev. Joshua King, who also held the living of Woodchurch after his father's death, was an extraordinary character. At a farewell dinner given by the parochial clergy to Mr. Alexander, of the Jews' Chapel, Palestine Place, on his consecration as English bishop at Jerusalem, this curate, in proposing Bryan King's health, paid him the very equivocal compliment of remarking that, as nephew of the Rector, he might have made much mischief by inquiring too closely as to certain fees at the parish church, respecting which Rector and curate would certainly hold very different views, but that Mr. King was too honourable a man to meddle in such a matter!

On another occasion he informed Bryan King that his daughter had made a very satisfactory marriage. On being asked the profession of the bridegroom, he replied, "No, no: none of your professions for me, in [22/23] which a man must often starve his belly that he may smartly clothe his back," and proceeded to explain that his son-in-law was in an excellent business as journeyman maker of umbrella sticks.

This same ecclesiastic once expressed to Bryan King his opinion that the Church services were in the main very proper; but, like everything else, capable of improvement. "For instance," he explained, "there is the service for the churching of women. Now I never read that as it stands, for this reason: one of the psalms talks about arrows and quivers--surely a very inappropriate topic for such an occasion; but then the other psalm is still worse, for it says that 'all men are liars.' What a fatal suggestion to make to a wife on such an occasion; so that I always take a verse or two of the one psalm and a verse or two of the other, and between the two I make a very pretty psalm."

There were parishes where the incumbents were resident and mindful of their duties; but the standard of parochial work was nothing like so high as it is at the present time, and too often the clergy fell short even of what was then expected of them, both in their personal character and in the discharge of their duties.

It was not, therefore, as objectionable as it would be now for an inexperienced young man to take the responsibility of the care of several thousands of souls; and if he were an earnest-minded man, with [23/24] a due sense of the responsibility of his position, as Bryan King certainly was, the parish was in all probability far better cared for, and the Church far better served, than it would have been by an older man. Experience in real hard parish work was lamentably rare; and the raw enthusiast was infinitely preferable to an absentee rector, or a curate-in-charge, who did just what he was paid for--and sometimes barely that--in a perfunctory manner. Bryan King's ministry at Bethnal Green was certainly by no means fruitless. To give instances of results that were evident, a boy who was present on the first occasion of his ministering at St. John's Church became a scholar at the Sunday-school attached to the church, and afterwards a teacher in the same school. Subsequently, on the removal of Bryan King to St. George's-in-the-East, he followed him there, and for years gave him liberal assistance towards the stipend of a curate, and always continued one of his warmest friends. When, after an interval of no less than forty years, he preached at his old church at the request of the then incumbent, Rev. H. Huleatt, Bryan King was deeply affected by the greeting of some dozen of his old parishioners who had brought with them books that they had received from him as Sunday-school prizes. Considering the migratory nature of the population, this was very decided proof of the lasting character of his work.

[25] A material witness to the zeal and energy he displayed during his incumbency of St. John's, Bethnal Green, remains in the ten churches built, endowed, and supplied with parsonages and schools, the result of an ambitious scheme originated by him on the suggestion of Mr. William Cotton, of Leytonstone, a director of the Bank of England, In the year 1839, when Bryan King was appealing for money to build a school in connection with St. John's Church, Mr. Cotton, being one of those to whom he applied for help, suggested to him this larger scheme, and promised his own help, being specially interested in the parish by the fact that his grandfather had possessed a country-house there. A committee was formed, of which Mr. Gladstone was a member, and which included several leading men of business in the City, amongst others, Messrs. Thomas Baring, E. N. Buxton, R. Hanbury, Samuel Hoare, J. G. Hubbard, Philip Cazenove, and E. Charrington. Mr. Cotton was appointed treasurer of the fund, and the Revs. Bryan King and Henry Mackenzie, then chaplain of Bancroft's Hospital, and afterwards Bishop Suffragan in the diocese of Lincoln, were joint secretaries. Bishop Blomfield also took a very active interest in the scheme, which was eventually fully carried out. The result has not been proportionate to the energy and generosity which originated and carried out such a bold scheme. Experience has shown that people will not flock into churches simply [25/26] because they are provided for them. This has been the case in other parishes in London as well as in Bethnal Green. The work of the English Church is to a very much greater extent than is generally recognised a missionary work, and mission work is more easily done in a mission chapel than in a large church.

The plan of letting the material building wait upon the growth of the spiritual building, and of waiting for a permanent church till there is a demand for it, was tried in Bryan King's next parish of St. George's-in-the-East, and there, as in other places where this plan has been adopted, it has met with far greater success than the Bethnal Green scheme. The knowledge of this fact had to be bought with experience, and the many thousands of pounds spent on the Bethnal Green churches were perhaps not too dear a price to pay for the knowledge that the mission chapel plan, as carried out in what is now St. Peter's, London Docks, is the better way. It is a pity that the lesson was not laid to heart in other parts of London where large churches have been built before congregations were gathered together to use them, and which have consequently remained at least comparative failures. Still, it would show strange want of faith to assume that the zeal and charity, which caused such a large sum to be expended in one parish for the glory of God, were wasted because they did not produce the immediate [26/27] results that were hoped for; and, as it was impossible to foresee the comparative failure, those who originated and carried out the scheme are certainly deserving of honour for their generosity and enthusiasm.

There is a touch of genuine humour in a story that Bryan King used to tell about a contribution that came to him from an anonymous donor in the shape of two Bank of England notes, each of the value of one thousand pounds. These notes arrived in a letter by post on a Saturday evening, too late for him to take them to the treasurer or to the bank. As he was somewhat nervous about their safety, he placed them within the leaves of his Hebrew Bible, as being the last piece of property which any burglar would be likely to purloin.

In the year 1838 he paid a visit to his relative, Dr. Joshua King, President of Queens' College, Cambridge, and from that time became a frequent visitor at Cambridge, where his brother-in-law Harvey Goodwin was then incumbent of St. Edward's Church. On the occasion of one of his early visits to Cambridge he met at Queens' College Lodge the Rev. Thomas Fardell, Rector of Boothby Pagnell in Lincolnshire, with his wife and their twin daughters, Emma and Mary Martha, the latter of whom was soon to become Mrs. Bryan King. The two Miss Fardells were well-known for their beauty, and Bryan King was himself a strikingly handsome man. When at Oxford he [27/28] and an intimate friend were regarded as the two finest-looking men in the University. This meeting with his future wife was perhaps the most fortunate circumstance of his life. A lady of the sweetest disposition, with a faith and patience that were nothing less than heroic, Mrs. Bryan King was her husband's chief human stay and comfort in the troublous time that he had to go through at St. George's, and his most constant companion and attendant when in later life an infirmity of a most trying kind, in the form of almost total deafness, came upon him.

The duties of his charge at St. John's, which he carried out with an almost scrupulous devotion, and the anxieties of the Bethnal Green Churches Fund, which was a considerable additional strain upon his nervous system, told upon his health, and acting under medical advice in 1841, having obtained leave of absence from the Bishop, he went with two companions, Mr. Spencer Charrington and Mr. C. T. Nesbitt, an old college friend, for a prolonged tour in Norway. Nowadays a tour in Norway is quite an ordinary event, to be accomplished in a very short time and in most luxurious manner. But this expedition was long before the days of travelling made easy by floating hotels, tourist agencies, and all the varied luxuries and facilities now provided for tourists in almost every part of the world. Bryan King and [28/29] Mr. Charrington crossed the North Sea in a lobster smack, Mr. Nesbitt preferring a steamer which, though not to be compared with those which now convey visitors to Norway in such comfort as was then hardly dreamed of at home, was yet considerably less uncomfortable than the fishing-smack. At that time the only way of travelling in any part of Norway was by carrioles, small but comfortable gigs, constructed to carry only one person each, relays of ponies being obtained by sending on a messenger.

The sleeping accommodation at the stations was of a very primitive description, consisting of a kind of small sofa about the size of a berth in a ship's cabin placed in the travellers' room, in which also hung women's garments of various descriptions which the owners came for at all hours without any warning. The resources of such houses of entertainment in the way of food seldom extended beyond eggs, coffee, and "flatbrod," a hard cake of barley or rye flour, the supply of which was usually made for a whole season. It was necessary for travellers to supply themselves with such provisions as ship's biscuits and preserved meats. The churches and houses being for the most part built of wood, fires were not infrequent, and special precautions had to be taken; one of the party being fined at the small town of Gefle on the Gulf of Bothnia for smoking in the street in ignorance of a law forbidding that practice. The primitive [29/30] condition of the country and the simple habits of the people, unspoiled by the greed which soon developes in a tourist-ridden country, gave an interest to the journey which fully made up for the inconveniences that had to be experienced.

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