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

By William Crouch

London: Methuen, [1904]

Chapter IV. St. George's-in-the-East and St. George's Mission

IN the summer of 1842 Bryan King was presented by Brasenose College to the Rectory of St. George's-in-the-East, and, having been married on September 28th, he went into residence at St. George's in November, little anticipating the troubles that were in store for him there. The church, one of the so-called Queen Anne's, was built by Hawksmoor, a pupil of Sir C. Wren. It is a massive Grecian building, and at that time was filled with high pews of oak, except for a row of open benches in the wide central passage. The services were of the ordinary "parson-and-clerk" character, supplemented by metrical psalms sung by the school children. It was characteristic of the clerical and parochial tone of the day that the new Rector, on entering upon his charge, was shown by the sexton two small cupboards in the vestry, which were called respectively the rector's and the lecturer's, and presented with the key of the Rector's cupboard, which contained [31/32] two decanters, one of port and the other of sherry, with a supply of wine-glasses. The churchwardens were in the habit of meeting the Rector in the vestry before and after service, and appeared somewhat disappointed to find that the contents of the cupboard were no longer to be devoted to the customary rites of hospitality.

Bishop Blomfield, then Bishop of London, who, by the way, was the first English bishop to discard the episcopal wig, had recently delivered his celebrated charge, in which he had required the clergy to pay a more strict regard to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, specially insisting on the propriety of preaching the morning sermon in a surplice, and concluding the service, when there was no celebration of Holy Communion, with the prayer for the Church Militant at the altar. The general excitement which this caused can hardly be understood now. Several parishes in London and Exeter were in a state of ferment from the surplice riots, as they were called. The fact that Bryan King was a stranger in the parish no doubt caused his compliance with the Bishop's order to excite the greater prejudice and distrust; but it is most important to note that the first change which roused the opposition that developed into the St. George's riots, and which brought Bryan King unwillingly into such direct conflict with Bishop Blomfield's successor, Dr. Tait, the blame of which was popularly assigned to [32/33] the Rector, was a simple act of obedience to his Bishop. This is not the only occasion on which those who have been the most obedient subjects in the kingdom of Christ have been unjustly denounced as law-breakers.

Crowded vestry meetings were held, and violent resolutions adopted, in order to induce or compel the Rector to give up the unpopular usages. He refused to sacrifice what he regarded as a matter of religious duty to the dictators of mob law, and so came to be generally regarded with dislike. Churchwardens were chosen for the purpose of opposing and thwarting him in every possible way, and for years the parish continued in a state of active, or at best of suspended hostility towards him. The changes in the way of conducting the services were the ostensible ground of opposition; but, as a matter of fact, the real cause of it was the appointment of a clergyman who preached righteousness and discouraged immorality. St. George's parish teemed with public-houses and houses of ill - fame, where the sailors' pockets were speedily emptied of the money they had earned, a considerable part of which found its way into the pockets of members of St. George's vestry, to whom the public-houses and other places, where the sailors were regularly robbed, and sometimes murdered, belonged. It was little that the Rector of St. George's could do against the vice of every kind that prevailed amongst the 30,000 inhabitants of [33/34] the parish, who mainly lived like vultures upon the bestial self-indulgence of the seafaring visitors, who tried to make up for a life of slavery on board ship by reckless licentiousness on shore; but the very existence of a conscientious witness for God amongst these ministers of Satan was a reproach to them, which they keenly felt, and was the real ground of the bitter opposition to Bryan King.

The continued strain and anxiety of the position told heavily upon the health of the Rector, who suffered from a serious attack of jaundice in 1847, when the parish was also visited with a very fatal epidemic of influenza, and he was obliged to leave the parish for six months for change and rest.

No change for good occurred in his relations with the bulk of his parishioners, although several of the younger members of the congregation began gradually to show active sympathy, and to take an interest in the improvement of the services. This was especially shown on the occasion of the churchwardens having mutilated the organ in order to prevent the use of it for service, and paying the organist's salary on condition of his not discharging his duties. This outrageous conduct had the very opposite effect to that which was intended, for several members of the congregation procured a harmonium, which was placed in the Rectory pew, and engaged an efficient choir to sing the service. This innovation was of course a cause of offence to those who were on the [34/35] look-out for such, but it gave occasion to a characteristic sermon by Dr. Evans, afterwards Rector of St. Mary-le-Strand, then minister of a chapel in the parish of St. George's and assistant curate at the parish church, who in the course of his sermon said, "Of course the psalms were sung, and of course David himself sang them; no one in his senses could doubt that," and then pausing and looking deliberately round the church, he added: "Yes, and I venture to say that no single soul in the whole of King David's dominions ever thought of calling him a Puseyite for his pains."

Eventually, in the year 1858, two silk chasubles, white and green, were presented to the Rector with the request of several communicants that he would wear them in celebrating Holy Communion. Fortified by the fact that after the "Knightsbridge judgment" the use of vestments was generally held to be in strict accordance with the law of the Church, and with a special view to supporting the curates at the mission church, where the ceremonial was somewhat in advance of that at the parish church, he complied with the request.

In spite of the encouragement he received from the faithful few who showed increasing appreciation of such privileges as they enjoyed, the Rector felt the hopelessness and helplessness of his position in the face of such virulent opposition on the part of the leading parishioners, which showed no signs of abatement, [35/36] and the vice and misery which prevailed all around.

Meanwhile, however, the seed had been sown which was to result in such abundant fruit in the marvellous improvement in the social and spiritual condition of the worst part of St. George's parish. The work of St. George's Mission had begun, but the wonderful results of that mission, which has so changed the district, was not at once apparent, and the work was being carried on in the face of much opposition and many disappointments. The history of the gradual development of St. Peter's, London Docks, and of the many good works directly and indirectly the result of St. George's Mission, has been well written elsewhere, and it is only necessary here to allude to it so far as Bryan King was personally concerned with it.

Early in 1856 he heard with great joy of the desire that God had put into the hearts of Charles Lowder and other priests associated with him to make a serious attack on the strongholds of Satan by mission work in one of the worst districts of London. He at once recognised the opportunity of doing something for the poor people whom God had placed in his charge, but for whose conversion he felt the utter inadequacy of the resources at his command. He therefore entered into correspondence with Charles Lowder, in which he conscientiously refused to surrender the responsibility which belonged to him as [36/37] rector of the parish, whilst willing to give those who worked the mission as free a hand as possible consistent with their position as assistant priests in the parish, which resulted in the first mission service being held by the Revs. Charles Lowder and J. Newton Smith on Ash Wednesday, 1856, in a room that had been hired by the Rector as a schoolroom in a court leading out of Radcliffe Highway, and in Charles Lowder taking up his permanent abode in the mission house in Calvert Street in August of the same year.

The mission chapel in Calvert Street was opened on November 27th, 1856, and this chapter may well close with some extracts from the sermon preached by the Rector on that occasion from the text "He maketh the barren woman to keep house, and to be a joyful mother of children. Praise ye the Lord."

After speaking of the way in which the poor had been excluded from the churches by the pew-system, of their gradual alienation from religious observances, of the yearning of all faithful hearts for their conversion, of the failure of the ordinary methods of the Church to recover them, and of the need of special missionary effort on their behalf, he went on to speak of the special circumstances of the work then being begun in the following terms,--painful in the profound humility of one who had been chastened by sad experience, but inspiriting by the tone of [37/38] confident faith of one who could trust God in the darkest hour:--

"It is now more than fourteen years (the period of Jacob's double apprenticeship of dreary toil and trial, ere he was permitted to found in the twelve patriarchs the Church of Israel after the flesh) since a priest and pastor was entrusted with the care of the souls of this vast parish. For several years of his ministry here he was (and that certainly through his own most manifold frailties, infirmities, and sins) the object of almost universal suspicion and distrust amongst his people; then, further, he was, as it were, utterly paralysed in the vastness of his charge. His own feeble and almost unaided efforts in this overwhelming field of labour seemed to be all futile and vain. He could find no means of obtaining such help in his work as he needed; 'fast bound in misery and iron,' he was but, as it were, a lone and, alas! a most unvigilant sentry here; as a solitary 'lodge in a garden of cucumbers,' as 'a besieged city,' indeed; he saw the tens of thousands for whose souls he must give account perishing unregarded; he could do absolutely nothing for them; whilst he was constrained at the same time to decline to avail himself of some offered help which did not seem to be in accordance with the ordinance of Christ Jesus in His Church. So that he could only look upon himself as a mere obstacle and hindrance in the way of his poor people's souls; he could only earnestly pray and entreat in deep distress of soul, day by day, and that for several weary years, that it might please his Saviour to remove him as a mere stumbling-block and offence from this part of the vineyard which He had purchased with His all-precious blood: until at the season of last Epiphany, when the Church gives her children those lessons replete [38/39] with such amazing promises of the manifestation of His presence which God has in store for His Church, when 'the Lord shall be unto her an everlasting light, and the days of her mourning shall be ended,' and when 'her waste and her desolate places, and the land of her destruction, shall even be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants.' Then it pleased Christ Jesus in His endless pity and love to revive the heart of His most helpless and most unworthy servant with the hope that the times of refreshing might even yet come upon him and his 'bootless, darkling toil'; when even he might be able in praise to say, 'He maketh the barren woman to keep house, and to be a joyful mother of children. Praise ye the Lord.'

"And there came to him the startling tidings, tidings almost too much for his long-deferred, heart-sick hope to receive, that a band of clergymen interested in promoting home missions amongst our vast and neglected populations were looking out for a suitable sphere in this part of London in which to begin their work.

"And so the very longings of many dreary years of that lone pastor were realised; the very instrumentality to which alone he had for years looked with any hope of success in his work was at once placed within his reach.

"This, then, my dear brethren, is the work which you have helped to set on foot; this is the work upon which you are assembled here to-day to pray and entreat, in the offering up of Christ's most holy Eucharist, God's special blessing.

"We are embarked in a great work, pregnant, as we believe, with the most momentous consequences to the Church of Christ in this land; and all may be hindered, [39/40] all may be marred utterly, by our faults and misdoings, by our unfaithfulness, our frailties, our indiscretions. How, then, shall I entreat and conjure you, my brethren, to help us in this work by your prayers?

"But yet I would ask and entreat for the discharge of a duty in this matter, even of prior, if not of paramount, importance to prayer, and that is, of penitent confession of our grievous shortcomings in times past with respect to the poor.

"So now, brethren, both we and our fathers in the Church have deeply sinned against our Saviour by disregard of His poor lost ones! Before, then, we presume to pray for His blessing upon this work in the celebration of Christ's high mysteries, before we presume to offer Him our alms for the furtherance of this His work, I would suggest that we should, each by himself, offer up to the throne of God Most High the penitential confession of our sins, and of the sins of our forefathers in the Church in this matter.

"Perhaps many of us will feel that the most appropriate form in which we can offer up such confession is in the language of the 51st Psalm, that psalm in which we may pray to be delivered from bloodguiltiness--the guiltiness of the blood of murdered souls."

The writer of this memoir has thought it right to give these extracts at length for two reasons. First, he knows from having been privileged to enjoy a close intimacy with the subject of this memoir that [40/41] in that sermon there was forced out of him by the circumstances of the case a revelation of the inner man, which was hidden from most people by the natural reserve of an extremely modest and sensitive disposition. It seems due to one who was the very last man in the world to claim any honour for himself, to honour his memory, now that he is no longer here to have his modesty hurt by any claims on his behalf, by publicly assigning to him his true place and influence in regard to the work that has been done in what was once his parish. Justice has scarcely been done to his memory in what has been written about the first mission work in East London. It is no detraction from the magnificent work of Charles Lowder to say that he owed something of the success of his work to the agonising prayers and patient sufferings of his old Rector, or that he came with joy bringing his sheaves with him in no small degree because Bryan King had gone on his way weeping. The writer of the life of Charles Lowder has published some letters from Bryan King in which there is evidence of some slight difference of opinion on a matter of detail in regard to the Rector's responsibility for the whole of his parish, in which he was indisputably in the right, as Lowder himself afterwards admitted, though the letters standing alone might give to those not acquainted with the facts of the case the impression that there was not that whole-hearted welcome expressed in [41/42] the above extracts from the Rector's sermon, or that cordial agreement on general principles, and for the most part even in details, which really existed; and at the same time, with a want of due sense of proportion, has neither given the Rector of St. George's credit for his own part in the work, or for the close sympathy that really existed between him and Charles Lowder.

The following facts throw further light upon this point, and tend to show the sincerity and heartiness with which the Rector welcomed the mission with Charles Lowder as its head. The founding of the mission was the work of a then recently formed Society of Clergy, of which both Charles Lowder and Bryan King were members. The minutes of proceedings of that society are still in existence, and the writer has been permitted to refer to them. They show that both the Rector and the future head of the mission were prominent officials of the society. From the date when it was decided that, with the permission of the Rector, mission work should be undertaken in the parish, there is for a period extending over four years constant reference in the minutes to the work. They show that the mission was under the direction of this society, subject, of course, to the parochial authority of the Rector, and that the society controlled the funds. Bryan King had therefore a dual relation to the mission, as rector of the parish, and as an officer of the society that [42/43] organised the mission. The minutes further show that while, of course, opinions differed sometimes upon details, yet that the members of the society were in very complete harmony with each other, and that there could not but be the closest sympathy between the Rector and his fellow-members of the society which worked the mission. It may be added, in corroboration of this, that both Charles Lowder and Bryan King remained members of the society until their deaths.

Secondly, it is well to have a record of such an experience for the encouragement of those who are working in anything like similar circumstances, not so much in regard to the violent opposition, which can probably never proceed to such lengths again, but in regard to what is equally painful to an earnest priest, the absence of immediate apparent result, and the existence of bitter opposition and misrepresentation. It is the Cross of CHRIST that conquers; and, whilst the Christian soldier must be active, it is his sufferings rather that win the victory. That is emphatically the lesson of the life of Bryan King.

It must not be assumed from the extract from his sermon at the opening of the mission chapel that Bryan King's work at St. George's-in-the-East before that time had been as fruitless as he himself in his humility seemed to think. There was a small band of faithful worshippers who remained true to their Lord and His servant all through the troubles that [43/44] pressed so heavily upon the Rector throughout the twenty-one years of his incumbency. Amongst the papers that have come into the hands of the writer there happens to be a copy of the printed account of the alms collected in the church during the year 1857. They amounted to £393 7s. 8d, and although £192 of this sum was contributed for St. George's Mission, mainly by the friends of the mission from other parts of London, the balance probably far exceeded the amount collected in the same year in any other church in East London, and shows the reality of the work, and the self-denial of the faithful. To those faithful lay people who loyally supported their Rector through evil report, and who thus proved the reality of their sympathy, and their thorough acceptance of the self-denying religion that was taught them, must be given their due tribute of praise, and the credit that rightly belongs to them for their practical assistance in promoting the Catholic revival.

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