Home » Human Life » Seven Years Hard -The Reverend Free’s Missionary Work on the Isle of Dogs 1890s

Seven Years Hard -The Reverend Free’s Missionary Work on the Isle of Dogs 1890s

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At the end of the 1890s the Reverend  Richard Free and his wife decided to forego  their relatively prosperous lifestyle to open a mission in Millwall on the Isle of Dogs. After seven years  in the mission the Reverend Free decided to write a book of their experiences called Seven Years Hard.

Over a hundred years later, the book gives a fascinating insight into late 19th century London and the East End in particular.

The attempts of the Reverend Free to convert the locals is comical and tragic in parts and leads the Reverend to question his own beliefs.

Over the next few months i will publish excerpts from the book. We start at the beginning when the Reverend goes to visit the local bishop with a request to leave the more affluent parts to London to do some more worthwhile work.

” I am tired of preaching to silks and satins,” I said ;” rags and tatters would be a welcome change.”

The Bishop lifted grave, kind eyes, in which lurked more  than a suspicion of amusement.

 ” I see. The conventionality of civilised society palls on you ; you want something more “

” Real ! ” I cried with conviction. The word gave me a feeling of bodily and mental vigour such as I had not known for many a long month. ” Real ! That’s it. I want to get at the foundation of things, to see human nature without its paint and gewgaws ; I want to face up to it, understand it, learn my lesson from it.”

Looking back over the seven years that have passed since these words were uttered, it seems to me that I was very young then ; and it also seems to me, as I write, that I am quite old now. For, if experience ages us, then twenty years have passed since that memorable day on which I sat in a dim little study in the heart of the City, and gazed on the scholarly face of George Forrest Browne, Bishop of Stepney.

The suspicion of amusement in the Bishop’s eyes deepened. He paused awhile, as if weighing something in his mind. Then he said, with the peculiar force and directness so characteristic of him —

 ” You want an unconventional sphere of labour ; you can have it. You want to see human nature in its primitive condition ; your wish can be gratified. At this very moment I need a man for pioneering missionary work. It will be rough ; it will be hard ; it will be discouraging. There is no house to live in ; there is no church to worship in ; there is no endowment, or fund, or anything of that kind to draw upon for workingexpenses. I think I can secure you a stipend of £150 a year, and I know I can put my hand on money forbuilding purposes. Well?”

 I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable. The study suddenly grew gloomy, the air chilly. The Bishop spoke again —” Of course, you know the Isle of Dogs ? “

 Yes. At least, I had heard of the Isle of Dogs. To tell truth, a vision of flannels, a light outrigger, broiling summer sun, and a purling stream emerged from somewhere at the back of my mind, recalling halcyon days of another period.

 ” Yes, I may say I know it,” I continued eagerly. ” Up river ? Twickenham way ? “

 Back went the Bishop’s head, as that lurking suspicion of a smile broke at last into audible laughter.

” Oh dear, no ! Miles away from Twickenham and all that Twickenham means. Nothing so attractive, I assure you. Limehouse ! Millwall ! That’s much nearer the mark.”

 I sat still. It was rather sudden. ” Limehouse ” conjured up a picture of an impure stream bounded by dirty streets ; ” Millwall ” suggested river mud and long levels of decaying vegetation. The Twickenham picture was blotted out,

 ” Well ? ” The Bishop looked at me keenly.

 ” I’ll go.”

At that moment I was conscious of something like a call. I realised that this thing had come to me uninvited, unexpected, I wanted work ; work presented itself. Not, it is true, in the way I had anticipated, but perhapsin a far better way. Another Will than mine seemed to be in the business.

 ” Yes, I’ll go,” I repeated with conviction,

 “Perhaps you would like to think it over?”

 ” No. Thank you — but. No, My resolution is taken.

God helping me, I’ll do what I can,”

Two minutes later I was in St, Paul’s Churchyard,looking up at the dome in a dazed way, and vaguely conscious that I had entered upon a new phase of my life, A sense of elation, hard to define, filled me to overflowing. I was sensible of the pressure of the Bishop’s hand closing over mine in a farewell grip ; I was sensible of still another pressure, less tangible, even more real, that seemed to be driving me into new activities.

Many intelligent people, as I now know, are every whit as ignorant of the whereabouts of the Isle of Dogs as I was in the autumn of 1896. They have confounded it with the Island of Sheppey, with Isleworth, with the Isle of Man, and with the Isle of Wight. But, in more senses than one, the Isle of Dogs is far removed from any of these places. It lies close to the centre of London, it is true, snugly ensconced, as it were, in the bosom of the Thames between Ratcliff and Blackwall.As the crow flies, the cottage in which I live, grandilo-quently named St. Cuthbert’s Lodge, is as nearly as possible two miles from the Tower. The crow would be able to take in the position at a glance. He would perceive this house, so near to and yet so far from the heart of things, in a tangle of masts and chimneys, and, being a bird of parts, would doubtless chuckle at the thought that his strong wings could bear him, in a few delicious moments, over a space that takes the human biped a painful hour to traverse. He would see that from the Tower Bridge the Thames flows for a half-a-mile or so in a fairly straight line, trending very slightly to the south, but that below Wapping Old Stairs, at the entrance to the Pool immortalised by Mr.  Cole, it slowly rises for a good mile and three-quarters, drops due south again, gracefully curves away to the east, and finally flings up to its original level. The space thus enclosed, measuring, roughly, a mile and a-half from north to south and a mile from east to west, is known as the Isle of Dogs. Anciently, when it formed part of Stepney Marsh, it was not even a peninsula ; but now it is an island indeed, ” entirely surrounded by water,” the West India Docks enclosing it on the north and the river closely hugging it on the other three sides.

The Isle of Dogs lies near to the heart of the great city, yet in many respects it is more remote from it than the remotest of suburbs. The difficulty of getting to it is almost incredible. Not merely must the ambitious traveller struggle with ‘bus and train, discovering to his horror that the one never by any possible chance fits in with the other — such ills are normal : human flesh is heir to them everywhere ; but he must reckon with theswing bridges, which isolate the Island like the draw-bridges of a mediaeval castle. He may be within a stone’s throw of his destination, he may have a most important engagement ; yet he must possess his soul in superhuman patience while some great liner passes by at a snail’s pace, its mighty bulk towering high above him, its outlandish name in glittering letters silently declaring the unknown country whence it comes. It is true that the law provides that the ambitious traveller shall not be tried above that he is able, and that the opening of the swing bridges shall be strictly regulated ; but because there are few people in the Isle of Dogs who care, and fewer still who have the courage to complain, the law is flouted, and men bursting with business are kept hanging about the quays, kicking their heels because the dock authorities are not available.

 Nor may the ambitious traveller escape by taking to the railway. His very ticket officially informs him that the various companies ” do not hold themselves responsible for any delays which may arise in the docks through the necessary opening of the swing bridges ” ;and so the tiny primitive train, drawn by the tiny primitive engine locally known as the ” Dustbin,” whose energy is in inverse proportion to its size, may find itself stranded on the edge of the dock, snorting weak defiance, while some lordly tyrant of ten thousand tons slips from her berth with maddening deliberation, and steals down to the waiting river.

Other posts you may find interesting.
T’ is the season to be jolly

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