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“Christianity a Failure” – The Reverend Free in Millwall 1904
Plants for the Poor (part of the Window Gardening Society) in Millwall
It has been a while since I posted an excerpt from the Reverend Free and his very entertaining book Seven Years Hard published in 1904. The Reverend undertakes his missionary work with enthusiasm, however he often despairs about his congregation and the world at large at the beginning of the 20th century.
In the following excerpt the Reverend contemplates his lack of success of attracting the locals into his church.
Christianity does not ” count ” in the East End. There are eminent exceptions to the rule, but that is the rule. The average East-ender’s indifference to, and ignorance of, Christianity and all that appertains to it are almost beyond belief In my early days at Millwall it was an impracticable feat to secure at any religious service a ” quorum,” if I may be allowed the expression. Try how we might, we could not succeed in “gathering together” even the “two or three.” It would be impossible to exaggerate the heart-sinking that would seize me when, on arriving at our temporary chapel on Sunday mornings, I would discover half-a- dozen tiny children, hand in hand, waiting for the doors to open. ” There’s our congregation ! ” I would say, not without bitterness. It seemed to me so strange and terrible that Christianity should be considered no religion for strong men and kind women.
In view of religious backwardness or shyness, one of my evangelists proposed a series of extremely simple mission services. I heartily concurred and provided him with some thousands of handbills. With these he called personally on several hundred families, from most of whom he obtained a definite promise to come to his first meeting. The good man was new to the East End, and was full of hope that he would have a crowded house. When the great evening arrived, his congregation numbered exactly twelve persons, eight of whom were regular church-goers.
Our Window Gardening Society caught on amazingly, and enormous quantities of seeds, bulbs, and plants were distributed gratis to its members. In the third year of its existence, I inaugurated an annual service, which thirty stalwarts entered into a solemn league and covenant to support, seeming really anxious to show their appreciation of the encouragement given them to cultivate flowers. ” We shall have thirty, anyhow,” observed my wife, brightly. On the appointed day we got two.
This appalling irreligiousness is one of the things it takes so long to understand. I had a notion, founded on previous experience, that a well-known man, who was both earnest and unconventional, might draw. So I invited the Rev. J. L. Lyne, the ” Llanthony Monk,” to come and stir us up. At that very time, this popular preacher was attracting immense crowds of men in the middle of the day at St. Sepulchre’s, Holborn ; but, although I advertised him unstintingly, a mere handful of people came to hear him. Millwall declined to be drawn even by his shaven pate and sandalled feet.
Apropos of Mr. Lyne’s visit, a significant story reached me. About half-an-hour before the advertised time of the meeting, one of my choirmen remarked to his brother — “I must be off, Sam. Father Ignatius is preaching to-night. There’s sure to be a fearful crush.” ” Fearful crush ! ” echoed Sam. ” Do you know Milhvall, Alf ? Why, if the Queen was advertised to do a skirt-dance, there wouldn’t be fifty people to see her.”
Well do I remember the preparations I made for the first anniversary of the dedication of St. Cuthbert’s. I invited several clergymen to preach ; I worked the choir up to tackle a special anthem ; I advertised our proposed doings on huge posters. Dedication day arrived. It was a magnificent evening. I was jubilant. ” The weather won’t keep people away,” said I to myself; ” I positively believe we shall have a congregation.” When the hour of service struck, there was not a solitary soul in church. Everybody, including the choir, had scampered off to see a procession a mile away.
Nor were we Church folk peculiar in our failure to get people interested in Christianity. At one time a determined effort was made by the Salvation Army to attract a crowd in the West Ferry Road. The men stood in the doorways, smoking their pipes with unstudied indifference ; the women foregathered at convenient corners, nursing their babies and discussing the latest scandal. A long-legged boy swung down the street, shouting, ” Are you saved ? Come to Jesus ! ” A woman cried out, ” Wy, ‘ere’s the Army now ! ” and a neighbour added, with a shrill squeal that was intended for a laugh, ” Well, I’m blest ! Let ’em all come ! ”
Previous posts you many find interesting
Seven Years Hard – Reverend Free discusses the Vices and Virtues of Eastenders
Seven Years Hard – Reverend Free enters the City of Desolation
Seven Years Hard – The Reverend Free’s Missionary Work on the Isle of Dogs
Seven Years Hard – Reverend Free discusses the Vices and Virtues of Eastenders
These excerpts are taken from the Book Seven Years Hard written by the Reverend Free in 1904.
In a previous posts we read how the Reverend Free tired of tending to well off parishioners decided he wanted to undertake some missionary work in the Isle of Dogs, when he arrives in early 1897 his first impressions are not good and very soon after he gets a not particularly friendly welcome from some of the locals. After spending some years on the Isle of Dogs and getting to know the inhabitants the Reverend Free goes on to discuss their vices and virtues.
Well, let us acknowledge at once that the life of the East-ender is more or less a closed book to us. As our experience of him increases, our understanding of him seems to decrease. The problem is larger than we anticipated ; more intimate realisation of it confounds us. The East-ender’s sorrows, his joys, his ambitions : what does the most experienced know of these, save in the most superficial way ? Keenly desirous as we are of entering into the inner meaning of the life of the toiler, the most sanguine can boast but very partial success. Brotherhood is as yet too new a word ; identity of interest has not yet become a reality. Nevertheless, the lights and shades of the picture stand out prominently. Like other people, East-enders have their virtues and their vices, their angelical moments as well as their diabolical. Certainly they are not altogether bad ; quite as certainly they are not altogether good.
The besetting sin of the East-ender is intemperance. The drink habit is all but universal. If a dock labourer is invited to a ” beano,” he forthwith begins to devise the biggest possible ” booze ” at the highest possible price. Tell a factory girl that you are going to take her for an outing, and she immediately falls a-dreaming of unlimited “treats” of port wine. Boys on a holiday regard it as quite the correct thing to get drunk. And even women have very little notion ot a day in the country apart from the bottle. Nevertheless, women are not so very culpable. For one intoxicated woman, you will probably find two intoxicated boys and three intoxicated girls.
Like most evil things in the East End, the trick of gambling is acquired early in life. Pitch-and-toss at the street corners is of the passionate kind. On a single Sunday afternoon a boy will lose as much as five or six shillings. It is difficult for the police to cope with the evil, even when they are anxious to do so, which is not always. For the lads have their scouts at every corner,and at the sotto voce cry of ” Copper!” dissolve as it were by magic. Moreover, there is always a friendly neighbour to give asylum to the young miscreants. Doors left hospitably open afford a convenient means of escape. So many streets and alleys are cul-de-sacs, that a flank movement is denied the most consummate generalship. And it really is difficult fora policeman with any dignity to insist, in the face of absolute denial from the innocent-looking tenant of a house, that his quarry is in hiding under the family bed.
Foremost among the virtues of the East-ender is his good-humour. Good-humour is the redeeming point in his character, the salt that sweetens his very impurities, the lever that lifts him from the gutter where he is prone to lie all too complacently. He has many failings, many right-down vices ; but through them all,rendering them almost tolerable, runs that rich vein of gold.
The East-ender’s good-humour exhibits itself as much in
” Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,”
” Nod, and becks, and wreathed smiles.”
That is to say, he is fun-loving as well as amiable. His capacity for fun is enormous ; sometimes manifesting itself in sheer waggishness, at other times in the driest of dry banter, again in pungent and even delicate wit. Rarely is his smartness cruel. When it is so, it is jagged rather than keen. It does not cut ; it tears. His wit is easy and refreshingly original. Also, which is a great thing, it is without fear.
Next to his humour I should say that the East-ender’s most striking virtue is his affectionate clannishness. He will do anything for his own. Is a woman sick ? There will be no lack of willing hands to help with the children and look after the husband. Is a neighbour ” badly off,” which in East End vernacular means starving ? Somebody’s pocket is always full enough to spare a copper or two. It is not unusual for a whole street to subscribe to a present in money for a decent man or woman unusually down on their luck ; and the ” friendly lead ” for a poor fellow who has met with an accident.
Other Posts you may find interesting
Seven Years Hard – Reverend Free enters the City of Desolation 1897
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
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