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Millwall Postcard 1905
These excerpts are taken from the Book Seven Years Hard written by the Reverend Free in 1904.
In a previous post 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.
A City of Desolation ! ” That was my first fleeting impression of Millwall ; that, more or less, has been my constant impression during my seven years’ residence here. I found the place badly lighted, astonishingly foul, inconceivably smelly, and miserably bare and lifeless. A few wretched lamps shed their fitful gleams on the prevailing filth, and not infrequently, as if tired of trying to make things the least bit cheerful, went out altogether. The streets were, as a rule, abominably dirty, and only doubtfully clean at the best of times. The mud — and oh, heavens, what mud ! — was allowed to remain in the gutters for days and even weeks together, the authorities contenting themselves with sweeping it into miniature mountains and leaving it there to rot. Mighty horses, dragging great drays behind them, plunged through these muck-heaps, scattering them hither and thither until road and sidewalk were impassable without defilement. The smells, which here as pungent and distinct as the forty-and-two of Cologne, were rendered barely tolerable by the vicinity of the river.
It was in this strange land, then, a land of many anomalies and sharp contrasts, that I was appointed to work in the winter of 1896. On January 17th, 1897, I held my first service. It was a day ever to be remembered. In the morning everything passed off quietly; the reason for which, as I subsequently discovered, was that most of the disturbing elements were abed. Our congregation consisted of two women and three children. When the time for the collection came, I remembered that we had no bag, so I accepted a kindly offer of the next best thing; and I shall never forget the depressing effect of the pennies contributed as they fell rattling into the borrowed dinner-plate.
At the evening service, things were not so peaceful. My wife was stationed at the door; and when we were in the middle of the General Confession, she was bombarded by a gang of lads, who demanded admission in less than polite terms.
” ‘Ere, alit o’ that ! ” shouted one.
” Shove ‘er over if she won’t letcher pass ! ” cried another.
” I say, miss,” piped a third, a reedy young man who appeared to be the wit of the party, ” where’s the bloke with the night-gown on ? ”
The joke was received with a tornado of merriment, and in the confusion Mrs. Free tried to explain that the room was open to all who were willing to behave themselves. But nutshells and orange-peel began to be thrown ; and she, growing alarmed, with a deft strategic movement shut and bolted the door. Then began the sensation of the evening. Somehow or other the lads improvised a battering-ram, and with this formidable weapon began to storm our citadel. For a long time the attack went on, incessant and deafening, to an accompaniment of hoarse cries and cheers, while I steadily pursued my way through psalms and prayers, instinctively aware that if I showed the white feather I should have to pay for it. When, at length, the excited crowd broke into the building, and up the flimsy staircase, our little band of worshippers sprang to their feet in dismay. My voice was inaudible, but I kept on. I wanted to conquer, if possible, by a surer weapon than force. The crowd of disorderly fellows rushed in upon us, swarming, as it seemed, one on top of the other, and gathered at the farther end of the room, as uncouth a congregation as ever ” assisted ” at a religious service.
There they betook themselves to jeering and cheering, to jocular conversation and rude remarks, cheerfully cracking nuts and crushing the shells under their feet with loud reports. I prayed for Queen and Royal Family, for Clergy and People, for ” all conditions of men ” ; I offered “most humble and hearty thanks” to God for His goodness, particularly on behalf of ” those who desire now to offer up their praises and thanksgivings for Thy mercies vouchsafed unto them in permitting them to begin this work ” ; and without a break I finished up with the Grace. The hymn before the sermon was terrific. It was mixed up with music-hall songs, catcalls and whistling. But I went through the business to the bitter end ; and sometimes I have thought that I never did anything requiring more resolution. By my sermon register I find that I took no text that evening, perhaps a pardonable omission under the circumstances ; but by the same indisputable authority I also find that on this soul-stirring occasion I spoke on the respective duties of the clergy and the laity !
This was my first experience of rowdyism in Millwall ; it was to be by no means my last. Many, many months were to elapse before the hostility, of which it was but a symptom, died a natural death ; but into particulars of that harassing period I do not purpose entering here. Suffice it to say that for a very long time existence was pretty nearly insufferable. Epithets were flung at me broadcast. Hootings, bowlings, roars of laughter followed mc as I passed up and down the West Ferry Road. The hard thing about it all was that I had to ” smile and smile,” and seem not to mind, although the ” villain ” in me was crying aloud for vengeance.
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