Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 27 - 1861 (continued) - Mostly Ecclesiastical

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CHAPTER XXVII

1861 (continued) - MOSTLY ECCLESIASTICAL

Religious life - Methodists - St. Alphege's - Reverend W. A. Soames - St. Mary's - A didactic preacher - Mothers' meetings - Tea-urns - A priestly uncle - Our Lady's, Croom's Hill - A Brazilian broad road to heaven - Maid of the Mist - Big Ben again - Death of the Prince Consort - Hartley colliery - Sale of honours.

OUR religious life in the City of the Meridian was varied if not intense. As a rule, we attended either the parish church of St. Alphege or St. Mary's, alongside the Park gates in King William Street. But a local aunt was well in with the Methodists, and this led to acquaintance with one of their leading ministers and occasional attendance at his chapel. He was undoubtedly a pious, earnest, charitable man, with a good word for everybody except Roman Catholics, of whom his opinion was distinctly unflattering. But those were days when the cry of "No popery" was by no means extinct, so his intolerance was not inexcusable. He considered the Romish Church a political rather than a religious institution, to which view the persistence of the Pope in clinging to temporal sovereignty, then a source of great disturbance in Europe, lent colour; still, he would give a distressed R.C. a pound of moist sugar or a ticket for soup without difficulty if deserving.
    At St. Alphege's we occupied, about hall-way along the aisle, on the left, a square pew with seats all round so that some worshippers had perforce to turn their backs on the preacher and experienced considerable difficulty in bobbing towards the East during the recital of the Creed. It was the only one of its kind and had, perhaps, formerly been the dug-out of a Lord High Admiral or Governor of Greenwich Hospital.
    [-218-] Mr. W. A. Soames, the vicar, of whom no man spoke evil and who certainly, as Tacitus phrased it, "had the God within him," was another ardent minister, ever in the forefront of charitable works and a veritable cornucopia of tickets for bread, for meat, for soup, for coal. There was a dread under-current of poverty in the town, which Soames did his best, and it was a very good best, to stem. But he was a poor preacher. Decidedly that was my opinion. He spoke rapidly, and to a boy, at least, far from lucidly; and when his spare black-gowned figure appeared in the pulpit I usually began to think of things far away, for I could never follow him well enough to develop an interest in his topic.
    Very different was the gentleman who usually conducted the services at St. Mary's, and who was, I suppose, the senior curate. His name I forget, but we boys generously designated him "the pretty man." He had a pale, classical countenance, shaven chin and upper lip, and cheeks adorned with moderate brown whiskers. Serenity, repose and cleanliness were the notes struck. He spoke somewhat slowly, in simple English and always with great distinctness and a certain peculiar emphasis. His sermons were unemotional, even a charity appeal being approached from the logical rather than the sentimental side, so that the threepenny and four-penny pieces were argued rather than charmed into the plate. He would often explain a difficult phrase or obscure text, its surrounding meanings and applications, in language all could understand and follow with attention. When he took a turn at St. Alphege's, which he did occasionally, my wits made fewer excursions into realms mundane. I feel that I owe something to the pretty man.
    In those days the metrical version of the psalms by Sternhold and Hopkins was always printed at the end of the Prayer-book, although I never knew it to be used, and a perusal of the quaint verses sometimes formed a refuge from a dull preacher. At Greenwich, the old-time clerk, whom I have noted as giving out the hymns at St. George's, Camber- well, had disappeared in 1861. There were only two pulpits, one for the service and a loftier one for the sermon. The lessons were read from the former, for separate lecterns had [-219-] not yet come into fashion, at all events not in the remote regions of which I write. That the fair sex still persisted in their well-known devotion to religious exercises was made fair! y obvious by a prevailing aromatic odour of peppermint. Mr. Soames was not High Church, but he couldn't avoid that kind of incense - especially at sermon time.
    My Methodistic aunt was active in the promotion and management of Mothers' Meetings and tea-fights, as they are called in Scotland, and small functions of that sort. At some of these I was allowed to be present conditionally on making myself useful. This obligation I found on one occasion to be susceptible of rather elastic interpretation. With a boy friend I presented myself by agreement at a tea- meeting in course of preparation. My aunt had not arrived, but another lady of the committee said, "These lads may as well fetch the urns Mrs. Dash has promised to lend," and despatched us to Blackheath Hill, a mile or more away. Mrs. Dash was urbanity itself - but the urns! They were of highly burnished copper, almost as big as ourselves and very heavy. But to admirers of Nelson duty loomed larger and weightier still, so we hugged and dandled our charges and, set our faces tea-fight-ward. Fortunately the road was down-hill, so by resting occasionally we made progress until suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by children emerging from a ragged school or some educational establishment of the kind. The urns of course attracted immediate attention; the boys became insulting and aggressive, and we had actually to defend them by force of arms. Luckily a master came out and dispersed his rowdy pupils, standing guard until we had got away. After that we found handing round bread and butter and cake easy work enough. Our urns operated so well that I was afterwards told that one lady had had thirteen cups of tea out of them and looked like wanting more.
    The attitude of our Methodist friend towards the Roman Catholics unexpectedly assumed some importance at home. My father's youngest brother had been ordained a priest and then held the post of chaplain to the Roman Catholic portion of Kensal Green Cemetery, where, after many years' [-220-] faithful ministry, he now lies amongst those he had helped to lay to rest. But rather Richard Bennett was still affectionately remembered in the neighbourhood when I lived at Stonebridge Park in the 1890s, and perhaps is to this day. Although disagreeing with his views, I cannot imagine him otherwise than an entirely good, earnest, modest and well- meaning man, who would have wrought harm or injustice on no account whatever.
    Naturally he would have liked to have made proselytes of us, and no doubt with that idea, obtained father's permission to give or lend his elder boys a few Roman Catholic books for perusal and consideration. This resulted in the receipt of two small volumes, one of which dealt exclusively with cases of the marks of the passion becoming miraculously imprinted on the hands, feet and sides of extra-devout Catholics, chiefly young girls, and all foreigners of sorts. This I found very interesting, for such a phenomenon was new to me. There was a picture of a child kneeling on a bed in an attitude that not even a professor of athletics could have maintained for many minutes, her wrists and ankles exhibiting gashes that evidently groaned aloud for balsam and sticking-plaster. With joined hands she was looking ecstatically at nothing. The text gave particulars of several cases, perhaps eight or ten, with names and dates and places. Nevertheless, having read of the Cock Lane ghost and how the great, sober-headed lexicographer, Dr. Johnson, had been fooled by a little girl, I decided that the stories might either be entirely fictitious or the wounds have been simulated for profit (for pilgrims, it was stated, came from all parts to visit the beatific damsels and of course left offerings) to the deception of innocent priests, like my Uncle Richard. I don't think the hysteria theory had been broached in those days to account for happenings of this nature. The book did not convert me.
    We also made the acquaintance of one of the priests at the Church of our Lady, Croom's Hill, and even attended the services there twice or thrice, finding, from the literature provided, that there was a St. Benet in the Calendar, a family honour hitherto unsuspected, for I had not then come [-221-] across St. Benet's in Leadenhall Street. And I once witnessed a baptism, long-drawn-out, with much Latin and anointing.
    Many years later, in 1909, a similar baptism intervened to thwart a project I bad formed. This was at Santos in Brazil. Some months previously I had been in the chief church in the grand square there and had particularly noticed something which I imagine would have greatly astonished my good uncle. On a wall was a box and on its right a wire basket with sundry small slips of blank paper and a pencil attached by a string. Alongside was a printed notice and list, in Portuguese, of course, but, as I knew Spanish, fully understandable. It invited persons having relatives or friends in, or suspected of being in, purgatory, to write the name of the delinquent and the sin from which they would like him absolved on one of the slips of paper and drop it in the box, together with the sum noted against the transgression in the price-list below. Then, it was said, the sin would be struck out from his account and delivery from purgatory hastened. The catalogue enumerated most sins to which poor humanity is liable, to the number of, perhaps, one hundred, each with its price in milreis marked against it. So, I suppose, a well-disposed person with plenty of cash could get a friend out of limbo and into paradise in a minute or two, simply by writing all the sins on slips of paper, adding up the column of milreis and dropping the lot into the box. Eminently practical!
    Passing that way from up-country some months later I determined to make a detour by the Grand Plaza on my road from the railway-station to the Royal Mail steamer for Southampton, and take one or two photographs of the box, basket and catalogue. I got to the church and had my camera out, when, to my disgust, a priest and two acolytes advanced up the side-aisle, while three women, a man and a baby met them from the opposite direction. They stopped exactly in front of, and close to, the box and the priest commenced the baptismal service, the group completely hiding my objectives. I had only a few minutes to spare, so, rather than miss my ship, decided to forgo the snaps. I [-222-] remembered the prolonged ceremony at Greenwich. It was a pity, for there are Roman Catholics here in England who treat the matter as a joke. But it is the simple truth. Of course Santos is not London, but the Roman Church, being one and indivisible, purgatory prescriptions good in one place ought to answer equally well in the other.
    Shortly after our transfer to Greenwich we read of an incident that I never forgot and came to be forcibly reminded of in later years. A little screw-steamer called Maid of the Mist, which took tourists at Niagara to almost within touching distance of the American Fall, was about to be arrested for debt, when the proprietor and skipper determined to make a dash for British territory and escape the Sheriff. So, when that officer approached with his myrmidons, she shoved off the landing-stage, turned her nose down-stream, and, to everybody's horror, entered the rapids and whirlpools. She was several times apparently submerged and lost her funnel, but got safely through to Lake Ontario with the stars and stripes, for which, however, her people clearly had no further use, fluttering over the stern.
    In 1898 I visited Niagara - which I was there told ought to be pronounced Nia-gara-and lo! there was a Maid of the Mist, stars and stripes and all, plying to within a few feet of the mighty cascade. The crew were quite willing to let you imagine that she was the identical heroine of 1861, but I learnt that she was probably the third of the name and occupation.
    On March 21st, 1861, our old friend Big Ben caused much amazement and some consternation by striking twenty at 3 o'clock in the morning. Of course we did not hear it, but of it we did. The papers recalled that it had long been a tradition that anything going wrong with Great Paul meant calamity for the Royal Family. Big Ben having succeeded to the crown of metropolitan bells, such a lapse on his part might more or less reasonably be held to mean something - and had not the Duchess of Kent, mother of Queen Victoria, died on the 16th, only five days before? The two occurrences certainly seemed somewhat out of order, but - there was the fact.
    [-223-] Towards the end of the year two events commanded universal attention - the death of the Prince Consort and the dreadful disaster at Hartley's Colliery, involving the lives of several hundred men. "Albert the Good" was much talked of and great pity expressed for the Queen. I remember that the British Workman, a 1d. weekly periodical which always had a well-drawn full-page engraving - sometimes by Gilbert, R.A. - illustrated both occurrences very effectively. For the Hartley Colliery victims there were collections and subscriptions, even down to the schoolchildren. And a Mansion House Fund was started, an institution of which no other nation possessed then, nor for many years afterwards, a parallel. Wherever, in any part of the world, disaster happened, a Mansion House Fund was Britain's prompt specific. Instead of the usual charity begins at home, foreigners might more truthfully have said, "Charity begins in London."
    At my Christmas school examinations this year, it may be interesting, in view of certain modern developments, to mention that our history book, in dealing with the reign of James I, rather emphasised that monarch's thrifty conduct in selling baronetcies; and that our good master, Mr. Turner, took the occasion to express his horror of such baseness and to opine that by no possibility could practices of that kind obtain in our own times (!).