Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter IX - Tea and Experience

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    I was walking the other day in one of the pleasant  western suburbs, and rashly sought a short cut back ;  when, as is generally the case, I found that the longer  would have been much the nearer way home. Before  I knew it, I was involved in the labyrinths of that  region, sacred to washerwomen and kindred spirits,  known as Kensal New Town; and my further progress  was barred by the intervention of the Paddington  Canal, which is spanned at rare intervals in  this locality by pay-bridges, to the great discomfort of  the often impecunious natives. There was not even  one of these at hand, or my halfpenny would have  been paid under protest; so I had to wander like a  lost sprite among the network of semi-genteel streets  that skirt that most ungenteel thoroughfare, the  Kensal New Town Road, and forthwith I began to  find the neighbourhood papered with placards, announcing  a " Tea and Experience Meeting" at a local hall, under the presidency of the Free Church pastor, for the following Monday evening. Bakers' shops  bristled with the handbills, and they studded the multitudinous  pork butchers' windows in juxtaposition with [-74-] cruel-looking black puddings and over-fat loin chops. I determined I would go, if not to the tea, certainly to the " Experience," for I like novel experiences of  all kinds: and this would certainly be new, whether  edifying or not.
    I got at length out of the labyrinth, and on the following  Monday ventured once more within its mazes,  though not exactly at six o'clock, which was the hour  appointed for the preliminary experience of tea. I  had experienced that kind of thing once or twice  before, and never found myself in a position of such  difficulty as on those occasions. In the first place I  do not care about tea, when it is good ; but loathe it  when boiled in a washhouse copper, and poured out  from a large tin can, of which it tastes unpleasantly.  But, then again, the quantity as well as the quality  of the viands to be consumed was literally too much  for me. I might have managed one cup of decidedly  nasty tea, or what passes muster for such, but not  four or five, which I found to be the minimum. I  could stomach, or secretly dispose of in my pockets, a  single slice of leaden cake or oleaginous bread-and-butter  ; but I could not do this with multitudinous  slabs of either. I never went to more than one tea-meeting  where I felt at home, and that was at the Soirée  Suisse, which takes place annually in London, where  pretty Helvetian damsels brew the most fragrant  coffee and hand round delicious little cakes, arrayed  as they are in their killing national costume and chat-[-75-]tering in a dozen different patois. I had a notion that  tea at Kensal New Town would be very much less  eligible, so I stopped away. Perhaps I was prejudiced.  The tea might have been different from what I expected.  The experiences certainly were.
    I got there about half-past seven, having allowed  an interval of an hour and a half, which I thought  would be sufficient for the most inveterate tea-drinker,  even among the Kensal Town laundresses, should such  happen to be present. I took the precaution,  however, of bespeaking a lad of fifteen to accompany  me, in case any of the fragments of the feast should  yet have to be disposed of, since I knew his powers to  equal those of the ostrich in stowing away eatables,  especially in the lumpy cake line. Arrived at the  hall, however, I found no symptoms of the tea save  a steamy sort of smell and the rattle of the retreating  cups and saucers. Whether "to my spirit's gain or  loss," I had escaped the banquet and yet got in good  time for the subsequent experiences.
    A motherly-looking woman stood at the door, and  gave me a cheery invitation to come in. She looked  rather askance at my boy, but finding him properly  convoyed by my sober self, she admitted him within  the portal. A good many young gentlemen of a  similar age were evidently excluded, and were regaling  themselves with pagan sports outside. The hall was  partially filled with respectable-looking mechanics,  their wives, and families, there being more wives than [-76-] mechanics, and more families than either. Children  abounded, especially babies in every stage of infantile  development. Many were taking their maternal tea ;  and the boys and girls were got up in the most festive  attire, the boys particularly shining with yellow soap.  Most of the mammas wore perky hats, and many had  follow-me-lads down the back, but all were exceedingly  well-dressed and well-behaved, though evidently  brimful of hilarity as well as cake and tea.
    At the end of the hall was the inevitable platform,  with chairs and a large cushion spread over the front  rail for convenience of praying ; since the " experiences"  were to be interspersed with sacred song and  prayer. Two gentlemen - I use the term advisedly - mounted  the rostrum, one a long-bearded, middle-aged  man, in a frock coat, who was the pastor, and  another an aged minister, superannuated, as I afterwards  discovered, and not altogether happy in his  worldly lot. He was very old, grey-haired, and  feeble, with a worn snit of clerical black, and a  voluminous white tie. He sat humbly, almost  despondingly, by the side of his younger brother in  the ministry, while the latter delivered a merry little  opening address, hoping all had made a good tea; if  not, there was still about half a can left. Nobody  wanted any more; so they had a hymn from the  "Sacred Songster," a copy of which volume I purchased  in the hall for twopence halfpenny. The tune  was a martial one, well sung by a choir of men and [-77-] women to the accompaniment of a harmonium, and  bravely borne part in, you may depend upon it, by the  whole  assembly, I verily believe, except the babies,  and one or two of these put in a note sometimes.  The hymn was called, "Oh, we are Volunteers!" and  was very Church-militant indeed, beginning thus :-

    Oh, we are volunteers in the army of the Lord,
    Forming into line at our Captain's word;
    We are under marching orders to take the battle-field,
    And we'll ne'er give o'er the fight till the foe shall yield.
    Then came the chorus, repeated after every verse :-
    Come and join the army, the army of the Lo rd,
    Jesus is our Captain, we rally at His word :
    Sharp will be the conflict with the powers of sin,
    But with such a leader we are sure to win.

    The poor old minister offered up a short prayer. The pastor read the 1st Corinthians, chapter 13, and explained briefly what charity meant there; adding that this gathering was very like one of the Agapae of the early Christians - a remark I had not expected to hear in that assembly. Then there was another hymn, " Beautiful Land of Rest," when it did one good to hear the unction with which the second syllable of the refrain was given :-

    Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
    Beautiful land of rest.

    After this the "Experiences" commenced in real  earnest. Brothers and Sisters were exhorted to lay  aside shyness and mount the platform. Of course no  one would do so at first; and the poor shaky old  minister had to come to the rescue.
    [-78-] He told us, at rather too great length, the simple  story of his life - how he was a farmer's son, and had  several brothers "besides himself." He had to learn  verses of the Bible for his father, which used to go  against the grain, until at last, instead of being "a  wicked boy," he took up religion on his own account.  He began to be afraid that, if he died, he should go  to "a bad place," and therefore started saying his  prayers. His brother George used to push him over  when he was praying half-dressed in the bedroom, or  occasionally vary proceedings by stirring him up with  a sweeping brush. At last he found out a quiet place  under a haystack, and there retired to pray. The  old man drew a perfect picture of the first prayer thus  offered, and told us he could remember every little  detail of the spot, and the great oak tree spreading  its branches over it. "Here I am," he said, "a poor  old pilgrim on the bright side of seventy now, and  yet I can remember it all. I say the 'bright' side, for  I know it is a bright home I am soon going to." Then  he told us how God took his wife from him and all  his worldly goods, and he was quite eloquent about  the comfort his religion was to him now as he went  to his little lonely lodging. He drew next too  truthful a picture of the state of things he saw  around him in Kensal New Town - mothers with  infants in their arms crowding the tavern doors ; and  finished up with a story, of which he did not see the  irrelevancy, about a fine lady going to the "theatre," [-79-] and saying how much she had enjoyed the anticipation,  then the play itself, and, lastly, the thought  of it afterwards. She was overheard by a faithful  pastor, who told her she had omitted one detail.  "No," she said, " I have told you all." "You have  told us how you enjoyed the thought, of the theatre,  and the performance, and the recollection of it afterwards;  but you have not told us how you will enjoy the thoughts of it on your death-bed." Of course the "fine lady" was converted on the spot, as  they always are in tracts; and the good old fellow  brought his long-winded narrative of experiences to  an end by-and-by, the pastor having omitted to pull  his coat-tails, as he promised to do if any speaker  exceeded the allotted time. "The people were certainly  very attentive to hear him," and one man next  my boy expressed his satisfaction by letting off little  groans, like minute guns, at frequent intervals.  Then another hymn was sung, "The Beautiful Land  on High," which, by the way, is a favourite with the  spiritualists at their " Face Séances." I half expected  to see a ghostly-looking visage peep out of  some corner cupboard, as I had often done with my  spiritual friends - that being another experience which  I cultivate with considerable interest and curiosity.  The hymn being over, a black-bearded, but soft-voiced  man, in a velveteen coat, got upon the platform, and  told us how the chief delight of his life was at one  time making dogs fight. When the animals were not [-80-] sufficiently pugnacious of themselves, his habit was  to construct an apparatus, consisting of a pin at the  end of a stick, and so urge them to the combat, until  it proved fatal to one of them. It was, he said,  dreadful work; and he now considered it the direct  machination of Satan. Another favourite pursuit was  interrupting the proceedings of open-air missionaries.  One day after he had done so, he went home with a  companion who had taken a tract from one of the  missionaries. He had a quarrel with his "missis."  "Not that missis sittin' there," he said, alluding to a  smart lady in front, "but my first missis." In order  to show his sulks against his missis, he took to  reading the tract, and it soon made him cry. Then  he went to chapel and heard a sermon on Lot's wife  being turned into a pillar of salt. He was a little  exercised by this, and saw the minister in the vestry,  but soon fell back into bad habits again, singing  canaries for 10s. 6d. a side. As he was taking his  bird out one Sunday morning, the bottom of the cage  came out, and the canary escaped. This he looked  upon as "God's work," since it caused him to go to  chapel that morning. His conversion soon followed,  and he applied to that circumstance, in a very apposite  manner, the Parable of the Prodigal, concluding  with a stanza from the well-known hymn-

    God moves in a mysterious way
    His wonders to perform.

    Another moustached man followed. He was ex-[-81-]ceedingly well-dressed, though he told us he was only a common labourer. He had long given up his " 'art" to God, but to little purpose until he came to this chapel. " But there," he said, "down in that corner  under the gas-lamp, I prayed for the first time. I  prayed that God would take away my stony 'art and  give me a 'art of flesh, and renew a right sperrit  within me." From that time he led a new life. His  fellow-workmen began to sneer at the change, and  said ironically they should take to going to chapel  too. "I wish to God you would," was his reply. He  described the personal influence of the pastor upon him,  which strengthened the good resolutions he had formed,  and enabled him to say, "I will not let Thee go."
    I could not help thinking, as I listened to the  simple, earnest words of the speaker, that here was an  element the National Church is too apt to ignore.  The Roman Catholic Church would seize hold upon  that man, and put him in a working men's guild or  confraternity. The Free Church found him work to  do, and gave him a chief seat in the synagogue, and  an opportunity of airing his "experiences" on a platform.  Surely better either one or the other, than  sotting his life at a public-house, or turning tap-room  orator. He ended by crying shame upon himself for  having put off the change until so late in life, and  added a wish that all the labouring classes could see,  as he had been brought to see, where their chief interest  as well as happiness lay.
    [-82-] A tall man from the choir followed, and was considerably  more self-possessed than the other two  speakers. He told us at the outset that he had been  " a Christian" for fourteen years. It was generally  laid down as a rule, he said, that big men were good-tempered.  He was not a small man; but until he  gave his heart to God he was never good-tempered.  He had, for thirty-two years, been brought up in the  Church of England, but had found no conversion  there. He had no wish to speak against the Church,  but such was the case. He wandered about a good  deal in those years, from Roman Catholic to Old  Methodist chapels; but the latter settled him. He  was attending a class meeting in Kensal New Town  one night, and suddenly a determination came over  him that he would not sleep that night until he had  kneeled down and prayed with his wife, though it  would be the first time he had done so for thirty-two  years. When it came to bedtime his courage failed  him. He could not get into bed; and he did not  like to tell his wife why. "That," he said, "was the  devil worritin' me." His wife said, "I know what's  the matter with you. You want to pray. We will  see what we can do." His wife, he told us, was "unconverted,"  but still she "throwed open the door" on  that occasion. He never knew happiness, he said,  until he came to Jesus ; and he added, "Oh, I do  love my Jesus." He often talked to his fellow-workmen  about the state of their souls, and they asked  [-83-] him how it was he was so certain of being converted (a question I fancy others than they would like to  have solved), and he answered them, "I feel it. I  was uncomfortable before; and now I am happy. I  don't wonder so much at the old martyrs going  boldly up to the stake, because I feel I could do anything  rather than give up my Jesus."
    Hereupon the pastor, anticipating the departure of  some of the assembly-for the clock was pointing to  ten - announced a Temperance Meeting for the following  Monday, and also said he should like the congregation  to get up these meeting's entirely on their  own account, without any "clerical" element at all,  and to make the Tea Meeting a " Free and Easy" in  the best sense of the word.
    I went - shall I confess it? - to the experience  meeting rather inclined to scoff, and I stopped, if not  altogether to pray, at least to think very seriously of  the value of the instrumentality thus brought to bear  on such intractable material as the Kensal New Town  population. The more cumbrous, even if more perfect  or polished, machinery of the Established Church  has notoriously failed for a long time to affect such  raw material; and if it is beginning to succeed it is  really by "taking a leaf out of the book" of such  pastors as the one whose Tea-and-Experience Meeting  I had attended. "Palmam qui meruit ferat."
    Stiggins element, I must, in all justice, say there  was none. The pastor was a simple but a refined and [-84-] gentlemanly man ; so was the poor broken old minister.  There was no symptom of raving or rant; no  vulgarity or bad taste. A gathering at a deanery or  an episcopal palace could not have been more decorous,  and I doubt if the hymns would have been sung  as heartily. There was as little clerical starch as  there was of the opposite element. Rubbing off the  angles of character was one of the objects actually  proposed by the pastor as the result of these gatherings  ; and I really felt as though a corner or two had  gone out of my constitution. If a man is disposed to  be priggish, or a lady exclusive, in religious matters,  I would recommend the one or the other to avail  themselves of the next opportunity to attend a Tea-and-  Experience Meeting at Kensal New Town.

source: Charles Maurice Davies, Mystic London, 1875