Non-denominational missions

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Strangers' Rest Mission,131 The Highway (1877- )

The Strangers' Rest can trace its history, as a seamens' mission, back to 1877, when Miss Rosetta Child and Miss Macpherson set up a temperance house in Ratcliff Highway, with the support of Reginald Radcliffe who had opened a similar house in Liverpool. They fearlessly scoured the local pubs inviting sailors of various nationalities to come to their bible and prayer meetings, and to sign the pledge. Preachers were found for the various languages; help was given in letter-writing and other practical taks; there was a harmonium in every room. Soon they opened a temperance coffee and lodging house nearby, the Sailors' Welcome Home.

R.M. Ballantyne's 1884 novel Dusty Diamonds Cut and Polished, about street life and child rescue agencies, includes this passage
Possibly you have heard of the Strangers' Rest, in Saint George Street, Ratcliff Highway, where, as far as man can judge, great and permanent good is being constantly done to the souls of sailors. A sailor once entered this 'Rest' considerably the worse for drink. He was spoken to by Christian friends, and asked to sign the pledge. He did so, and has now been steadfast for years. Returning from a long voyage lately, he went to visit the Rest, and there, at the Bible-class, prayed. Part of his prayer was -
God bless the Strangers' Rest
O Lord, we thank Thee for this place, and we shall thank Thee to all eternity.
This is a sample of the feeling with which the place is regarded by those who have received blessing there. In the same street, only a few doors from this Rest, is the Sailors' Welcome Home. This is more of a home than the other, for it furnishes lodging and unintoxicating refreshment, while its devoted soul-loving manager, Miss Child, and her assistant workers, go fearlessly into the very dens of iniquity, and do all they can to bring sailors to Jesus, and induce them to take the pledge against strong drink, in which work they are, through God's blessing, wonderfully successful. These two missions work, as it were, into each other's hands. In the 'Rest' are held prayer-meetings and Bible-classes, and then these are dismissed, the sailors find the open door of the Welcome Home ready to receive them, and the inmantes there seek to deepen the good influence that has been brought to bear at the meetings - and this in the midst of one of the very worst parts of London, where temptation to every species of evil is rampant, on the right-hand and on the left, before and behind....

Another contemporary account comes from the autobiography of Wilfred Thomason Grenfell KCMG (1865-1940) who became famous as a medical missionary in Newfoundland and Labrador:
My Sunday-School efforts did not satisfy me. The boys were few, and I failed to see any progress. But I had resolved that I would do no work on Sundays except for others, so I joined a young Australian of my class in hospital in holding services on Sunday nights in half a dozen of the underground lodging-houses along the Radcliffe Highway. He was a good musician, so he purchased a fine little portable harmonium, and whatever else the lodgers thought of us, they always liked the music.

We used to meet for evening tea at a place in the famous Highway known as The Stranger's Rest, outside of which an open-air service was always held for the sailors wandering up and down the docks. At these a number of ladies would sing; and after the meetings a certain number of the sailors were asked to come in and have refreshments. There were always some who had spent their money on drink, or been robbed, or were out of ships, and many of them were very fine men. Some were foreigners — so much so that a bit farther down the road a Norwegian lady carried on another similar work, especially for Scandinavians.

The Strangers' Rest continues, operating under a Trust Deed of 1917. It was rebuilt on the existing site after wartime bomb damage. The Revd George Daley is its resident minister. His predecessor, until 1994, was Richard Mayhew, who had worked in India, particularly involved in training pastors, and subsequently developed an interest in using internet resources. It is affiliated to the Federation of Independent Evangelical Churches.

Bridge of Hope Mission & Ratcliff Highway Refuge

The moving force in this work among women and vulnerable girls in the area was Miss Mary H. Steer [left] who was inspired by Ellice Hopkins (1836-1904) to live and work here, coming in 1879. As she later wrote, in  a paper on Rescue Work by Women among Women in a collection edited by Baroness Burdett-Coutts [p149], without this merging of our lives into theirs, and a serious and practical study of the world in which these poor degraded ones live, we shall never make the headway we desire in saving that are called the 'lapsed classes' ... casual visiting among the poor is so often of such little avail in spite of well-meaning efforts. She was assisted in the early years by Miss Allen, an archdeacon's daughter, until she went as a missionary to Japan but died there within a few years. She was always clear that her work was 'Christian but undenominational'.

Contacts were made through 'the doubles' - lodging-houses providing double rooms with no questions asked. Miss Steer would ask them round for tea; when they
objected we've got our knitting to do - this was how many earned some money - she told them to bring it with them. After tea, we would talk on all manner of subjects, and I would do by best to amuse and interest my audience - bringing in gradually a few words of advice and simple friendliness, letting them feel that a friend, who would be a friend in need, was living in their midst, whose only desire was to help them in their weary lives, and to aid them to mount to something higher. A little prayer, a little reading, were got in by degreees, and so with patience and constant gentle pushing this difficult pioneer work, with is always the hardest, progressed. A house in Prince's Square, accommodating six women, was acquired, and in 1884 three houses in Betts Street (the former Sugar Loaf pub and two adjacent properties: the former dancing saloon at the rear was transformed into our bright little mission hall). Betts Street (named after Captain Cook's wife) was regarded as one of the most vicious streets in the area, at the heart of Tiger Bay; as she commented, Betts Street when we first began contained 35 houses of the worst possible reupte, and it was certainly not a safe throroughfare long after three o'clock in the afternoon. Before that hour its inhabitants were for the most part asleep.

In 1888 a new Refuge and Night Shelter was opened in Betts Street [right] at a cost of £4,000 by Adeline, Marchioness of Tavistock (later the Duchess of Bedford), who was a keen supporter of her work. The night shelter catered for destitute women, and was able to accommodate 18 women. The team also conducted 'rescue work among fallen women', and 'preventive' [sic] work with girls. They established a servants' lodge (accommodating nine) for girls out of place who have passed through the home (room for 9), and a mother and baby home (for seven mothers), both in Wlathamstow - both financed by two ladies. In due course there were five children's homes, in outer London, to which referrals could me made. And they had 'industrial branches', teaching needle-work, dressmaking and knitting (including machine knitting).

Bishop Walsham How, the Bishop of Bedford (the Church of England's first 'bishop for East London'), gave an upbeat address at the opening of the shelter. According to a press report,

He hoped no one would think, because of the recent outrages [the Jack the Ripper murders], that matters were worse than they were some time ago. He could speak of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, and he did not hesitate to say the condition of things there was very much better than it was ten years ago. He would tell them what made it much worse than it was, what undid a great deal of good work that had been done and was being done - that was an enormous influx of inexperienced workers, who came down to the East End, stood in the way of those who knew the work, and were doing it to the best of their ability, wasted a great deal of money, dried up the springs of charity, and then, because they did not succeed, as most surely they would not succeed, discredited all such enterprise before those who must be looked to for material assistance. He hoped to see the day when every district in the East end would have some such institution as this connected with it, because by means of such agencies they would be able to do a great deal for the rescue of the lost.

Later in 1888, on 8 October, Mary Steer wrote to The Times:
My attention has just been called to Mr. Walter Hazell's letter in Saturday's issue of The Times.

Nine years ago I came to live in Ratcliff Highway with the simple determination to find out how best to help that class of poor, miserable women whose mode of living has been so prominently brought forward by the horrible events of the past few weeks. During all this time I have been able to keep an open door for them, and with my fellow helpers have been learning, as we could only learn by experience, how most wisely and effectively to help those who come to us. The work has been very quietly carried on, but our houses have always been full to overflowing, and while hundreds of young girls and children have been rescued from the most dangerous surroundings, trained as little servants, emigrated to the colonies, and in other ways given a fair start in life, still many more from among the fallen have found our home a "bridge of hope" by which they have passed on to better things.

The revelation of existence in Whitechapel lodging houses and in the streets of our great city must not simply evoke words of commiseration or be allowed to die out as a nine days' wonder, but must surely result in very practical measures being adopted for permanently benefitting those at least who are willing to be helped. Hundreds of women in this sad East end lead their degraded lives of sin for daily bread, or to secure a night's shelter in a fourpenny lodging house, a fact of which none can now plead ignorance, for the horrors of a few weeks (to our shame as a nation be it said) have brought out in awful relief the conditions under which so many of our fellow creatures exist, and which, though told persistently and without exaggeration by East end workers, have made but little impression.

Finding that the missing link in the work in Ratcliff Highway was a night shelter, we have, during the past year, built one as a wing to our new refuge, and this will be opened on the 30th inst. by the Bishop of Bedford, although circumstances have compelled us already to give shelter in it to many who needed immediate help. Night shelters, answering only the purposes of a casual ward, may be the means of as much harm as good, but, managed with judicious discrimination and constant personal supervision, I believe that our "bridge of hope" night shelter will be an effectual means of helping not only those who have fallen but of saving very many friendless young girls from utter despair, when they come to their last resources. At this moment the strain of the work is very great. While people are devising, and very rightly so, how best to organise new methods and larger schemes, it sometimes appears that those who have been plodding on in the midst of the misery, and who have to bear the brunt of sudden emergencies, are apt to be forgotten, and however unwillingly we do so, it seems right to call attention to our present need of financial help. We are always thankful to see visitors, or to send reports if desired.

Apologising for taking up so much of your valuable space, I am, Sir, yours faithfully,
Mary H. Steer, Hon. Supt., Ratcliff Highway Refuge, St. George's in the East, London, E.

In the paper mentioned above, she gave some statistics:

Rescue cases
Preventive cases
Night shelter





6072 [new premises]

Call them knocked down women if you will, but not fallen, said one of her supporters, and this was the approach. Mary Steer was clearly a force to be reckoned with! In 1912 she wrote Opals from Sand: a Story of the Early Days at the Bridge of Hope (with a preface by the Duchess of Bedford) which gives a full account of the history of her work, including chapters on 'Feeble-minded and Backward Children' and 'Girl Mothers'. Harry Jones, the Rector of St George-in-the-East 1873-82, was a firm friend: he was one of the first visitors to call when she moved into the area, lent her books from his library and often invited her to lunch to meet interesting visitors. He said he had longed to organise 'rescue work' but did not know where to start. (This seems disingenuous, for St Matthew Pell Street was already involved with the Midnight Meeting Movement.) He served as chairman of the committee even when he left the parish, and always sent her his Easter offering. The girls from the refuge attended St George's on Sundays. In 1893 a 17-year old girl from the Mission, born at Great Chart near Ashford of an unknown father, was baptized at St George's. See also Henry Walker East London: Sketches of Christian Work and Workers (Religious Tract Society 1896).

Mariners' Friends Society

The Mariners' Friend Society was established in 1848, for promoting the welfare of Seamen, Fishermen and the Mercantile Marine, and Evangelistic work among the Sailors. Its head office was at 19 Old Gravel [now Wapping] Lane, with a city office at Lime Street and, according to this appeal in the 1918 Debrett, branches at Tilbury and West India Docks, Hull and Manchester.

Its President was George Joseph Williamson FSA; a fisherman's son, born in Rochester in 1816 and educated at a charity school, he had worked as an errand boy for a milliner and dressmaker, then went to sea with his father - they fished out of Ramsgate on his own boat. Converted to Wesleyan Methodism by his wife, he became a Sunday School teacher and tract distributor, holding meetings on his vessel. He assisted the Duke of Northumberland in breeding oysters at Alnwick. His collection of religious verse The Ship's Career, & Other Poems was published in 1870 and went through several editions.

The Revd Thomas Rose Couch [right]  was born in Jubilee Street, Stepney in 1853 and the superintendent chaplain of the Society for over 50 years until his death at Bank House, 210 Commercial Road in 1921. His father Enos was also a minister; previous generations were west country shipwrights. He married Clara (Fanny) Geldard [left] at St Mary Cable Street in 1877 - the rest of her family had emigrated to Texas. She was an amateur operatic singer. By the time of his death he was living with their daughter Ida Ethel Maud. Their other children were Una Marion Pierce (who lived to 100), Stanley and Pierce Herbert Frank, the last of whom emigrated to New Zealand in 1920.  Una's husband Frank Woods, managing director of a City firm, was the sole executor of Couch's will, which oddly described as a shipbroker living at 36 Lime Street; he left £434 4s 6d. A memorial plaque has recently been found, and an appropriate home is being sought for it.  The Booth archive contains an 1989 interview with Couch, and a token for a free breakfast at the Seamen's Bethel!

See here for the 'undenominational' Seamen's Christian Friend Society chapel on St George's Street [now The Highway] by Well Street, opposite the Docks entrance.

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