All the Year Round 1 October 1859


This is our Eye-witness's report of a visit to St. George's-in-the-East.

'No Popery', written in large characters by some enthusiastic worshipper upon the woodwork of the first pew which the E.W. was shown into.

'No Popery' on all the blank walls in the neighbourhood of the church; also handbills inviting householders to meet in vestry rooms and talk; handbills inviting young men, apparentlv not householders, to meet in school-rooms and talk.

More handbills — red handbills, green handbills, prismatic handbills — handbills inviting the offending clergy to come and be argued with on platforms, handbills imploring anybody to come and argue anywhere, handbills challenging discussion, and some of a more truculent kind still, informing the local public that their liberties were in danger, and suggesting that they should take the matter into their own hands: in short, there were addresses in every imaginable form and of every conceivable colour: invitations full of rich argumentative promise, showing that the whole neighbourhood was reeking with eloquence and wisdom, and that any amateur of these qualities would do well to frequent the purlieus of St. George's-in-the-East.

But where is St. George's-in-the-East? How is it approached? What sort of a building is the church to look at?

St. George's-in-the-East is in the east, with a vengeance, and very much more towards that point of the compass than the Eye-witness had at all bargained for. He had found, by reference to the Post-office Directory, that this Temple of Discord was in Cannon-street, and, determined to be in good time, he entered that imposing thoroughfare at half-past ten on a fine September Sunday morning. After investigating all the churches that lay in little back courts on each side of the street; after peeping into some of them, and finding them perfectly empty; after rendering certain aged pew-openers (who took him for the congregation) mad with joy by his appearance, and then plunging them into despair by his withdrawal; after wondering at the perversity which hinders the removal of these useless buildings to other sites where they are so much wanted; — after these things, the Eyewitness found himself at the eastern end of Cannon-street without having made the discovery he was bent upon, and quite at sea as to where to look next for St. George's-in-the-East.

It is best to ask a policeman in these cases. The officer to whom the Eye-witness applied for advice turned instinctively upon his solid heels towards the east, and waving his hand in that direction, after the manner of one who was requesting the metropolis generally to move on, intimated that he did not know exactly where the church was situated, but that it was somewhere in the neighbourhood of Tower Hill.

To the east did the next policeman turn. The Eye-witness consulted him when he had got to the Tower. 'St. George's-in-the-Heast', he said, 'was close to Ratcliff-'ighway'. 'And Ratcliff-highway?' inquired the Eye-witness. The policeman pointed to the east.

When the Eye-witness had consulted one more member of our constabulary, and had found him to know nothing about the subject at all, he became weary of the force, and determined to apply next to a civilian; so, seeing a baker standing at the open door of his shop, waiting for the neighbourhood's Sunday dinners, the E. W. approached him and asked the old question once more in a low voice, for ho was ashamed of it. The baker was deaf, and the Eye-witness had to repeat his inquiry at the top ot his voice three times, before he got an answer. The little boys who accumulated at the rate of four to each repetition of the demand, amounted to quite a train as they followed the E. W. during the rest of his journey, which was, happily, not a much longer one, though still to the east.

To the credit of the Post-office Directory, let it be said that the church of St. George is in Cannon-street after all; not, indeed in the well-known thoroughfare of that name, but in one in the immediate neighbourhood of the Thames Tunnel. The building itself is set back from the street a considerable distance. It is approached by a flight of steps, and is a large and melancholy edifice of about the period of Sir Christopher Wren, with a high tower surrounded by eight flat pilasters, on the summit of each of which is a dwarf column with festoons around its capital, and forming as ugly a top to a tower as you will find anywhere. There were few people standing about outside the church, and, to the writer's surprise, but a very small congregation when he got within it.

Just as your Eye-witness takes off his hat on entering a sacred building, so now, as he speaks briefly of what took place inside the church of St. George's-in-the-East, he desires to lay aside any such lightness of expression as might even seem to savour of irreverence. And, indeed, he saw (though not at first) much that shocked and disgusted liim, and not more of the ludicrous than mixes inevitably with all that is gravest and saddest in the world.

So much has been written in description of the services as carried on at St. George's, that it is unnecessary to say more than, that there seemed little difference between the manner of their celebration there, and that adopted at the principal High Church places of worship at the more western extremity of the metropolis. The officiating clergyman had so arranged his Master of Arts hood as to show more perhaps of the red lining than ordinarily appears, and there was a more frequent turning to the cast than would be found at St. Barnabas or the church in Wells-street. The attempts at decoration of the chancel and communion-table were poor and paltry in the extreme.

Throughout the morning service the conduct of the very small congregation was perfectly orderly, and no allusion whatever was made in the sermon to the subject which was doubtless in everybody's mind. The Eye-witness left the building, supposing that the riots at St. George's-in-the-East were at an end.

Having made up his mind to do what he did thoroughly, the Eye-witness had resolved to "stand off and on" at his post all day. He had plenty of leisure now before the afternoon lecture to examine the neighbourhood in which he found himself, and with which he (as is probably the case with the reader) was little familiar.

A wonderful neighbourhood — fishy, tarry, inexpressibly dirty, and so nautical that the very weathercock upon its principal church partook of the spirit of the place and represented a frigate under full sail, with a union jack to show the quarter of the wind.

A wonderful neighbourhood, to be sure. You hardly know that you are in London at all as you walk through the streets. Many of the shops kept bv Jews are open though it is Sunday, the Jews and Jewesses sitting at the open doors, fat, cheerful, affectionate, and jewelled. It is a neighbourhood perfectly nautical in all its habits. It is decidedly a low neighbourhood, but redeemed from being of the lowest by that very nautical element. Let the reader compare Ratcliff-highway with the New Cut, Lambeth, and he will understand this. It is a neighbourhood of canvas trousers, and sou'-wester hats, of sextants and the boxing of compasses. It abounds, too, in negroes, gay in their clothing, and more gay in their countenances. It abounds in American skippers with iron and lantern jaws, thin and tough and tawny. It abounds in mysterious seamen, too, who wear black satin waistcoats and have worked fronts to their shirts and ear-rings in their ears, There are herrings, too, in this region, and life belts, and block-makers' warehouses, and awful idvertisements published by the Trinity House concerning wrecks, and buoys, and light-ships in remote and lonely places far away at sea. Cranes, too, and bales of goods such as are brought in in pantomimes, and, being slapped, turn to other things. The bales of goods are not swinging from the cranes, because it is Sunday, but one catches sight of them through open warehouse doors, and in passing great stores that smell of turmeric, and many other drugs and goodly spices.

Such was the neighbourhood through which the Eye-witness wandered, a not displeased observer of all these new and characteristic circumstances. It was in this neighbourhood that he partook of such a modest luncheon as might it him for the fatigues of the day, and all the items of which were flavoured with the herrings with which it has been already said (as with other salt fish) the native kites are fatted.

When the Eye-witness returned in the afternoon to the church of St. George's-in-the-East, there was a mob in the street in front of the church, a mob upon the steps, and such crowds in all the approaches to the interior of the building, and in the aisles and about the doors, that for a long time he was unable to form any notion of what was going on. Having at length, with great difficulty, got inside one of the entrances of the church, the Eye-witness found that the afternoon lecturer, put in by the Low Church party, was in the midst of his discourse, which was to be succeeded by that celebration of the Litany which had given so much offence to the parishioners ot St. George's.

At the conclusion of the lecture — and it is only fair to the preacher to say that he exhorted his hearers most earnestly to disperse quietly, and to leave the affair in the hands of the bishop — only a portion of the congregation left the building; by far the greater mass remaining behind, evidently with a hostile feeling towards the anticipated service. The conduct of many of these persons was, throughout, very unseemly. They talked in their ordinary tones. They crowded into the pews which commanded a good view of what was going on in numbers such as the seats were never intended to contain. They stood upon the benches, and they completely blocked up the aisles and the chancel of the church in front of the communion rails. Nor was this all. About twenty or five-and-twenty minutes having elapsed after the conclusion of the lecture, and the moment of the commencement of the Litany having arrived, the entrance of the clergyman was saluted by a storm of hissing and groaning very painful to hear anywhere; but especially so in a church. About this mob, too, there seemed to be something stupid. There they stood, contented with blocking up the place, but not stopping the service. There, too, they stood when the Litany was concluded, and while the organist, who appeared to have selected the longest and noisiest voluntary from his collection, endeavoured to play them out. They were not to be played out, however, and evidently seemed to think it excellent sport to stand there howling out words of their own to the tune played upon the organ.

Now surely it must be obvious to every one that such a state of things as this ought to be, under any circumstances, impossible. If, on the one hand, as is assuredly the case, a grave responsibility is on the shoulders of any person who can be so inconceivably and supernaturally weak as to offend and outrage a congregation among whom his ministrations might be useful, for the sake of paltry trifles, unimpressive and foolish in the last degree, and wholly without value — if it is monstrous in an educated man, as indeed it is, to persist in saying one sentence with his face to the east, and. another with his face to the west, and to twist his honest Master of Arts hood into the nearest attainable resemblance to the back view of a chasuble, when he knows he is giving offence to many persons, besides exposing his own fatuity — if these things are preposterous and childish, and even, under the circumstances, wicked, does the blame stop here?

Does none attach, in such a case, to the parish authorities? Ought these disgraceful scenes to be possible in a church under any conceivable circumstances? Is not this a case in which the police should act as they would in other buildings? Surely where there is plenty of room to sit down, and an abundance of empty pews, people have no right to fill the aisles and the chancel of the church, to their complete blocking up. Surely, when a pew is made to hold six persons, and twelve are found in it, half that number are subject to removal. Surely persons standing on benches in a church may be made to sit down, and those who hiss and groan and talk loudly may be taken out. If this question could not have been settled by a mere handful of policemen in plain clothes, then would it not have been right, until it is finally decided what form of worship shall be adopted in this unhappy church, and who shall be listened to and who not, that St. Gcorge's-in-the-East should be shut up, and so this scandal avoided?

In this particular case the worst is now over, but such difficulties may arise again (through the similar folly or obstinacy of one person) in other parishes, and there may be a recurrence of such scenes.

The Eye-witness, tired out and disgusted, left that great and foolish crowd still standing and mocking up the church long after the organ (which had been for half an hour roaring at the top of its strength to drown their noise) had ceased to play. The din of this instrument, and the heat produced by the mass of people inside the church, made the E. W. only too glad to get out, though it was to find himself in a fresh mob. This mob appeared to be engaged in discussing theology.

The outside crowd showed no inclination to disperse. It was cut up into little knots, and here was very manifest the advantage possessed by the talking members of the mob over the silent members; these last surrounding the first, and looking on in open-mouthed admiration, which was never the least diminished, but rather increased, by their inability to understand what it was all about. There was one very curious characteristic of this scene. The different orators by no means confined themselves to the subject of the day. Indeed, the disturbances in the church appeared to be quite lost sight of; the speakers having seized this as a good opportunity for hearing themselves talk, and for promulgating their own theories, whatever they might nappen to be. Approaching one group, the Eye-witness finds a stout gentleman discoursing on church-rates, while the centre of the next mass of listeners is holding forth upon the unjust division of property; and, to judge by his appearance, it must doubtless seem to him to be very unjust indeed, uncommonly little having fallen to his share. The muscular gentleman in black, with the hymn-book in his hand, is limiting the number of those who hold the truth to some half a dozen (self included); while the very ill-looking man with the pale lips and the passionate face, with the scar on his forehead and with the alpaca coat, is enforcing an argument on teetotalism with a ship's steward, mid who appears to enjoy the confidence of the bystanders to a very great extent, and (if fat is worth) to deserve it.

The argument did not originate with the fat steward and the evil-faced man, but with this last and a thin, small-headed man. But the steward, cutting into the discourse, was at once encouraged to represent the constituency, and the man with the small face was tacitly invited to retire and accept the Chiltern Hundreds.

'You're discussing this here question wrong', broke in the steward; 'just let me have a word or two'.
'Hear him!' said a fat and silent auditor.
'You will allow me to remark', said the evil-faced man, the hand which he lifted in deprecation trembling violently with anger, 'that I am arguing with this gentleman' (pointing to him of the small countenance), 'and not with you'.
'He can't make nothing of it', the steward interposed, 'so you just have it out with me, and don't be in a rage about it. Look how your hand's a shaking. That ain't a sign of being in the right. It's a sign of a weak mind, that's what that is.'
The evil-faced man put his hand into the opening of his waistcoat, but he couldn't hide the quivering of his lips, or get any colour into his face.
'Now the arguing of this here question is simple enough.'
'Hear him!' remarked the fat man, looking round as if he were the proprietor of the steward, and were proud of him.
'This here',continued the steward, 'is a question of right and wrong. One of us is right and the other's wrong. Very well. Now the question is, which is right and which is wrong?'
'Ah!' sighed the fat man; 'he's got him there.'
'Very well', the steward proceeded. 'Now we'll suppose two people standing talking, as it might be here; one on 'em says, as it might be me, which it is easy to suppose we are in a county contigious to this, and that the 'op gardens is all surrounding us, and the 'op poles a bending with their weight.'
'You are wandering from the point', says he of the evil face and the alpaca coat.
'He looks around him', proceeded the other, with a graceful wave of the hand, and heedless, in the fervency of his eloquence, of all interruption — 'he looks around him in all directions. And he says, leastways I says', continued the steward, suddenly abandoning his metaphor, 'and why are all these 'ere 'ops, I says, unless for beer?'
'Ah, why indeed?' echoes the fat man, smacking his lips. 'He's got him again.'
'Unless for beer', repeated the steward, fearful lest if he paused the evil-faced man should get a chance, 'why these crops of malt?'
'Malt does not grow in crops', interposed the evil-faced tetootaler, 'it is made by man's wickedness from barley.'
'Do you suppose I don't know that?' the other answered, 'when my own uncle on the mother's side keeps the Barley Mow at Cobham, and as well a conducted house as any in the county! Talk about malt, why!'
'Come', interposes the deep voice of a policeman, 'you must get out of this. Don't you see you're obstructing the way. Come.'

And thus this instructive argument was brought to an untimely end: to the great annoyance of your Eye-witness and of two (he will not say other) old women who were listening in the crowd.
'I likes to hear them talk', said the first of these ladies.
'And so do I', replied the other, 'they scorns to explain it like. Don't they?'

The other groups of talkers were soon similarly dispersed by the strong arm of the law; and, as the church was by this time cleared too, it was not long before the Eye-witness found himself standing quite alone, in the dark, before the closed gates of St. George's-in-the-East.

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