F. St John Corbett - interview, Guild of Sponsors

This interview, from Church Bells & Illustrated Church News of 5 August 1904 (shortly after the Queen's visit), is interesting for the content and style of some of its comments: parish finance, the Charity Organisation Society, an ambivalent attitude towards the growing Jewish presence in the parish, reasons for non-attendance on Sunday mornings, his forthright description of some of the groups in the parish (eg hooligans, men of the submerged type, mere tramps, the idle classes) and the facts that only five households in the parish (of which his must have been one) had a domestic servant, and that there had only been one murder committed by a member of the youth club! His positive tone has become much more subdued a decade later in this confidential report to the Bishop.

Chats with the Clergy


It is now a year ago since the Rev. Frederick St. John Corbett succeeded the Rev. R.W. Harris as Rector of St. George-in-the-East. Mr. Harris was compelled by the persistent ill-health of his wife and family to seek work in the country, and Mr. Corbett came, at the suggestion of the Bishop of London, from one of the loveliest parishes in Westmorland, to undertake the charge of a very important London parish. It is true that he had enjoyed experience in the Metropolis. Ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Ripon in 1885, and priest in 1887, after graduating B.A. at Trinity College, Dublin, he commenced his clerical career as curate of Hunslet, Leeds. While he held this curacy, he acted for five years as Chaplain to the Leeds Rifles. In 1891 he entered the London Diocese as curate of St. Michael's, Chester Square, returning to the North in 1896, as Rector of Long Marton, on the presentation of Lord Hothfield. Here he had time to develop his literary gifts, and his considerable list of published works attests both his industry and his versatility. It includes in the department of theology, 'Sermon Outline,' 'The Preacher's Year', 'A Thousand Things to say in Sermons', and 'The Communicant's Little Book'; in the realm of fiction, 'Two Men and a Girl'; and in the domain of verse, 'Echoes of the Sanctuary' and 'Led by a Little Child'. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, he has also produced this year 'A History of British Poetry, from the earliest times to the beginning of the Twentieth Century', and is an occasional contributor to various periodicals. It was satisfactory to learn from Mr. Corbett, when I visited the Rectory the other day, that neither he, nor Mrs. Corbett, who takes the keenest interest in the affairs of the parish, has suffered in health by the change from the country to the heart of the East End.

We do not, in the least (said Mr. Corbett) regard ourselves as martyrs, but find life in St. George's very pleasant.

What is the present population of the parish?
About 12,000, consisting, with very few exceptions, of the very poorest. A large proportion of these are aliens, who frequently come to the clergy for help. Though we make but few converts, we draw no distinction when a case is deserving. It is for this reason that our work is supported by Lord Rothschild and other members of the Jewish race. They know that we will help a Jew if he be starving through no fault of his own. The work is encouraging, and the people are very friendly with the clergy, and well-disposed to the Church. In fact, there would be no credit in being "jolly" here, as Mark Tapley [1] used to say, if it were not for the financial burden.

Is that very heavy?
Yes, and it falls entirely upon the Rector, there being no Financial Committee. There is absolutely no endowment for assistant clergy or parochial expenses, and the grants are very small. The offertories on Sunday only average 30s., and there is generally a deficit on the churchwardens' annual account of between £20 and £30. The actual working expenses of the various parochial agencies amount to £1200 per annum.

How do you contrive to raise such a large amount as this?
About £400 is contributed in subscriptions and donations, £400 by means of bazaars, concerts, and other entertainments, whilst the remaining £400 has to be raised by the Rector as best he can, either by special extra appeals or by a heavy dip into his own pocket. The people themselves are most generous, and never weary of flourishing the collecting card, but they cannot get at the hearts and purses of the rich. At the present moment we are wondering where we can get £70, with which to send our teachers and children for their annual trip to the seaside, but we live largely by faith, and all the arrangements are made.

When then do they go?
To-morrow (replied the Rector with a smile). The only disheartening feature in these matters (he continued) is the small response to the urgent appeals sent out, even by rich, and notably generous people. Almost all have so many calls upon them at home that they cannot help. I sent out twenty appeals in one day not long ago, and all I got for my trouble was six postage stamps! But some people act very generously.

But do you not receive regular help here from any West End parish?
'No, like Japhet, we are in search of a father. Can you find us one?

You certainly have an indisputable claim to be affiliated to some parish where money is fairly plentiful, and I hope your search will soon be successful.
I am sure I hope it may. With regard to the church, it is said that there has been an edifice on the site for many centuries. The present building, which is a beautiful specimen of the Queen Anne style, was consecrated in 1729. It holds 1200 people, and contains, as you have seen, several features of great interest [2]. The East window, in the apse, representing Faith, Hope, and Charity, was copied from a window in the chapel of New College, Oxford; the mosaics at the East end, which were put in in 1880, are very striking; the massive pulpit, in oak, richly carved, and complete, with a sounding board, is one of the finest to be found; the organ, of venerable date, is supposed to be worth £2000, and the wood-carving, which is carried throughout, even to the corners of the vestries, is remarkably good. Finally, there is a splendid peal of eight bells, which are rung by voluntary ringers. My predecessors, the Bishop of Islington, and other Rectors, did much to beautify the church, and improve the parish.

How are you off for buildings?
We require no more, except a clergy house. At present we rent one from the Earl of Winterton [3]. With the Rectory of St. George's is incorporated the living of St. Matthew's, Pell Street, and by permission of the Bishop, St. Matthew's is now used for meetings and parish purposes, instead of for services. There is only one thing we require, of what may be called a structural character, and that is an altar, worthy of St George's Church. I have a scheme on foot to raise one as a memorial of the Queen's visit.

As there have been some contradictory accounts, I should like to know from you exactly how it was that the Queen came to your flower show?
I will tell you. As I have mentioned, we depend very materially upon the money we can raise by special effort, and though, up to this year, the flower show has only paid expenses, I hoped that by having a sale of work at the same time, we should obtain a profit. Accordingly, I fixed the date for July 14th, and the Countess of Winterton and Lord Teynham [4] promised to attend. Some little time after I had, with great difficulty, made all the arrangements, I took up a daily paper, and saw that the Queen was to visit the People's Palace, which is quite close to us, on the same day.

Did you not feel rather alarmed?
There was general consternation, and at first I thought that the flower show must be postponed. Then I remembered that the Queen was always kind, and I ventured to send her a letter, pointing out that the flower show had long been fixed for July 14th, that it could not be a success under the circumstances, and inviting her to visit it on her way to the People's Palace.

Had you to wait long for a reply?
Ten days. Then, the Queen's Secretary wrote that inquiries were being made, and ten days later I had a letter to say that her Majesty would be very pleased to visit the flower show for a few minutes. I was asked to go to St. James's Palace to make arrangements with her private secretary; and the day before the show the Queen sent from the gardens at Windsor a collection of beautiful flowers. As you know, she came to the show, and I may add that she stayed half and hour, made a tour of the stalls, made some purchases, expressed herself greatly pleased with all that she had seen, and told me that she should send me £25 for the poor. This she sent, and also a letter, expressing her pleasure at all the arrangements for her reception.

What effect did the Queen's presence have upon the receipts at the flower show?
Under ordinary circumstances we might have made £50. This year we made £150. So I think that we ought, in gratitude, to have a memorial tof the Queen's visit.

I think that the garden itself ought to be mentioned in connection with the church?
It is certainly a great feature. Originally, it was a burial ground, but no burials have taken place for many years, and some time ago the care of it was handed over by the Rector to the Borough Council. Flowers and shrubs abound in it. A corner was reserved for the Rector, who has also the right of closing the entire garden to the public fourteen times during the year, if he requires it for private purposes.

Have you anything to say respecting the character of the services?
You are doubtless aware that in former days, when Bryan King was Rector, St. George's was celebrated for Ritualistic services, and there were serious disturbances. The ritual is more moderate now than it was then, though it and the teaching are thoroughly Catholic, but we are untroubled by any note of discord. We have an early celebration of the Holy Communion every Sunday at eight, and every Sunday, except the third, at mid-day. On the third Sunday it is at 9.30 instead. We have also Celebrations on Saints' Days, Tuesday, and Thursdays, at 8. Matins and Evensong are said daily in the side chapel in the church; there is a children's service every fourth Sunday afternoon, and on festivals, and a service for men only occasionally.

Do the people seem to attach much importance to the sermons?
I think that they thoroughly appreciate good preaching. Though our time is so much taken up with other work, it would not do for us to neglect the sermon. If we did, many of the congregation would walk out of church before it was delivered. I am a great believer in elocution, and have spoken at various Church Congresses on the subject. It is too much neglected in public schools, and at the universities.

Have you done much special preaching?
During five years in Yorkshire I preached special sermons in fifty churches in that county; and I have been constantly employed as a special preacher for such charitable institutions as the Queen Victoria Clergy Fund, Curates' Association Society, etc.; and I recently preached at St. Paul's Cathedral.

What is your experience here as to church attendance?
Owing to the steady increase in the number of Jews, the congregations are not as large as they once were. Though they can never be eclectic, they are of encouraging proportions when all the circumstances of the people are considered. The Sunday morning congregation is small. The men are resting after a week of hard work; the women are getting the Sunday dinner ready, which, in many cases, is the solitary hot meal of the week. On Sunday evening the congregation is good. One striking features is that nearly all the congregation are communicants, nearly three-fifths of them [5].

That is a very satisfactory point, and one of which outside critics can know nothing.
Exactly. The work, cannot, however, be measured by the number of persons who attend the services in the church; and in this matter the statistics of Mr. Charles Booth, and of the "Daily News", would be equally misleading. On Sunday afternoon, between three and five, a great many different organisations are in operation. For instance, there are three Sunday schools, three men's Bible classes, comprising considerably over 100 men, varying in age from seventeen to seventy; and several young women's Bible classes, not to mention baptisms, weddings, and churchings.

And during the week?
The work is continuous, and occupies the whole time of four clergy, besides a large number of lay agents, paid or voluntary. Several ladies are good enough to come to us from the West End as district visitors and Sunday school teachers. We have, amongst other organisations, Communicants' Guilds, a branch of the Girls' Friendly Society, mothers' meetings, penny banks, a vigorous Temperance Society, and Band of Hope, clubs for girls and lads of the Hooligan class. At St. Matthew's, under the care of the Rev. Henry Iselin, there is a most successful club of this type, said to be the roughest in London. The young people, as a rule, are very well-behaved, though occasionally pocket-handkerchiefs and other articles of light value are missing. It is even true that one of the lads murdered his sweetheart a few months ago, but that, happily, is a rare event. I have heard it said, however, that if every parish had its due, we should have credit for some of the so-called Whitechapel murders; but my friend, Mr. Poynder [6], is quite welcome to all he can gain by this reputation. I am hoping soon to establish a branch of the Church of England Men's Society, and of the Church Lads' Brigade [7].

How should you describe the parishioners generally?
They are chiefly small shopkeepers, artisans, and dock labourers, a portion of whom are, unfortunately, out of work during a large part of the year. Many of the artisan class are comfortably housed, in model dwellings, but a considerable portion are huddled together in old houses, which will, happily, disappear as the leases fall in. Aged persons, however poor, have a deep-rooted objection the workhouse. Consequently, there are a great many individuals in the parish whom we must only speak of as parochial pensioners. In dealing with these, we are assisted by the Charity Organisation Society. A Church Army Labour Home, which exists in the parish, and is under my supervision, is useful for housing men of the submerged type, who do such work as the sorting of paper, for their keep and a small wage. The clergy are very much harassed by applications from mere tramps.

Does the Jewish element affect you prejudicially?
It is detrimental to the Christian population. Landlords are only too ready to evict Christian tenants, because they know that they can accommodate three Jewish families in the space where only one Christian family would reside. That is a special difficulty here; but I fear that one of the greatest troubles which the Church has to face, is the awful dearth of curates. I want one now to complete the staff of four clergy, but I have been advertising for nearly three months without finding one. I have had applications, but every man would not suit a parish like this; nor would every suitable man have the courage to come to it [8].

Are there general features in the parish which merit notice?
There is one public-house for every three hundred people. The means of the people may to some extent be judged by the fact, that there are only five families who keep a domestic servant.

Have you any interesting institutions?
There is a splendid town hall, with a library and reading-room, which are largely used by the working classes, and too largely by the idle classes. Of schools, there are five. One is the famous Raines Foundation School, in which Church teaching is allowed, and of which the Rector is an ex-officio governor. The other four are Board schools, and I am also one of the managers of these. Fortunately for myself, I am not chairman, although I am in great danger of being appointed in the future [9]. St. George's is the mother church of four daughters: St. Peter's, London Docks; St. Mary's, Johnson Street; St. John's, Grove Street; and Christ Church, Watney Street. A filial feeling exists in each of these four parishes towards the mother church, which is very pleasant to observe.


1  Martin Chuzzlewit's servant in Dicken's novel of the same name whose catchphrase is 'there's no credit in being jolly' under benign circumstances
2  he focuses on the 19th century additions to the church!
3  probably 220 Cable Street
4  for Lord Winterton's connections with the parish, see here
    Henry John Philip Sidney Roper-Curzon, 18th Baron Tenyham, was one of thee Deputy Lietenants of Kent (with a family home in Sittingbourne)

5  a reminder that in spite of the 19th century re-emphasis on confirmation it was still far from normative even for attenders
6  who was this?
7  which he did - see his 1915 report
8  staffing the parish was to remain a problem
9  as indeed it came to pass!

Guild of Sponsors

This was in part a response to the difficulty - noted by other clergy in the churches of this parish in previous years - of ensuring that candidates for baptism had godparents who fulfilled the rubrical requirements by being themselves baptized, and preferably confirmed: many families could not provide 'suitable' godparents, and this scheme encouraged active church members to take on this role, though they must have been swamped by the numbers. As the Rector's 1915 report makes clear, parish policy was to observe the Prayer Book rules strictly, unlike other parishes which asked fewer questions. This letter of 1911 sets out his hopes ( for Miss Hoare, see here, in connection with Margaret Hallward), and here is the parish's own leaflet.

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