The Eastern Times, London, Saturday 4 February 1860
THE ST GEORGE’S RIOTS
The disgraceful scenes that are enacted on the Lord’s Day, inside and outside the parish church of St. George’s-in-the-East, have at last attracted attention of Parliament, but without, as it seems, any practical result. Scarcely a day passes without some new fact, in connection with the notorious disagreement between the Rev. BRYAN KING and his parishioners, coming to light; scarcely a day on which we do not, in out editorial capacity, receive proofs of the breach between pastor and congregation becoming wider and wider; scarcely any circumstance transpires that has a tendency to improve the state of public feeling in this unhappy dispute; and, we deeply regret to observe, scarcely any attempt is made, by either party, to reconcile existing differences. If the Rector is firm in the observance of the peculiar forms of worship which he conceives to be within the letter of ecclesiastical law, the parishioners are no less firm in resisting what they consider encroachments on the simplicity which should be observed in the methods of praying and preaching proper to a Protestant Church in an enlightened age. May not both parties – we ask in all friendliness – be a little wrong; a little too firm; a little too determined; a little too obstinate?
We would willingly avoid all reference to this unhappy business did our duty as public journalists enable us to do so; but now that the riots in St. George’s have become a matter of public scandal and almost national disgrace, we feel that longer silence would be criminal. In order, therefore, to arrive at a fair knowledge of the facts as they really exist, we last Sunday evening paid a visit to the parish church of St. George’s-in-the-East. As it unfortunately happened, the riots on that day assumed their most disagreeable and revolting aspect. We will endeavour to depict, fairly and honestly our impressions, as
We arrived in Cannon-street about half-past five o’clock, by which time various persons in cabs and on foot made their way to the church. The evening service does not commence till seven, but by six o’clock that portion of the street opposite the church was crowded and nearly impassable. We glance at the masses assembled, and observe, with surprise and regret, that it consists almost wholly of vagabond boys and men, with here and there a well-dressed man, evidently a stranger to the neighbourhood. The boys, it was easy to perceive, came prepared for a row, and were only restrained from acts of violence by the presence of various quiet but determined-looking policemen who stood on the outskirts of the mob and occasionally passed through it. Nevertheless, they indulged in the various amusements common to the gallery doors of a minor theatre on boxing night – whistling, hooting, pushing, shouting, and swearing. The strangers, who had come from other parts of the town in cabs and omnibuses, indulged their impatience with cigars, while large numbers of the worse-dressed attendants smoked pipes; and more than once broke out in snatches of vulgar song an ribaldry.
At length, at about half-past six, the outer gates were swung aside, and the mob poured simultaneously into the yard and up the steps of the sacred edifice. In a quarter of an hour the church was filled in every part by as strange and disorderly a congregation as it is possible to conceive. We are no judges of numbers, but we were informed by a civil police-officer that there were at least three thousand persons present. And now began a scene never before witnessed in a Christian church. Yells and shouts of "Order," "Down in front," and "Bravo!" mingled discordantly with hisses, cock-crowing, cat-calling, and the rude howling of nigger songs; the slamming of pew-doors, the stamping of feet, and the sharp, disagreeable crack and scent of lucifer matches as they were struck heedlessly across woodwork in all parts of the church. More than one short pipe was lighted and smoked in the galleries, and caps and bonnets were thrown about with a total disregard to the character of the place in which these disgraceful scenes were going on. The most distressing circumstance was to witness the number of wretched and degraded women in the throng of blackguard boys and costermongers in the galleries, and to be compelled to hear their filthy and disgusting language. Nor was there the slightest attempt, as far we could perceive, made to restrain the disorder; for, though there were plenty of policemen in the street, there were none in the church, and we understand that the vestry have withdrawn even the one constable appointed to do duty within the sacred edifice. We were informed that there was a regularly organised mob, and that it was their intention to put out the gas. But we perceived nothing like leadership; and, though gas jets in various parts of the church were now and then extinguished, they were as speedily relit by unknown and officious fingers.
And so for a quarter of an hour this disgraceful orgie [sic] continued. Precisely as the clock struck seven the evening service commenced. The Rev. BRYAN KING, followed in procession by the Rev. Mr. LOWDER and about a dozen choristers, in their usual white robes, proceeded from the Vestry to the Communion rails, the two clergymen passing within and kneeling in their accustomed places – the Rev. Mr. KING on the south, and the Rev. Mr. LOWDER on the north side. For a moment there was a partial lull in the disgraceful hubbub but no sooner had the latter clergyman began the prayers, than the noise and confusion broke out afresh, with ten-fold violence. The responses were no longer either “said” or “sung”, but they were shouted and bawled and yelled with such ribald additions, as the blasphemous humour of the crowd suggested. Hisses, and yells, and cries of the most disgusting character resounded from wall to wall; but throughout all, the clergymen and choristers went on with their proper business, apparently unconscious of interruption. And so the prayers came to an end; and the Rev. C.F. LOWDER ascended the pulpit and essayed to preach. Not even during the Lord’s Prayer was there any sensible diminution of the uproar, which went on throughout the entire sermon with greater or lesser fury, as the people were more or less exhausted with their own rough conduct. The text elected was peculiarly inappropriate to the occasion, for it was taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel, — “And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.” Shouts of derisive laughter greeted the reverend gentleman as, in his discourse, he asked “Who is fearful for the everlasting Church of Christ?” and cries of “Who’s afraid,” “Go it, old boy,” and similar vulgarities were heard from gallery and aisles. With commendable zeal, the clergyman exhorted the youthful portion of his unruly congregation to amend their ways, but his advice was met with ribald and contemptuous merriment. In fact, the whole scene was one of the most sad and humiliating it has ever been our misfortune to witness.
The service commenced in mere noise: it ended in something that looked alarmingly like riot. As the ministers and choristers were proceeding to the Vestry, they were hustled and driven about; and but for the protection of the Church officers, would probably have suffered personal violence. No sooner, however, were they in the Vestry, than a cry arose from the centre of the Church— “Let us smash the altar!” It wanted only this atrocity to complete the disgraceful proceedings of the evening. Scores of vagabonds rushed at the Communion rails, and were only prevented from carrying out the suggestion of their friends by the determined opposition of some half-a-dozen officials. In the midst of pushing, fighting, scuffing, singing, and shouting from all parts of the church, Bibles, Prayer Books, and hassocks were hurled at the decorated altar-piece, and it was feared that the candelabrum would be toppled over. At this moment, when the scene had reached its topmost height of horror and atrocity, Inspector Alison entered the church on his own authority, accompanied by about a dozen policemen. In less than an hour the scared edifice was cleared, and the riotous mob commenced yelling and singing in the street, and so gradually dispersed. We heard that a threat to attack Mr. BRYAN KING’s house was made, and that some among the mob were seriously injured; but of these facts we have no personal knowledge. It is certain, however, that considerable damage was done to the church, much property belonging to the regular congregation stolen and destroyed, and a disgraceful scandal brought upon the parish in which the scenes above took place.
Now what conclusion can we draw from this? Will it not strike the reader that the original cause of dispute has been lost sight of; and that instead of the riot of last Sunday being a spontaneous exhibition of feeling or principle on the part of the Rev. BRYAN KING’s congregation, it was a mere vulgar, atrocious and blasphemous disturbance by a mob of people who have no religious or conscientious scruples to satisfy or offend, in connexion with St. George’s-in-the-East? Will it not be apparent to all that the disturbances, which began in a real desire to abolish certain Puseyitical forms and ceremonies in the church, have degenerated into mere vulgar and scandalous rows, which must be abolished by the strong arm of the law? In the House of Lords, on Monday night, the Bishop of London, in reference to the riot on the preceding evening – a riot threatening danger to life and property – said: —
“While the present state of things remain, it is almost impossible for the clergy or the ecclesiastical authority to take any steps; for until the majesty of the law has been vindicated, it would seem impossible to make any change in the services – even the most desirable – because it is undesirable that that which is right in itself should be conceded to violent and disorderly efforts. Changes have been made in the services of St. George’s church, but they have not as yet met the feelings of the people, who opposed the present mode of performing them. It is impossible, however, that anything further can be done in the way of concession, while these disgraceful scenes continue. He believed an opinion prevailed at one time that it would be easy to put an end to those disturbances by refusing admission to the church to all but parishioners, but a doubt arose as to its legality, and he was afraid, if none but the parishioners were permitted to enter, many persons would be excluded who were at present desirous of preserving order. He had no wish to express any opinion as to the original cause of these disturbances, but it seemed to him to have nothing to do with the present question which was simply whether a disturbance could take place in a parish church which would not be tolerated for a moment in any other place of worship in the kingdom. He hoped her Majesty’s Government had carefully considered what could be done to put and end to these riots for the future. Past experience had shown that these disturbances were contagious, and the zeal of uninstructed persons had led to the destruction of property and the greatest injury, not only to religion, but to the civil welfare of this city.”
TO this the Earl of GRANVILLE, on the part of the Government, replied, that it was extremely difficult to know how to deal with the matter. He had communicated with the Home Secretary, but that right honourable gentleman and not yet received the police report of what took place on Sunday night at the parish church of St. George’s-in-the-East, and her Majesty’s Government were only in possession of such information as was contained in the organs of public opinion. He concurred with the right reverend prelate that measures ought to be taken to prevent the repetition of these disgraceful practices, and he took upon himself to say that measures of that kind should be adopted.
In the House of Commons, on the same evening, Mr. BUTLER, our excellent member, called attention to these riots, and asked whether it was the intention of the Government to introduce and bill to relieve the parishioners and what steps they were going to take to enable the inhabitants of that unfortunate locality to attend Divine service in their parish church?
To this question Sir G. CORNWALL LEWIS replied by deploring the event, and at the same time declining to set in motion any extraordinary Governmental machinery for the expression of opinion: — “Brawling in the church was an offence which did not come before the ordinary tribunals, but was tried in an ecclesiastical court. He gave consent that a body of police should be stationed in some convenient place, so as to be ready to interfere if any open disturbance should occur. He found, however, that notwithstanding the appearance of the police, certain disgraceful disturbances had taken place. In the beginning of the new year it was considered desirable that that police should be withdrawn; but he regretted to say that since their withdrawal the disturbances had been greater than previously. On Sunday there was a great disturbance at the evening service, which was that at which the particular rites and ceremonies were introduced by Mr. KING. The police were not stationed within the church; but there was a large body of police with an inspector within reach, in case of disturbance. When the disturbance occurred the inspector and the police entered the church, turned out the rioters, and prevented any further breach of the peace. He had had a communication with Sir R. MAYNE, who had seen Mr. KING. The proposal made by Mr. KING was that a body of police should be stationed outside the church next Sunday, and that persons suspected of an intention to create a disturbance should be excluded. He was not aware of any other means of preventing the unseemly and scandalous disturbances which took place, He would make no remark upon the religious opinions involved in the controversy; he looked upon the question as relating to the maintenance of peace; and he considered that he should be wanting in his duty if he did not interfere to prevent the occurrence of such scenes as occurred at Sunday evening’s service. It was not the intention of the Government to introduce any measure, but they would give their best consideration to any measure which any hon, member might think appropriate to the subject. Nothing would be gained by presenting Mr. KING for heresy, and he was not aware that the doctrines preached in the church of St. George’s-in-the-East were impugned. It was the rites and ceremonies which ha d been introduced which occasioned the disturbances, and in these matters the clergyman was allowed a certain discretion. A power vested in the bishop of the diocese might remedy this evil. He also thought that considerable advantage might arise if power were given to the Church, by an order in council upon proper ecclesiastical advice, to modify the rubric.”
And so for the present the matter rests; but it is clear that some steps must speedily be taken in order to resolve peace to this unhappy parish. As it seems to us, the one true and only remedy for the admitted evil is, not so much the withdrawal of the ceremonies introduced by the Rev. BRYAN KING, as the retirement of the reverend gentleman from the church and this part of London. It was said by certain persons that the presence of the Rev. HUGH ALLEN was the moving cause of the disturbances. But if it were so – a case by no means proved – the absence of that gentleman appears to have had no effect in allaying them. Again; the forms and ceremonies which are tolerated in one church or parish are evidently distasteful to the congregation and inhabitants of another. What, then, remains, but for the clergyman, who neither commands respect nor attention – whose religious views are not the views of his parishioners, and whose person is getting day by day more unpopular in the district in which he officiates – what remains but for that clergyman to retire? We have already expressed our views on the questions at issue between the Rev. BRYAN KING and the parishioners of St. George’s-in-the-East; and we now refer to this painful subject in the earnest hope that some effectual steps may be taken by the ecclesiastical or executive authorities to put an end to a crying and disgraceful scandal.
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