What a London curate can do - if he tries

from Charles Dickens' Household Words, 16 November 1850
with comments and corrections [in italic] by William Quekett

Dickens is described as the 'Conductor' of Household Words - his is the only name that appears, but he did not write all the articles himself.

The payment of sixpence at the London station of the Blackwall Railway secures not only a first-class ticket for the Shadwell station, but the privilege of looking from the carriage window into the apartments of all the upper-floor inhabitants be tween Fenchurch Street and the station in St. George's-in-the-East;  the Railway, as every Blackwall sailor and every Blackwall whitebait-eater knows, running, like a giant brick-and-mortar wall, straight through the buildings, on a level with many of their roofs, and permitting the passenger to look, like Asmodeus, into the dingy tenements of this Eastern region. A few minutes suffice for the journey, and stepping from the train, the passenger descends a stone stair, to find himself in the parish of St. George's-in-the-East, a district which could not be more full of contrasts to its namesake at the other extremity of the modern Babylon - St. George's, Hanover Square - if it were forty instead of four miles distant. The houses in the Eastern St. George's are almost all small, and the streets and alleys form a sort of labyrinth a tangled web of dingy structures - ins and outs, and twisted meshes of lane and alley, having only the one feature in common, that feature telling of poverty not always squalid, for many show the struggle of decency for appearances by a polished brass plate or door-handle, with here and there bright symptoms of green paint portal and a whitened door-stone but ever displaying the presence of a population of the humblest means. Round the outside of the district there may be found a street or two, containing the shops of the chief traders of the place, in which signs of more affluence may be detected; but within this crust lies one mass of almost unredeemed poverty a population of very many thousand souls, located upon a very few acres of ground. Scores of houses, of six rooms, holding six families; scores of houses, of five rooms, holding five families; hundreds of houses, of four rooms, holding four families each. "Time was", said an old inhabitant of the spot, "when the people could get two rooms - one to live in, one to sleep in. But the evictions at the west- end, and other circumstances, have so increased the numbers, that rents have risen, and the people can afford but one room."

Such a spot offers so few attractions to the class who are able to choose a location for themselves, that there are no resident gentry in the place. Those who own the property, live away from it. There are no large good houses offering a contrast to the surrounding poverty; no wealthy people who may be asked to lend a little help to their poorer neighbours. One in every fourteen of the whole population of the parish are paupers. Surely such a spot offers few inducements for its selection as a place of permanent abode. Yet here, some years since, came a hopeful, zealous, hard-working man, who seeing and feeling the wants of the neighbourhood, went single-handed to work to see what good in tentions, backed by perseverance, could do in a hand to hand fight with poverty, ignorance, dirt, neglect, and crime.

Twenty years ago, the then rector of St. George's-in-the-East was a Doctor of Divinity of the old school, whose pride it was to leave the world at large, and his own parish in particular, just where he found it. The dust and the modes of past times should, he thought, be preserved inviolate, and hence, though ignorance stalked through his parish unchallenged, save by the feeble efforts of one small charity school [Raine's Charity, endowed in the last century], he lived quietly on, untroubled by any idea that popular knowledge should be promoted among the flock of a London rector. The patronage of the living was the gift of his college, and with him it was a religious duty to leave things as they were. The world let him live quietly, why should he disturb the world?

One fine day the rector found himself without a curate, and as the close courts and poverty stricken streets of his parish sent every year many hundred tenants for the parish grave-yard; and as the young men and women, notwithstanding their poverty, would be young men and women, and made up amongst them scores of matrimonial matches in the twelvemonth; and as, moreover, innumerable little pledges of affection had to be christened in each similar space of time, the curate must needs be "a working man". The friends of the rector passed from one to the other the demand, "Wanted - a Curate;" but curates seemed to know what sort of a place St. George's-in-the-East must be, and the attractions of one hundred and fifty pounds a year  [I had only a hundred and twenty pounds on first coming to London] as the reward for burying a little army of dead, marrying no end of "happy couples", and christening hundreds of young Cockneys, did not secure a crowd of applicants for the vacant post. Days ran into weeks, and the rector felt desperate. The graveyard was dank and clayey, and air blew coldly through the hasts and rigging of the shipping moored in the Thames and the docks, and amongst the smokey chimneys all round about. The perpetual iteration of the services was more laborious than chimed in with the idea of the rector, and "Wanted - a Curate" became day by day a more pressing necessity of his case. At last a stray letter, explaining the reverend gentleman's necessities, found its way into an out-of-the-way Wiltshire [Somersetshire] parish [The vacant curacy was known by the late curate having a son at Merchant Taylors' School. This boy went to the head master to shake hands and take his leave, as he said his father had left the curacy and was going away. The head master of Merchant Taylors' School was a friend of the Rector of South Cadbury, who had applied to him to let him know if he heard of a London curacy for an active young clergyman.] in which there was a young curate who had distinguished himself by getting up schools and clubs for the poor. These humble establishments in their quiet way had done much good, and had obtained for their promoter and superintendent, the curate, quite a reputation in their locality; but he had got them into good trim, and as they worked well and there were no more difficulties to be encountered, the curate felt the longing for a wider sphere. His patron, the parish clergyman, had often said that London was the place for a mind so active as his, and when the intelligence came that a curacy might be had "in St. George's, London", the proper moment seemed to have arrived for moving the curate to his natural sphere of usefulness. A friend was found to do temporary duty to the church, to "give an eye to the schools, and to look after the sick", and off set the curate to ascertain if he could secure the vacant post in the modern Babylon.

Arrived in town, his first duty was to call upon the writer of the letter that had induced him to quit the country in search of a new field for his labours. His reception was cordial and encouraging. The post was still vacant; indeed, the reverend gentleman in whose gift it was had kept it specially for our young friend, for he had heard of the Wiltshire [Somersetshire] schools, and of the industry displayed by their promoter, and was sure that he was just the man to encounter the labour of a metropolitan cure of souls. After much more of such conversation, it was proposed that they should go together to the rector, to settle the affair, and a few minutes more found them on their way.

They passed street after street, but they were all City streets; and one after the other they grew dirtier and dirtier, until at last a climax of abominations greeted eye and nostril and well-polished shoes as they threaded Rag Fair.

"Surely", interposed the curate, "this cannot be the way to St. George's?" "Certainly it is", was the reply; "and this very place is in the district you are to take charge of." "This!" gasped the curate with astonishmment. And he stood still as he spoke, half shuddering amidst the crowd of Jews, thieves, rags, filth, foul smells, and wretchedness, as his mind and spirit flew back to the country scenes and country friends, he had that morning left.

"Here! I could never live here. The air seems thick with impurity. 1 thought St. George's meant St. George's, Hanover Square."

His companion laughed. "You longed for fashion, did you? You wanted to live amongst lofty people; to change the rural sounds of Wilts [Somerset] for the clatter of dashing vehicles, and to marry and bury lords and ladies? No, no. St. Georges-in-the-East it is that wants a curer of souls, and believe me you are are just the man for the place."

Forward they went in silence [I went on with the Head Master of Merchant Taylors' only on the understanding that as he was placed in a painful position by having made the appointment with the Rector, I would explain to him my objections to the curacy], until they reached the rector's door.

"I cannot undertake it", repeated the country curate. "The smells, and sights, and noises are frightful. I could not live in this atmosphere, I'm sure."
"But the rector has kept the place vacant for you," was the response;  and as he spoke, they were ushered into the presence of that dignitary himself.

More friendly greeting and kind speeches. The curate was the thing; he would soon be used in the neighbourhood. He firmly declared his repugnance. But what was he, the rector, to do? He had been waiting for the curate. He should be greatly put out of his way if he were to be disappointed at this critical moment. Indeed, he was very ill. He really hoped he should not of anything like refusal. And a great deal of talk resulted in an arrangement that the curate should try him for a month, whilst the rector sought for another to succeed him.

In a little old house close by, some little rooms were selected as a cheap temporary lodging, and there our country friend soon located himself. The occasional funeral duty of the country [I had only two funerals in five years at Cadbury] was changed for the constant day by day, week by week, repetitions of a gorged London grave-yard. Work, work, work, was becoming the order of his life, and work, too, without knowing the people for whom he was ministering, and in a field so vast there seemed little chance of his ever gaining a knowledge of the souls now under his spiritual charge. Whilst yet astonished at the change, and whilst longing for the day that should release him for his return, a letter reached him, saying that the incumbent of his Wiltshire [Somersetshire] parish was - dead! Ease and abundance had been succeeded by the demon that follows in their trains. Apoplexy - a scene of confusion and distress - hurrying for doctors, who came only to use lancets and shake their heads - and the curtain fell, leaving a widow to mourn, a preferment to delight some long expectant, and a curate out of place. This fatal termination of his old patron's career came at a critical moment. Wiltshire [Somersetshire] no longer beckoned our humble hero back. St. George's-in-the-East had him in its clutches, and the one hundred and fifty pounds a year, and a field for usefulness, was better than throwing himself adrift upon the world; and the upshot was that, instead of leaving his small lodging at the end of the month, he lived there for many years. [The Rector never knew the real cause of my remaining.]

And how were these years passed? The work of the place - the clerical work - was amply sufficient to fill up his time, but the curate had desires, and felt he had a duty beyond that routine, laborious though it might be. The rector, true to his creed, would hear nothing about schools, or societies. There was the one charity school when he came to the living, and there should be the one charity school only, when he left it, and all the curate's thoughts and plans had to be kept to himself. But still he went on trying, and kept steadily on, making himself acquainted with the needs of the neighbourhood; visiting the sick, advising the idle and the improvident, and comforting the afflicted, till the people round about began to find that "a parson" might be a very comfortable person to know, if, as they said, he was "one of the right sort".

Years rolled on, and the day arrived when the Bishop of the diocese [Bishop Blomfield] made a grand appeal to the public for help in the building of new churches; and so readily was the request responded to, that a sum of two hundred thousand pounds accumulated in the hands of the bankers to the fund. The impossibility of one rector supposing him to be an active man, and not, as our rector was, a kind of "clerical sleeping-partner", with one curate (though a curate of treble curate power) ever grasping the spiritual needs of such a parish as St. George's-in-the-East, with its forty thousand inhabitants, must long have struck the church reformers of London; and when our friend the one curate made up his mind to write to the Bishop, pointing out certain strong reasons why a portion of the two hundred thousand pounds should be spent in his part of the world, the letter could scarcely fail to receive attention. In due time, an answer came from the episcopal dispenser of the building fund, stating that a grant was in abeyance for the building of a church in the most neglected part of the parish, but there was a difficulty in obtain ing a site. This was hint enough. To work went our curate, to try what could be done. A failure on one spot only set him on to search for another, and at length he was directed to a small street, from the back windows of which, it was said, a large unused stone-yard could be seen. [I applied first of all to Mr. Hunter, the ironfounder, for a vacant piece of land with a frontage in the Commerical Road. He said that they could not part with their land; but he told me to go to one of their houses in John Street, from the back windows of which I should see a piece of vacant land belonging to Mr. Bridger, the buider. I saw the piece, and applied to Mr. Bridger, who told me that the had had been reserved for the very purpose of building a church: and that if the contract for the building was given to him, he would make a present of the site. This arrangement was made, and Mr. Bridger gave the valuable site.] It had been for years shut up behind small, poverty-stricken tenements, that few people knew of its existence; but there it was, sure enough, grown over by weeds, and strewed with the dirt and refuse that poverty, and London cats, and London smoke, somehow bring together whenever a spot remains unoccupied. Scraps of stone were scattered about it fragments too small, or too ugly for door-steps or tomb-stones, yet too heavy for trespassing boys to throw at one another, or to toss through the windows of the neighbouring empty houses, and of no value per pound at the marine store dealers. And there they lay, uncared-for for years, until the eye of the curate fell upon the spot, and straightway they reared themselves, in his mental vision, one upon another, into a tall church filled with worshippers, with the curate himself ministering there. But dreaming was no use. The curate went forth to try what he could do. Work, work, work; talk, talk, talk, to one and to another; letters here, explanations there, until, at length, the site was secured; until the building was begun, continued, and furnished. The chosen plan was one that would secure the largest amount of accommodation for the sum to be spent; and the day arrived when church-room was ready for sixteen hundred [eighteen hundred] people, within a substantial building, in a district set apart for it, and christened "Christ Church". But still, there were no fittings; no stoves; no organ; no preacher's house; no preacher's pay; no preacher.

The curate who had worked so long and so satisfactorily in the parish, was naturally the man who should occupy the church he had contributed to rear; but having by this time been the sole working clergyman of the mother church for twelve years, and having still only his one hundred and fifty pounds a year to rely upon, he hesitated to give up that. Nobody was willing to take the empty church - the bare walls - the shell - without even an income sufficient to feed the legendary mice supposed to be a part of every parish. Still, after a while, he thought he'd try.

The terms he made with the old rector were (and the said old rector had very, very serious doubts about all these new-fangled church-buildings; but being quite an old gentleman, he thought it very much the bishop's affair) - the curate's terms, we say, were that he would accept the incumbency of the new district upon condition of continuing to receive his stipend, out of which he would pay a curate to perform duty at the old church, whilst he himself went to labour with the new.

He began his labours in a very business-like way. He took stock of his new district, counted his flock, estimated their quality as it were, and found that upon the sixty-three acres committed to his clerical charge, there were seventy-seven streets and courts, containing upwards of two thousand six hundred houses, holding more than seventeen thousand men, women, and children. For every four buildings that might, in the conventional sense, be called "repectable private houses", he found there was on an average one public-house, or beer shop, and that more than half of the total number of houses were essentially the dwellings of the very poor. These very poor numbered fifteen thousand out of the total inhabitants, and the ranks of this army of poverty were described as being filled with "sailors and men dependent upon the uncertain labour of the docks"; the women being generally "seamstresses, working for the slop shops, which abound in the neighbourhood - poor creatures belonging to the class now so well known as 'distressed needlewomen.'" The average rental of the houses - houses in London, be it remembered - was only eight pounds ten shillings a year!

Such a locality could not be supposed to afford much in the shape of pew-rents, but on pew-rents alone must the preacher depend, as there was no endowment. So, giving six hundred free-seats for those unable or unwilling to contribute, our curate began his ministrations in the new church. His zeal and excellence of purpose and conduct, had secured him friends and sympathisers and those qualities now soon began to bring him a congregation. In his vestry he kept an alphabetical index of the poor, in which was noted what help had been given to each applicant who had received a ticket for free baptism; who a letter for the dispensary or the hospital; who had been attended by the district visitors; who had been helped by the blanket loan society; whose children ought to be got into the National or the Sunday School; and so on. Some of the warmest and best of the free-seats were supplied with books, in large type, suitable for aged eyes and soon it was found that old folks began to congregate, in numbers, in front of the church doors long before they opened, that they might secure these best seats, where they could see and hear, and have a large-typed Prayer-book.

The kindly sympathies which enlisted the poor did more than that. Amongst the richer people friends were found. The pews filled; a subscription in the parish paid for gas-fittings and other needful appointments; and though, the first year the curate's gains, after he had paid his curate at the mother church, were nil, yet the next year he found himself with an income, small, yet something. And now another event took place. The old rector died - and the curate thanked his stars that he had taken the empty church, without fittings and without pay though it was - for new rectors bring new curates. He had tried his best; striven with the difficulties of a high duty; and had again not gone altogether unrewarded.

The church was a very great step; but schools were all-important - he must have schools. Having no funds for school-buildings he bethought him of the Blackwall Railway arches. [This is a little out of place. I had built the schools under the arches of the railway while I was a curate of the mother church, and before Christ Church was built. But when the district of Christ Church was assigned, these Railway Arch Schools fell within the new district.] He set to work to try what could be done in that and in other directions to meet the many wants of his parish. He addressed letters to clergymen with good benefices; and to wealthy laymen; and then he, with the aid of a curate and a scripture-reader, begged his parish through from door to door. They were more than a fortnight going from house to house, "when great anxiety (says a report of this experiment) for the establishmen of the school was expressed by the poor people, but the amount collected was only eighteen pounds, fifteen shillings - a large portion of which was in pence". Larger sums ultimately came from other quarters to aid the work, and first one school and then another was got into operation. Amidst all this toil the curate (or we must now call him the incumbent, for we have followed him into his own church) had found a wife amongst his flock, and had become a father. His children were enlisted in the work in hand. They folded circulars and helped to seal them; and one Christmas Eve there was a great feat accomplished - for on that day there went from the door of the house of clerical industry two cabs filled with letters which the post would deliver on the Christmas morning upon the breakfast tables of the wealthy, telling how on that day of Christian rejoicing one parish of the Great London had thousands of people who knew no church, with thosands of children who knew no school. And those Christmas holidays were gladdened by a noble response from the charity of this English nation. Hundreds of pounds were subscribed towards the works our clergyman had now in hand; and still greater gladness was there in his household, when an old man walked one day into his church to see what was being done, and asking what was wanted, and being told the organ was in debt, put into the parson's hand, as they left the building together, a piece of paper, with a request that no name be mentioned. It was a cheque for a hundred pounds, and next Sunday the organ poured forth a strain more than ever beautiful in that preacher's ear - for the debt was gone -wiped out by the benevolence that asks no blazonry in return.

And higher and higher still rose the gladness of the parson's home, when one day he returned from a country dinner, to which he had been bidden by a rich old physician, who was spending his last years in a quiet rural neighbourhood. A day-ticket had carried the visitor to the old man's house. They had chatted, and dined, and talked of many things, but never of money; and as the time drew on when the last train left for London, they strolled together towards the station. The whiz and the bustle of the stopping train, the slamming of carriage-doors, and the hurry of guards, were just over as the parson took his seat, when his host, the kind old ex-physician, said, "Use that in your good works, but never mention my name". As he spoke he gave the parson a paper, as he shook hands with him. The engine was off. Let his astonishment be imagined, when he opened the slip of paper in his hand, and found it a cheque for one thousand pounds!

The donor was the same old man who had released the organ from its difficulties. He is since dead; but his gifts towards the needs of a poor London parish stand a lasting record of unobtrusive charity in the list of donations to Christ Church, St. George's-in-the-East, where his offering figures thus:
A Family Fund . . . . £1,100.

Just below it on the list is another large donation, also made by one of the really charitable, who ask no advertisement in return. Two words tell the story:
Anonymous . . . . £700.

Monuments enough, these, to prove the existence, if proof were needed, of true charity in England, and of the virtue of  "I'll try."  But more remains yet to be told.

Encouraged by success, the plans of our incumbent became bolder and bolder. Here is the substance of one of his appeals - a list, in fact, of what was wanted to meet the spiritual and educational destitution of his district.

1. A parsonage for the minister of the present church, estimated, including the site, at one thousand four hundred pounds.
2. Three new schools, for six hundred children, with three residences, estimated at about two thousand four hundred pounds.
3. A fund for the support of the schools.
4. A new church, of stone, plain but substantial, for one thousand persons (of which, if a sufficient endowment can be obtained, all the seats will be free), estimated, with site, at five thousand pounds.
5. A parsonage for the minister of the new church, one thousand two hundred pounds.
6. Endowment.

At first blush this might seem too much to hope for; but, by hard work, by hopeful, never ceasing endeavour - by again and again recurring to the cheerful effort that follows the determination to try - much, nay, nearly all, of that which was once a project are now facts.

At the time we write, the incumbent has a comfortable parsonage, the arches of the Blackwall Railway hold three of his schools - an infant school, a boy's school, and a girl's school. In the same place he has a pence bank, to which the poor of the neighbourhood bring their savings, now amounting to nearly a thousand pounds a year, and a library and reading room, in which, for a penny a week, the poor have light, and warmth, and newspapers, and instructive and amusing books. More than six thousand readers have attended the place within the past year. He has likewise a Ragged School, in which the very poorest are taught to read and write. The fine large schools he once hoped for to hold six hundred children, with residences for masters and mistresses, have been raised, and are occupied. Altogether, he has now a thousand children at school! He has, moreover, secured a second church for the neighbourhood the church of stone he hoped for to hold a thousand persons. He got money to buy a site, when a peer who heard of the efforts he was making, stepped forward and built, and endowed the church, at a cost of ten thousand pounds!

Thus far successful beyond what were once his wildest hopes, he is still striving on. He is at this moment trying for Baths and Wash-houses, and for a Sailors' Home - to cleanse the poor, and to save the seamen from plunder by crimps. With him, to begin is to go on, and to go on is to succeed; but if any like to help or imitate him, let them take, in Fenchurch Street, one of the sixpenny railway tickets we spoke of at the opening of this paper, and stopping at the Shadwell Station, ask for the incumbent of Christ Church, in whom they will soon recognise the living hero of this true story of "I'll try."

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