Fr Dolling The Darling of the Docks

About Father Dolling

Robert Radclyffe Dolling (1851-1902) was one of a generation of mission priests, sisters, and lay workers who took the sacramental principles of the Oxford Movement and put them to work in the streets. First at St. Martin's Mission in the East London slums, then for ten years on the Portsmouth waterfront at St. Agatha's, Landport (now, alas, a museum used for services by a "traditionalist" splinter group) and later, again in the East End of London, he lived and labored among working people, sailors, and the poorest of the poor -- often opposed and hindered by unsympathetic bishops and blustering businessmen opposed to his "ritualism", his "socialism", or (usually) both.

Maurice Reckitt comments on the 'ritualism' of the Anglo-Catholic slum churches of Dolling's generation:

The 'Ritualists' were teaching not only through the ear but through the eye -- even in 'extreme' cases through the nose -- an illiterate race of social outcasts who could learn only with difficulty by more intellectual means amidst the hideous and odoriferous squalor of such places as London Docks and Miles Platting. The worship of God in which they joined was, by the violent contrast to all else in their lives, at once a vindication of the other-worldliness of their faith and an implicit condemnation of the filthy environment amid which the social sin of an acquisitive and complacent ruling class had condemned them to live. So regarded, the ritual, which mainly centered round the Presence of our Lord amid surroundings more hostile than those of his very Nativity itself, was not 'empty' but full of a profound significance; not 'meaningless' but clamouring for an interpretation even more far-reaching than most of those who practised it knew how to provide.
Dolling had firm convictions on the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the people, and took great pains to see that its celebration was carried out with all the richness and beauty his parishes could muster. But at the same time, he favored informal mission services, "prayer meetings", and other non-liturgical services as a means of reaching the non-communicants in his parish. Nor was there in him any of the sectarian aloofness which characterizes too many who mistake narrow-mindedness for orthodoxy. He was loved and respected by many among the Protestant clergy -- "the human ones, not the Calvinists" -- and by Roman Catholics as well. The modernist Jesuit George Tyrrell was among his warmest friends.

His "socialism" was less a matter of political principle or economic theory than a matter of an instinctive reaction to the conditions of poverty, degradation, and exploitation which he encountered every day among the people he loved and served. His biographer, The Rev. C. E. Osborne, has this to say about his social convictions:

Calvary Shrine, St. John's Bowdoin Street

His attitude . . . was the same as that of a well-known London priest of similar convictions, who, when accused of using his office as a spiritual teacher to interfere in merely secular matters, said: 'I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation.' 'The redemption of the body' was to Dolling essentially a practical truth, and a most vital part of the Christian religion. It supplied to him the motive power of his ceaseless efforts as a social worker. He was a scourge to anyone who degraded, dishonoured, or ill-treated the body of any human being, just as to those who stunted the mind, or polluted the soul, or made money at the expense of the innocence or happiness of others. Such people felt for Robert Dolling the instinctive dislike that a rat does for a terrier. They accused him of unceasingly worrying them, and with great truth, for he gloried in doing it . . . His ideal was not that of a Church that gives offense to nobody, that never startles any vested interest, or annoys any wealthy individual who can finance the institution. His ideal priest was not a man who regards discretion as the better part of moral courage, and when the helpless are stripped and wounded passes by with decorum upon the other side.
[The full text of Osborne's biography of Fr. Dolling is online at Project Canterbury.]

Father Dolling was a powerful, fearless, and moving speaker; his sermons and other addresses seem to have had a profound effect on those who heard them. When he preached on weekdays at a mission or other occasion working people in the neighborhood were known to demand time off to go and hear him. (In 1898 he led a 14-day mission in the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Boston, preaching four times daily. Attendances during the day were large and in the evenings the church was filled. One of my favorite shrines at St. John's - - the Calvary shrine - - was given in gratitude by many who attended. I always loved it not for what it is in itself -- in fact, it's a rather tasteless thing -- but because it speaks of Father Dolling and stands for what he stood for.)

- - Ted M.


The Christian Clergyman in Politics

From an address by Father Dolling at St. Agatha's, Landport, 1892.

I feel an interest in politics, and express that interest, first of all, because I am a Christian, and, secondly, because I am an Englishman. There was a day, you know, when in a large measure the Church of God exercised a mighty influence by speaking the truth upon political subjects. If you take, for instance, the Old Testament, you will find that in the Book of Psalms, which are, I suppose, the part of the Old Testament most read by modern Christians, the chief idea which underlies large parts of that wonderful collection is the right of the poor to be heard alike by God and man in all their needs and necessities, and to gain the redress of their wrongs. If you go farther into the Old Testament, and take the lives of God's prophets and their words, you will find that, as a rule, they were essentially political and social reformers, speaking with the authority of the voice of God, and under the influence of a power which carried them into the palaces of kings and made their voice heard throughout the land of Israel, and even penetrated into the countries which were brought in contact with their own nation. You find these inspired men of God having one single purpose, and that was to preach of the God of Justice, a purpose the execution of which involved a most vigorous onslaught on every kind of oppression and on every species of wrong,

In fact, I suppose there has never been gathered together in any volume such magnificent statements of the rights of the weak and the helpless as you will find in almost every one of the writings of the prophets of the Old Testament.

Then you must remember that these are but the forerunners of Jesus Christ, that He is Himself the gatherer up of all that the prophets foretold, and therefore you may expect to find in Him also the Champion of the weak and oppressed, and something more than that -- the One who preached with a voice which is still sounding through all the world the royalty of every single man, who revealed to Man his Divine origin, and showed not merely God's unceasing care for humanity, but God's desire that, by his own actions, by using the powers which He has given him, that man should be lifted up even to the very highest of all ideals, that there should be no attitude or virtue or intelligence that it should not be possible for man to attain to, if he were but true to the power which God had placed in his soul. Looking round on the world, Christ discovered that there were those who had, as it were, absorbed or monopolised these human rights, and rendered well-nigh impossible the development of man, and who had by that very monopoly denied to him the possibility of his attainment to the ideal which God had willed for him. Therefore the voice of Christ, whether it speaks from Galilee or whether it speaks in the courts of the temple, sounds and resounds to-day, at it shall never cease to reecho as long as the world has Christianity existing in its midst. It bids a man not merely to be free in the sense in which human laws could give freedom -- that is, to be free from the bondage or the oppression with which the cruelty of others had bound him -- but to be free in a much higher and truer sense, that he may reach the stature which our Lord Himself foresaw for him when He made him in the Divine Image. And if there be in any country in which men live any custom, any privilege of others which denies to men this opportunity, the Christian, be he priest or layman, must never cease raising his voice until such restriction is removed, until such privilege has been abolished, and the man is able in the fullness of his Manhood to realize God's eternal Will for him.


The Church and the People

From an address by Father Dolling to the Christian Social Union, 1895

For the last eighteen years of my life I have lived amongst working men, the vast majority of whom are altogether untouched by the Church of England. Working as a layman I saw this more plainly than I do to-day, though I have tried, even after I was ordained, to preserve my common sense. When I was ordained I was sent by Bishop How to a district containing 7,000 people in the East End of London. I don't believe that twenty-five of these were influenced by the Church of England.

Nine years ago I took charge of my present district in Landport. It contains between five and six thousand people. Dr. Linklater had had charge of it for two years. When he came there were not five communicants. Nor is this to be wondered at. The parish from which it is taken contained 23,000 people, and was worked by a vicar and a curate. I thank God there were five active centers of Dissenting worship in my own district alone. . .

With Fr Field, SSJEDon't let us be ashamed to confess what we owe to the splendid work of the Dissenters. It makes me oftentimes sick at heart to hear the way in which the newly-ordained, strong in the orthodoxy of his High-Church collar and of his grasp of doctrine, speaks of these class leaders, at whose feet he is unworthy to sit.

And yet, thankful as we are to God for the self-denying and consistent witness that they have borne to Jesus, a present Saviour, we cannot but recognize that without the Church men cannot be perfected. The Church has lost its hold on them, and they have lost their hold on the supernatural. The Reformation in England, the work of the King and the autocracy, never really touched the common people, and because it lacked a popular element, lost its democratic side, the chief power in the Catholic Church for revolutionising the world. The parish became the property of the incumbent, the diocese of the Bishop. You remember the story of the wife of an Established minister in Scotland remonstrating with her husband when she saw all the people crowding into the Free Church, and his answer, "He, my dear, may get the people, but I have got the tithes in my pocket" . . .

Sometimes it is the clergyman who is really to be pitied. He would do anything he could to touch the people, but how can he, seeing he has never learnt? A public school, a university, does not train a man to understand artisans or farm labourers. Five per cent of his parishioners, his equals, he does understand; 15 per cent, those hungering after gentility, he may guess at; the 80 per cent he is practically hopeless with. Then he is bound to consider the feelings of those with whom he mixes most freely, who support his charities, and very likely with many true kindnesses help himself. There is a deeper meaning in S. James' scathing words than the actual localities mentioned.

And then the terrible difficulty of the Book of Common Prayer, containing as it does but one popular service, the administration of the Holy Communion, which has been till quite lately reserved for a few of the elect, shorn of all the assistance which music might have rendered to make it understood, with no dignity of glory about the rendering of it, frigid simplicity according to the mind of the Church of England falsely interpreted. Morning and Evening Prayer were at best services for clerics or for the really spiritually instructed, full of difficulties, full of perplexities. Is it any wonder that men preferred the warm and loving and personal worship that they found in the chapel? Is it so long ago since many dignified clergymen believed that the chapel was really more suitable for common people?

And if the Church of England suited the working man so badly in ecclesiastical matters, did her attitude on social questions suit him better? You have been told how largely the very roads and bridges, the art and education of England, were due to the clergy; that liberty in England is due to the undauntedness of Bishops; that the history of the Church of England is "a progressive tale of the upward march of men." I am constrained to believe this because of the authority of him who said it [the Archbishop of Canterbury]. But in all earnestness I pray you ask yourselves, Are there ten working men in England that believe it?

Perhaps you will answer back to me, "All this can be reformed." A free Church can reform herself, a fettered Church never. And if your heart is aflame to defend the Church of England, first, any rate, see that you cleanse her. And you will never do this until you have the courage, not only to think, but to speak the truth about her; to put away from us all tall talk, and in a spirit of true and real humility begin by confessing where we fail. Let those in authority put the question to the test, let them through Convocation propose the needed reforms; and if our Establishment forbids us to reform, let us burst our bonds and set ourselves free.

And now I believe that the Missions in the Church of England are practically doing this very thing. They are indoctrinating the minds of the younger clergy with the spirit of divine discontent with their methods and themselves. Just as from the slums of Holborn and London Docks the restoration of the beauty of worship arose, which, attracting the multitude, has enthroned the Sacraments in the hearts of understanding and intelligent worshippers; the life of poverty and degradation, of meanness, of utter want, which those pioneers in mission work shared with their people, by the sharing enabled them to understand their minds, their longings, their desires, so as to translate into a language which they could understand the Catholic learning of Oxford scholars; so to-day it is the contact with the suffering and the degraded and impoverished that enables men to translate into actual amelioration the theories and statistics which Oxford and Cambridge Christian Socialists have, at the cost of so much toil, evolved . . . It is the enduring of hardness, it is sharing the life as far as possible, the very food, the understanding of the thoughts, the realising of the difficulties, the carrying away out of sight poverty which degrades men and women made in the image of God, a discontent with luxury, the "needed comfort" as it is called of modern life, that will create among the educated classes a true enthusiasm for the righting of wrongs that cry out continually into the ears of the Lord God of Sabaoth, for which, if we do not repent of them, England's Church, at any rate, because she has not dared to speak out the truth, must expect her punishment."


"A Certain Type of Ecclesiastical Mind"

from C. E. Osborne's The Life of Father Dolling, London, Edward Arnold, 1903.

With regard to the [East London water famine of 1898], the new Vicar of S. Saviour's helped to stir up, as usual, 'divine discontent' by printing the following characteristic notice in the parish magazine:

The East London Water Company divides a dividend of 7 per cent, oftentimes more. They have a monopoly to supply us with water. We are bound to pay our rates, whether we get the water or not. In the very worst time of the year, at a time when diphtheria and scarlet fever always increase among us, at a time when we are sweltering in heat, and when little children are at death's door continually, they restrict us to six hours a day, and that is not regularly supplied. Our good churchwardens feel with me that it is our duty to invite all male parishioners to express their opinion on this point, and I thank God that it is in His house that we are going to meet; and I hope that we shall not cease from our agitation until this Company is dispossessed of its powers, and they are placed under public control.
The meeting had an excellent effect, but the fact that it was held in the church (for want of room elsewhere) was resented by some of the more strait-laced. Dolling, however, maintained that the bodies of the people, being the temples of God, are even more sacred than the stones of a building, and that the health and decency of physical life of his parishioners were in danger through the action of the Water Company . . . His ideal was that each parish church, as such, ought to be the common roof-tree, as it were, of the Christian family in the place, and therefore the centre of social righteousness to the whole district. But the prim type of High Church person, who writes indignant letters to the Church Times if some waif who has strayed into S. Paul's Cathedral is seen munching an apple within the sacred building, or a tired woman is observed to sit during some part of the service at which the rubric orders standing, was now on Dolling's trail . . .

The following indignant anonymous letter, received from some person who was probably a dividend-holder in one of the water companies, as well as a horrified High Churchman, is characteristic of a certain type of ecclesiastical mind:

September 19, 1898 Will Mr. Dolling permit one who was a Catholic member of the English Church before Mr. Dolling was born to recommend to him the use of the collect for rain as much more likely to attained the desired end than holding meetings for the abuse of laymen at least as honorable as Mr. Dolling? The withholding of rain from a district is God's punishment, and to ninety-nine Catholics in a hundred the present visitation upon the East End of London is consequent upon the appointment of Mr. Dolling to S. Saviour's, whilst he has not done penance for his misdoings at S. Agatha's.


The initials stand for the well-known Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament.


The Church Defense League (apparently a rather silly conservative group) was plastering the town of Southsea with signs reading, "Working men, what has the Church of England done for you? She has gained Magna Carta." Dolling remarked, "That was 1215, wasn't it? Rather a long time ago."

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