Tag Archives: Heywood Sumner

Ten years in a Portsmouth Slum by Father Robert Dolling

English: Geometric perfection, near to Portsea...

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I mentioned yesterday a fascinating memoir about the life of a missionary priest in a late nineteenth century Portsmouth slum. I’ve actually found a copy of it available to read online. Click here to take a look.

Father Robert Dolling was a pretty interesting character. An Anglican Priest, he had a strong liking for what were virtually Catholic rituals – for instance, giving masses for the dead – yet at the same time, showed much of the evangelical zeal seen in many a non-conformist. But in his case, he was not converting savages in the rainforests, but bringing salvation to the desparate poor of Britain’s biggest naval town. The mission was funded by Winchester College, one of the most prestigious public schools in Britain.

Dolling came to Portsmouth in 1885, apppointed to run an Anglican mission church in the area of Landport. Just outside the Dockyard walls, Landport was inhabited by many sailors, dockyard workers and their families, and was probably one of the most deprived places in the city. Dolling went out into the community, and his observations are social history goldust. He frequently allowed locals to sleep in his house, on one occasion sleeping in the bath to allow others to sleep over. He set up a gymnasium, classes, and worked in the community with the sailors and their families. His book contains invaluable observations on their morality, work, clothing, health, leisure pursuits, and the transient nature of Portsmouth society. And we need to remember, this is the society into which the vast majority of Great War Dead were born.

By the time he left in 1895, Dolling left a galvanised Parish, who worshipped in an incredibly opulent church – St Agathas. Two sets of my grandparents were actually married at St Agathas, by Dollings successor – Father Tremenheere. I’ve visited it myself, and I genuinely thought that it was a Catholic Church. It has a fantastic Sgraffitio by Heywood Sumner, and is built in a Mediterranean Basillica style. Whilst it was built in the middle of slums, almost like a guiding light to the feckless poor, during the Second World War the surrounding slums were largely decimated, and the remains cleared in peace time. For many years the building was actually used as a naval storehouse, until it was restored as a church in the early 1990′s. Now, it stands, lonely, near the Cascades shopping centre. Apparently, despite enthusiastic fundraising, Dolling spent more than £50,000 during his time at St Agathas, and when he left the parish it was over £3,000 in debt. Dolling was personally responsible, and apparently wrote his book to go some way towards clearing this debt.

Dolling himself was eventually forced to resign in 1895, when the new Bishop of Winchester refused to allow him to dedicate a special altar for the giving of masses for the dead – unsurprisingly, given the level of anti-catholic feeling at the time. In the Appendix of his book Dolling actually publishes a lenghty, and eventually heated correspondence with the Bishop. It is intriguing to say the least why Dolling did not just go the whole hog and convert – as in the case of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most prominent Anglo-Catholic. But Dolling does seem to have taken to his role as Parish priest with great relish. But at the same time, he does, like earlier victorian social investigators, talk about his poor parishioners as if they are animals, waiting for salvation. He undoubtedly cared about them, but in a way that we nowadays would find far too paternalistic.

A curious and contradictory man indeed.

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