Tag Archives: Winchester College

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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Filed under Local History, World War One, World War Two

Thinking about Great War communities

My first book has only been on the shelves for a matter of days, but I guess its never too early to start thinking about lessons learnt, and how I might be able to do things differently next time around.

So far, everyone who has read the book has seemed to really enjoy reading the individual stories that I was able to tell. For some of the casualties I researched, especially officers and medal winners, there certainly was a lot of information out there. But the interesting thing is, for, say, a Private who was died of illness and didn’t win a medal, its next to impossible to find out much about him. As a result, I virtually had to write about what I could, based on the sources that were available.

One of the big differences between researching World War Two dead and World War One dead is the vastly different amount of information available. For Second World War Dead, the CWGC only tells us what area somebody came from. And not in all cases either. By contrast, for the Great War, for many we not only have the area that they came from, but also their street name and even house number. This enables us to build a unique picture of Portsmouth, that would impossible for the Second World War.

But the information does not end there. For sailors and Royal Marines, we can obtain their service records. Even though to download a few thousand of them would cost me megabucks, the National Archive’s search entries give us a date and place of birth for sailors. For Royal Marines, we can see their date of birth, but also their date of enlistment. Hence for sailors we can chart immigration into Portsmouth from elsewhere, which could lead to some groundbreaking research.

Also, we have a wealth of information available from the censuses of 1901 and 1911. Already, these have helped me to gain an insight into casualties previous careers, their households, their neighbourhoods, and their families. Something that is impossible for the period 1939-1945. And this gets me thinking : while there is a dearth of information about individuals, such as medal citations, there is a treasure trove of sources available for broader social history.

Maybe it would be interesting to look at Portsmouth in 1914, through the historical microscope that the Great War provides us with? Nobody has really looked at the late victorian and Edwardian working class communities of Portsmouth – these, inevitably, are the communities from which the vast majority of war dead came. Lets think about an area such as Landport. Straddling the Dockyard, it was home to thousands of sailors and Dockyard workers. If ever a community was a Navy community, it was somewhere like Landport. Using the CWGC entries and the census, it should be possible to look at a multitude of facets of life – occupations, families, leisure, recreation, housing, and even sanitation and healthcare. How many naval pensioners resided in the area? How many worked in the Dockyard? How many pubs were there? What were the levels of crime like?

There is an interesting element to the Landport story. Inspired by the den of iniquity for which the area was infamous, in 1885 an Anglo-Catholic Priest, Father Robert Dolling, set up a mission in Landport, funded by Winchester College. For ten years he ministered in the area, leading to the opening of the church of St Agathas in 1895. Shortly after Dolling resigned, when the Bishop of Winchester refused to sanction Dolling’s preference for what were virtually Catholic worship rites. The year after his resignation Dolling published Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum, based on his experiences in Landport. I haven’t read it, but I’m hoping that it will be one of those rare, invaluable social investigations, a la Charles Booth in the Victorian period, and Mass Observation in World War Two.

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Filed under Local History, portsmouth heroes, World War One

Playing the Game: the British junior officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 by Christopher Moore-Bick

Much has been written about British senior officers in the Great War – the so called ‘Donkeys’. With popular cultural references such as ‘Oh what a lovely war’ and ‘Blackadder goes forth‘, it became an orthodoxy for many years that the British General Staff between 1914 and 1918 were Victorian and incompetent. In recent times, there have been a number of reactions to this. Firstly, attempts have been made to ‘rehabilitate the donkeys’, with varying success. And in a more refreshing manner, much effort has been put into uncovering the experiences of the rank and file on the Western Front, particularly poignant with the passing of the Harry Patch generation.

But somewhere in between those two appraches, we are missing something – an understanding of the lives of the junior officers of the British Army, those who commanded platoons and companies, whether regular, territorial or volunteer. And that void presents us with an opportunity. Not only to understand the middle level of the British Army in 1914-18, but also to take a closer look at the society that created them. And that’s what Christopher Moore-Bick has done very ably here.

In many respects the Great War heralded the end of the Victorian/Edwardian society in Britain. The title of the book is indicative of this – to young officers, everything was akin to a game, played on the public school playing fields. Baden-Powell encouraged his Boy Scouts to ‘play up, play up, and play the game!’. Portsmouth’s supporters, around the same time, encouraged their team to ‘Play up’. It could well be argued that the loss of so many young, educated men harmed British society irrevocably – how many future generals and politicians perished in Flanders fields?

It would not be enough to simply confine a look at the BEF‘s junior officers to their activities during the war and on the front line, and this book does not disappoint. Moore-Bick takes a broad view, examining Education and Upbringing, Training, the psychology of fear, responsibility and personal development working relationships with seniors and juniors, class factors, social activities and leisure pursuits, morale, bravery, identity and the relationship between war, dying and the public school ethos. No historical stone is left unturned.

A glance at the endnotes and bibliography gives an impression of just how hard the author must have worked on this project. Prolific use has been made of primary sources, in particular testimonies of junior officers. Great use has been made of a wide range of secondary published sources also. It is always impressive to see the reading that has gone into an authors approach and conclusions.

The only reservation I have about this book, is the manner in which Winchester College is mentioned profusely throughout. It transpires, reading the authors biography, that he is an ex-pupil of Winchester College. I’m sure that old-school tie is inspirational to people who didn’t go to the local state school, but it is slightly over-present here. I guess in a way that is an example of the class loyalties shown by junior officers during the Great War – the only school that existed was the one that you went to, and the only and by far the best Regiment in the British Army was the one that you joined. Tribal loyalties did breed healthy competition.

This book is a godsend to those researching the social history of the British Army in the First World War. For a first book it is a very credible effort, and I can only marvel at the time and effort that it must have taken to research. I’m going to find it invaluable during my research in the months and years to come.

Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 is published by Helion

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, social history, Uncategorized, western front, World War One