Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum[1]

by Robert R. Dolling

Note: Robert R. Dolling was a priest who spent ten years in Portsmouth in a slum parish, St. Agatha's, Landport.  His book of the above name was published in 1897. I have extracted a couple of passages from it which describe the general nature of the parish during his time there.


My Appointment


I fear the title of this little book is almost a liable; but, as the parent often looks upon the grown-up son as if he were still a child, so do my thoughts ever go back to the infancy of our work, and S. Agatha's is a slum district in my mind. Though we have largely lost the outward signs of slumdom, poverty, of course, remains -- it always will -- but utter hopelessness and callous depravity have, in a measure passed away, not merely from our people, but from our very streets.

We re a curious little island in this great town of Portsmouth. The Unicorn Road, leading to the Dockyard, the Edinburgh Road, leading to Portsea, and the Commercial Road -- the main artery of all the traffic of the town -- form a kind of irregular square, with the Dockyard wall as a base; and if it were not that Charlotte Street, which in happier days used to be called "Bloody Row" from the number of butchers' shops in it, and slaughter houses behind it, is the thoroughfare which the Dockyard men mostly use in reaching their homes, we should be almost an unknown spot. This kind of isolation is one of the difficulties which the municipal authorities have had to face in making Portsmouth the great city they desire to see it.

Portsmouth is composed of four separate towns. When Portsmouth and Portsea -- the former thronged with soldiers, the latter with sailors -- High Street Portsmouth being a kind of parade ground; the Hard, Portsea, a kind of inland quarter-deck -- burst their bonds, and the moats were removed, they developed, on the one hand, into Southsea, inhabited mostly by half-pay officers, with many hotels and lodging-houses, and in the other direction, into Landport and Kingston, inhabited mostly by artisans in the Dockyard. This quadruple town, with its different, and often conflicting, interests, with an extraordinarily rapid increase of population, with its absence of wealthy people, and with hardly any manufactories, has been a very difficult mass out of which to create a really united city; and yet the progress which has been made even in my ten years has been wonderful. Southsea has become a beautiful and fashionable watering-place; we have a splendid Town Hall and People's Park; the electric light has been most efficiently installed; the School Board has created through the town many magnificent schools; and when an attempt, which has been begun, is completed, of removing some of the slums which disgraced Portsmouth and Portsea, the town hall will become in some true sense worthy of its great historic interest.

All these changes have hardly affected our little district. The streets are, most of them, very narrow and quaint, named after great admirals and sea-battles, with old-world, red-tiled roofs , and interiors almost like the cabins of ships -- many times I have stuck in a staircase and could not go up or down till pulled from below -- with the far off scent of the sea coming over the mud o the harbour, and every now and then the boom of a cannon, or the shrill shriek of the siren; sailors everywhere, sometimes fighting, sometimes courting, nearly always laughing and good-humoured, except when afraid they have broken their leave -- our chief joy, alas! oftentimes our greatest danger. I remember well how, the first night I made acquaintance with it, their uniforms and rolling gait redeemed from its squalor and commonplace this poor little district, with its eleven hundred little houses and its fifty-two public-houses. Charlotte Street was, from end to end, an open fair; cheap-jacks screaming; laughing crowds round them, never seaming to buy; women, straggling under the weight of a baby, trying to get the Sunday dinner a little cheaper because things had begun to get stale; great louts of lads standing at the corners -- you can guess from their faces the kind of stories they are telling; then some piece of horse-play, necessitating a sudden rush through he crowd, many a cuff and many a blow, but hardly any ill-nature; slatternly women creeping out of some little public-house. But why try to describe it to you? . . .



My District

I did not really begin my work till September 29th, 1885, but as Dr. Linklater wanted to go away, I came down to help on Sundays, and, therefore, I had the opportunity of learning something about the district before my work really began. A very wise priest   once said to me, "Don't make plans for your parish, let your parish make plans for itself." These six weeks were invaluable, letting me hear the parish voices, and try to discover its plans. Two notes were always making themselves heard; one was the poverty, the other was the sin. And surely they explained each other; they are sinful as a rule, because they were poor. A man who falls from a height is wounded to death, every limb is shattered, every feature disfigured. He who slips on the pavement by a casual chance, pulls himself up, and goes on unhurt. Oh, most blessed truth! our falls in Portsmouth entailed no complete destruction of character, hardly any disfigurement at all. Boys stole, because stealing seemed to them the only method of living; men were drunken because their stomachs were empty, and the public-house was the only cheerful place of entertainment, the only home of good fellowship and kindliness; girls sinned, because their mothers had sinned before them, oftentimes their grandmothers too, unconscious of any shame in it, regarding it as a necessary circumstance of life, if they were to live at all. The soul unquickened, the body alone is depraved, and, therefore, the highest part is still capable of the most beautiful development. I wish I had words in which I could put this thought quite plainly to you. It lies at the keynote of all missionary work, and it is what makes missionary work so full of hope.

My first Sunday afternoon, as I was walking in Chance Street, I saw for the first time a Landport dance. Two girls, their only clothing a pair of sailor's trousers each, and two sailor lads, their only clothing the girls' petticoats, were dancing a kind of breaking up and down the street, all the neighbours looked on amused but unastonished, until one couple, the worse for drink, toppled over. I stepped forward to help them up, but my endeavour was evidently looked upon from a hostile point of view, for the parish voice was translated into a shower of stones, until the unfallen sailor cried out, "Don't touch the Holy Joe. He doesn't look such a bad sort." I could not stay to cement our friendship, for the bell was ringing for children's service, and, to my horror, I found that some of the children in going to church had witnessed the whole of this little scene. They evidently looked upon it as quite a legitimate Sunday afternoon's entertainment. One little girl, of about eight, volunteered the name of the two dancing girls; she was a kind of little servant in the house, though she slept two or three doors off, and her only dread was that the return of a sailor, who had more rights in the house, might take place before the others had been got rid of.

You can imagine my feeling of hopelessness in conducting a service for children old in the knowledge, if not in the habits, of sin. Poor children, they had not been long accustomed to a church of their own; they had driven themselves away from the parish church by their behavior. A neighbouring vicar, who kindly took them in for a little while, had left them in undivided enjoyment of his church, saying to Dr. Linklater, "I leave my church to you and your savage crew." My first attempt reached a climax when two boys calmly lighted their pipes and began to smoke. One remedy alone seemed possible -- to seize them by the back of the neck, and run them out of church, knocking their heads together as hard as I could. Amazed at first into silence, their tongues recovered themselves before they reached the door, and the rest of the children listened, delighted, to vocabulary which I have seldom heard excelled. We had no sooner restored order than the mothers of the two lads put in an appearance. As wine is to water, so was the conversation of the mothers to their sons'. UI wish I could have closed the children's ears as quickly as I closed the service. But they listened with extreme delight, even following me in a kind of procession, headed by the two ladies, to my lodgings. The contrast between this, my first procession, and the last, which took place when my church was opened, is a true measure of the difference which ten years have made.

These two little episodes, which stand out so plainly in my memory, forces upon me the knowledge of your shameless sinfulness, and of our utter lawlessness and disobedience. But was it any wonder that it should be so? The wages of the majority of the people in regular employment were so small that they lived in continuous poverty; the larger part had no settled wages at all, many of them being hawkers, greengrocers with a capital of five shillings, window cleaners in a district where no one wanted their windows cleaned, old age pensioners past work with a shilling to eighteenpence a day, sailors' wives with three or four children living upon 2 a month, and soldiers' wives married off the strength with no pay at all. One week's sickness of the bread -winners meant a fortnight's living upon the pawning of clothes and furniture, with nothing before them but the workhouse, and death sooner than that. Of course, there were mane exceptions to this generalisation, but I am speaking of the parish as a whole. Then, temptation at almost every door, places where you were always welcome, even if you had no money, for there is always somebody to treat you; places where the craving of the empty stomach can be satisfied, where the crying wife and the hungry children may be forgotten; places where, it is only just to add, extraordinary kindness is often shown, and help given in the our of direst need, for there is a good and kindly side even to the public-house. Oh, that the bishops had the energy of the brewers! Oh, that the clergy has the persistency of the publicans! For what had the Church of England done for this district? Literally nothing. The enormous mother-parish of All Saints had its twenty seven thousand parishioners, one church, one vicar, one curate. What even had Nonconformity done in its more recognised forms? One chapel, empty, minister and  congregation having migrated to more favoured climes. But though the priest and Levite had passed by, the Good Samaritan had been represented by four little centers of earnest religious work, which have flourished during my whole ten years, and still are, thank God, working for Him in S. Agatha's district.

. . .


[1] Robert R. Dolling,  "Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum", Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Lim., Paternoster Square, London, 1897