Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum Revisited

Local author and publisher Matt Wingett discusses the extraordinary life of Father Robert Dolling, who brought late Victorian Portsmouth to life in a vivid memoir.

If anyone has ever wondered about St Agatha’s Church, the lone bastion of Victorian red brick wedged between Cascades shopping centre and the Dockyard walls, just a little way up from the Unicorn Gate, a perusal of Robert Dolling’s Ten Years In A Portsmouth Slum reveals its fascinating story – and gives a decidedly gritty and vivacious look into the lives of Portsmouth people in the 1890s.

I know this because I found an old Victorian copy in royal blue cloth with a gilt motif on the front board in a bookshop a few years ago. Intrigued by the title, which nevertheless sounded like it might be an account of Pompey from a disgruntled resident, I was genuinely surprised by its contents.

Robert Dolling was a priest. Not just any old priest, but a missionary, who had previously worked in the slum areas of Stepney and was sent to Portsmouth by his bishop in 1885 to bring a gentler influence to Landport – an area renowned for its prostitution, slum housing and depravity of the lowest kind.

His welcome on the day he stepped off the train and made his way through the streets of the quarter of tight houses that festered at the end of Charlotte Street was typically Pompey. Happening upon a crowd who were blocking the street, he pushed through to see what they were looking at. What met his eyes would have shocked many Victorian sensibilities. It was a “Landport dance.” Two teenage girls had swapped their skirts with the trousers of two sailors, and the four of them were dancing cross-dressed in the streets. To the joy of the crowd, they were all topless.

When a woman in front of him fell to the ground in a drunken stupor and he leant over to help her up, the crowd suddenly sensed an interloper – one with a dog collar at that – meddling in their business. He was greeted with a hail of stones, and was only saved when another sailor stepped in and told the crowd, ‘Don’t touch the Holy Joe. He doesn’t look such a bad sort.’

Later, Father Dolling was to discover from one of his Sunday School girls that the girl dancers had been prostitutes revelling in their licentiousness and drumming up some more trade with the help of their obliging Jacks. The girl knew this because she worked as a cleaner in the brothel where the dancers worked. This little one was eight years old.

Dolling’s descriptions of Portsmouth and its people jumped off the page as I read them. From the cholera-infested courtyards around the abbatoirs near Charlotte Street (previously called Bloody Row because animals were slaughtered there), to the tightly packed streets, to the hundreds of pubs and alehouses and the countless bad-houses where the Royal Navy was serviced (just as it was in any other backstreet of Empire), Dolling made Pompey come to life.

That’s why I decided to republish the book in an affordable modern edition.

Dolling’s style, despite dealing with some of the most depraved and deprived areas of the country, is always upbeat. A rich strain of Victorian humaneness comes through in his writing and he doesn’t judge, but engages with the social problems he encounters thoughtfully and respectfully.

Driven by a belief that people can be better if they are given opportunities to enjoy more refined aspects of civilization, he tends not to sermonise in the book, but to offer practical solutions to the question of how to build community. Aware that in the streets around Conway Street and the old St Agatha’s Church, clannish families wouldn’t socialise with those from other streets, he organised regular tea mornings where the older ladies might come together and chat and eat cake. Some women found it difficult to imagine simply sitting and talking rather than doing work, while another who clearly fancied herself better than those around her considered it inappropriate to encourage these women in their gossiping habit. Nevertheless, the mornings were successful; many women attended and much cake was consumed.

Another account he tells of these ladies jumps out at the reader with wonderful detail:

On our first summer outing, seventy of us went to the Isle of Wight. It happened to be a very wet day, perhaps that was the excuse, but I noticed in many of their pockets, when coming home, the outline of a little bottle, the contents of which one could easily guess at by the ardour with which these old ladies skipped, for one had supplied a skipping rope, and by the character of the songs they sang. Luckily for us this was an impediment to quick disembarking, and so my sisters and I were glad to get off the boat, before we could be recognised as the guardians of the party.

His introductory notes about Portsmouth give a powerful sense of place:

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 very 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 will become in some true sense worthy of its great historic interest.

Dolling’s work saw him meet all manner of people. He was really appreciative of the Pompey working class character, describing the terseness of its people in a way that will be familiar to anyone who knows any of the old Pompey families.

In speech, too, how much we have to learn; how terse and in what few words do our dear people express themselves, while the man who wants to harangue them wraps round with innumerable words, which darken all counsels and prevent all understanding, the thought that the slum lad expresses in three or four words to the point. And as to manners, every single man in my home was a gentleman, that is, if thinking for others and treating them with forbearance and tenderness and love, and striving to make them feel at home and at ease, means being gentlemen. The roughest, rudest, most ignorant lad, after a month’s residence, has obtained these graces.

Whether he was describing the young women with their painted faces plying for trade on the Ladies’ Mile, the lads in the gymnasium who wrecked it just because they could, or the argument he has with an alcoholic preacher whom he took by the scruff of the neck and threw bodily out of his vicarage, Dolling always had something interesting and insightful to say about life in Portsmouth.

Some of his work involved closing down the bad houses that operated in his area, through the application of a moral pressure. This was so effective that in his time, the streets around the newly-built St Agatha’s Church were cleared of all brothels except one, whose owner was immune to moral arguments. In the end, ever practical, Dolling raised a subscription and bought the brothel, thereby ending its trade for good.

Dolling’s lasting legacy was St Agatha’s Church. It was also his downfall. The architect Henry Ball (the same many who had previously performed telepathy experiments with a young Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1880s) drew up plans for the new basilica-style church, and Dolling raised the subscription, going personally into debt to meet shortfalls.

Influenced by the Oxford Movement, which sought to introduce older Catholic practices into Anglicanism, Dolling had a Chapel for Prayers for the Dead built in his church. This was one step too far for his new bishop, and after an exchange of increasingly acrimonious letters – written on both sides with the calm fervour of the unbending adherent to doctrine – Dolling tendered his resignation, just as the Church came into use.

At that point, his sojourn in the town came to an end, ten years after he first witnessed the “Landport dance.”

Perhaps this dispute was a good thing. Though Dolling was left with debts of £3,090 – equivalent to approximately £500,000 in modern terms – he wrote his book to clear them. The book acted as an advertisement for the good work he had done, and benefactors stepped in to help him.

It is possible, then, that the record of his stay in Portsmouth might never have been written if not for his stubbornness.

Ten Years In A Portsmouth Slum gives a unique account of the city, and will be loved by anyone who, like me, has a passion for Portsmouth.