Ten Years In A Portsmouth Slum – An Introductory Note

I am preparing an edition of Robert Dolling’s “Ten Years In A Portsmouth Slum” (1895), and thought the following introduction might be of interest to anyone with a fascination for the city of Portsmouth, its extremes and its privations.

Editor’s Introduction

The city of Portsmouth that stands on the island of Portsea at the beginning of the 21st Century is a very different entity to the collection of towns and settlements to which the Reverend Robert Dolling was appointed towards the end of the 19th.

The whole of Conway Street and its environs, where his crowning achievement, Saint Agatha’s church, was built was wrecked by a single bomb during World War II. Perhaps miraculously, the church of St Agatha’s still stands, surrounded by roads that lead elsewhere, a little island of the past not completely swept away by the brutality of German bombs or the modernity of traffic schemes.

Standing in the church today, it is fascinating to imagine the maze of narrow streets that surrounded the basilica, which was opened just a few short weeks before he departed after a stubborn dispute with his bishop. It is humbling to consider the thousands of lives Dolling’s particular energy touched, the battles to improve people’s lots that went on in this area. And it is peculiar today to think of the basilica now as devoid of a parish, with the crowding slums around it long departed.

The part of Landport that was Dolling’s area of influence was crammed under the high walls of Portsmouth dockyard and stretched out towards Commercial Road. It is the presence of the dockyard that perhaps accounts for the attitude to life of many of the people who lived on Portsea Island, and in Landport in particular.

In the dockyard, around 6,000 men, skilled and unskilled, made a living fitting out and repairing the ships that were the lifeblood of the British Empire. Their lives were hard and the skills the dockyard needed from them had little to do with being civilised or Christian.  They needed to be strong, to be able to strike a rivet accurately, to work hard and to turn up on time not too much the worse for wear after whatever excesses they had got up to in the pubs, alehouses, brothels, cockpits or other places of entertainment they had been in the night before.

Alongside the workers in the dockyard were the sailors. Men who had been often at sea for years on end, were battle-hardened, and were used to drinking to excess in the seedy backstreets of Imperial possessions the world over. Landport was one more such place.

Meanwhile, the town of Portsmouth itself lay off to the south and east.  Ostensibly genteel along its High Street, Portsmouth contained massive barracks buildings where soldiers were penned up, awaiting a mutiny, an insurrection or a war to be called on to do their duty.

With so many rootless men around, and with an extraordinarily high number of watering holes around the town, it is little surprise that thousands of prostitutes lived there, plying the streets for trade, or running their businesses from more discreet “bad houses” in the dark recesses and narrow lanes of Landport, Portsea and Portsmouth.

The back streets of Portsmouth were slums even in the 1880s. King’s Bench Alley, Portsea, was only 2 feet 7 inches wide at its narrowest point, and never broader than 4 feet. Squeeze Gut Alley, in Portsmouth had a name that told you all you needed to know about its size. The houses in Landport were similarly sardined together, huddled between the dockyard and Commercial Road. Often a toilet in a back yard was shared between several families, and running water was drawn from a communal pump. Families were stacked close by each other – and – as Dolling himself notes – were prone to a clannishness that meant people in one street wouldn’t speak with those from the next.

With little need for education, since the dockyard would supply the work for many Portsea Island families, existence had a harsh physical quality. There were honest workers of all sorts living in Landport, and (as Dolling notes) children everywhere playing on the streets. There were vagabonds and tramps and those seeking work but unable to get any – and all the mish-mash of the very bottom end of Victorian society. There were shopworkers too, glad to have gainful employment, but who were made to work exceptionally long hours by shop owners who thought nothing of imposing on them a fourteen or fifteen hour day. With this as the background to their lives, no surprise that what Dolling considered to be the elevating influence of religion, along with that of simple social interaction and more satisfying relationship-building were not easily discovered among the people of Landport.

It is into this setting that Dolling strode on his mission to spread The Word, and act as a beacon of light and civilisation.

His background, the son of a wealthy landowner in Northern Ireland, English educated, with a strong feeling for the presence of God-in-man made him a simplistic theologian and a natural champion of the common man.

He came to Portsmouth after running a mission in the East End of London, and eventually became the priest at Saint Agatha’s Church in Conway Street, Landport.

Dolling’s approach to the slums of Portsmouth suited his personality, and that of the town, too. He was extremely active, and realised that the children of these tough families would not want their religious lessons over-egged. It was more use to the people around him to give them the things that were missing from their lives – an opportunity for people from different streets to socialise under one roof, the chance for young men and women to dance together as an opportunity to bring some gentleness to their courtships, the closing of the brothels and the opening of a gymnasium, public baths, almshouses and a grand church.

The prejudice of the higher classes against a priest of the poor, the intransigence of those with vested interests and moneyed profiteers from “fallen” women were all hindrances he overcame. What’s more, the practicalities of teaching people to live a more social life were many, not least the complaints of mothers who noted that their children’s clothes were worn through by kneeling to pray.

All the while, Dolling was most definitely on their side, and actively so. His attitudes were against the intellectual, and in favour of the practical. His attitude to the poor and the uneducated is stated clearly in a few words, that reveal where his sympathies lay:

“For ten long years, day and night, there were lessons for me to learn, if I only had the grace and modesty to learn them. Even in that in which men might know more, knowledge, they are but as babes and sucklings in the presence of those whom they condescend to teach, that is, if knowledge means the knowing of things likely to be useful to the knower and to the community. 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.”

This book is Dolling’s account of his time in Portsmouth. It is rich with the flavour of the Anglo-Catholic church in the 19th Century – and with something else besides. It gives an insight into the life of the town, into the characters who lived here and the different stratas of society. It reveals the prejudices of the classes, like the astonishment that Bishop Thorold pronounced when being told that the two charming chaps he had sat next to during a dinner in Landport were accomplished thieves, or the way in which Dolling took Landport people out for day visits to wealthy benefactors in the country in an effort to infuse them with the finer points of civilization. It shows the emotional satisfaction to be had from a society that isn’t only interested in getting the poor to work, but also to enjoy themselves in activities other than drinking and gambling – and how providing amenities to do that has a positive effect on people at last enabled to live fuller lives. It shows the benign effect of building a society with the ability to interact and rub along together and putting structures in place that bring out the better sides of people.

There are lessons here that we could learn again, at the start of the 21st Century.

It also reveals the humour of life as a priest in Portsmouth, the highs and the lows. The children who wrecked the gymnasium just because they could, the begging priest whom Dolling took by the nape of the neck and threw out of his house, the visiting Member of Parliament, the guardsman and clergymen staying with him over Christmas who he put on a ration of cheese and bread with the rest of the household as punishment for whoever wrecked Blind Willie’s hat.

In all, there is much to recommend the Reverend Robert Dolling’s book, and much to marvel at. Enjoy!

Matt Wingett, Southsea, Portsmouth, 2012.


  1. TomDHarris

    Great introduction, Matt. This positively reeks of your unadulterated passion for Portsmouth. Some really interesting stuff in there, I love Squeeze Gut Alley, wish I’d have thought of that in a fictional sense. All the best with the project. Hope to catch you next week at the hub. Cheers. Tom

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