St Peter’s, London Docks and Radley College Mission

Revd Robert Linklater, one of the curates of St Peter’s, London Docks, in Wapping, visited Radley College on 6 March 1881. He spoke about the night school he ran at St Peter’s which was in such demand that men queued outside for the chance to learn, and about the despair which led to daily suicides among his parishioners. But his challenge to Radley was on behalf of the children. Most of them had never seen the countryside or had the chance to play sports. He had raised funds to buy land for a playground, but, he asked, would Radleians provide the money for its upkeep? The school agreed with enthusiasm, began immediate plans for an even larger project, and sent invitations to Old Boys to join in the work.

In June 1881 a small delegation from the school visited the playground for the first time: ‘The playground is surrounded as almost everything in the neighbourhood is by a very high wall, and guarded by a sturdy porter, whose business it is to keep out the roughs. We should say that it was slightly larger than the master’s lawn tennis ground at the back of the house [Mansion] – and this piece of land cost £1,000. It is paved with asphalt, and has a good many swings, roundabouts, parallel bars, and suchlike contrivances. At the time of our visit it was crowded with children of various ages, ranging from about five to fourteen. They seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, swinging up to giddy heights, almost to the level of the top of the wall – but their chief delight, it seems, is to run races.’

The playground was primarily funded by subscription from all the boys in the school, taken from their pocket money. This ensured a steady income for the project and was designed to teach the boys to manage their personal budgets. Additional funds were raised as free-will offerings in Chapel and pledges from Old Radleians.

Gradually the work expanded. Within two years of leaving Radley in 1889, Harold Pollock (1883) was working informally at St Peter’s. He was appointed Assistant Curate there following his ordination in 1894, with the brief to set up clubs for the young men and boys of the neighbourhood. In 1910, he was appointed Radley College Missioner, his salary paid by the school. Pollock continued in this post until 1937, retiring after 47 years’ service.

With a dedicated member of staff in place the work flourished. There were regular appeals to Old Radleians living in London to help out with activities. Small groups of boys, dons and family members – particularly Mrs Croome, wife of the tutor of F Social, and Miss Bryans, sister of the tutor of G Social – travelled to London to perform entertainments. There were regular day trips to Radley for groups from St Peter’s, which featured concerts, teas, cricket and boating. Some Radleians became deeply committed to the work, such as Francis Storrs (1897), whose widow Catherine continued to run the work among women and girls from after his death in 1918 until the 1940s; James Janson (1903) ran weekly activities and assisted at summer camps throughout his time as a chemistry student at University College, London; Cyril Whitworth (1904) spent all his vacations working at St Peter’s in preparation for his life’s work as a missionary priest with the Universities Mission in Zanzibar: this was the first organisation to campaign for (and achieve) the ordination of black Africans and worked to combat the continuing slave trade. Cyril followed another Old Radleian, Cecil Tyrwhitt (1873), in this work in Zanzibar.

Several Old Radleians who had spent time at St Peter’s while at school went on to serve at other College and Public School Missions before going on to specialist ministries, among them Edward Sedding (1897), who became chaplain to the experimental Arts and Crafts temperance village for women at Duxhurst, Surrey; Selwyn Oxley (1904), who became missioner and lecturer for the deaf from 1914; and Charles Donald (1885), who served as Head of Rugby School Mission in Notting Dale for 20 years from 1905. For members of the Radley community who volunteered there, the impact of the outreach work fired their drive to make a difference far beyond the confines of both Radley and the East End of London.

Radley College took over all aspects of the Mission at St Peter’s in 1910. The parish provided a club room which the school furnished with a billiard table, reading area and accommodation for visitors. The school bought a field near Bognor Regis which became a treasured campsite for summer seaside holidays. Initially just for boys, with Radleians encouraged to join them, it would later be used by all groups in the parish, until it was sold in 1937. Radley College Mission focused on working among those who were the same age as boys at Radley, managing two organisations ‘for the social and religious welfare of the boys and young men in that crowded district’. One was a ‘League of Hope’, part of the Temperance Movement, for those aged 14 to 21, the other a Company of the London Diocesan Church Lads Brigade, nominally for those aged 12 to 18. Between them these two organisations ran two soccer teams, athletics, boxing, took part in singing, recitation and industrial exhibition competitions and held internal championships in draughts, billiards and chess. The Church Lads Brigade wore uniforms and took part in drill competitions, had a miniature rifle range and a drum and fife band.

Any Old Radleian who could join them would find his skills put to good use and it was no wonder, then, that when 94 members of St Peter’s visited Radley College for the day on Whit Monday 1912 the school and the Mission ‘fraternised together as if they had known each other all their lives’. But the day-to-day lives of the two groups could not have been more different. This was a year of serious labour unrest which hit the docklands particularly hard. During the strikes in June and July 1912 many of the boys from the Mission organisations were the only members of their families in work, with entire households dependent on their earnings.

The destitution often led to grievous family situations and while the temperance groups and organised activities helped alleviate some of it, for many individuals, particularly children, the situation could be dire. In his first two years at St Peter’s Harold Pollock persuaded Radley to help two boys in particular: Edward Ledsham and W. Chandler. In 1891, the school arranged to pay for full board and lodging and education for both these boys, one in Windsor, the other in Radley village. By 1900 a further three boys were being boarded and educated in Radley village at the expense of the school. Several others were similarly looked after until the 1940s. This arrangement also benefited some of the poorer households in Radley village who received an income from it. If the Mission achieved little else surely its impact on the lives of these individual boys from London must have been very great.

There was, however, constant doubt about how much impact the Mission made on the conscience or the understanding of the boys of the school. It is true that a significant number of individual Old Radleians based in London gave time to help over more than 70 years, with several of them making life choices in response to the work they undertook, but how much the average schoolboy appreciated what happened to the money he gave was always questioned. The distance to Wapping and the difficulty of arranging trips there during school term times meant that little spontaneous contact arose, while those entertainments which were organised involved relatively few boys, dons and women from the Radley community. Visits from St Peter’s usually happened during school holidays, coinciding as they must with national holidays which allowed the young men and boys from London time off from work. Consequently, by the 1930s the value of the Mission as an educational tool for Radleians was under serious reconsideration.

Social education and service

The Great Depression of the 1930s changed the perception of the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor, and with it attitudes to social service. In 1937 the boys set up their own Radley College Social Services Society, perhaps showing a shift in focus from an overtly Christian agenda to one motivated more simply by perceived hardship: ‘The Society’s aims are: primarily, to create an interest in the conditions of the unemployed and so-called lower classes for Radleians, which might be carried on after leaving Radley, and, secondly, to give financial aid to Social Service work amongst these people, from our comparatively opulent selves.’

The Society initially concentrated on the terrible impact of the Depression on the coal mining areas of Durham. Funds for Durham miners were raised through voluntary subscription and by paid performances of Social plays or concerts: F Social, under its tutor Arthur Hedgcock, Head of Science, was particularly involved in this. Representatives of the miners visited Radley and groups from the school travelled to County Durham to see conditions for themselves. It could be (and was) argued that the same conditions prevailed in the London Docks as in the Durham coalfields and that it was considerably easier to get to London from Radley, but the boys threw themselves into the work of the Social Services Society far more than they had engaged with the Mission for several years.

The national picture was also changing. In 1942, the Beveridge Report formulated the idea of the Welfare State, putting forward a mechanism for social security, national health, free education, affordable housing, and government aid for the unemployed, ill, retired, widowed and children via universal insurance without means testing. This meant care from cradle to grave, eventually implemented by the post-war Labour government and culminating in the creation of the National Health Service in 1948. In that context, the role of the Mission as provider of education, promoter of social reform or alleviator of poverty in the docklands was superseded and it became primarily a social club for teenage boys, with an emphasis on conversion. As such, it was both an expensive venture and perhaps out of step with contemporary thought.

The separation of social service from evangelism fuelled the debate over the Mission’s future into the late 1950s, exposing tensions between the school and the Radleian Society. After the war, the support of the Welfare State and increasing prosperity brought new activities within the reach of the East Enders and as the pre-war clubs, with their gender-based segregation, became increasingly obsolete, so did the kind of activities which Radleians had offered to the Mission. There was confusion over the role of Old Boys and current pupils as the Radleian Society sought to engage alumni based in London while the school looked for educational opportunities for the boys nearer home. At the school, the distance to Wapping or Durham was finally acknowledged to be too far for the average Radleian to gain educationally. This was exacerbated by changes to the curriculum with the national introduction in 1951 of O and A Levels for all secondary pupils: the time available to boys and dons for extra-curricular activities was now much more constrained. The final split came in 1960, when the vicar requested that the Mission be closed because it was simply duplicating activities within the parish. It was, however, fondly remembered by many in Wapping, and was celebrated at an annual dinner until 2000.

Just Vanity?

Public School Missions such as Radley’s became so engrained in the national conscience that in 1916 the Boy’s Own Paper ran a series about the individual organisations, praising the missioners and their work alongside national war heroes, including Old Radleians flying ace Reginald Marix and Oswald Reid

(1910), winner of the Victoria Cross.

The schools were proud of the missions, featuring their respective organisations in their prospectuses. Individual Old Boys fought for money and support by reference to the success of rival schools’ missions. This has led to the charge that the missions were primarily a vanity exercise rather than driven by serious concern for the poor. However, a concern for social justice lay at the heart of 19th-century Christianity. Indeed, at Radley this was integral to its very foundation: for Sewell and Singleton the Christian faith must give rise to just works, not as the means of salvation but as an outward expression of it. Their commitment to social justice led them to make a point of buying services such as laundry from the village and produce from local farmers. Moreover, Radley’s connection with its own mission lasted for nearly 80 years during which time donations from pupils, staff and Old Boys paid for the salaries of missioners, provided sports equipment, bought the land for a holiday camp and repaired a bomb-damaged hall. This was more than a vanity project.