Temperance in the Slums – Jessica Thorne

“”This is your husband, I presume?” said I, appealing to the wife.“Yes, I am her husband,” replied the man himself; “but, if you want to see me, we had better go inside the parlour behind the shop.”Having said this, he walked straight into the room, and I followed him, in a state of considerable doubt as to what sort of a reception he might give me. Then, without giving him time to ask me my business, I said,-“I am a clergyman, working for a short time in this parish, and I am come to you to ask you to let me be your friend.”“And I am come in to beg your pardon, sir, for denying myself to you just now, and telling you a lie, for I could see that you came as a friend,” was the unexpected reply. “And-and-oh! if you would only be a friend to me”-“You would take my advice, my friend, and try to follow it – wouldn’t you?”“Sir, you think me a drunkard, and so I am.  My father was a drunkard before me, and died of drink; and I’ve heard say that my grandfather was also a drunkard, and died of drink; so I suppose it must be in the blood. But I am now more ill than drunk. In fact, I feel very, very ill, as if I should soon die. But I know very, well what I am talking about, sir, and, bad as I am, I have not forgotten what I was taught by my mother, who is now a saint in heaven, as she was once a saint upon earth.”It is unnecessary to enter into further details respecting that painful interview. It is enough to state that it ended in the poor drunkard giving me a solemn promise to place himself there and then under my control, and to do nothing but what I might prescribe for him. I was to be at once his director and physician. But he entreated so pathetically that I would not be too hard upon him at first, and that I would give him a little time to recover before I made him sign the pledge of total abstinence, that I consented to let his wife administer to him small doses of brandy, diluted with water, at certain intervals for a day or two, on condition that he would take the pledge as soon as I might consider him in a fit state to do so.During the next three days he was confined to his bed; but on the last of those days I found him engaged in reading his Bible, and his conversation  led me to hope that a radical change had taken place in his spiritual as well as in his physical condition. He continued to speak much of his mother, of the religious training he had received from her, and of the influence which her teaching and pious example had exercised upon him after her death, and often times even when he was surrounded by ungodly companions.On the following Sunday he was well enough to go out and I were greatly cheered by seeing him and his wife amongst the congregation to which I had the privilege of ministering. It was their first visit to that or any other church for some years.”

Jones, Rev. D Rice, ‘Pages of a Note-book of a London Diocesan Home Missionary’, in Jones, Rev D. Rice, (ed.),  In the Slums (James Nisbet & Co: London, 1884),  pp.116 -119.

Slum housing in Camberwell, London

This account of a London Diocesan Missionary provides an interesting example of a missionary’s life and how he fulfilled his religious duties by entering the slums and befriending the poor. Reverend D Rice-Jones’ In the Slums is a report of his personal experiences whilst working in one of the poorest districts of Central London. The conversation between the alcoholic slummy, his wife and the missionary gives an insight intthe most miserable living conditions and the daily struggle that plagued the lower-class people of Britain during the late nineteenth century. The extract shows how the missionaries attempted to supported people in times of need, whilst encouraging them to develop a closer relationship with God to sustain a healthier life free of alcohol and sin. Most importantly, the account is a reflection of the opinions of a missionary from The Church of England temperance movement within the slums.

A stigma around poverty was created in the nineteenth century and the ‘the slummy’ stereotype was often seen to be in dire straits due to their own actions[1]. The conversation between the man, missionary Reverend Rice-Jones and his wife highlights several key themes for historians of life in the slums. The conversation addresses issues of gender, religion and poverty, and many other social issues. There are certain social expectations of each character; the drunkard, for instance, believes that he is in some way a lost cause judging by the way in which he thinks he is almost genetically linked to alcoholism and misfortune: ‘it must be in the blood’[2] The alcoholic is expected to wither away in his impoverished life. Although the missionary enters in good faith, and asks nothing of the man than to be his friend, the missionary appears self-righteous. For instance, he accounts for all his deeds and suggests that those he met in the slums were emancipated from sin purely because of his religious actions; this suggests a somewhat arrogant attitude towards his mission. The experiences the priest describes in the slums seem more like conquests to him than relationships with actual people. The missionary almost mocks the man at first, as when he introduced himself, he describes the first words of the man, ‘for I could see that you came as a friend’, was an ‘unexpected reply’.[3] This suggests that the missionary had judged the man even before he spoke and that his acceptance of immediate help was somewhat baffling considering from a troubled ‘slummy’.

The man’s wife is advised to attend to his bedside, acting as an assistant to the priest’s commands as he wrote: ‘I consented to let his wife administer him’. This almost mirrors the relationship expected between a doctor and nurse. This part of the conversation addresses particular expectations that were placed on women and their roles in the late nineteenth century and also displays the power roles within the relationship[4]. The wife has a  duty to her husband, whilst at the same time as providing assistance to the priest and his every word, showing not just the power relationship within marriage but also the power of religion and God in the Victorian era.  It is clear that God was still valued as the most powerful and that religion was valued as a healthy life-style structure that would have provided much security and faith in one’s life.[5] This belief resulted in the letting the priest into the man’s home to help him withdraw from alcohol. That his wife was so willingly ready to follow the priest’s commands implies that the priest had a higher status in the social hierarchy, and what gave him this was his devotion to religion.[6]

This sources needs to be understood in the context of late nineteenth-century philanthropy. During the 1800s there was a rise in the temperance movement and settlement houses that accommodated the poor. However, evidence shows that there was not much socialising between the classes. Moreover it can be argued that this philanthropy was less about moral support of the poor but more about the trend amongst the rich to appear a well-rounded charitable individual.[7] The end of the alcoholic’s recovery results in him and his wife attending one of Rice’s Sunday sessions in Church; he was especially pleased that the couple had not attended church in years and it seemed to be his charitable visit that had encouraged the couple to venture out, repeatedly justifying his work for his own self-gratification.

However, a slightly less harsh examination of the source reminds us that there were some good effects of this kind of philanthropy. Without the missionary entering the slums in search of helping this man, he may not have lived or sustained his abstinence. The missionary provided a support network for him to regain faith. Temperance work in the slums created awareness of the conditions of the slums and the works recorded by the priest and other missionaries helped to gather information which contributed positive changes such as eventual slum clearances and the Housing Act of 1919.[8]

Jessica Thorne


[1] Jones, Rev. D. Rice, ‘Pages of a Note-book of a London Diocesan Home Missionary’, in Jones, Rev D. Rice,  In the Slums (James Nisbet & Co: London, 1884),  p.110.

[2] Jones, In the Slums, p. 118.

[3] Jones, In the Slums, p. 117.

[4] Shanley, M., Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 152.

[5] Altholz, A., ‘The Warfare of Conscience with Theology’, in Parsons, G., (ed.), Religion in Victorian Britain, Vol. 6, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), pp. 150.

[6] Wohl, A. S., ‘The Re-establishment of the Catholic Hierarchy in England, 1850’ (1990).  Available online: http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/Hierarchy_Reestablished.html. Date accessed: 10 December 2015.

[7] Ryan, A., ‘The Philanthropic Perspective after a Hundred Years’, in Shneewind, J B., (ed.) Giving: Western Ideas of Philanthropy, (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1996), pp. 76-77.

[8] Geddes-Poole, A., Philanthropy and the construction of women’s citizenship: Lady Frederick Cavendish and Emma Cons (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), pp. 107.