Reverend Bell

Reverend Edward Hutton Bell 1902-1911

The Reverend Edward Hutton Bell, one time curate of S. Mark's, Wimbledon, and latterly Vicar of All Saints', Camberwell, was inducted to the living of All Saints', South Wimbledon on the afternoon of Saturday 27th. September 1902, by the Rural dean of Wandsworth, Reverend N. Campbell. His was no easy task following in the footsteps of one as popular as Reverend Pickering and it was not long before latent tensions came to the fore. There was a heated debate at the first vestry meeting presided over by Reverend Bell concerning nominations for the post of People’s Warden . The Vicar was prompted to remark that "They must remember that they were gathered together in the interests of the church, and it was not an Urban Council Meeting!"  Whilst he declared himself content to abide by the decision of the meeting, he deplored the fact that certain ratepayers had been brought along merely to ensure the success of a particular candidate and, although the law gave them the right to vote, he felt it wrong that those who did not come to the church should have a say in its affairs:- "After all", he said, "he was the one most concerned, as they were going to saddle him with one of two men." Eventually Dr. Gillard, proposer of Mr. Wallace, against the Vicar's preferred candidate - Mr. Arnold - and a principal player in the drama, suggested that a ballot be taken. At this point the Vicar, clearly incensed by the whole debacle, refused.  "Mr. Pickering allowed a ballot", replied the Doctor. "That was illegal", retorted the Vicar! The issue was decided therefore on a show of hands and Mr. Wallace, by 20 votes to 13, won the day.

The circumstance was a blemish on the hitherto fair complexion of All Saints'. The Vicar felt that the church was not going out of that meeting as it had come in and trusted that, if they had been working up for this, might such a thing never take place again. It was, he thought, a bad beginning for a new Vicar but, he added, "give me three years and I shall peacen this parish."  Whether this was an entirely appropriate remark, given the situation, is open to question, but the meeting, in a vote of thanks to the chairman, whilst expressing sorrow at hearing some of his remarks, nevertheless felt that they arose more from the "feeling point of view" rather than anything else. The hand of reconciliation was offered and the Vicar, in declaring that if he said more than he should have done it was only with the spiritual good of the church in mind, took it. It was an uneasy peace.

There was however plenty to concentrate the mind and eclipse dissent. The differences between priest and people were repressed by a collective responsibility towards the needs of their two churches, and it would bring no credit upon them if they let such bickering hinder their work in the wider parish. The reader may rest assured that the living conditions of the ordinary man in South Wimbledon were still less than comfortable. In June 1903 a particularly disturbing case of neglect occurred in Merton High Street when Charles and Alice Gray were accused of fully exposing their five children (aged 14, 13, 7, 5 & 4 years) in a manner likely to cause them unnecessary suffering or injury to their health. The children were discovered huddled together in the water closet of their home, their heads in a "filthy, dirty, verminous condition."  Their bodies and clothes were alive with vermin, their skin torn by their nails as a consequence of irritation and they were in such a blackened state that it was doubtful as to whether they had washed for several weeks. In addition, one of the children was suffering from ringworm on his back. Their father, a navvy, was often unemployed, whilst their mother frequented the neighbourhood pubs, and was often seen abroad on the streets with other women from the district. It was a hopeless case and the workhouse their only refuge. There were many other examples of pain and suffering, not only as a result of neglect, but as an upshot of the way people lived. 

Reverend Bell, whilst not becoming involved to the extent of his predecessor, did concern himself with these wider issues, and his views were, on occasions, reported in the local press.    It became necessary however, to read such articles with care for, when the Reverend J. Allen Bell succeeded Canon Haygarth as Vicar of Wimbledon, an element of confusion could easily arise. Parishioners solved the perplexity by referring to them as the "back door" and "front door" Bells! - though which was which I leave the reader to guess.

One area of concern for Rev. Bell was the question of strong drink and the work of the Temperance Movement in seeking to curb what it saw as the resultant evils. Although himself a lifelong abstainer, Bell took, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a much more liberal view of the problem. He favoured friendlier meetings, which would attract the young, discussion of different subjects, and a realisation that they were not going to induce a large part of the population to have anything to do with total abstinence. To some this was a complete travesty of their ideals - they put pen to paper. He soon found himself publicly criticised for suggesting that those most likely to succeed in the crusade were moderate drinkers themselves, and for supporting the idea that publicans should be given compensation as an act of justice. One letter to the paper was uncompromising:-  "It seems to me that it will be time enough for publicans and their friends to talk about justice when the brewers and publicans have disgorged the millions of money which the ratepayers of this country have had to pay for the support of the army of criminals, lunatics and paupers created by drink..."  Living in South Wimbledon, Reverend Bell could see at first hand the futility of the old Victorian approach - clearly there were others elsewhere who could not.

Two years after Reverend Bell’s induction the congregation had changed. The clergy declined to proffer any explanation - indeed they noted it without any real disturbance, declaring themselves to be "giving without stint the best that we are able to do the Church's work". Reverend Bell thought that the lesser numbers reflected a more widely united body - a bond of fellowship developed through social and religious contact. Certainly it was the first peaceful Vestry Meeting for three years, any possible bitterness over elections being forestalled by the voluntary withdrawal of the other candidates in the interests of "peace and quietness, the sake of the church and the Vicar's feeling."

Church membership now numbered about 130, with an "inner sanctum" of twenty-two appointed as members of the Church Council - which body the Vicar regarded as a "wholesome safety valve", despite the fact that they had not yet really "struck out the ideal path of usefulness!" 

In 1905 All Saints’ became part of the newly-formed Diocese of Southwark – a Diocese that contained many of the poorest districts of the capital. Finance became a greater struggle and the plans for a South Aisle in the church had to be abandoned as the effort required to keep the building in good repair increased. 

By 1906 Reverend Bell declared the decline in numbers to be at an end – they had reached the ‘bedrock’ and now promised to grow in strength. There were also changes with regard to the ‘mission church’ of S. Peter’s. Statistics with regard to the number of communicants, services and organisations, coupled with the growth of the area as a whole, suggested that the time was ripe for the creation of an Ecclesiastical District centred on that church, and a severance from All Saints' under whose wing it had matured. Thus Havelock, Kohat, Kingsley and Durnsford Roads, Plough Lane and Leathermill Lane became, along with several roads from Holy Trinity parish, that part of South Wimbledon destined to become the parish of S. Peter's. Harry Lloyd Babington, latterly Assistant Curate of S. Andrew's, Stockwell, was appointed Mission Priest and, as had Reverend Pickering some twenty years earlier, began to steer a course towards a permanent building that would fittingly serve the new parish and its people. It was destined to take him a mere four years.

With the embryonic S. Peter's now in the ascendant, All Saints' in its maturity received the last major addition to its fabric in the form of the large wooden cross that marked the completion of the Rood Screen. The carved cross, with the figures of the Saviour, the Blessed Virgin Mary and S. John, was designed by J. T. Micklethwaite, and originally sited at the west end of the church until an anonymous donation of £125 made its movement possible - work that was carried out by Messrs. J. E. Knox of Upper Kennington Lane. The screen, now in its full glory, was dedicated on Thursday, October 31st 1907 at 8.00.p.m. - this celebration marking the start of seven days of special services centred on the Patronal Festival. In the parish hand-out is this prayer for the parish:-

"Almighty and Everlasting God, Who dost govern all things in heaven and earth, mercifully hear our prayers, and grant to this parish all things needed for its spiritual welfare: strengthen and confirm the faithful; visit and relieve the sick; turn and soften the wicked; arouse the careless; recover the fallen; restore the penitent; remove all hindrances to the advancement of Thy truth; and bring all to be of one heart and mind within the fold of Thy Holy Church; to the honour and glory of Thy Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord."

It was still very much a parish that needed prayer. For the poor, skill lay in survival. In January 1908 seventy five children of the unemployed were fed by a society named "South Wimbledon Free Dinners for the Children of the Unemployed", but the schools report, published in June 1908, revealed the true extent of many children's misery. It exposed 92 cases of notable malnutrition, 38 cases of marked deafness and showed 247 to be in receipt of free dinners. Noteworthy was the high incidence of malnutrition at the Haydons Road School.   The root cause of under nourishment was laid firmly at the feet of their home conditions, where ignorance and neglect were rife. Large families, the scourge of unemployment and mothers at work away from home were all cited as contributory factors. The children's diet consisted largely of bread and tea, with a paltry amount of skimmed milk, and the situation was getting worse. Ninety-one cases had been referred to the N.S.P.C.C. and the average attendance for meals at Latimer Road had risen to 334 daily, compared with 134 in 1905-6.   Cleanliness and disease was also a problem. Cases of ringworm, scarlet fever and diphtheria kept many away from school. The number of visits made by the nurses tell their own story. Nurse Mellor paid 196 visits in North Wimbledon - in South Wimbledon Nurse Hobart paid 2,711. Many thought it outrageous that such conditions should be allowed to prevail and sought a "Town Meeting" to get something done. Ralph D. Ford, a resident of Rayleigh Road, had been particularly struck by the case of a girl who had arrived in such a famished state at the Queens Road School, that the mistress had been obliged to feed her there and then. He writes:- " the trouble exists at this moment...unless some action is taken we shall drift on."   Reverend Bell joined the board of the newly-formed Guild of Help, a body that sought, not to enter into competition with charities that already existed, but to bring into use existing agencies.

Despite the conditions amongst the poor of the parish there was much enthusiasm for the great festivals and celebrations of the Church and these also extended to those of the state and Empire. Empire Day was always marked in the schools with interesting, and often ambitious, displays. In May 1909, the girls of the Haydons Road Girls and Infants School dressed in costumes personifying Britannia, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and sang patriotic songs such as "Rule Britannia", "A Song, a Song, a Song for England" and "Our Glorious Empire Day." Other children represented the Colonies and brought gifts characteristic of those country's products - tea, wheat, gold. silks, fur etc., - which they presented to Britannia. Then, prior to a march past and the saluting of the Flag, Reverend Bell spoke to them of the privilege of belonging to the Empire and called for "three cheers" for the boys and girls present who would become its citizens - citizens who would, five years hence, be called to fight alongside their colonial brothers in one of the worst conflicts of modern times.

By 1910 the laying of the Foundation Stone for St. Peter’s Church was imminent and, given the need for ongoing work in the northern half of his parish Reverend Bell sought to open a new Mission Hall in Garfield Road. But the work was beginning to take its toll. He was absent through illness at Christmas and, after a complete breakdown the previous summer and continued absence through ill-health he proffered his resignation. Medical advice was that another winter in the parish could prove fatal and he therefore decided to resign after Easter without seeking a further appointment.

An appreciation of his work appeared in the local press:-

"After the many years residence in Wimbledon of this member of our local staff of clergy, his departure must be regarded with deep regret by all who knew him: his strong personality, entire devotion to his work, and his energy when serving first from 1880-1892 as curate to Canon Haygarth are well known to all, and latterly from 1902 to the present year, in the arduous work connected with the parish of All Saints', South Wimbledon, of which he was the Vicar. He has now had to resign his living on account of his health being impaired by the constant strain of work, and endeavours to maintain the necessary funds for the expenses connected with it. His last effort has been to get up the annual sale of work, so that his successor may be enabled to carry on the work of the parish and church. His ready sympathy in trouble and his earnest and willing efforts to promote every good work will not soon be forgotten."  

 

 

 

 

 

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