Matthew Fisher on the life and impact of Robert Dolling


Walking through a car park in Portsmouth that leads to a shopping centre built in the 1980s offers no clues to the atmosphere experienced by Fr Robert Dolling on his first day of ministry in Landport during the late nineteenth century. Landport was a compact triangle in All Saints parish, Portsmouth with a population of approximately 7000 people. Today, between the car park and a trunk road leading to the historic dockyard, is hidden the church built with Fr Dolling’s effort. St Agatha’s should act as a testament to the work of this Irish priest among the slum dwellers in this part of the great naval city, and yet nobody seems to notice it tucked behind some large trees. I lived in Portsmouth in 2004 and never saw it. Paying for the beautiful basilica of St Agatha’s was the primary reason for Robert Dolling publishing his only work, Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum. He was a remarkable man with an impressive ministry that has largely been forgotten. No new books have been written about him and editions of his writing and two posthumous biographies are scarce. Yet during his life the work stretched far beyond Portsmouth and countless people had Fr Dolling to thank for never giving up on them. With pleasure he recounted the success of people’s lives whom he met in America 15 years after he last saw them.

Fr Dolling ministered to the poor in Stepney, Portsmouth and Poplar, developing his methods of religious practice and ministry whilst attending St Alban’s, Holborn. It was to this period of Fr Dolling’s life where his love for the outcast was ignited. He ministered to these people throughout his whole adult life. The vision of him travelling from Poplar in the East End of London to the West End for the sole purpose of raising money from the richer classes permeates the memoirs written about him after his death. Even during the months leading up to his death, when he was quite ill, he worked without ceasing for those who had no other voice. Truthfully he was often sick himself, but always saw people in greater need and continued working. Biographer and friend Joseph Clayton notes that when a Member of Parliament heard of the death of Fr Dolling he lamented that he ‘had killed himself with work.’ It is important to remember that Fr Dolling was one of the few voices defending the poor and sick people in the areas he worked. There was no welfare state, no state pension, no social housing and so the church was the primary alternative to the workhouse.

Huge numbers of individuals turned to Fr Dolling for help. The numbers of incidents recorded in his writing, where he helped real people in real situations, can often seem far removed from modern society. And yet, the stories of loss, loneliness and helplessness still feel very relevant. The hope that Fr Dolling’s ministry brought to them still has plenty to offer to anyone desiring a better understanding of people today. Before looking at two specific examples of Fr Dolling’s ministry one thing struck me as I read Ten Years for the first time. Fr Dolling felt that there was always more to do, always more money to raise and always more people he wished he could help. It is so easy to reflect on Fr Dolling and laud him as a great man of works, which he truly was. However, he remarked that it was often his own ‘moroseness,’ caused by his desire to do greater works, that left him unsatisfied and never able to take holidays or days off. Whilst at Portsmouth he found solace in weekly visits to Winchester College who funded the mission. He never found the same comfort after he left St Agatha’s. Sadly, Clayton informs his readers that Dolling was ‘never really happy’ at Poplar.

Both his first day in Landport and the first children’s service he endeavoured to officiate taught him an enormous amount about an area that was inundated with pubs and ‘bad houses,’ as Fr Dolling euphemistically called them. The incident in the children’s service involved two boys lighting pipes during church causing Fr Dolling to physically remove them from the building whilst banging their head together as hard as he could. He felt that the rest of the service was continuing relatively successfully until the mothers of the boys returned yelling, in coarse Anglo-Saxon slang, at him. He quickly closed the services and walked straight out of the building. These mothers continued their verbal attacks all the way to Fr Dolling’s home. Fr Dolling describes a scene reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin with excited children following him and the mothers all way to his house. What a welcome! After this he remained for 10 years ministering to all those he thought he could help. That was the only criterion for Fr Dolling to give his time to a person: if he felt he could help them, he would. Reflecting after he left Portsmouth, he was able to say he was not leaving Landport in the same state it was in when he arrived. A gymnasium was opened, schools and an orphanage were set up, fifty ‘bad houses’ had been closed with many of the women who had worked in them being cared for by Fr Dolling’s sisters. In addition, the church had grown, and thousands of people were affected by this ‘Holy Joe.’

His resignation from Landport was abrupt and he left almost immediately after the new St Agatha’s was opened. This is often portrayed as an indictment of Fr Dolling’s temperament as if he was someone who would throw his toys out of the pram after not getting his own way. In fact, Fr Dolling needed a rest: his health was in decline and he was due to leave during 1896 but brought that forward when he found that, for the second time in his ministry, a change in bishop had led to his ministerial methods being brought in to question. Perhaps on reflection Fr Dolling regretted this action, but he acknowledges himself that when a person is physically sick they are often also sick ‘in temper’ and therefore may not make the best decisions. After leaving Portsmouth he managed to be involved in the choosing of the new priest and so, unlike his mission in Stepney, the work continued. It declined through the early twentieth century, perhaps in part because in the introduction of the welfare state, and was closed after extensive bombing of Landport during the Second World War. The narrow terraced streets with children playing on the narrow streets with animal bones from the abattoirs is no longer seen, and almost all memories of this man of faith have gone. The church itself was nearly destroyed for road widening, but has been saved to stand as the only memorial of a man who gave 10 years of his life to the people of the city.

Following his time in Portsmouth, Fr Dolling found it hard to get employment in the church. He rested, waited, but no appointment came. Unable to get paid work he travelled to America for a year and preached in various churches continuing to raise money for the debts incurred from the building of St Agatha’s. Then several positions were offered to him within a couple of days. Desperate for work and unaware that further offers were coming, he took the first job offered, a mission to the poor in Poplar. The amount of money he raised was astronomical and he boldly educated rich people, who appeared to live in another world, about the conditions of impoverished people living just a couple of streets away. It was in London he found the biggest contrast between rich and poor, often walking from Poplar to Westminster to raise awareness and money.

The plight of children was always important to Fr Dolling and he often considered them the victims of poor decisions from their parents. For this reason, he relentlessly defended them when they were unable to speak for themselves. Education was always important to him, even fighting for the rights of the unseen child in the workhouse. Whilst at Poplar he noticed that the board of guardians were only keen to help with anything that people outside the workhouse could see. Therefore the happiness and comfort of those innocent children needed Fr Dolling, and he often adopted unorthodox methods to fight on their behalf. During one visit he noticed the children were served tea in the same cup they had previously had soup at dinner time without it being washed up. This meant that fat and grease floated on top of the tea making it undrinkable. His verbal complaint at a guardians meeting fell on deaf ears. The following meeting he arranged for tea to be served to guardians in the soup mugs. They agreed it was undrinkable. From then on, the cups were always washed between dinner and tea. It is these unorthodox methods Father Dolling was always willing to undertake. He loved people and the people he loved had few who cared anything for them. Perhaps that is what made him so popular to the outcast wherever he went.

It was not just the poor who loved him. He needed the rich people to fund his work. He persuaded and begged for his parish. The willingness of the rich to give to his mission is testament to Fr Dolling’s ability to communicate to all people. He always aimed to treat everyone fairly, once putting the whole vicarage on bread and cheese rations because of malicious damage to a hat belonging to a resident. Staying in the house was a Member of Parliament and the same rules stood for him. Fr Dolling does record his belief that the MP and another gentleman secretly ate in a local pub, but the rule was in place for all, including Fr Dolling.

Fr Dolling has much to teach the church leader, lay person and those with an interest in social history. Certainly ministering with Fr Dolling was never dull and those who worked with him were devoted to him personally as much as to his work. When Fr Dolling died he was missed, not least by his sisters and biographer Joseph Clayton. The grief was real. They knew they had been friends with a man who was motived by love, defended the poor, and generated a form of justice for the voiceless. He applied an understanding of the link between mental and physical health much more in line with contemporary than Victorian thought. He loved the theatre, had strong views on politics and fought to improve the quality of water for East Londoners. One of the greatest lessons of Fr Dolling’s life is the way he loved without prejudice. He showed the same amount of love and compassion to bishops, lords and Members of Parliament as he did for the helpless, sinful and voiceless.


Matthew Fisher studies Father Robert Dolling. His work can be seen at