Reverend Charles Lowder: Slum Vicar
The poor people of London’s East End in the nineteenth century lived in awful squalor, something that Charles Lowder worked hard to ease. He went from vilification to the closest thing that the Church of England recognized as sainthood.
Lowder’s Early Life
Born in 1820 into the family of a banker, Charles Lowder had a conventional upbringing and education. At Oxford University he decided to take Holy Orders, was appointed deacon in 1843, and began his progression through the ranks of the Church of England.
Contemporaries described Lowder as being on the arrogant side and fond of assuming powers that were not his. Others said he was persnickety―that is focussing on unimportant details and fussy.
In his 2018 book, A Field Guide to the English Clergy, the Rev. Fergus Butler-Gallie writes that Lowder “spent his entire career ignoring the advice of his friends, colleagues, and superiors, and doing, essentially, whatever he damn well pleased.”
High Church vs. Low Church
Lowder took a position as curate at St. Barnabas Church, Pimlico in London’s East End. The church was a centre of Anglo-Catholic worship whose rituals were very close to Roman Catholic expressions of faith. This meant daily Communion with all the ornate vestments, prayer twice a day, incense, and other influences from Rome. This form of Christianity, known derisively as “smells and bells,” was unpopular in Britain and did not sit well with the more austere Church of England.
This is where we meet a Mr. Westerton and Rev. Lowder’s brush with the law. Westerton did not like the influence of Rome and put himself forward as a candidate for church warden at St. Barnabas. He hired a man to carry a sandwich board outside the church emblazoned with “Vote Westerton.”
In retaliation, Rev. Lowder paid some choir boys to throw rotten eggs at the board man. The magistrates took a dim view of this and fined the priest £2. Lowder’s bishop also disapproved and suspended him for six weeks.
Society of the Holy Cross
Lowder spent his downtime reading, and taking to heart Vie de Saint Vincent de Paul by Louis Abelly. The seventeenth century French priest had devoted his life to helping the poor.
Charles Lowder concluded that Britain was in desperate need of clergy willing to perform the same services to the poor, so, in February 1855, he became a founding member of the Society of the Holy Cross.
Known by its Latin name, Societas Sanctae Crucis (SSC), the group’s purpose was to provide mutual support to Anglo-Catholic priests whose flirtations with Roman Catholicism brought criticism down on them.
Lowder and other SSC members took their ministries into the poorest areas of London’s East End.
The Slums of East London
With the Industrial Revolution, people flooded into Britain’s cities where there were employment opportunities. The jobs they found were poorly paid, dangerous, and insecure. The housing was overcrowded, squalid, and unsanitary.
The East End of London, in boroughs such as Limehouse, Mile End, and Whitechapel, was foul-smelling and crime-infested. Malnutrition and disease ensured that life expectancies were short.
It was in this hellish place that Charles Lowder chose to work.
St. George’s in the East
Wapping was a notorious neighbourhood and the centre of the London Docks. A local history calls the area in the middle of the 19th century “a ghetto of poverty. The population, swelled each day by incoming sailors of every race and nation, was dependent for its economic survival on casual dock labour and prostitution.”
On Ash Wednesday 1856, Charles Lowder took up a position at the church of St. George’s in the East, but things did not go smoothly for him. He was heckled during his sermons, prostitutes danced among the pews, and unpleasant missiles were launched, including a dead cat on one occasion.
But, Reverend Lowder persisted. He built a little chapel and taught children to read and write in an area that had no school. Then, in 1866, he completed the building of a bigger church, St. Peter’s, London Docks. The day after the consecration, an outbreak of cholera walloped the East End.
The filth of London’s East End caused several outbreaks of cholera. A resident of the area with a rudimentary grasp of English wrote to The Times complaining “We live in muck and filth. We aint got no privez, no dust bins, no water splies and no drain or suer in the whole place. If the Colera comes, Lord help us.”
As it happened, the Lord’s helper, Charles Lowder, was there to step in when others ran for safety during the cholera epidemic of 1866. Through his stubborn streak he raised money for medical supplies and recruited volunteers to care for the dying. He worked tirelessly in the slums to relieve the anguish of the people.
In 1929, Reverend H.F.B. Mackay wrote in Saints and Leaders that “When, at length, the cholera vanished, it left Lowder completely master of the field. Nobody wanted to attack him or his methods any more. As he was seen time after time, carrying some cholera-stricken child in his arms to the hospital, the people began to call him ‘Father.’ Thus was the title ‘Father’ won for the secular clergy; it is a title which they will retain only so long as they are true to his ideal.”
There were no more bricks thrown through his church windows, there were no more insults hurled at him in the street. Father Lowder was now recognized for his compassion and loved. Congregants by the hundreds turned out for Communion. Children became literate. The poverty-stricken population of Wapping was beginning to lift itself out of the mire.
When Charles Lowder died in 1880, police, who had once protected him from angry mobs, now were needed to hold back the crowds of weeping mourners.
- The Society of the Holy Cross has spread from its roots in Britain and now has more a thousand members in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
- The society’s Latin name is, Societas Sanctae Crucis (SSC). Those who had been brought up to be suspicious of, and prejudiced against, the Roman Catholic Church said the initials stood for Society for Sodomite Clergy.
- The desperate struggle to make a living in the mid-nineteenth century was illustrated in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. He described the occupation of “cigar-end finders.” He calculated that 30,000 cigar butts were thrown away each week and finders picked them up to be recycled into new cigars: “they are worked up again to be again cast away, and again collected by the finders, and so on perhaps, till the millennium comes.”
- “Charles Fuge Lowder SSC 1820—1880.” St. Peter’s London Docks, undated.
- “Charles Fuge Lowder.” The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.
- Society of the Holy Cross.
- “A Field Guide to the English Clergy.” Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie, Oneworld Publications, 2018.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor