NOTE: This article first appeared as ‘In the Potter’s Field’ in the London City Mission Magazine during October 1911 and has been made available thanks to local historian Tom Vague and the Colville Community Forum.
Facing the disused kiln is the entrance to Avondale Park, the site of which was given by Sir Henry Robson to mark the year of his Mayoralty of the Royal Borough 1894-5. A typical scene in the Potteries district, where most of the people are below the poverty line.
“In that dark spot in the West of London, the Kensington Avernus, made famous now by Mr Harold Begbie, it has been my happiness to know intimately three of the missionaries of this Society, and of their zeal, their wisdom, and their indomitable perseverance in Christian evangelisation it would be impossible for me to speak too highly.” Rev Thomas Yeates, at the Society’s Annual Meeting, held in Queen’s Hall, May 6 1911.
The Worst Spot in London?
Midway between Holland Park and Shepherd’s Bush, with its western boundary abutting on to the White City, is the notorious district of Notting Dale, ‘that dark spot’ so graphically described in the now familiar pages of ‘Broken Earthenware’.
For three score years a succession of godly City missionaries have visited this benighted area, which in the Handbook of our Society, is named after the Kensington Potteries, the site of which now marks the northern boundary. There have been deeply interesting and striking trophies of the grace of God in this neighbourhood from time to time. It was here, in the early days, that one of the Society’s missionaries was made a channel of blessing to three gipsies in a common lodging-house, the ancestors of Gipsy Smith and Gipsy Simon Smith, who have since become so noted in the evangelistic world as winners of souls.
As to the present condition of the district, decency forbids a detailed description. In the opinion of those best qualified to judge, it is possibly the worst in London. It is made up chiefly of folk who have sunk so low that they can find no resting place in any other neighbourhood. It is the criminals’ rendezvous, the resort of disreputable women, and worse men. The very lees and dregs of society are here domiciled, often in dark and ill-smelling basements scarcely fit for a dog. Once on the scene, you are sickened by an odour of staleness and putridity. There are innumerable lodging-houses, and whole streets of furnished rooms (!), the latter being let at 10d or 1s per night.
Vice and squalor of the meanest and most repulsive type are everywhere. In certain directions every third pane of glass is broken, while the tousled heads of dissipated-looking tenants are to be seen at the windows, or leering at you from the doorways as if they resented your presence, for, as MR GR Sims has said, ‘the district is honey-combed with criminality, vagabondage, and immorality.’ It is moreover plagued with poverty – ghastly, sordid, degrading – much of it being directly attributable to wilful sin.
Things are here seen and heard that cause one to shudder – men and women glorying in their shame. Hundreds of little children, sadly neglected and half clad, swarm the gutters, doomed apparently from birth, and bound in time, unless Providence forbids, to recruit the ranks of vagrancy and crime. Such is a faint description of what, 60 years ago, was the Potters’ Field – a picture of social decay, a mass of human wreckage, a blot upon our civilisation, and situated within the Royal Borough of Kensington. The missionary Mr Lodge among the habitues of a low-class lodging-house, inside of which he regularly conducts a gospel service.
The Parable of the Potter’s Field
In the course of a sermon on ‘The Potter’s Work on the Wheels’, Dr Campbell Morgan points out that the Potter’s Field is last mentioned in Scripture in strange company. The priests bought it with the price of Him Who was pierced, and called it (little thinking of the full significance of the name) ‘the field of blood.’ This is both historical and parabolic. ‘Behold the human wrecks scattered about the field which is the world. They are so much waste in God’s universe, vessels half formed and flung away, lives that might have been fashioned to forms of beauty, had they but yielded to the Potter’s hands. But the field has been purchased with the price of blood! Blessed be God, He has come down into and purchased the Potter’s Field, so that now He can gather up the marred and broken vessels, and make them new again.’
That the process of making new men is still going on is evidenced by the latest reports of our missionaries, from which we proceed to quote. Incidentally, they prove that the old Gospel is not moribund, that the old methods are still up to date, and that the arm of Christian compassion is long enough, to reach the weakest and the worst. A casual talk on the steps of a lodging-house in one of the worst streets in London. The attitude of the women is too significant for words.
The Bright Side of the Picture
‘The Potteries district,’ writes the present missionary, ‘is too well known to require any lengthy description, so I content myself with noting a few changes that have transpired during the year. The one-room fraternity are always flitting; I hardly ever meet the same people twice over. One lodging-house has closed of late, leaving eleven of the ordinary type – five for men and six for women. There are about 40 occupants in each. Laundries are on the increase. I have 50 on my list which are visited in rotation. The proprietors are extremely kind, and the employees mostly women and girls, greatly appreciate my efforts. House-to-house work in the Dale is trying to flesh and blood, but there is no better way of reaching the people. The moral conditions can only be described as awful. Spiritually, death reigns. The scenes I witness, the stories I hear, the difficulties I encounter, might easily fill one with despair. But there is a brighter side: the occasional victories, and the joy of seeing one-time desperadoes walking in newness of life. I am sometimes amazed at the converts – they are so enthusiastic, so brave, so impervious to criticism. Nothing can keep them down. The case of Lincoln Tom will furnish an illustration.
The smile of sinners who glory in their shame. The man wearing a light cap in the centre, who is reputed to be the biggest boozer in the Dale, and has spent 20 years in prison, has recently signed the Pledge. Note the jug and bottle in the hands of the women at the extreme left and right of the picture.
The Story of Lincoln Tom
There is no doubt about it – the conversion of Lincoln Tom (so called on account of his Lincolnshire birth) is as wonderful as anything recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. He says that from his earliest years he was a bundle of bad habits that eventually compassed his ruin, a mysterious circumstance for his father bore an excellent character, and his mother was a Christian of a pronounced type. However, Tom was the black sheep of the family – nine in number – most of whom were religiously inclined. His mother having died, Tom drifted towards the metropolis, where he found employment as a navvy.
Here he became an easy prey to city life. He plunged into sin, and sacrificed everything, including his self-respect. The prayers of his saintly mother were lightly esteemed, and her wise counsels clean forgotten. Had forgotten too? Sated with worldly pleasures, and so involved in sin that escape seemed next to impossible, Tom suddenly awoke to the fact that he was a lost soul. The thought tormented him night and day. He was in the devil’s clutches, and how to get free he knew not.
At this critical juncture I made his acquaintance, and hearing his story, urged him to stop drinking, and take advantage of the free grace of God. Seized with fear, and trembling with emotion, he fell on his knees, and vowed that, given one more chance, he would be a better man. His chance came when he attended a meeting at the People’s Hall a Sunday or two later. I had discoursed briefly on the Prodigal son, and was about to conclude when he left his seat, walked towards the platform, and collapsed under the power of the Word. There he lay in the throes of new birth, sobbing and praying as though his heart would break. Eventually he entered into peace; his heart glowed with a new joy; the sense of guilt and condemnation were gone. Verily, God had not forgotten!
That was two years ago; and despite manifold temptations and domestic martyrdom, he has stood like a rock – a shining witness to the Lord’s upholding goodness. One of his first acts was to marry the woman with whom he had lived for 18 years. Unhappily, she has shown no sign as yet of sharing with him the life eternal; on the contrary, she sneers and scoffs at his religion, of which, however, she takes due advantage. That she may change for the better is the burden of his prayer, but he does not complain. He carries the cross of his own making with a kind of nobility that only comes by suffering bravely borne.
His sense of obligation to the Saviour is such, that he recently forfeited his job rather than toil on the Sabbath, while his ‘goody-goodism’, as the world calls it, has cost him two situations in two years. Nevertheless, he forges ahead, doing God’s will according to his light, and bearing testimony at home, and in street and market, to the renewing and uplifting power of the sinner’s Friend. The Potteries district consists of 14 streets, which contain that number of public houses. Our picture shows a local pugilist, whose body is tattooed from head to waist, about to display his particular art.
The Transformation of Old Reuben
Another missionary, whose district adjoins the Potter’s Field, has forwarded some interesting particulars of Old Reuben, the intimate friend of ‘the Puncher’, who figures prominently in Mr Begbie’s wonderful book. He writes: ‘Old Reuben is as well known in Notting Dale as any man could be for his wild career. Most of his life has been passed among the ‘bottom lot’, who quarrel and wrangle, drink and dance, scream and brawl, just as the mood takes them. He is no scholar, but he would like to forget much that he has learnt.
His nose was seldom out of the pewter for many hours together, and his temper was most violent. A rare fellow for street fights, he usually managed to come off little the worse, however serious the encounter. He has fought with ‘the Puncher’, a converted pugilist well known throughout the metropolis, with whom he now vies in extolling the Love that saved them from their sins. Old Reuben refers to himself as ‘a queer card.’ For a long period he fought shy of the Gospel, albeit his heart hankered after the best things. First he came to the Men’s Club, then to the Temperance meeting, at which he took the pledge.
Mr Edward Pooley, alias ‘Born-drunk Teddy.’ A Notable Miracle
Of the many trophies won for Christ from around the Potter’s Field, Mr E Pooley, alias ‘Born-drunk Teddy’, is undoubtedly the most wonderful. It is the case of a man, comparable to a ‘shrivelled potsherd’, being remade into a vessel meet for the Master’s use. We subjoin the details of his conversion as given by the missionary to whom Teddy, under God, largely owes the salvation of his soul.
Soon after I commenced work on the Potteries district, I was confronted by a man who introduced himself as ‘Born-drunk Teddy’. He was of medium height, thick-set, with a brutal face that proclaimed his affinity with the devil. “Are you the missionary bloke?” he asked, at the same time dancing a jig with a view, I presume of making a favourable impression. Being satisfied as to my identity, he proceeded to ask if I could find him a job. I sent him with a note addressed to a friend, but Teddy was evidently nervous, for he called at two public houses and reached his destination ‘three sheets in the wind.’
From the first I was strangely drawn to Teddy, and longed to influence him for the Lord Jesus. What is more, the interest was mutual, for in the early days of my lodging-house work, when receptions were often rough, Teddy would champion my cause, and woe to the man who dared to molest me or interrupt my meetings! He was a fearful fellow! His face was seldom without either bandage or sticking-plaster, sure evidence that he had figured in a street fight.
When money was scarce, and he was very dry, he would enter the nearest ‘pub’, dodge round the bars, and when the customers were not looking he would drain off their half empty glasses and calmly invite those who objected to settle the question outside! With all his wickedness, Teddy knew he was wrong, and often in my room at the People’s Hall he has knelt with me, while I entreated him to stop his terrible doings and commended him to the Lord. He invariably said, “It’s all right, man; I was born drunk and I will die drunk.” Knowing his mother, I could well believe the first part of the statement; as for the rest, I fervently prayed that he might be ‘born again’ and die happy.
Things came to a crisis seven years ago. ‘Dying for a drink,’ as he would say, Teddy entered a public house. There were no customers in the bar, no partly filled jugs on the counter. Penniless and parched, he pleaded with the publican to stand him a drink. He was curtly refused. Just then the band of the Salvation Army passed on its way to the barracks. “Look here,” said the publican, “you ought to be with that lot instead of bothering me.” “Right you are, my hearty,” replied Teddy, and off he went to the meeting, and, to the amazement of the whole neighbourhood, he became a new creature from that hour.