A ‘riot in church’? Drunkenness and disorder at St. George’s-in-the-East

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We credit the Victorians with being much more regular churchgoers than we are today. In 1851 a census was taken of all religious observance in Britain and it produced some interesting results. The report showed that only about 40-45% of those able to attend church did so, with numbers higher in rural areas. Moreover it noted that if everyone who could attend did, there wouldn’t be room for them all.

This was worrying as church was seen as the best way of inculcating good morals and discipline in the populace. Universal education was still in its infancy and its reach was limited, the church (and particularly the established Church of England)

There does also seem to have been a concern about behaviour in church, especially the behaviour (or misbehaviour) of the lower classes and this is evident in the report of cases before the Thames Police Court magistrate in March 1860, nine years after the census was taken.

John March, who had a ‘respectable appearance’ and carried on a trade as an umbrella maker, was charged with disturbing the Rev. Thomas Dove as he presided over service at St George’s-in-the-East on Sunday morning.

He told Mr Yardley that the accused he ‘was interrupted during the Litany service by the saying of supplications in a different tone from that in which he was singing them’. There was also some ‘unnecessary coughing’ he complained.

I found it surprising that there was a policeman on duty in the church. PC Charles Pearce (382K) said he was alerted to a young man in a pew who was coughing loudly. He said that March ‘related the coughing several times , and out his hand over his mouth and held his head down’. It ‘was an artificial cough’ PC Pearce concluded, and March was obviously trying to put the minister off his stride. March’s neighbour could also be heard to tell him to ‘hush’.

The policeman moved in and spoke to the young man, saying:

‘You must go. You have been coughing and laughing all the morning’. March was reluctant to oblige, declaring it ‘was only a mistake’.

Mr Yardley was told that there was plenty more evidence of March’s attempts to undermine the curate but no one turned up in court to testify so he discharged the prisoner. This decision was met with ‘a murmur of satisfaction and applause’.

Next up was Eliza Fenwick who, by contrast with the ‘respectable’ John March was described as ‘dirty and dissipated’. She was also charged with disturbing Rev. Dove’s service but, more seriously, by being drunk and disorderly.

Here Mr Yardley was on firmer legal ground. He said she had been proven guilty of ‘most improper conduct’ which was ‘aggravated by the fact of her being drunk’. Drinking was bad enough but drinking on the Sabbath, and being drunk in church was the action of a dissolute individual. However, there was no evidence that Eliza had gone to Rev. Dove’s service with the express intention of disturbing it so he simply fined her 10s for being drunk and disorderly. So long as she paid she was free to go, if she didn’t have the funds however she’d go to prison.

St George’s-in-the-East was one of several churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 1700s to bring the church into the lives of the capital’s poorest communities. Driven by legislation (the New Churches in London and Westminster Act, 1710) the intent was to build 50 new churches across the metropolis. There was a real concern at the time that a lack of places of worship would undermine attempts to spread good discipline and morality amongst London’s poor, so the religious census of 1851 was an echo of this initiative.

I find it interesting that Reynolds’s Newspaper, which served a more radical working-class readership than most, chose to caption this report ‘Rioting in church’. There was no rioting as such which  that the paper had its tongue firmly in its cheek, and was pouring some scorn on the actions of the Rev. Dove in bringing such trivial complaints to court. Alternatively if might have been using the ‘headline’ technique (not something we associate with Victorian papers) as a means to catch the eye, regardless of the real content of the article below.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1860]

St George’s remains (along with Christ’s Church Spitalfields) an example of Hawksmoor’s magnificent architectural ability. It was hit by German bombs during the WW2 but has mostly survived and is well worth a visit. 

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