St Margaret's, Barking

Past Life - Present Mission 2

Herbert Hensley Henson is probably the most well known of the previous Vicars of Barking. This is partly because he went on to fill a significant post as Bishop of Durham but also because he was a controversial figure, both within Barking and the Church of England.

Henson was Vicar of Barking between 1888 and 1895. It was written of him that "he came into the parish like a whirlwind, and there were frequent 'breezes' afterwards." Much of his final period in Barking was spent in controversies over the formation of a School Board which could set up non-Church of England schools and over the election of the Barking Town Warden which, at the time, enabled influence over the distribution of funds through parochial charities. Henson lost the former battle and won the latter but, in the process, appeared to be heading towards a breakdown and moved to the less demanding post of Chaplain to Ilford Hospital Chapel. Never one to mince his words, in his final sermon he declared, "I turn from this degraded parish which has spurned and broken me, to the Church which has relieved the darkness."

Although, the end of his time in Barking was controversial there was much about his ministry here that was positive. I want to focus on two things - his encouragement of the Arts and his ministry with working people.

The Barking Parish Magazine began during Henson's ministry with the first issue being produced in January 1891. It's usefulness, he felt, was that it provided "useful and interesting reading at a very cheap rate" and in days of "trashy literature" this was not to be despised. The magazine then, while containing information about Church services and activities, also contained a number of illustrations (mainly engravings) by contemporary artists and serialised stories by, mainly clerical, authors like the Rev. Frederick Langbridge MA, author of Rider's Leap, Sent Back By The Angels and the first story serialised in the magazine, I Bide My Time.

Outside of the magazine there was also other evidence of interest in the Arts. There was a Dramatic Club based at the Working Lad's Institute which put on regular entertainments, mainly farces, in the Infants' Schoolroom. These were well attended and enthusiastically reviewed in the Parish Magazine. During the Patronal Festival there were organ recitals and full choral services while the Phoenix Band and the Weslyan Drum and Fife Band played at the Parade of Friendly Societies. At the Flower Show and Exhibition of Local Industries which was held in the Vicarage and Grounds for the first time in 1891 there were more farces, concerts and a magician in the Amusement Tent. The historian Herbert Hope Lockwood notes that these kinds of innovations were popular with a wide spectrum of townspeople.

Secondly, there is Henson's interest in the lives of working people. In his time of ministry, the Church was involved with the Working Lads' Institute, the Barking Working Mens' Institute and a similar Institute for girls was started. The Jute Relief Committee was set up, for the relief of those who suffered most from the closing of the Jute Factory, while the Barking Provident Coal & Clothing Club was a savings club into which people could deposit surplus money with the interest on the overall amount being shared among depositors.

Lockwood points out that at "special services, such as the annual "parade" for the Gas Workers which he instituted, [Henson] could even pack his church with many who were not regular worshippers anywhere. He had his 1892 sermon on "justice to labourers" printed and published as a pamphlet, and gave lunch-hour talks in the Beckton canteen." The Parish Magazine described how Henson would take his stand on one of the benches with the purifying men sitting at tables for his Friday lunch-time talks at Beckton. He declared that he enjoyed his Beckton visit "more than anything else during the week".

The first parade service for the Gas Workers' and General Labourers' Union was a never to be forgotten moment for those present: "Every available space was occupied by working men. The Pulpit steps, the Font step, the Altar steps, the seats usually occupied by the clergy and choir, were all filled by the congregation. The aisles too, and the space under the belfrey, were filled with men who stood throughout. Many more crowded the Church Path trying in vain to make their way into the already crowded building."

Henson's intention in encouraging the Arts and in "familiarly mixing with working men" was to make "the character and claim of the Church much clear to the people" than it had been previously. While, for his own health, he may have moved forward too far too quickly there is much that we can learn from his intentions and actions.

Jonathan Evens (using material from Herbert Hope Lockwood's Barking 100 Years Ago and the Parish Magazines 1891-2)