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
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
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)