On the south side of Waterloo Bridge, not far from the National Theatre, stands the church of St. John. Built early in the Victorian reign of Queen Victoria, when this part of London was slum territory, the barn like interior was designed to accommodate up to two thousand worshippers. Though hard to imagine now, the church was often full to over flowing.

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The village choir, in a painting by Robert Webster. (Courtesy of Robert Cutts)

It may come as another surprise to know that St. John’s was built with taxpayer’s money. It was one of 214 government sponsored churches that went up in areas of burgeoning population and extreme poverty.

The more cynically minded will immediately spot a class inspired attempt to stifle social unrest in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. And, of course, there is some truth in this. But the religious revival that started with the new churches and a new generation of active and dedicated clergy had more to it than political calculation.

Traditionally at the heart of the nation’s affairs, the Church was galvanized by Victorian idealism to embark on a mission to civilize a people caught up in the throes of unprecedented technological and social change. It was the Church that led the way in promoting education, decent housing, proper sanitation, personal hygiene and what came to be known as family values.

I anticipate the howls from those who protest against hypocrisy and double standards by readily conceding that, like all great reforming movements, the Victorian Church had its share of humbugs and villains who hid their nefarious activities under a shawl of piety. I could outstay my welcome by retailing stories of dirty doings at the vicarage. Suffice to say that the worst offenders, like the rector who took lead from the church roof to sell as scrap and the curate who was found guilty of visiting a brothel and being drunk in the pulpit, gained notoriety but were by no means typical.

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Church of St Mary the Virgin, Buty. This church was completely rebuilt during the Victorian era, though a church has existed on the site since AD 971.

More mainstream was the Rev. William Leigh who opened his home to cholera victims, and William Butler, who renovated slum properties to make them fit to live in.

And so we come back to family values. The family was central to Church teaching. However imperfect, the family gave life its structure and meaning. Central to this concept was the role of wives and mothers as the conscience of the nation. Seen today, it is all so excruciatingly patronising, but it made sense at the time.

Prudish and often myopic they may have been, but the clergy had few illusions as to the male capacity for piggish behaviour. They were well aware of commercial sharp practice, of the casualties of industrial expansion and the evils of alcoholism and prostitution which thrived on mass poverty. Limited in the material remedies they could offer, they promoted standards to which all classes might aspire. Feminine virtues were fundamental to their aims.

I need hardly add that the Victorian ideal is no match for today’s standards. But if it had not been for the Victorian ideal, there might not be any modern standards to live up to.


Barry Turner's new paperback edition of his book The Victorian Parson is available for purchase now.