The winter of 1860-61 is a time to be had much in remembrance before the Lord. It was then that the East of London, with all its sins and sorrows, was laid as a heavy, burden on the heart of His faithful and beloved servant Reginald Radcliffe.
Before the commencement of his labours, a few Christian friends met for prayer at the invitation of the Hon. and Rev. Baptist Noel. The East of London, and its "stunning-tide of human care and crime," was not the only thought of that revered man of God. His faith looked forward to greater things, and one well-remembered petition was, that blessing through the work then to be begun in that deeply degraded and neglected region, might not be stayed there, but might flow from thence to far-off lands. One then present, the Dowager Lady Rowley, was not long permitted to sow precious seed with her own hand, but was instrumental in the fulfilment of this petition, as it was through her leading that Miss Macpherson's voice was first heard in the East of London.
At that time Miss Macpherson was residing in the neighbourhood of Cambridge with her sister and brother-in-law, Mr. Merry, and, was already a worker in the Lord's vineyard.
She thus writes of the year 1861: --
"It was a turning point in my life. I made a pilgrimage to London to attend the preaching of Reginald Radcliffe in the City of London Theatre, Shoreditch. There I met Dr. Elwin. On the following evening, at the Young Men's Christian Association, Great Marlborough Street, he introduced me to Lady Rowley, Mr. Morgan, and many other Christian friends. Through them I was led to attend the next Barnet Conference, where I learned what it was to wait for the coming of the Lord."
With this bright and blessed hope she returned to work with a strength and power before unknown. Many souls had already been awakened, but the full tide of blessing had not yet come. In the villages around her hundreds of labourers were employed in digging for coprolites, a fossil which, when ground, is useful as manure. Among these men were many of the wildest wanderers, and Miss Macpherson's heart was deeply stirred for their spiritual welfare, and her time and strength were given to reach them by every means in her power. She had established evening schools, lending libraries and coffee-sheds, and of these and further efforts she wrote: --
"Second to the preaching of the gospel, we lay every laudable snare to induce men to learn to read and write. In doing this, spare time is occupied to the best account, and the enemy is foiled in some of his thousand-and-one ways of ensnaring the toil-worn navvy at the close of day.
"The more our little band goes forward, the more we feel that drink, in all its forms and foolish customs, must be resisted, -- first, by the powerful influence of a felt example; and secondly, by gently and kindly instructing the minds of those amongst whom we labour as to its hurtful snares. We are accused by some of putting this subject before the blessed gospel. God forbid! But when we look on every reclaimed one and know that this was his besetting sin, we regard the giving it up as the rolling away of the stone before the Saviour's voice, 'Come forth,' can be obeyed.
"These first endeavours to spread the gospel story in a more enlarged way were made in villages where the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon had laboured when not yet twenty years of age, and where souls had been blessed through the youthful preacher. Some of these converts became my helpers, and are co-workers to this day.
"It was in 1863 that I first became an almoner for others, whilst filled with a desire to build a missionhall among the coprolite diggers in Cambridgeshire.
"The friends attending the Barnet Conference heard of my wish and shared my burden."
The following letter to Dr. Elwin shows the sympathy that he felt in her work: --
"My DEAR FRIEND, -- Thanking you for your daily remembrance of my continual wants in this the Lord's work among these poor migratory coprolite diggers, I must say it was indeed refreshing to think that this little hidden vineyard was laid on your heart to present to the Lord at the Bristol Conference. The answer has come, and now it is my blessed privilege to ask you to rejoice and praise our loving Father for another six souls born anew. Yes, dear brother, they are those I have laid before you again and again to plead for, that the dead form of godliness might be broken down. Though diggers, they are residents in a neighbouring village, and have attended my ploughmen's Bible-class for some years. From the mouths of many witnesses, in a series of outdoor gatherings every Lord's day evening in the past summer, they have heard, on their own village green, a present, free, and full salvation.
"Is it not kind of the Master to employ us feeble women in His service, by allowing us to use our quiet influence for Him, and to do many little things, such as inviting wanderers to listen, providing hymns and seats, also refreshment for those sent to deliver the King's message? And oh! it is indeed a hallowed privilege to be a 'Hur,' to hold up the hands of the speaker, and watch the index of the soul as the message of love or of warning falls; to slip in and out of the group, and meet the trembling soul with a blessed promise, or grasp the hand with Christian sympathy. Then for us women such service affords opportunity of giving the little leaflet or book, such as the case requires, and following it up in the home with Bible in hand.
"The Lord was very good in sending me helpers, i.e., brothers, to speak during all those summer Lord's-Day evenings. On one occasion I was left alone, and yet not alone. At another time my faith was tried. No one had come to speak. The people had gathered. I opened my Testament on the passage, 'Come and see' (John iv.) If the Samaritan woman was led so boldly to say to wicked men, 'Come and see,' surely my Lord knew my burden, and my need for a brother to speak to that village gathering. We sang a hymn. I was led to pray. On arising from the grass, a young man came round the corner and said, 'Miss, the Lord has laid it on my heart to come here and preach to-night. Can I be of any service?' He took for his text, 'Yet there is room.'
"I know you like to trace the links in the chain of blessing, so I will enter a little into detail. One village displayed the most perfect outward form of all that is considered correct as to the using of means. There were clubs, saving of money, young men well dressed and regular at their place of worship, four nights a week at their evening school; but oh! my friend, not one soul of them with a warm heart towards the Lord Jesus Christ. They read and answered my questions on Scripture better, and sought after the library books with more interest, than any in the other villages; but it was all head-work, no heart; all intellect, no love. On Christmas Day six of these joined our coprolite party to tea, and from eight to ten solemn prayer seemed laid on every heart for them; and again the following evening nineteen young men met to pray still for this village. Last evening eighteen Christians of various denominations met in a cottage at this said village. There was no formal address, but after earnest prayer, one of the brethren felt this passage laid solemnly on his heart, 'To-day, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts.' Then some converted stone-diggers pleaded for a blessing. The answer of four years' prayers came, and the feeble infant wail was heard from one after another amid weeping and sobbing. Surely the angelic host had songs of praise while, in that holy stillness, these young men had a sight of themselves. Oh, pray on that our faith waver not, for we believe we shall see still greater things.
"You remember the village where you preached upon 'Jesus passing by.' There is now a band of more than a dozen praying young men meeting constantly in their little outhouse.
"The more we go forward in this labour of love the more evident it is that the cursed drink is our great difficulty. This stone must be rolled away. Another evening home for these men is a stern necessity, and must be provided; a place which they may call their own. Each building would cost 30 pounds. The men would furnish it cheerfully and support it nobly. Two such buildings have been erected, are now in operation, and answer beyond my most sanguine expectations. Morning, noon, and evening, groups of men, while at their hasty meals, are willing to listen to the Holy Scriptures or whatever else may be brought before them."
"The memory of the just is blessed." It is sweet to recall any incident in the life of him who will ever live in the hearts of many. Miss Macpherson thus records the day of blessing: --
"It was at a meeting in July 1864, at Mildmay Park, that it was laid on my heart to gather together, before the harvest-time, the stone-diggers, villagers, and their friends, and to invite the Rev. W. and Mrs. Pennefather to see face to face the hundreds of souls for whom they had wrestled with God. Early in the afternoon of the day appointed, streams of poor men and women came, having walked distances of from two to ten miles to be with us. Conveyances brought earnest lively Christians from Cambridge, and, including the stone-diggers, there were representatives from more than thirty towns and villages. On the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Pennefather, great was our joy; and who of you cannot imagine our beloved friend in the midst of this multitude, of warm hearts, as with tears in his eyes he exclaimed, 'This is another conference'? Gatherings on the grass were formed as tables were insufficient, and our dear friend went in and out among them, every feature showing forth the love with which God had filled his heart. His loving eye alone discovered poor Tom, lately out of the workhouse, standing trembling, and afraid to approach the party; behind the tent tears of joy streamed after he had secured, amid the rush for tea, a supply for the wants of this poor Tom. A lovely sunset was shedding its radiance over the humble gathering, when Mr. Pennefather rose and spoke to them of 'the coming glory,' first reading Luke ix.25-35; and knowing that many before him would as Christians be called upon to endure ridicule from ungodly companions, he pointed out to them that in all the Gospels which speak of the Transfiguration, the event is preceded by an account of the Christian's path of self-denial. After an earnest address to the unsaved, this delightful gathering was closed by his telling them that a little offering had been made at Mildmay Park, and that, by the help of that money would now be presented to each man and woman, (stone-diggers and boys included), a pocket Testament, to be used in the intervals of harvest toil.
"Many are their struggles in resisting bad companionship and drink, in trying to improve in reading, in seeking to clothe themselves, to help their parents, to work for Jesus with little light, and less time, and few talents. Oh, how much do they glorify God compared with some in other circumstances, who have been surrounded by heaven-breathing associations all their days! Well, indeed, can we understand that verse, 'The first shall be last, and the last first.'"
Scenes of a different character must now be described.
Sad and deeply humiliating as the sights and sounds of the East End of London still are, none who now visit the vast region lying eastward of St. Paul's can realise the sense of desolation that overpowered one's spirit when beholding it at the time Mr. Radcliffe began his services in 1860-1861. At that time the condition of the millions who existed there was ignored by those dwelling in more favoured regions. No railways had been as yet constructed by which visitors could come from the north and west. The space now occupied by the great railway stations in Broad Street and Liverpool Street was then crowded with unwholesome dwellings, well remembered for deaths in every house. No centres of usefulness where Christian workers could meet for prayer or counsel then existed. The Bedford Institute had not then been built, and no Temperance Coffee-Palace had even been heard of.
The power of the Lord had been very present to wound and to heal in the City of London Theatre and at other services held by Mr. Radcliffe, and the young women who had been blessed were invited to meet for a week-evening Bible-reading and prayer-meeting, and for this purpose Lady Rowley rented a room in Wellclose Square. In this meeting, and in Lady Rowley's mothers' meeting in Worship Street, Miss Macpherson began the ministry of love which has extended so widely. She afterwards visited the homes of the poor, and the toil and suffering she witnessed, especially in those where matchbox-making was the means of livelihood, lay heavy on her heart. With her feelings of pity were always quickly followed by practical effort. In the midst of the winter's distress, one of the most cheering gifts received was from her praying band of coprolite diggers. After a watchnight service, they had spent the first moments of the consecrated new year in making a gathering from their hard-earned wages. Miss Macpherson had placed the East of London foremost in the list of subjects to be remembered at their prayer-union every Lord's Day. Little did the praying band think that in fulfilling this petition, the Lord would take their beloved leader from among them.
It was in 1865 that Miss Macpherson was guided of the Lord to leave scenes endeared to her by many hallowed associations, and to encounter the trials and seek the blessings of Christian work in the East of London. Her first efforts were in answer to an invitation from the Society of Friends to hold classes for young men, both on the Lord's Day and on week evenings, at the Bedford Institute, a building lately erected by that Society, and which stood out conspicuously as a monument of Christian love. On the week evenings, instruction in reading and writing was the inducement held out to attend. The first fruits may be seen in G. C., once a violent opposer, afterwards a valuable helper in Canada, and now a preacher of the Gospel in China. The work at the Bedford attracted so much interest, that many helpers were drawn to it from other parts. The Sunday Bible-classes became an object of remarkable interest. Perhaps such an assemblage has seldom been seen. Many tables were filled in one hall with men, in another with women, many of whom were very aged, all with large-print Bibles before them, and each table headed by some earnest teacher, all at the close being gathered together for the final address.
Other Gospel meetings were also held at the Bedford, but Miss Macpherson's labours could not be confined to this spot. In several little rooms poor Christian women were gathered for prayer, and depots for tracts were established, and Scripture texts placed in the windows, in streets which were never so lighted before. But these and all other efforts for the poor East End were interrupted in the autumn of 1866. She felt the Lord called her to accompany her sister and brother-in-law, Mr. Merry, with their young family across the Atlantic. Mr. Merry's object was to settle his four sons in the Western States of America. The voyage proved most perilous and stormy. On arrival in New York, Mr. Merry's health entirely broke down, and the medical opinion given was that nothing would restore him but return to his native land. In March 1867 they were welcomed back with exceeding joy. How mysterious did this trial appear! Why were those who had sought the Lord's counsel so earnestly, permitted to undertake a voyage apparently so useless, and accompanied by so much anxiety and suffering? How little could any one then conjecture that the Lord was thus training His children for the great life-work before them! Not for the welfare of their own family were Mr. and Mrs. Merry to be permitted to settle in those broad western lands; but many voyages were to follow, and they, and subsequently their children also, were to be fellow-helpers in the glorious work of finding homes on earth, and training for a heavenly Home, thousands of children who would have been otherwise homeless and uncared for. "What I do, thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter." Blessed hereafter! when we shall see all the way the Lord our God has led us; not a smooth way, not an easy way. "The soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way;" "but the Lord led them by the right way."
With her usual energy, Miss Macpherson again entered on her God-given work among the poor of the East End, and at once resolved to do all in her power to help the destitute children with whom she came in daily contact.
In the very month of her return, the first girl was rescued and received into her own Home, then at Canonbury. Her story was thus written at the time: -- "E. C., aged sixteen, was sent to my lodgings to know if I could provide a home for her. In August 1866 the father of this poor girl had bidden her farewell as she was leaving home on an excursion with the Sunday-school to which she belonged. On her return, cholera had numbered him among the dead. The mother threw herself into the canal, and, though restored, was lying helpless in a workhouse. E. C., who had before been learning dressmaking, was tossed about from one poor place of service to another -- her clothes all pawned, or in tatters -- till her last resting-place was on the flags. Then she applied at the Rev. W. Pennefather's soup-kitchen in Bethnal Green, and slept in the room at that time rented above it. The two following days were occupied in vain endeavours to procure admittance into one of the existing Homes for girls, the third, in preparing clothing for her, while, at the same time, no way appeared open for her to be received anywhere. When her clothing was ready, our first visit was to a sufferer paralysed and convulsed in every limb, at times compelled to be fastened to his bed, -- one whose garret reminded one of the dream of Jacob; for answers to prayer were so direct, it seemed as though heavenly visitants were ever ascending and descending. He prayed, and while he was yet speaking, the Lord sent His 'answering messenger.' Miss Macpherson had felt it laid on her that day to come to the East End to my help, though knowing nothing whatever of the present need. When poor E. C. returned from the baths and washhouses in her clean clothing, (having sold her former rags for twopence-halfpenny), she was met by the loving offer of a home. She seemed afraid to believe it, and followed, as if in a dream, the friend so mercifully raised up for her. She was afterwards placed in service with a Christian friend, and her two little brothers were among the first inmates of the Revival Refuge."
Most mercifully for the poor little matchbox-makers was Miss Macpherson's return ordered at this time. Much sympathy had been awakened concerning them, and much help had been sent for their benefit from the kind readers of the "Christian" paper. They numbered many hundreds, and Miss Macpherson undertook care and responsibility concerning them, for which the strength and powers of an older labourer were totally unfit. In this, and countless other instances, Miss Macpherson has proved herself ever ready to "fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal. vi.2). The case of these infant toilers had rested on her heart from the first moment she had been made acquainted with their sufferings. The first sight of them is thus described by her own pen: --
"In a narrow lane, having followed high up a tottering spiral staircase till we reached the attic, the first group of tiny, palefaced matchbox-makers was met with. They were hired by the woman who rented the room. The children received just three farthings for making a gross of boxes; the wood and paper were furnished to the woman, but she had to provide paste and the firing to dry the work. She received twopence-halfpenny per gross. Every possible spot, on the bed, under the bed, was strewn with the drying boxes. A loaf of bread and a knife stood on the table, ready for these little ones to be supplied with a slice in exchange of their hard-earned farthings.
"This touching scene, which my pen fails to picture, gave me a lasting impression of childhood's sorrows. Never a moment for school or play, but ceaseless toil from light till dark."
Miss Macpherson's first attempt for their benefit was to open evening schools, the inducement to attend which was the gift of sadly needed clothing. These schools were opened in various localities, the chief gathering being held in a house kindly provided for us by Charles Dobbin, Esq., still one of our unwearied benefactors.
Not only reading, but the art of mending their tattered garments was a new thing to them, and their outward condition was such, that when for the first time a country excursion was planned for them, it was with the greatest difficulty they were made fit to appear.
Whilst making every exertion to raise the matchbox-makers from their hitherto almost helpless state, her heart yearned over their brothers. A tea-meeting was given for boys by the veteran labourer George Holland, at the close of which one lad was noticed so much to be pitied, that it was felt, if nothing could be done for the others, he at least must be saved.
Money was not plentiful, the need of the East End was then comparatively little known, but a young believer, the son of that honoured servant of the Lord, W. Greene of Minorca, had just set apart a portion of his salary to help some poor, London boy, and the letter telling this was on its way from the Mediterranean when this lad's history became known. Thus he was educated, and eventually raised to a position in which he became a helper of others.
Many other homeless boys were found among that evening's guests, and Miss Macpherson felt it was impossible permanently to raise their condition without receiving them into a Home, where they could be taught and trained to regular work. The Lord gave the desire, and through the active sympathy of E. C. Morgan, the editor of the "Christian," the means were provided. A house was found at Hackney, and named the Revival Refuge, where thirty boys could be at once received. A few weeks afterwards, looking at these bright, intelligent young faces, it was difficult to believe in the dark surroundings of their earlier years. So great was the encouragement in caring for them, spiritually as well as physically, that Miss Macpherson could not rest without enlarging the work, and a dilapidated dwelling at the back of Shoreditch Church "was fitted up to receive thirty more boys."
In the house first mentioned, besides the matchbox-makers' evening schools, mothers' meetings and a sewing class for widows were conducted by Mrs. Merry, and the upper storey was devoted to the shelter of destitute little girls. But in these, as in all Miss Macpherson's undertakings, the Lord blessed her so greatly that more accommodation was required for the constantly increasing numbers.
The needed building was provided in a way that could have been little conjectured, but the Lord had gone before. Along the great thoroughfare leading from the Docks to the Great Eastern Railway, lofty warehouses had taken the place of many unclean, tottering dwellings formerly seen there. During the fearful visitation of cholera in 1866 one of these had been secured as a hospital by Miss Sellon's Sisters of Mercy, and water and gas had been laid-on on every floor, and every arrangement made for convenience and cleanliness. When the desolating scourge was withdrawn the house was closed, and many predicted that it would never be used again. In the following year Mr. Holland suggested how well it would be to secure it for a Refuge. The doors had been closed twelve months when Mr. and Mrs. Merry and three other friends entered the long-deserted dwelling, and joined in prayer that where death had been seen in all its terrors, there souls might be born to God, and that the voice of praise and prayer might be heard within those walls which had once resounded with the groans of the dying. Then the doors were locked, and for twelve months more remained as before. Then they were again opened, and on a gloomy winter's evening, with one candle the vast unlighted dwelling was again entered. The little company included R. C. Morgan, Charles Dobbin, and Henry Blair, of the Madras Civil Service, whose interest in the work now begun, only ended with his death. Through the kindness of these friends the building was secured, and the rent promised, but then a new difficulty arose. It had been hoped that Mr. Holland, who had first suggested the effort to secure the building, would have been willing to undertake the charge, but the work at George Yard was too dear to be given up. And now, who would bear this burden? It could hardly be believed that any woman would undertake the responsibility, for women had not then been called forward in this country so prominently as they now are. Here may be seen something of the Lord's purpose in having permitted Miss Macpherson's voyage to New York. In that city she had seen the faith and courage the Lord had given to women to "attempt great things" for Him, and the day is well remembered when many prayers were answered that she would accept the post. It is a post far advanced into the enemy's territory, for the adjoining streets are known as the "Thieves' Quarter." Three thousand, it is supposed, have their headquarters here. In the square mile in the midst of which the Refuge, (now called "Home of Industry"), is situated, 120,000 of our poorest population are to be found. From the first Mr. and Mrs. Merry gave themselves as willing and invaluable helpers to the enormous work connected with the undertaking. It appeared great from the beginning, but little could any one have imagined how it would go on spreading and increasing. It is difficult, or it may be impossible, to name any form of distress or any class which has not been here relieved and blessed. Every hour of the day, and even far on into the night, the voice of praise and prayer has been heard in some part of the building. Even in the vaults beneath the pavement was a little sanctuary made. Under the very stones, before trodden by them as homeless wanderers, some have joined in asking the Lord's blessing on those who had rescued them.
In February, 1869, the Lord granted us the desire of our hearts, and the Home of Industry was opened with praise and prayer. "The Lord had done great things for us," but far more than any heart then, conceived were the blessings yet in store.
On February 22, Miss Macpherson wrote as follows in the "Christian": --
"BELOVED HELPERS, -- To-night how your hearts would have rejoiced to have seen me and my happy hundreds of little toiling children in our new schoolroom in the Refuge. How varied their feelings! One whispered, 'It was here my mother died of the cholera.' Another, 'Oh! I was once in this ward before, so ill of black cholera.' Dear children! our prayer was that it might still be a house of mercy to many a sin-wearied soul. We have never had such a large schoolroom before, nor the advantage of desks. Their joy knew no bounds when told to invite their mothers to come one afternoon in the week to help me to sew and to earn sixpence, my object being twofold, -- to secure an opportunity of telling them the gospel, and to endeavour to help them in the management of their homes and little ones."
The following will show something of the trials attending "holding the fort" in such a spot: --
"Last night I felt it right to sleep at the Refuge for once, so as to be able to enter into all its needs. No words can describe the sounds in the streets surrounding it throughout the night; -- yells of women, cries of 'Murder!' then of 'Police!' -- with the rushing to and fro of wild, drunken men and women into the street adjoining the building, whence more criminals come than from any other street in London. At three o'clock the heavy rumble of market-waggons commenced, and then the rush of the fire-brigade. Thus much by way of asking special prayer for those whom God has made willing to live in the midst of such surroundings. On the other side of the building is an empty space, known as 'Rag Fair,' filled in the morning with a horde of the poorest women selling the veriest old rubbish. We are thankful to have among these a faithful Christian woman, who, though a seller of rags, is able to testify of the great love of the Lord Jesus."