Robert James Lees - Philanthropists

Robert James Lees


The Philanthropists

It was the somewhat morbid interest shown by Lees’ American tourists that first led him to explore the darker side of life in London. No doubt whilst guiding his American visitors towards the famous landmarks of the city, he would occasionally stray from the well-lit highways and step briefly into the that other world, and into the alleys and squares later frequently by Jack the Ripper. Typically, Lees decided to undertake his own research into the nature of the poverty he glimpsed, rather than to accept the descriptions and estimations of others

The Great Assembly Hall, Mile End, London

The Great Assembly Hall in the Mile End Road, a building that Lees would have certainly have known through his philanthropic and temperance work in London. A number of former public houses were converted into temperance meeting rooms by the Christian philanthropists of the 19th Century.


Robert James Lees’ attitude towards the provision of charity and the dispensation of philanthropy were very typical of his age.  Prevalent in the Victorian period was the distinction between the deserving and non-deserving poor, and the official approach to providing poor relief had been designed to force that distinction.  There was strong support in the belief that providing too much relief, or making it too easy to obtain, would encourage many of the working classes to choose to become dependent upon it.  Hence, in part the gaunt and severe regimental management of the workhouses.

Lees and his loose circle of acquaintances were not the first journalists and writers to campaign against poverty.  Charles Dickens had done so, tirelessly, throughout most of the first half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, towards the end of his life, Dickens’ work demonstrated a growing pessimism, and dealt with the larger, more insoluble issues than the specific social ills of his previous novels.  He challenged, by the use of bitter satire, the hypocrisy of Victorian institutions, as well as the `do-gooders’ who were so bound up in their self-righteous charitable acts that they failed to see the poverty and suffering immediately before them. As Lees was to do, in the closing years of the century, Dickens also criticised the well-chosen words of the religious preachers who failed to dirty their hands in undertaking true charitable acts. Towards the end of his life he wrote that he had “very little faith in the people who govern us”, but “great confidence in the People whom they govern.”

Through journalism, Dickens had campaigned tirelessly for reform, demanding government action to promote mass education, regulation of industry to reduce the large numbers of industrial accidents, and to provide better living conditions for the masses.  Dickens had sought political change, whereas Lees and other Christian philanthropists were later to demand that the Church not only followed the example of the reforming politicians, but also took the initiative to provide a moral and religious lead.

As Dickens had perceived, those who chose to take part in philanthropic activity generally kept themselves at a distance from those they were trying to help, but their activities did much to salve their own troubled consciences.  Much is said in contemporary accounts of well-meaning, well-educated and wealthy people, ‘rescuing’ the suffering from their terrible poverty-stricken plight.  Daniel Black, in his brief biography of Lees written in 1944, echoes the righteous indignation so common in middle-class Victorian circles:

One reared and living in a sheltered home could not but shrink back with abject horror at the bestial sights then witnessed in the low dens of the city, frequented by outcasts, whose appearance and conduct truly invited sincere sympathy from one such as Mr Lees, bent on the saving of souls. The miserable specimens of down-and-out humanity sensed the vibrations of his compassionate love.

Lees, in discovering for himself the tragedy of the London poor, whom he described as `the submerged tenth’, placed the blame squarely on the church.  He noted the glories of the Victorian age, the advance of science and knowledge, and the proclaimed belief of political economists that national prosperity was largely bound up in the welfare of the individual. He saw the steps being taken to improve the health of the population through improved sanitation, the move towards the abolition of child labour, and the expansion of free education.  But he then asked why all these initiatives had taken place within the framework of the secular world:

If all these things have taken place in the domains of civilisation and politics for the welfare of humanity, has the Church stood still and made no practically-determined effort to relive a moral condition which is a thousand times more horrible, revolting and disgusting?

Lees must also have considered his own relatively humble social background, and would have been very dramatically reminded of the effects of alcoholism by the death of his father in the vast anonymity of the Liverpool Workhouse in May 1880.

Ironically, the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 and the new Victorian popular press, hungry for stories, led to a different perspective in which the causes of poverty were addressed, rather than simply a short-term remedy or respite being offered. Being seen to be concerned about the suffering of the unemployed and unemployed was perhaps something of a ‘hobby’ for some self-appointed philanthropists.  Others, notably Thomas Barnardo, were driven by strong, and sometimes very narrow, religious beliefs.

Many of the charitable organisations working in the East End of London in the latter half of the 19th century were the inspiration of dynamic Christian leaders from the non-conformist traditions.  Lees’ first excursion into this world was by way of one of the earliest of the London-based Christian philanthropic organisations, founded by George Whitefield.  It was the grounding he needed, and he was given much sound guidance, cautions and words of wise counsel.   He attended the daily noonday service at the Whitfield Mission, and noted that it was always well attended. However, the congregation was present, not from any religious motive, but because the service afforded the tired and hungry people an opportunity to rest in quiet surroundings, and for some to snatch an hour’s much-needed sleep.  He saw the mission’s provision of a free dinner, served to the children at midday and to the adults one hour later, and noted that every day, many who came were sent away hungry as the supplies ran out. He was certainly shocked by the suffering he witnessed:

“There they lay in ragged, battered and torn confusion, filthy and loathsome, piled in a heterogeneous heap of refuse in a chasm of depravity.”

Whitfield was the first of a group of active practical evangelical men who attempted to address the plight of the poor. Thomas Jackson (1850-1932) was one of the most eminent Primitive Methodist ministers of his generation. He was born in Belper and entered the ministry in 1879, serving entirely in London. He was most well known for his work in the Whitechapel area of the East End where, almost single-handedly, he established a large flourishing mission.

Joseph Irons was another significant preacher of the period and the area.  Spurgeon thought so highly of Irons that he used several of his hymns, and published some of his sermon outlines in the Sword and Trowel of 1866. Spurgeon wrote of him that he was “a holy and useful servant of God”, and when Spurgeon commenced his ministry at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1853, some of Irons’ Grove Chapel members transferred their membership. The Revd J. Kempster (from Norwich) said of Irons, “Since the days of Whitefield I know of no man whose ministry has been more honoured of God than the ministry of Mr. Irons". George Whitefield’s preaching had been singularly successful. His Tabernacle, located off the City Road in the Moorgate area, became known as his ‘Soul-Trap’.

Lees’ own description of his knowledge of the community, and his ability to mix with the inhabitants of the area seems, in its phraseology at least, to predate the imagery of Sherlock Holmes:

“Gradually he learned the whole freemasonry of the fraternity – calls, signals, pass-words, hiding-places and rendezvous – and was able to visit places where few would have the hardihood to venture.”

Daniel Black offers a similar depiction of Lees’ work at that time:

“His aim was to come to the aid of that section of lost humanity, and never was a cause in such dire need of all the efforts made by various agencies… Meetings were held, addressed in suitable form by Mr Lees, who managed to give the poor wretches two solid meals in the week, whilst during the intervals they subsisted on a fare meagre beyond words.

The influence wielded by Mr Lees was nothing short of marvellous in such a den of iniquity. Word was sent him by Scotland Yard on the occasion of an outstanding burglary, when he. With all the Christ-like compassion at his command, invited the poor sinner to confess and hand over the stolen articles, which in the majority of cases was instantly done.”

By the late summer of 1888, Lees was living in comfortable circumstances in Peckham Rye, and his and his family’s time was occupied mainly in working with a number of missions for the destitute, precursors of his own Peoples’ League. He was also gaining a growing regular income from presenting lectures, and his reputation as a medium was spreading; though it is claimed that he never accepted payment for any ‘consultation’ he gave.

Gradually Lees became more acquainted with the poorer districts of the capital. He talked with those who lived in these areas, and as he listened to their stories, he became motivated to join the increasing number of philanthropists who were providing material and spiritual support for the inhabitants of the East End. He sought out and started to work alongside several of the more well-known Christian philanthropists including William Booth of the Salvation Army, and Dr Thomas Barnardo. Theologically he was always at odds with these evangelical men, principally because of his spiritualist beliefs, and so seldom remained affiliated to their causes for any length of time. It is a matter of fact that many of these philanthropists were strong individuals with a very personal mission. Consequently, they were frequently in disagreement with each over, sometimes resorting to legal action and very public argument in order to claim the higher moral ground.

One of the most damaging disputes of the time was the bitter feud between Barnardo and Frederick Charrington. Charrington was the heir to the wealthy brewery company. However, the sight of a woman being knocked down by her drunken husband outside a Charrington's public house so revolted him that he gave up his family business and spent his life working in the worst slums of London. This work developed into the famous City Mission in London. He had been converted to evangelical Christianity through reading to a friend, while on holiday in France in 1869, the third chapter of the Gospel according to St John in the New Testament. On his return to London, he began his philanthropic work by volunteering his services in the East End mission hall.

In 1872 Charrington started the Tower Hamlets Mission in the East End Conference hall and held a tent mission in the Mile End Road each summer for several years. Within a short period of time, his meetings would attract over two thousand people.  In 1886, Charrington’s Tower Hamlets Mission opened a new hall seating five thousand people. 

Despite the numbers flocking to these meetings, the organisers also faced violent opposition. During the late 1800s it is estimated that over seven hundred brothels were closed down as a result of the work of the philanthropists.  This was truly muscular Christianity as Charrington was once sued for kicking a brothel attendant in the stomach.  One alternative view of this powerful movement is that it forced women onto the streets and thus provided vulnerable victims for killers such as the infamous Jack the Ripper.

Indeed, there were a number of charges laid against Barnardo during the late 1870s. Among these were that he ran his charity for personal monetary advantage, and that he consorted with women of dubious moral virtue (the 'Mrs Johnson' affair). It was further suggested that he was not legally entitled to call himself 'Doctor' and had forged an entitling letter from the University of Giessen (though he was later admitted as an FRCS in 1879).  He was also named as the author of the 'Clerical Junius' letters criticising George Reynolds and Frederick Charrington who had become identified as his main critics.  His critics continued to scrutinise his activities, accusing him of using faked photographs to 'prove' the effectiveness of his work. They further claimed that his missions extended to both the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor and thus encouraged mendicancy and subverted the Poor Laws, and that he was guilty of cruelty and neglect towards the children in his homes. However, it is the work of Barnardo, rather than of Charrington or Reynolds, that survived and grew, and is still providing support and protection for children today.

Lees and W.T.Stead, as well as being journalists and spiritualists, also shared a common and active interest in philanthropy.  Stead’s crusading journalism is well known. His publication of The Bitter Cry of Outcast London in 1884 led to a Royal Commission into the housing of the poor.  In the period of the Whitechapel Murders, Stead never relaxed his efforts to publicise the conditions of those who lived in the East End and other slum areas of London.  A further example of his campaigning journalism was The Police and the Criminals of London, when he sent his staff on a door-to-door survey, and then published detailed charts indicated where people on the Gray’s Inn and Hackney roads had been victims of crime.  This remarkable and labour-intensive project led to a further inquiry into the reasons why the police were failing to detect crime.

Although Lees believed that the poor needed unqualified help, regardless of the cause of their poverty, he also recognised that those who were supported by the various philanthropic agencies also need to have their dignity and self-confidence restored.  This was founding principle of his People’s League. In an astonishingly forward-looking proposal, Lees looked at the refuse discarded by society, and saw that much of it could be reclaimed.  In a prophecy of 21st Century environmentalism, he announced his belief that nothing was void of some value, or that does not pay for reclamation. Whether society’s refuse contained jewels and title deeds that had been accidentally discarded, or items of much less intrinsic value, “even dust has assumed a commercial value upon which a working profit can be made.”  These thoughts became the basis for several schemes that Lees launched as part of the People’s League work.

Lees not only observed the poor. He began to categorise them in much the same way as the original architects of the Poor Law had done. “The men and women naturally divided themselves into two groups, the criminal and the fallen.” he wrote, falling back on the cherished notion of the deserving poor and the rest.  “Each had to be dealt with separately.” he added.   At least, Lees was also willing to listen to them with a relatively open mind.  After the food had been served, and the majority of the hungry visitors had left, Lees would sit with the few who remained around the fire in the mission room.  They would talk over the news of the day, and he would learn about their habits of life, experiences and means of living, and the `strange episodes’, as he chose to describe them, that each of the strangers were able to recount.

If Lees knew anything of the activities of Jack the Ripper, or the effect that the Whitechapel Murders had on that community, then perhaps it was at these informal gatherings that he gained his knowledge.  The majority of the men and women whom Lees met remained very guarded and cautious.  As he commented later in the pages of The Heretic:

“Shrewd, sharp-witted, and with a suspicion that every stranger may be a detective in disguise, the habitual criminal does not readily give himself away.”

Yet occasionally, items of information would drop from unguarded lips, which Lees would carefully store away in his memory against the day that this knowledge, which he believed he held `in confidence’ would help him extend his philanthropic outreach.

Again in The Heretic, Lees tells a story in order to point up the reason why those who sort to help the poor needed to understand them, and, metaphorically at least, `talk’ their language.  He recounts an incident that took place late one night after a meeting in the West End with American friends.  He was walking through Short's Gardens on his way from Drury Lane towards Seven Dials when a man darted from the darkness of a doorway and accosted him.  The man demanded money, or any personal property Lees might have about his person.  Lees claims that in responding, he gave a `peculiar low cry’.  The man stood back and a dozen more men suddenly appeared:

“What’s up, sir?” inquired the first man, who instantly recognised him. “Nothing to be alarmed at,” (Lees) replied quietly. “I was passing through the gardens.. and your friend stopped me, not knowing me, I suppose. I just called you that he might know it was all right.  Good night!”

According to Lees, all twelve voices chimed `Good night, sir’ in response, and as Lees walked away unscathed, he overheard a volley of fierce oaths being discharged at the poor man who had dared to challenge him.


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© 2003 Stephen Butt