Slum Priests as missionaries of Empire in a British naval port town, Portsmouth c.1850-1900

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Portsmouth was Britain’s premier naval port and its Royal Navy was the standard bearer of Empire, yet according to missionaries, large sections of its populous were no more ‘civilised’ than those in ‘Darkest Africa’. This article will briefly outline how sailor missions evolved in merchant and naval ports before exploring the clergy’s motivations in establishing missions in Portsmouth during the late nineteenth century. The article will focus on how one influential Priest, Father Dolling, courted controversy with the civic elite due to his unorthodox engagement with sailors. Dolling’s establishment of a sailor’s mission in which both he and the sailors resided, dangerously contravened Victorian moral boundaries and raised questions about the Priest’s ambiguous sexuality. Like their missionary counterparts in the outposts of the British Empire, sailor missionaries fashioned an alternative environment that allowed them to delve into the seamier side of urban life. Gaining approval for its religious objectives, the missions afforded philanthropists the opportunity for excitement and forge relationships with sailors who were deemed on the margins of respectability. In exploring Dolling’s mission, the case study professes a wider relevance in arguing that historians should not only explore the motivations of slum priests but also the powerful civic cultures and elites who were keen to preserve the Victorian social and moral order.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2
Pages (from-to)54-77
Number of pages24
JournalForum Navale
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2016


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