Lambeth Women Speak (originally Streets and Lanes of the City) by Nellie Benson, 1890

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2-BRIEF MEMOIR

There is an ancient monument which calls her who slept beneath it, "Amatrix Pauperum."

As a little child of eight, Nellie said to me in answer to some word, "I think so much about the poor. They suffer so." Her sincerity was simply perfect; but at that age it was a thought to be watched not talked about.

Long after that time I heard of other deep little traits from those who had been as unwilling as myself to risk their being noticed: How on her nurse's adding to a little displeasure, the words, "I am afraid you'll not grow up a good daughter," she could not be comforted, but sat crying to herself, "I am afraid I sha'n't grow up a good daughter to papa and mama;" How, when her door shook in the night, and she fancied it was knocked at, she thought it must be a certain ‘knocking' she had read of; and said softly, "Come in, Lord Jesus."

She was the same child till seven and twenty, when he "stood at the door and knocked" indeed.

After much promise in Mathematics at the new High School at Truro and at Lady Margaret's, her application to Mathematics, in which she read high, was thought too severe for her health. Then she quickly went through the Modern Language subjects and took a Second in Honours.

Shortly after she left Oxford she wrote to her younger sister there, that her plan had been to devote herself still to literary study and art, but that she felt overpowered by a passionate desire to do something for the poor – "I find I cannot think of anything else" – and that her plan of life was changed.

This little book, which is all true, shows how changed; how much new life, it received and gave. She wrote the chapters last summer, chiefly at the Rieder Furca, at the suggestion and request of her mother. Nearly every narrative in it has been told me in rides and walks, mostly in fragments as the facts occurred. She determined not to publish it for fear incidents and letters recognised should give pain. But it is printed now for a few friends, because many of them are caring for the same things. And the book shows what reclamations, sustainings, savings may be very simply wrought. And it brings out one principle too often forgotten in days of great schemes–how such saving and helping is to be soundly done–individual by individual, heart by heart.

But her friendships with the poor were the fruit of knowledge as well as love. She feared that an ignorant interest might hurt more than it could heal. She studied the Poor Law and its Commentators and kindred works, and for those who talked with her of modern problems of charity she made the harder parts of the subjects live and glow.

Thus while she went about her plans with much original force, it was in acquaintance with principles; and a great advantage to her it was to be in close friendship with Miss Tait in her Court, to work with the Charity Organization Committee for Lambeth, and to know Miss Octavia Hill and her workers.

The little book may show too what may be done with the half-hours and hours of already full and busy life. For a most busy life it was–busy not only with much home work and social duty, with larger undertakings carried through, and the much-enjoyed writing of short essays, tales and poems for home use, but with amusement too: she was an excellent lawn-tennis player, one of the champions of the Oxford lady players and member of a ladies' cricket eleven.

Her active and well-balanced figure whether threading the immemorial elms to the village, or rounding the corners of Lambeth Walk, or lightly climbing a Swiss height, seemed the very last which illness or death could touch. There was purposeful sacrifice of lively pleasure in the exercise of gifts more than ordinary. She would have played well and drawn well, and did both sufficiently to start many a boy in happy use of pencil and violin. But she sentenced herself as "certain to be never more than a mediocre artist," and too much was not to be surrendered to even such enjoyment.

Almost every study was delightful to her. She was a wide, swift reader, and wrote rapidly and transparently. Any one who has tried will know how many authorities and how much weighing of them go to the making of such a little book as she wrote on Russian History. Other subjects were studied with the same spirit, some with brothers, some alone. But people were henceforth always in view. She worked hard at Early English Literature – the originals – and at Shakespeare. But she delighted most when she had found a personal use for it in lectures to the highest class of the Clergy Orphan School, and more still when she enlisted in the same service another Lady Student of History.

Her class of country boys and men at Addington, and of girls at Lambeth, took up not only her Sunday afternoons, but, in twos and threes, several evenings a week. Some experiences of the girls are in this book. Of the boys she helped one or two to sea, three or four to the Colonies, all so far to do well. She never gave up one because they got into trouble. And so with some whose difficulties were of a more spiritual cast. "She was a rock," said one, "she never gave you up."

All Work for the classes was brightly prepared and illustrated. Everything she saw, sketched, or brought back from a tour in Egypt, Palestine, and Greece, was laid utterly at their service.

It was not that she "worked up" subjects in order to find occupations for others. She desired that what helped her, and filled her with interest and pleasure, should yield its goodness and strength to others. What her ardour was in seeing with her own eyes the scenes she was well able to people from the past, they know who received her delightful letters from the East.

Our kind ambassador in Constantinople, the Patriarch Nicodemus of Jerusalem, our good Bishop there, who was her host, and our Dean at Cairo–all who received her felt her enthusiasms.

Her companions were our old friends Christopher Hutchinson and his daughter. They tell us how she went twenty-seven times on to the Acropolis in her fortnight at Athens–at all hours–from dawn till sunset. Besides Athens, three things thrilled her most: the keen moonlights and shadows on the Cyclades, a long still time of thought by Nain, and above all some silent hours at the Sepulchre.
It seemed when she came home a little strange that of her photographs, the set which she had collected with most care was a series of those beautiful scenes of Last Farewell–the XPHCTH XAIPE of the Monuments. She dwelt on the exquisite expressions of sorrow and hope in the face and even the limbs of those who were parting.

It might have seemed that mature study and serious occupations would have left her little leisure or untired spirits. But whatever was wanted–a game to be played, a chant to be practised with the household, or a paper to be looked over, a speech, nay, a Charge to be talked about–it was taken instantly (we all bear witness), always as if it were the one thing which at that moment was the most possible and agreeable. She realised and helped many to realise a sentence of her brother's, "It is such nonsense to fret at the ‘little interruptions' and ‘worries of life,' because of course they "are life itself." It was the same with points of character, with matters of thought; she seemed to give each of us just what each wanted.

Rapid as all her work was, it was a rapidity gained by habits of self-control. "It is," she wrote, "such a loss of time and power to be having to try to keep your temper when it is tried, instead of doing the trying thing which has to be done. The way to save time and strength is to get your temper formed and in order as soon as you can." There was no shadow of self-assertion. It seemed as if there were no self to be asserted. And so it came to pass that, as no common observer wrote, "a singular attractiveness resided in that peculiar look of rest." A tender humour played over her serious ways and a keen, abounding joyous fun filled her merrier ones. "I will not think of her," said one in great grief, "with any abatement of the thought of her chaff and fun." And yet she had her sighings. An old friend writes, "Her wise smile–I have watched her growth from the time she was four years old–had no sorrow in it–unless perhaps a shade lately, as she was learning the difficulties of helping the helpless and fallen and of fighting against masses of wickedness."

Upon her return from the East her Lambeth and Southwark and Addington work was resumed with more zest than ever. "She had such a way with them." The "way" was a firm assumption as a matter of course that she and they were of one mind as to their being interested and good; the certainty that if they were not so then, they soon would be; a love of their natural courtesy, or a perception of their genuine respectfulness behind their town coolness. Lately the conditions of domestic service drew her attentive thought; how important a social question that interdependence of classes which it maintains and develops; how significant the details which vitally affect the position, career, health of that stratum of working people which is closest to all! Her last paper written in answer to, but at the request of, her cousin, Mrs. Frank Darwin, closes with notable words: "Shall we not think more truly if we regard domestic service not as a mitigated evil, but as a great power for good? Is it a small opportunity to have the lives of a large number of the future wives and mothers of the working classes so closely bound to ours that it becomes our right and duty to see that the physical, mental, and moral conditions of their lives are favourable to their development and happiness; while at the same time they retain independence, so that they can at any moment leave us if they think they would be happier and better off elsewhere?"(1) This and her care for her Lambeth girls showed us how her last wish about Lambeth might be carried out after her own mind.

To bring interests, freshness or any source of joyousness into poor toilsome or low lives was to her mind one of the hopefullest ways of work in their behalf. Through the spring of 1890 she worked hard in forming for Southwark a Free Loan Picture Exhibition. The Morley College lent rooms, and most generous answers came in from our great artists and famous collectors. Curators volunteered; admission was free, and the galleries constantly full of the very people it was meant for. There were over twelve hundred visitors daily, and not one instance of roughness. The catalogue with a few pithy sentences which she selected as to the purposes of Art, and brief notes by many able workers helped the seers to observe, and think about and feel the pictures. These were two or three of her own notes:

Barges on the Thames (Marshall). A well known scene to us dwellers near the river. Such pictures should teach us to look for beauty too, where perhaps we have only looked for business.

Wild Goats in the Valley (Ford). The bright sunset dazzles us, as it does in real life; so that we must look close and carefully to see the details in the hills and valley.

A Head (Etty). And a very good, sweet-tempered little girl she looks, and will grow up a good and lovable woman.

The Emperor of Germany (by his mother, the Empress). A ruler whom all must watch with interest. He has a hard task before him of steering a great country: and lately the experienced old pilot, Bismarck, has left the helm. The Emperor has clearly great energy and determination; it remains to be seen with what wisdom he will deal with the social and international problems he has before him.

Dead Christ (Ary Scheffer). [Selected motto.]

‘Dear brother, no other thing I of thee require,

But give me thy heart free, to reward my hire.'

"South London," she wrote, "has shown itself fully alive to the delights of good Art."

Visitors were asked to mark on cards the pictures they enjoyed most; Academicians might have given the same votes. Her delight at the enjoyment of this constant stream of working men, women and children was intense. "But with this success," said some one,"I am afraid you have cut out a very heavy piece of work for yourself again next year."

"Oh? I do hope so!" was her swift answer. But it is being done lovingly and diligently by others.

She had joined the Women's University Settlement in Southwark when its prospects were not bright, and devoted herself to the understanding of its finance and the renovation of its constitution. Her way was on all matters of advice to go straight to the best authorities, and she went at once to Lord Thring. Aided by his unequalled experience and judgment, which solved all difficulties, she completed the Articles of Association. He formed the highest opinion of her business capacity and power of organization. She then wanted to withdraw from the office of honorary Treasurer; but at the election held for a new one, her name was put up without her knowledge and every vote given for her. They have since erected the most touching memorial of her – a Nurseship for the poor in Southwark.

"With all this practical usefulness she never lost sight either of the poetry or the inner religion of life." So writes one well able to speak of both.(2)

I am not sure that I used to be struck with anything more than the perfect simplicity of readiness with which she would in quiet moments open out into, though seldom initiating, a talk which left the deepest impression of thought about high things. A remark on the subtle power, the knowledge of human nature, or divine instinct in some sentence of the Imitatio, or the like, would at once draw from her probably the remainder of the sentence, a side light from some like-minded author, or the sense of a prophet or apostle caught below the surface.

Naturally her Hidden Life of the Soul, S. Francis' Devout Life and the Holy Living are well-worn books.

She was a most true Churchwoman, reverent, peaceful, disciplined, spiritual. My own last never-to-be-forgotten walk with her was to a cottage from which the aged head had just been taken away. We listened with something of awe to the story of the sweetness which had marked the straightforward, quiet, self-contained old workman in his last few days. She talked as we came home of the simplicity and absence of all fear in his departing, of the steady, unforced hope in the old lady's narrative and of the effect of the training of the frequent Sacrament.

But it seems that in all the fulness of her life she not unfrequently spoke of death. She wondered that people in earnest should dread it. She thought she would not be afraid of death, though, indeed, there was no one from whom it seemed farther away. But it came with a swift wing. Ten days of severe suffering. Her looks and scribbled notes helped and amused the spirits of her nurses. She pencilled that she wished her money to go to some charitable work for Lambeth. At midnight on Sunday, October 26, 1890, she seemed to take a decided turn for the better. At seven next morning she was sinking. "But she is full of courage. You will see she is not at all afraid," said the Physician whose skill and tenderness is not contracted to thoughts of this world.

She was as bright–brighter than ever. Smiled brightly and nodded to the sister who had been ever one with her. Firmly pressed our hands. Two or three prayers were said beside her, and "The Lord is my shepherd." She joined in whispers. Then said to her father, "Until this morning I had not thought that I should live." Then, "You and Mama will be everything to each other, won't you? And do not grieve too much."

"Tell ___ to live a manly, noble life. Tell him that he can–and that he will."

"My dearest love to the boys–Arthur, Fred, Hugh."

"And I shall see Martin,"–that dearest brother, eldest of all, whose death at Winchester had made her once almost sick to death.
To the beloved old nurse, "Beth, you'll not be long after me."

A message of encouragement "to my boys–my girls." Then to her mother, "You will take good care of _____ and _____ for me, won't you?"
After that, with the same eager look of interest in great things which was so familiar to us, "I wonder what it will be like."

"You will see His face?" "Yes."

Afterwards to her nurses, just with the old spirit of leaving nothing that depended on herself undone, "I should have liked to live. Is there anything that I can do?"

"You must let patience have her perfect work," Sister _____ holily answered.

Yet another answer, "In the midst of death we are in life," is now written in her name by "The Ladies" upon their glorious Eagle of the Word in that Chapel of many memories.

"In the midst of death we are in life." We know it more true than its true original–we know it now by her.

She has seemed to us to answer well to that test of love to God, which he left us who was the beloved of Christ. And that "love of the brethren," though full of power and soberness, was not content with itself and with what could be begun and ended on earth. It was still on the way to the deeps of God.

It was with a strange unconscious echo of those latest thoughts here that a deep-hearted friend, who had not known of them, wrote only these words when he heard that she was gone:

"I wonder more and more what we shall see when we wake,
We are constantly thinking of you but not as fewer than before."

Edw : C
The Epiphany, 1891

 

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NOTES:

1. Published in Nineteenth Century, October 1890.

2. Miss Wordsworth, Guardian, November 5, 1890.