Church of England Diocese of Birmingham St. Alban and St. Patrick, Highgate

June Letter

13 Jun 2021, 5:45 p.m.

Thomas Pollock wrote “If I breath bad air, or live in dirt willingly, I am a suicide, if I force others to do this, or do not do my best to help them, I am a murderer” in The Birmingham Daily Post for 24th September 1874. Fr Pollock's understanding of pollution was different from ours because science has made huge advances since then. Nevertheless, Thomas Pollock had a clear grasp of the importance of clean ground, water and air and how what we would (today) call pollution affected public health.

Thomas and James Pollock burned with the desire to improve the lives of the people. Fr Thomas saw the pollution in this area as an affront to the gospel and an injustice against the people who lived here. What then might he have made of the clean air zone?

I think we can assume that Thomas Pollock would have been in favour of the clean air zone. Just as the insanitary conditions of 1874 “murdering” the people of Highgate, pollution from vehicle exhausts is killing people every year. In fact, I suspect Fr Thomas would have said the clean air zone doesn’t go far enough. That doesn’t mean that the clean air zone is not a challenge to our church. It is a real problem because not everyone in our congregation will be able to change their car for one that is less polluting. I believe that Fr Thomas would point out to us that the Christian life is a calling to face many difficulties and that we need to work together overcome those difficulties: that Christ calls our church to stand up for justice for the poor who are disproportionally affected by air pollution.

One way we can have our cake and eat it is to make sure that those who want to come to our church and can’t drive into the clean air zone are able to get lifts from those of us who have compliant cars. Yes, it is difficult, but we can work together to overcome our difficulties.

I’m sat writing this in Ark St Alban’s Academy, and this is another expression of the Pollock brothers work of bringing justice to the people of Highgate. They saw education as a key way of empowering the disadvantaged. Fr Thomas makes it clear that the same principles that make “schools, and churches, and science classes” a good thing compel us to secure “healthy homes and fresh air” for working people. That zeal for justice is also the reason there are no pews is St Alban’s church. The Pollock brothers didn’t want special pews that could be rented by rich families. No! Everyone should be equal in St Alban’s Church.

Interestingly Fr Pollock’s letter also touches on the subject of epidemics. Expanding the quote at the beginning of this letter.

“One word more. When epidemic breaks out, people turn up their eyes and talk about Providence. I have no patience with this sort of ignorant slander against the Almighty. Men lay to the charge of God what is done by their own greed or dullness. If I lay down powder, and put a match to it, I have no right to say that Providence blows my eyes out or maims my neighbour. I know what powder will do when lighted. So, if I breathe bad air, or live in dirt willingly, I am a suicide, if I force others to do this, or do not do my best to help them, I am a murderer”.

I think Fr Thomas would have much to say about the world's (and our own country’s) response to the Covid-19. Edward Jenner was born over 100 years before Fr Thomas’ letter and vaccinations are providing a route out of the current pandemic in a way Fr Thomas would not have known. He would undoubtedly point out that while the vaccine has saved many lives, many more would have been saved if our government had acted in accordance with scientific principles. If Fr Thomas’ words, “We found and support great hospitals. Most of the outlay of these ought, I solemnly believe, to be spent on prevention. We knock a man down with one hand, and hold out sticking-plaster with the other. We poison men, and then buy them costly antidotes.”

Today, we need to look at the issues of pollution, global warming and injustice from the ethical standpoint as the Pollock brothers. The Church of St Alban the Martyr was not meant to be a chaplaincy to the few, but a dynamic force for social justice. We definitely have the echo’s of that in our church, but do we still have the zeal and commitment to follow Jesus like Frs Thomas and James did?

If you think what I am writing is radical, then read the transcript of Fr Thomas’ letter later in this magazine and you will find this letter quite mild.

THE HOMES OF OUR WORKING MEN.

To the Editor of the Daily Post.

Sir,—Will you let me gain a hearing on a matter which someone ought to speak about ? 1 have held back, hoping that a man with more right and power than I would come forward; but I have waited in vain. It seems better that a curate in Vaughton’s Hole should drag an evil to light than that it should go on doing its bad work in quiet. I may be laughed at and abused. If I am wrong I shall be glad to be set right at the small cost of hearing scoffs and hard words. If I can do any good I care little what is flung at me. I make an appeal on behalf of our working population. My claim to be heard is that I have lived among them here for nine years, and am a fool if I have not learned as well as most men whence come most of the ills that drag and hold them down. I say plainly that the source of most of these is the utter want of brain, or neglect of the use of brain, on the part of those who have control over the building of houses for our working men to live in. Let me say how things are done, giving one district as an example. Doubtless it is no worse than others.

A large stretch of land is open for building. Great holes lie here and there, where clay has been dug for bricks. These are filled up with refuse from factories, rotten vegetables, and all sorts of many-scented rubbish. When the land is level, houses are put down in rows and courts are built behind these. In each court there is a common filth-hole, where the “separate stinks” combine for one great effect.

There is a constant soak from this. It must go somewhere; as man does not guide it, it obeys the law of gravity, and finds its way under the houses and into the soil. Pumps are sunk down among the filthy refuse, and the people drink the water. The ways behind the houses are left unmade. On them the rainwater lies mixed with the emptyings of buckets, till the sun drawn it up into, the air and the lungs of the people. After two or five years, the street is made and sewers are put down; but the ground is deeply charged with filth, which can never be got out, and which every stirring sends abroad to do its deadly work. I ask with all humility—would it not be common sense to make the street and sewers first, and forbid building till the drainage is provided for? This is the rule in most towns why not here? Ought there not to be some care tli.it in every block of building there should be, as far as can be, provision for decency, and cleanliness, and health? I do not see why the men and women of our working population have less right than the people of Edgbaston to every advantage that in these matters our growing knowledge offers.

Much sympathy has been rightly felt for the wrongs of the farm labourers. The descriptions of the homes provided for them in some places have roused public indignation. But they at least have pure air in the fields all day, while many of our working people have to go from close shops to breathe what is mere poison. Their homes are in many cases slaughter-houses, where they are slowly put to death—killed by greed or by stupidity. I am at a loss to know why a squire who gets his two or three per cent, for his money should be held up to execration it one of his labourers is housed badly, while a manufacturer who makes twenty or thirty per cent, is thought free from all responsibility about those who build up his wealth. Government is called upon to take the part the farm labourers, and enforce the provision of proper dwellings. Can our authorities do nothing for our mechanics? We are about to expend I know not how much on new Corporation buildings. One great reason urged for haste was the unhealthiness of the room in which the Town Councillors meet for a few hours now and then. Meanwhile there is no money to drain and lay down streets where hundreds of ratepaying people breathe night and day, and are poisoned by the only air they can get.

We found and support great hospitals. Most of the outlay of these ought, I solemnly believe, to be spent on prevention. We knock a man down with one hand, and hold out sticking-plaster with the other. We poison men, and then buy them costly antidotes. One street in this district was, about eight years ago, the settled home of fever. Whole rows of houses were full of it. Many died. I meet people now whose health was blighted then, and who had lost for ever the hope or enjoying life. The street was drained and laid down, and became, what it has been ever since, healthy.

One word more. When epidemic breaks out, people turn up their eyes and talk about Providence. I have no patience with this sort of ignorant slander against the Almighty. Men lay to the charge of God what is done by their own greed or dullness. If I lay down powder, and put a match to it, I have no right to say that Providence blows my eyes out or maims my neighbour. I know what powder will do when lighted. So, if I breathe bad air, or live in dirt willingly, I am a suicide, if I force others to do this, or do not do my best to help them, I am a murderer. Providence has given certain sorts of matter bad smells to tell us that they ought to be put into their right place. He has given us noses to remind us of our danger, and brains to teach us what to do. If we refuse to be warned and taught, it is our own fault. I have seen whole families of children swept away. I have seen men and women laid low with sickness, and words of comfort have died on my lips. I could not talk of “God’s will”. I knew that, against the will of the good God, these poor brothers and sisters had been poisoned. They were struck down by sickness that need not have been, that common forethought might and should have made things of the past. Even where sickness does not break out, the body, the mind, and the soul of our poor people suffer. And these three are one: they act and react on one another. No wonder if a man is a slow had workman, a surly neighbour, and ready to upturn everything, if his blood drinks in poison every time it passes through his lungs. No wonder if he has little care to improve his mind, or little heart for pleasures above what beer can give him. No wonder if he has small power to think of heaven, or take in religious ideas. It is almost wasted work to try to raise the mind and train the conscience of those who are dragged down by the weight of an enervated poisoned body. My wonder is that there is among our working people so much true nobleness and refinement and brave perseverance, when the circumstances in which many of them are forced to live are so hard and crushing. Schools, and churches, and science classes are good thing. We are bound to provide them. I hold that it is no less our duty before Gpd and man to secure for our working people healthy homes and fresh air. We blunder sadly if, in most of our attempts ai philanthropy, the mistake most common is to try to help part of a man, instead of caring for the whole of him.

Will someone speak whose words will be cared for?

Liberavi animam meam!

I am, sir. yours obediently,

THOMAS B. POLLOCK.

From The Birmingham Daily Post 24<sup>th</sup> September 1874