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The Christian origins of Dings Crusaders


In Bristol in the late Victorian period there was a widespread attempt by socio-religious institutions to provide wholesome influences on the lives of the urban poor. These voluntary organisations nearly all had one feature in common: a reliance on the support of religious bodies. The Congregationalists and Baptists had founded the Bristol City Mission in 1836 and the Wesleyans the Inner City Visiting Mission in 1828.

By the 1870s there was no doubt that the socio-religious work had struck a deep chord of response, particularly their work for temperance, entertainment and education. The cultural alternative to the public house, the Temperance Coffee Tavern provided a new basis for growth and development, and the Quakers, always the pioneers in Bristol’s Temperance movement, set up a coffee house, the British Workman Coffee Tavern in 1874. As coffee didn’t have the same attraction as alcohol, a number of activities were organised at the coffee house, clubs formed, lectures held and billiard tables acquired.

Another venture was the establishment of the Clifton College Mission, founded by Rev John Percival (appointed as headmaster of Clifton College in 1862) as a bridge between the schoolboys of the College and the town. The newly founded Mission was located in the new Bristol parish of St Agnes, and developed around the starting point of the leisure time of the individual. Early visitors to the Mission would have seen in the 1880s the Working Men’s Club, reading rooms, and a gymnasium of truly magnificent proportions, fully equipped for all forms of gymnastics and drill. The Mission organised football and cricket teams and a cycling club. One of the few constant activities involving the public school boys and the members of the Mission was the annual rugby football match between the school and the Mission boys (who were taught to play rugby football especially for this match).

The Dings, a notorious area of poverty and degradation in the St Philip’s area of Bristol, between Temple Meads and Barton Hill, was one of the worst slums in Bristol. In this district of narrow alleys and mean houses conditions were so bad that the health of the people was impaired and ordinary comfort became impossible. The only place for the man of the house to get away from such uncomfortable dwellings was to the local public house, where there was light and warmth and companionship, but where the very small family income could quickly be drunk away.

Joseph Hinam Bell of the Cumberland Street City Mission, appointed by the Bristol City Mission to do pioneer Christian work in St Philip’s made a gallant attempt to deal with the alcohol problem, and largely due to Bell the St Philip’s Coffee House Company was formed to provide a counter attraction to the public houses in the area. Other prominent Christian citizens interested themselves in Bell’s work, a Committee was formed, and a plot of land at the junction of Oxford Street with Kingsland Road was purchased in 1885. In March 1888, the Shaftesbury Workmen’s Institute and Public Hall was officially opened as an alternative to the many public houses and gin palaces of the area, ‘…free from the taint of intoxicants and other evil influences’.

The Revd Urijah Thomas, minister of Redland Park Church was also aware of the dreadful conditions in the Dings area, and devised a scheme which he believed had a double benefit. He saw the needs in St Philip’s and knew that many young people in the Redland Park Church had not sufficient outlet for their energy and their idealism. In 1893 the Shaftesbury Mission was started in the Shaftesbury Hall, the Revd Thomas inspiring members of Redland Park Young People's Guild to go down to St Philip’s to run boys' and girls' clubs, sports clubs, gymnastics classes, first aid, Bible classes and many other activities.

However, the accommodation proved to be quite inadequate as by 1898 the Dings’ Club was conducted in Sydney Alley because there was no room for it in the Hall. Before the Shaftesbury Crusade was established a number of Clifton College Old Boys had founded a social club for boys located in the Dings which gave its name to the Dings’ Club for Boys and Young Men. In 1896 H.M. Harris took over the responsibility of the Club which became part of the Shaftesbury Crusade. During the 1890-91 rugby season there is a reference in the Bristol Mercury newspaper to Dings Boys’ Club playing against St Agnes Boys’ Club Rugby Club.

In 1897, H.W. Rudge founded and established Dings Crusaders Rugby Club as a part of the Dings Boys’ Club, one of the activities of the Shaftesbury Crusade. Herbert William Rudge, a prominent member of the Shaftesbury Crusade, was the club’s first honorary secretary, holding office for thirty years, before becoming club president in 1930.

By Ian Hadrell

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