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Study Resources :: Women's Study Resources :: Biographies :: The World's Workers: Catherine Marsh

The World's Workers: Catherine Marsh

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Catherine Marsh

Many years ago I walked over to Beckenham from Sydenham with a party of young friends for the purpose of hearing Miss Marsh speak at her then famous cottage meetings. Like every one else, we had all been reading the “Memorials of Captain Hedley Vicars,” that brave young soldier of Christ and of the Queen who had lived and died so nobly in the deadly trenches before Sebastopol, and who dared to take the open Bible for “his colours.” We had also heard a great deal about Miss Marsh and her work among the navvies; so having an opportunity of going to Beckenham, we went.

The memory of that evening is still clear and bright:

“Mid many a day struck calm.”

I can still see the Crystal Palace shining on the hills, still see the young forms slowly strolling through the level fields, still feel the grave, religious questioning in the restless young hearts.

Presently we left the fields and turned into the highway that wound through a quaint, rustic village. We paused before the old lych–gate with its broad weather–worn covering, we gazed at the solemn avenue of tall, dark yew–trees that led up to the door of Beckenham Church. How grave, how rural, how quiet it was! Then we went on through the antiquated village until we came to the room where the meeting was to be held. It was the ground floor of an old cottage, and was called a coffee shop.

We were much too early. A neat respectable–looking woman was ironing at a table that occupied the centre of the room. There were no signs of preparation; so we went out again and walked about. In due time we returned. The big table had vanished, the room was full of forms, and a number of navvies were heavily pounding in and flinging themselves on to the forms. We were, however, still early, and found good seats.

Presently two ladies, elegantly dressed in the fashion of that day, came in. There had been a wedding at the Rectory, and the ladies had evidently come to the meeting just as they were. The one was the sister of Hedley Vicars, the other—tall, fair, and of commanding presence—was Miss Marsh herself, who at once began the simple service.

She read the fifth chapter of St. Luke. Her comments upon it must have been very striking, because what I remember so vividly is, not the room at Beckenham and the English navvies, but the Jewish fishermen washing their nets by the lake of Gennesaret, the Saviour coming to them and preaching out of their boat, the Divine command, “Launch out into the deep,” the multitude of fishes so great that the net brake, and Simon Peter’s “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, 0 Lord!”

But when it came to that so human outcry, then I knew I was in Beckenham; for then I felt rather than saw that the great rough heads of the navvies were bowing low, that tears were rolling down their cheeks; then I heard the motherless girl who sat next me crying. Then, like rain upon the thirsty earth, seemed the speaker’s earnest pleading: “Oh, shall not we the rather reverse the plea, and cry out of the great need of our own hearts, “Come to me and never leave me, Lord Jesus, for I am a sinner lost and undone without Thee!”


It so fell out that I never visited Beckenham from that never–to–be–forgotten evening until early in 1885.

Everything was as changed as myself. I went alone. The railway carried me over such of the level fields as yet remain below the hills on which stands the Crystal Palace, and past the gardens of innumerable villa residences.

I alighted at a large station in the centre of a wealthy and populous suburban town, where the only thing I could recognise was the very tall spire of the old church. It was a fine afternoon; many carriages, many pretty girls charmingly dressed, many lovely babies arrayed in spotless creaminesses of lace and cashmere, and reposing in luxurious wheeled bassinets, gave the place a particularly well–to–do aspect. The old churchyard was all but overshadowed by a new Town Hall of the “Queen Anne” pattern, glowing with red brick, next to which was a gorgeous “Board of Works,” and an equally grand new bank, which turned the corner of a flourishing row of “Queen Anne” shops dignified by the name of the “Parade.”

In the midst of all this modern smartness I found the old lych–gate and the yew–trees still surviving, just as you may see them in the frontispiece of Miss Marsh’s little book, A Light for the Line. But the long rows of navvies in their white, stiff–starched smocks—shown also in that frontispiece—who had come to do the last honours to their comrade, Thomas Ward, were all gone. I went through the gate, and found that grave of his. Alas! so stained with rain drips from the yew–trees is it, and so fast is the stone crumbling, that it was with difficulty I made out the noble words:

“Jesus Christ for every man.”

Beckenham had passed into other hands. It made me sad to see this memorial so neglected. The church was open, so I went in; it was full of interest. At the west end of the church you are surprised to find deep and lofty galleries rising one above the other, in a manner shocking to the lover of Gothic architecture, but exceedingly interesting and touching to those whose hearts have been thrilled with the accounts scattered through Miss Marsh’s books of hard hearts won to Christ in those pews, in those galleries.

This was the passage from Miss Marsh’s A Light for the Line that was most strongly in my mind while in Beckenham Church: “So warm was the navvies’ affection for Thomas Ward’s memory, that on the night following his death there was scarcely a dry eye as I told them his last words: ‘Jesus Christ for every man. Blessed, blessed Jesus!’ We believed that God had a message for them all, as well as for ourselves, in the death of Thomas Ward, and earnestly desired that not one should lose his share of the blessing.”

Accordingly, they were all invited to attend the afternoon service in Beckenham Church, previous to the burial. The aisles and many of the pews were crowded with men dressed in white clothes. They joined earnestly in the responses, and some were affected to tears when, at the close of the third collect for the afternoon service, a hymn was sung which seemed almost a paraphrase of Thomas’s last words, and of that world–wide Gospel he had preached from his dying bed:

“Salvation! Oh the joyful sound!
‘Tis music to our ears.”

Mr. Chalmers (Miss Marsh’s brother–in–law), then Rector of Beckenham, preached a beautiful and impressive sermon on: “Devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.”

Within the chancel rails is a tablet to the beloved memory of Captain Hedley Vicars, and on the opposite wall to it another to Dr. Marsh, the venerable father of the great and good woman who has made Beckenham a household name wherever the English language is read or spoken.

I left the time–honoured sanctuary, and went into the town in search of the coffee–room in which I had heard Miss Marsh speak and pray. A long shop, full of the newest things in saddlery, had been run out from it; although a few genuine old houses still remained intact among the hundreds of “Tudor,” “Jacobean,” or “Queen Anne” shops and villas. A large and elegant coffee–tavern, however, showed that temperance work was flourishing.

Quite at the other end of the village—the town I mean—when I had despaired of finding any one who remembered Miss Marsh, I espied, standing outside a cottage, an elderly man, so much stiffened by rheumatism as to need a crutch. I felt he must be an old inhabitant, so I asked him if he remembered Miss Marsh. “Aye! that he did! But she’d been gone a long while.” We had a little talk about her, which seemed to please him as much as it did me.

“You should have seen her coming along the line to we,” he said warmly, “with the mud and slush over the top of her shoes! But she didn’t care for that, not she! I come along with the navvies when they come to make the line. Ah! you should have seen her a walking along up the line! And they were a rough lot too, but they took to her; there’s none of ‘em as ‘ud have hurt her. Not they! They liked her too much!”

This was the impression I took home with me; the tall and dignified figure of that devoted woman going up the half–made line in all weathers, that she might take the message of the Gospel to those homeless working men; going again and again until she won from them the exclamation, “We know you cares for our souls!” until she brought many and many a one to Christ, until she was able to show to all the world that a British navvy could be in very deed and truth a Christian and a gentleman.


Catherine Marsh is the youngest child of most devoted Christians. Her father was Dr. William Marsh, whose memory is still revered as an earnest evangelical clergyman of singular beauty and purity of life, and of great practical benevolence; her mother was all that the wife of such a man should be, a woman of winning countenance and manners, of refined and cultivated mind, with warm affections, and a sweet, self–sacrificing nature that made her the centre of joy in her home. Best of all, she had in early life entirely devoted herself to her Redeemer’s service.

She had heard of William Marsh, and of his youthful consecration, before they met. When they met it was but natural that a strong attachment should spring up between them. It was a holy and blessed love given to them by God, which grew and gathered strength as the years passed on, rooted in their firm purpose that in all things Christ should have the preeminence.

William Marsh was a curate when he met Miss Tilson, and as the son and heir of the gallant Colonel Sir Charles Marsh, he was welcomed by her family, and an engagement permitted. But after it had lasted only a few months, Sir Charles suddenly lost his property, and Mrs. Tilson thought it right to break off the engagement.

It was a terrible trial to both the young people, yet so keen a sense of the honour due to parents had they, that for more than three years Maria Tilson not only never exchanged a letter with her lover, but even thought it her duty to deny herself the comfort of hearing from their common friends of William Marsh’s welfare; while he, as honourably, never attempted the slightest renewal of the intercourse. For three long years, therefore, they could only meet in spirit “in the sanctuary of the presence of their God.”

At length they had their reward. The mother’s heart was so deeply touched by her daughter’s submission, that during her last, long illness she freely consented to the marriage. Nor was that all; before she died there came from that mother’s lips the sweet testimony that her child’s conduct had so convinced her of the reality and power of religion, that she had herself sought and found like precious faith in Christ Jesus. This was indeed worth waiting for.

After her marriage to one whom Mr. Simeon, of Cambridge, describes as “that loveliest and most heavenly–minded of men,” her character grew and expanded most beautifully; her faith became more simple, her hope more assured, her charity the steady flame which Divine love kindles, and her confidence in her Saviour more entire.

Charles Kingsley has left us a charming portrait of Dr. Marsh, which will not only show us what manner of man he was, but among what influences his children grew up.

“I recollect him now. A man who had been peculiarly graceful and handsome; tall, delicate–featured, with the air noble of the old regime ; with a voice and manner full of suavity, even to tenderness, which you felt to be sincere from the earnestness of the voice and the honesty of the eye. Belonging to the old evangelical school, to which all later schools owe their vitality, he seemed to me no bigot, but ready to welcome, or at least patiently to hear, novel thoughts which did not interfere with fundamental truth. He belonged in thought, as well as in manner, to a class of ministers which is growing, alas! more rare among us; he fulfilled rather my notion of what the purest German evangelical of the last century must have been like, those who, with Spener and Franke, re–awakened vital Christianity among a dry and dead generation, given up to the letter of Lutheranism and forgetful of its spirit. In his goodness there was no severity; on the contrary, a gentle benignity, which made his presence always a source of happiness to his relatives and friends.”

Dr. Marsh was vicar of the small rural living of Basildon when he married, but not long afterwards he removed to St. Peter’s, Colchester, where he resided for fifteen years, and where his ministry was very richly blessed. It was at Colchester that Catherine was born.

The home–life of this family was singularly bright and happy. We get many a glimpse of its cheerful, busy piety in the Memoir of Dr. Marsh, which his daughter Catherine published, and also in Home Light, a little volume containing a sketch of Mrs. Marsh and a number of her letters.

The children at a very early age followed the example of their parents. “My dear children,” writes Mrs. Marsh from Colchester, “are going on delightfully; they spend all their pocket–money on the poor.” Catherine was “the baby.” Her mother generally writes of her as “Little C.,” and to her as “my tenderly beloved little child,” or “my most precious little child.”

“Little C. is amusing herself with a pen,” is about the earliest notice we have of the future authoress of Hedley Vicars, and English Hearts and English Hands. It is certainly characteristic.

Catherine Marsh seems to have taken to her pen when quite young; like three out of the four heroines of this volume, and, indeed, in common with most clever girls and boys, she had a trick of writing verses—vigorous verses too.

Here are a few lines which were written inside the cover of her French exercise–book when scarcely more than a child. They give a good idea of the happiness of her young days.

“Happy my infancy was and gay,
Sunny and bright as mornings in May;
When my sweet sisters and brothers played
With ‘the baby’ in the chestnut shade,
Or sauntered in summer in the woods,
Lighting our fire, and bringing our goods
For the wondrous charms of a gipsy tea,
By spreading oak and sycamore tree.”

But the children, even “the baby,” grew up, and not long after they had again moved, this time to the crowded town of Birmingham, a heavy blow fell upon them. The dear mother was taken.

“Sweet mother!” Catherine Marsh goes on in the little poem just quoted from her “Memory’s Pictures”—

“Sweet mother! all these are fled, and we
Have lost our childhood in losing thee.”

That loss created indeed what Dr. Marsh called a “tremendous vacuum;” he adds, however, “my beloved children do all in their power to comfort me, and try to conceal their own anguish.”

The whole family was remarkable for very strong affection, and although the elder branches married and left the old home, their love for it and for the father who was its glory never diminished. Catherine, the youngest, however, devoted herself to her father with all the strength of her loving nature. Both in her memoir of him and in her little verses her father is shown to the world as the centre of her earthly life, her guide and companion to the better land.

About seven years after his wife’s death he suffered severely from cataract, and for a time quite lost his sight. Catherine was a most tender nurse to him during that time. For many nights he could only obtain even the short relief of an hour’s sleep by listening to the reading of the Bible in a low voice. The New Testament was read through from beginning to end.

“What can we do now our book is finished?” his daughter asked. To which he replied with characteristic playfulness: “Send for a second volume.” She relates how

“He said one weary day
When he was faint and blind,
‘Thy gentle arm shall be my stay,
And there my rest I’ll find.’”

And how her very heart was choked with tears, and that she felt that if before her there lay the choice of a long, bright life, or the soothing of his blindness and pain:

“With all their sadness, I would rather
Have these still hours with thee, my father.”

Happily she was spared the painful choice, for an operation he underwent was successful, and sight was restored.

But Catherine Marsh is so distinctly to the public Miss Marsh of Beckenham, that we must not linger to trace her useful, busy early life as a clergyman’s daughter at Birmingham and then at Leamington.

When 1851 arrived Dr. Marsh had already long passed his three–score years and ten, and his charge at Leamington had become too much for him.

His son–in–law, the Rev. F. Chalmers, who had just been presented to the living of Beckenham, begged Dr. Marsh, most affectionately, to come to Beckenham and make a home in its Rectory. He did so, and of course Miss Marsh went with him. They were welcomed with the greatest rejoicing, and at once joined in the rector’s many schemes for the good of the neighbourhood with their accustomed energy; but it is not until the summer of 1853 that Miss Marsh seems, in the eyes of the general religious public, to stand out in all her striking individuality.

It is in English Hearts and English Hands that Miss Marsh of Beckenham lives and will live for many a year to come. Here, quite unconsciously, in recording what she felt to be God’s work, she has drawn her own portrait to the life, while in her father’s memoir she has most conscientiously hidden herself; although even when she was quite young the true incidents related in her little books, The Golden Chain and The Rift in the Cloud, which we dare not stay to describe, show the power she has always possessed of knowing how to meet the difficulties of very various minds. Another beautiful instance of this occurred when she was still in her teens, and is told in Dreamlight from Heaven.

If genuine human feeling can be put into a book, that feeling can never grow old. The author dies, the book itself is pushed aside and buried under huge heaps of new publications, but unearth it, and there you will find the emotion still alive, still throbbing as vigorously as when it was first put on paper.

All Miss Marsh’s books are instinct with genuine feeling; but few records in our language are fuller of this strong vitality than her English Hearts and English Hands. Happily we have not to unearth it, for it has never ceased to be popular; its thirty years have not dimmed its brightness; it is still one of the most living books of its class.

The crowd of rough navvies with their tumultuous joys and sorrows, their struggles for goodness, their sudden falls, all surging round the grand woman who alone could control them, who alone could love and admire them, and draw out their best qualities, live in these wonderful pages; we cannot say they live over again, for they have never ceased to pulsate with strong and genuine emotion.

It was early in 1853 that nearly three thousand navvies invaded the quiet woods on the Sydenham hills for the purpose of turning them into the great pleasure gardens of the Crystal Palace. The villages around soon swarmed with excavators; two hundred went over to Beckenham to lodge, and most of the good people of the neighbourhood began to fear that they would prove very troublesome lodgers. Probably Catherine Marsh may have thought so too, but whatever her forebodings, she at once determined to gain the friendship of these rough new–comers if it were possible to do so.

In those days no one had discovered the navvy’s good qualities: with his heavy boots clogged with clay, his earth–coloured clothes and his habit of going about in gangs, the stranger navvy was a person few people cared to have much to do with before Miss Marsh showed the way to his heart.

The two hundred navvies had not been long at Beckenham before Miss Marsh went out one spring Sunday evening about seven o’clock on her first voyage of discovery.

Several of the men were lodging in a cottage belonging to a family she had formerly visited during the illness of one of its members; so she went, not without trembling doubtless, and asked after her late patient.

A tall strong man in a fustian jacket, who had opened the door scarcely wide enough to allow his face to be seen, replied gruffly, “Harry ain’t here just now.”

“But I suppose I shall see him if I wait? I will walk in, if you will allow me,” said Miss Marsh.

“Well, you can if you like, but we’re a lot of rough uns.”

Undeterred by the surly response, she went in, saying as she entered, “Would you get me a chair?”

An intelligent–looking young fellow flew forward, dusted a chair with the tail of another man’s coat and placed it near the table. Miss Marsh asked them if they had been to church. They said they had never thought of it. So she told them how the morning’s sermon had been about a brave, good doctor who had recently died.

Some of the men had known him and had been helped by him. When the little story was ended the young man who had dusted the chair with another man’s coat said, “Well, ma’am, it’s a beautiful story, but in a measure it passes by me, because I don’t believe the Bible. I read in the Bible that God is a God of love, and yet that He has prepared for all eternity a place of torment for us poor, pitiful creatures.”

“In my Bible,” Miss Marsh replied, “I have never read anything of the sort;” and then she went on to show them that in spite of their hard thoughts, it was still eternally true that God is Love.

She spoke earnestly for some time, telling them that: “God so loved the World that He gave His Son,” all for one purpose, “to seek and save that which is lost. He is drawing nigh, He is come to you now,” she ended “He is speaking these words of His own by my feeble lips. Are you willing to let Him save you?”

“I am, I am,” the young man said with fervour, drawing his chair nearer hers. “I never thought of Him before but as an angry God; you make Him out a Friend.”

“Shall I pray with you?” asked Miss Marsh.

“I should like it. But this man,” pointing to one behind him, “never opens his mouth but to swear.”

“But he will open it to pray now. Will you not, my friend?”

“Yes.”

And as they all knelt together, their voices followed hers, and two or three sobs burst from those strong men.

From this beginning sprang up those wonderful Cottage Bible Readings the story of which has delighted so many thousands of people throughout the world, and set so many of them working for the good of their neighbours.

English Hearts and English Hands has proved a most inspiring book; it has been the pioneer of innumerable efforts to reach the working classes. Many are the well–known workers whom Miss Marsh’s steady faith and loving resolute perseverance that refuses to be discouraged, have been the means of raising up.

She believed in the Gospel. She believed too that it was the very Christ of that Gospel that her Beckenham navvies needed. According to her faith so it was to her.

Her portraits of the navvies are drawn with a most vigorous but a most loving touch. Here, for instance is “John H—his fair face, straight features, and almost white hair, were eminently Saxon, and he himself the wildest piece of nature I had then seen.” He doesn’t go to church, won’t hear of such a thing. But she gets him to take a little Testament, and soon we see him sitting down on the doorstep twirling it round between his finger and thumb, and exclaiming, “Now, ain’t it a rare beauty? I’ll cover it with a slice off my best red choker!”

Miss Marsh had all sorts of womanly ways for getting at these rough fellows. When she was going away from home she wrote notes in large printing characters to them, asking them to attend church regularly, and the next Sunday morning the middle aisle was full of clean stiff white smocks. She asked John H— if he had received her letter? “A letter, a letter for me!” shouted the laddie with the lint–white locks; “all the way from where you went! Well, the postman did bring me one, and I said ‘Tain’t for me. Nobody cares to write to me; so I sent it back. But I’ll go and pull the post–office about their ears if they don’t give it me back again!’”

Very stirring are some of the scenes in that record. Navvies, even under her influence, were sometimes but navvies still. Angry words and furious blows followed too often upon the most generous kindness. Paget, one of her most hopeful men, told her on an evening that was both Sunday and New Year’s Day that if “Long George” came to the meeting he should order him out. The whole scene is graphically described, but too long for our space. Miss Marsh pleaded first with one and then went to the other, and separately each one could not let her “go home sorry;” but when after much difficulty she brought them face to face for the purpose of making it up, there came such loud talking that she feared a fight would ensue. Fists were raised and shaken in each other’s faces, the men were growing more and more furious, and their threats louder and louder, when Miss Marsh glided in between the two navvies with:

“Oh, Paget! oh, George! We must have no more. Let us kneel down and pray that the God of peace would prove Himself stronger than the devil. At first,” she says, “I knelt alone, but soon heard the two men suddenly fall on their knees; and when we rose up the tears were rolling down Paget’s cheeks.”

“After that prayer,” he cried, “I’ll forgive him from my heart out.”

But still George would not yield. Miss Marsh pleaded desperately with him. He stood irresolute, but sullen.

“Give me your hand,” she said at last.

“That I will.”

“And now, Paget, give me yours.” And the two huge, rough hands met in hers.

The whole book is so teeming with living interest that it is hard to leave any of it unnoticed; happily the book itself is very cheap. But in case some one who reads this may not have seen Miss Marsh’s description of the battle of Penge, I must condense it here.

The navvies who had been chosen for the Army Works Corps were massed at the Crystal Palace before they were sent out to the Crimean War. Six or seven hundred of these men with their wages in their pockets were kept waiting in idleness there for several days.

Rather fewer than a hundred of these men, who were lodging at Penge, spent a night, which they had every reason to believe would be their last in England, in a drunken revel.

The next afternoon Miss Marsh and her sister drove to the Crystal Palace gates to enquire when the embarkation was likely to take place. Two of the men of business of the corps hurried to the carriage.

“Pray drive down to Penge at once,” they said. “There’s a fight going on between the police and some of our men, but if you ask them they will go away quietly, drunk or sober.” The ladies drove to Penge, where they saw two policemen who had been terribly hurt, and seven men who had been taken prisoners. About fifty navvies, all more or less intoxicated, had formed a ring and had begun boxing. The police had interfered, laying about them with their staves. The mob had been roused to fury, there had been a fight. At the moment of the ladies’ arrival the mob had, however, dispersed; but a few minutes later a great crowd of navvies poured down the hill and from the Crystal Palace gates shouting,

“Down with the police! Rescue the prisoners! Punish the police well!”

The police stood their ground steadily, but were soon overwhelmed by the yelling crowd. The moment was come. The ladies drove between the infuriated men, and like Nehemiah, Miss Marsh “prayed to the God of heaven.” Then, turning to the crowd of five hundred furious navvies, many of whom had already upraised missiles, she said,

“The first man who throws a stone is my enemy. Go back, and give over, for my sake, for the sake of that God of peace of whom I have so loved to speak with you.” There was a brief silence.

“Do you go away, ma’am,” then some of them said. “We wouldn’t hurt you for anything; but it is not fair to hinder us paying off the pleece.”

“I shall not go away till you are gone, if I stay here till midnight,” returned Miss Marsh firmly.

“We don’t want to vex you,” said two or three spokesmen, “but we will set our mates free.”

“They shall be free,” exclaimed Miss Marsh, who, with the navvies, thought “the mates” unjustly made prisoners. “If there’s justice in England, they shall be free to go with you to the Crimea. I pledge myself not to rest till it is done. Will you trust me?”

There was a pause, and then a short conference between the leaders was followed by loud shouts of, “Trust ye to the world’s end.”

“Then prove it by going back within the Crystal Palace gates.”

In five minutes Miss Marsh was left alone with the police and the prisoners.

The whole of Miss Marsh’s treatment of her navvies showed equal resolution. One hardly knows which to admire the more, her determination or her tenderness. How beautifully both are united in the following:

One of her most hopeful men having been accused by his mates of being stingy, the one charge the navvy dreads above everything, had, to prove the falseness of the accusation, treated his mates and cleared himself, although he had been obliged to sell his clothes to do so.

When he came to his sober senses again he was terribly distressed. Miss Marsh went to see him. He would not meet her. His wife tried to persuade him to come down, but he said,

“Where’s the good of being pulled up to be better for a day or too, only to go down the lower afterwards?”

“Tell him,” said Miss Marsh, “that I shall stay here until he comes.”

He was a long while coming, but at last he came with slow, unwilling step.

“It is no use at all; I’ve sold my soul to the devil,” he said sullenly.

“But he shall not have it; it is not yours to sell. Jesus Christ has bought it with His own blood. Oh, William, I must, I will have it for Jesus Christ!”

She could say no more, her voice failed; but the strong man bowed his head on the table and wept like a child.

But time, or at least my very limited space, would fail to tell of all the good work done at Beckenham, not only by Miss Marsh, but by the whole of the large rectory circle, all of whom seemed to lay out themselves and their belongings entirely for the good of their fellow–creatures, among whom the cadets at Addiscombe College were not forgotten.

Many an officer now growing grey remembers with affection the happy Sundays on the lawn of Beckenham Rectory, when the youngsters gathered around the venerable Dr. Marsh, listening with rapt interest to his words.

“What is the good of being young,” said one of the cadets, as he lingered for another smile and parting word, “when one sees a man of eighty in better spirits than the jolliest of us?”

Miss Marsh always took these young soldiers under her especial care. As I write I have before me a copy of Hedley Vicars, yellow, and stained with twenty years of India, in which is the name of one of those young officers to whom it was given “with Catherine Marsh’s kind regards and best wishes.”

In 1860 Dr. Marsh was induced, by many considerations, to accept the living of Beddington, Surrey. His daughter continued there a somewhat similar work to that carried on at Beckenham, only instead of navvies there were, beside the villagers, tanners and workers at the leather, snuff, and paper mills that had grown up on the banks of the pretty river Wandle.

Miss Marsh’s meeting in the tannery presented a remarkably picturesque scene, and these services too were made channels of great blessing to very many.

In busy work and in devotedly tending the declining age of her most fondly loved father, Catherine Marsh spent four happy years at Beddington, and then the inevitable end came.

On the last night of the long watching, his daughter Catherine printed in large letters to catch his failing sight, the words, “A pillow for my heart’s beloved.” “God is love.” (He says) “I have loved thee with an everlasting love.” A few hours after, when the window had been thrown open and the sunshine was streaming in, with serene dignity he raised his hand and closed his own eyes, to draw the curtain that would hide earth from his sight, and leave him alone with his Saviour.

Very deeply did Miss Marsh feel the loss of that father from whom she had never before been parted; and in accordance with his wish that all his letters and papers should be hers, she now occupied herself in writing his life, “a task,” as she says in the preface, “at once most painful and most precious.” Whilst she was thus occupied, not long after Dr. Marsh was called hence, a dreadful visitation of cholera swept over the east of London, and her heart, ever ready to respond to the cry of the needy and the suffering, impelled her to seek for and to obtain admission to the wards for cholera patients.

These were opened in the London Hospital, Whitechapel Road, where, for the greater part of each day, during the four months’ prevalence of cholera, Miss Marsh ministered by the bed–sides of the sick and dying. She has related some of her experiences at this time in a little book called Death and Life or, Cholera Wards and Convalescent Homes, from which I give the following touching incident, as it illustrates so forcibly her simple and absolute faith that God will answer prayer, as well as her intense human sympathy with suffering.

After a graphic description of the wards, and of the cholera–stricken patients, and the devotion of the chaplain, the doctors, the nurses, and other helpers, she goes on:

“A young man, named William N—, was suffering very severely, though he firmly suppressed all sign of it, his rapidly changing colour alone betraying it. ‘You are in great pain, I fear.’

“‘Pain!’ he said; ‘it is pain!’

“The next day the glowing face was reduced to a worn and ashy paleness. By his side stood a young brother, weeping bitterly. The nurse wisely remonstrated with him:

“‘You won’t give your poor brother a chance if you take on so.’

“‘Oh, he’ll die! he’ll die!” sobbed the lad; ‘there is no chance for him.’

“‘You’re right,’ I said, ‘there is no “chance” for him; he is in the hand of Almighty God. But the Son of God has said, “If two of you shall agree touching anything on earth, it shall be done unto you of my Father which is in Heaven.’”

“‘I never heard those words before. Do you think He would keep to them, now?’

“‘Yes, I am sure He would be as good as His word; and will raise your brother up again if He can see it to be best for him. Come, then; if you will be one of those “two,” I will be the other.’

“‘No! would ye?’ and the young face brightened through its tears.

“So we pleaded it together, as we stood side by side.

“The next day William had a faint colour in his cheeks again. The nurse said he had called for some beef–tea soon after I had left, saying, ‘We must give the lady’s prayers all the chance we can, nurse, or it won’t be fair upon her.’ She noticed that he ‘took heart again from that moment.’

“On the following Monday he met me in the entrance–hall of the Hospital, accompanied by his wife and that young brother, in great joy and thankfulness for his spared life. Shaking my hand heartily, he said, ‘We shall never doubt now about God being as good as His word.’”

Only those who have heard Miss Marsh speak and pray can fully understand the helpful power of her presence among such scenes of agony. Her work among the sufferers was, however, not confined to the sick and dying. As soon as patients began to recover she felt very strongly the need of getting them away from the terrible hospital, either to the fresh country or to the sea–side.

An unasked for hundred pounds was sent to her for the benefit of the convalescents, and in three days Miss Marsh had a block of country cottages furnished and ready for their inmates’ use. Great, indeed, was the joy of the poor patients, as, amid the shouts of a large crowd of sympathising friends, they were driven off in an open van to the Essex cottages, “instead of,” as they said themselves, “going in the dead cart to the cemetery.”

The cottages were so great a success, and the sufferers recovered so quickly, that Miss Marsh determined to make a Convalescent Home for them at Blackrock, Brighton. Happily, the cholera disappeared, but Blackrock Home still continues to receive patients from the poor districts of London.

Some thousands of sufferers have enjoyed that hospital home, and in the great majority of cases recoveries have been both rapid and complete. The sea, which many of them had never before seen, made a deep impression on some of the patients. The most thoughtful care provides not only for the actual wants but for the pleasure of the inmates. And when, as has occasionally happened, patients have been sent there too far gone for cure, all that could be done to soothe their last hours has been provided. A wife or mother, a husband or child, has been welcomed, free of expense, to help in nursing and watching the sufferer, and the dying eyes have been, in most cases, led, by the blessing of God, to rest upon a living Saviour; and in the peace of God which passeth all understanding, one after another has fallen asleep.

Another important work arose out of the cholera epidemic. Many of the poor dying creatures in the London Hospital were terribly anxious about their children, whom they were leaving without protection. The thought of their children’s fate was too often the bitterest part of their most bitter pain. How could it be otherwise? How could they

“See their orphans, and not dread the grave?”

“Who is to take care of my children?” they cried. And Miss Marsh could not help answering, “I will; I’ll take care of them.”

In this way seventy–seven forlorn little beings were committed to her care.

Her sister, Mrs. Chalmers, at once arranged an orphanage at Beckenham for them, in a roomy, old–fashioned house, supplemented by an iron room.

The orphans were brought up as much as possible on the family system. The boys and girls were taught to help each other, the boys doing such things as cleaning the girls’ boots, and the girls mending the boys’ socks and clothes. “The sunshiny happiness of their daily life in the Home,” writes Miss Marsh six years after its establishment, “has even surpassed our hopes.”

But “sunshiny happiness” is one of Miss Marsh’s peculiarities, added to which she has the gift of infusing a good deal of the same sort of happiness into others.

When Mr. Chalmers left Beckenham for Nonington, the orphanage was removed there. By that time several of the children had been placed out in service; and as it was not intended to add to the number, the iron house, which had been only a part of the Beckenham establishment, was large enough, and this was re–erected in the grounds of Nonington Rectory until by degrees all the orphans were provided for.


Little did I think when I began this sketch that I was again to have the privilege of hearing Miss Marsh speak; but so it has been ordered.

More than this, I have even seen her the centre of love and reverence in a sweet home where the sacred teaching of the Bible and of the Divine Master penetrates each simple action of daily life through and through.

Since her father’s death, Miss Marsh has lived with one of her nieces, the wife of a clergyman now the rector of a Norfolk parish. When I saw her she had just returned from London, where she had been saying farewell and giving Testaments to many hundreds of our soldiers who were leaving for Egypt, the youth of some of whom had quite gone to her heart.

On Easter Monday, 1885, a large tea party was given by her to about two hundred farm labourers, and here I again heard Miss Marsh address an audience. Years had told in some measure even on her, but her heart seemed as young as ever; she was still as striking an individuality as in the old navvy day. Rows and rows of weather–beaten faces turned to her as if spellbound as to them also she told in that way that is so quite her own, how “God so loved the world.”

A story of a navvy’s happy death I will try to give you; but it is quite impossible to describe the graphic power of Miss Marsh’s own narrative.

“Many years after I had left Beckenham,” she said, “I returned one day for a visit. As soon as I reached the rectory door my sister said to me: ‘One of your old navvies is dying of consumption, and wants to see you.’ I went off at once. When I entered the room I exclaimed:

“‘Oh, James Green, how pleased I am to see you again! But so sorry to find you so ill.’

“‘There,’ cried the man, ‘there! I knew you’d know my name! I said you would !’

“‘Of course! I remember all about you;’ and so I did, for this was the man who had walked forty miles to Beckenham, when he heard that he had been prayed for by name; and when he heard, from the corner where he had concealed himself, that it was perfectly true, his heart seemed melted with gratitude.

“In a few minutes I found that James was not happy. ‘I can’t understand it, and I can’t see how God lets this be; here am I, a skilled workman, and getting on well and making my wife happy, struck down for death, while there’s a lot of old people in workhouses, and such–like, no comfort to themselves and a burden to others, that go living on, whilst here’s an end of all my happiness; can that be right?’

“‘But, James,’ I said, ‘is it an end of all your happiness?’

“‘Well,’ he replied rather sadly, ‘it might be different if I was quite sure I was going to heaven; but I am not. Though I am not a bad fellow like some, but now and again I have taken a drop too much, and I know that’s sin; and I haven’t gone to church regular, or kept Sunday as I should, and I know that’s sin.’

“I spoke of Christ’s death for us, and read I John i.: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins,’ when he stopped me short by saying,

“‘That’ll do.’

“Thinking he felt tired, I only said, ‘Then good–bye, James; I will come again as soon as I can,’ and left him. The next day was Sunday, and as I could not walk so far, a young friend, an Addiscombe cadet, went to enquire for James for me. He brought word that James wanted me to go as soon as possible on Monday, adding that he said he ‘had a secret that I must hear before any one else; but,’ put in my friend, ‘it is a very open secret, for it is flashing all over his face.’

“And so it was; his worn features were shining with joy when I saw him the next morning. ‘I told you that would do,’ was his greeting, ‘and it did.’

“‘Oh, James, I thought you meant I had read enough.

‘Now, did you?’ said he; ‘no, no, I meant this: if God is faithful to forgive us our sins, that’s a great thing; but just, that’s more wonderful still, and means He’ll do it at once for no honourable man even would delay to do a justice, how much more God! Then I thought: ‘how is it that He is just to forgive me my sins?’ and I remembered you told me that Christ had paid the price, so it wouldn’t be just to want it paid twice over. So now I am quite happy, and not afraid to die.’

“After that he used to tell all who came to see him of the way to have their sins forgiven. Then his dying night came, and his wife and sister were watching beside him, when he exclaimed,

“‘What’s that beautiful light in the corner? Why, there’s mother in it—dear mother, who died blessing me when I was but seven year old. Dear mother, how pretty she looks! Yes, I’ll come to you, mother;’ then after a moment’s pause, ‘I don’t see mother’s light now, but there’s another more beautiful, and I see a face; it’s as innocent as a babe’s, and yet it’s like God. Why, it’s the Lord Jesus. Oh, blessed Saviour, how kind to come for me! Yes, I’m ready to go with you,’ and leaning back on his pillow he went away.”

This narrative gives a good idea of the manner in which Miss Marsh can use a text of Scripture; but no written words can possibly convey to those who have not heard her speak what a text—a well–known text that has become to us, perhaps, like a much used coin, with the impression on it all but worn smooth—can become. The Divine image and superscription grow firm and clear once more, and the pure gold shines as if “fire new from the mint” of the Word of God.

It is not only when addressing an eager and crowded audience that she shows this gift in handling the Word of Life, but always; a text from her lips, whenever heard, is a power indeed.

Is not this a power which even ordinary Christians may cultivate in themselves, and which would doubtless be the possession of many if only they had the same absolute faith in the words they utter?

Long may Miss Marsh be spared to make the Divine Message so clear and plain.



CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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