As the 19th century progressed the St Vincent de Paul Society grew and developed its capacity to offer support to those in need in an increasingly broad range of ways.  This next ‘chapter’ sets out examples of how the SVP worked to promote the spiritual, social and moral standards of those in need.

Providing safe homes for young people working away from home

  In many early SVP reports we read the work “patronage”.  This is sometimes described as “patronage of delinquent, orphan and working youths in need of moral, social and financial tutelage”.

  The Patronage Committee stated as one of its aims: “to shield the children of the poor from corruption when they first go to work, and to instil spiritual values by means of advice and help”.

  When children needed to work away from home this Patronage Committee found suitable homes for them.  Visits were arranged to these youths from among SVP brothers specially appointed by Conference Presidents.  Each boy was placed under the individual supervision of a particular brother.

  Patronage ‘Guilds’ were established, through which monthly Communion was assured.  It must be remembered that such Guilds were originally created for boys of “essentially good character”.  They were sometimes called “schoolroom” or “intern” patronages.  If boys were of “doubtful character”, it was arranged for them to receive frequent and “friendly” visits!

  In another Manchester report covering these years, we read a very sad description of SVP funding a “Home for Friendless Young Men” and a Refuge for Destitute Workmen”.

  “St Vincent’s Home for Destitute Boys” was founded in Hammersmith in 1859.  In 1873, this became one of the very first Catholic Rescue Society homes.

A notable example of employment and education for boys

  Another striking title from these early days is the “Catholic Shoe Black Brigade”.  Once again, a look at the conditions of child-employment will help us to understand its purpose.  In 1847 an Act had limited the work of children in coal-mines by stating that any children between the ages of 9 and 18 could do no more than 9 hours work per day.  This regulation was generally disregarded and never really became practice for a further 30 years.

  The Catholic Shoe Black Brigade was founded by SVP Conferences in London during the early 1850s.  First of all, it ensured employment to about 50 children.  It also safeguarded against the loss of their faith.  The scheme was approved by the London police, who allocated 50 separate pitches to boys between 9 and 13.  According to the SVP annual report, these children were the “poorest of the poor, many from parents who were a harmful influence or who had rejected them since birth”.

  A schoolroom was organised for these boys, where they learned the 3-Rs and received religious instruction, leading to First Confession and First Holy Communion.

Concern to provide employment

  One of Frédéric Ozanam’s first works was to secure employment for orphans in the printing works owned by the founder President, Emmanuel Bailly, editor of the Tribune Catholique.  This approach to providing employment was replicated in England by the sponsorship of orphans.

  An Orphan Patronage Committee was established as a special work for the English SVP in 1850.  At first, this looked after 50 orphans who had mostly been taken from places officially called “asylums”, run by religious orders with either partial or full SVP support.  Some orphans were taken from Poor Law Guardians.  Brothers paid four shillings (20p) per week for each orphan but received an allowance equivalent to 7½p from the Poor Law Guardians for each orphan taken away from Union Workhouses.

Providing Catholic literature

  Frédéric Ozanam had helped to organise lending libraries in both Paris and Lyon.  The one in Lyon admitted both workmen and soldiers, many of whom had previously confronted each other during riots, on opposite sides of the barricades.  Such an admirable expression of Christian charity, witnessed in the library, was further helped when facilities were extended to include a Workers’ leisure centre, to which soldiers were also admitted.

  Following this example, the SVP in Bristol founded a lending library in 1849.  Five hundred volumes were collected and there were 54 subscribers to the library.

  The SVP also helped to found The Universe, when Cardinal Wiseman asked Brothers to produce a cheap newspaper accessible to the poor “through which the truth could be told about war being waged against the Church in Italy by Victor Emmanuel, Cavour and Garibaldi”.  In 1860, the “penny” Universe went on sale, with Brother Archibald Dunn as editor.  Its foreign correspondent was George Wigley, the former member of Frédéric Ozanam’s Conference in Paris, who had done so much in bringing the Society to England.  The Universe received much co-operation from the French ‘Univers Religieux’ and its editor, Louis Veuillot.  It was this French ‘Univers’ for which Ozanam had often written.

  At about the same time the ‘Clifton Tracts’ were being published by Brothers in Bristol.  These were the first such printed pamphlets since the Reformation.  They can be seen as a forerunner of the Catholic Truth Society begun later in the century.  The purpose of the ‘Clifton Tracts’ was to tell the truth about Catholic beliefs and practices, and also about the history of the Church.

Concern for the bereaved

  Funeral attendance is still one of the SVP’s regular works, but its origins lay in more than simply praying for souls and comforting the bereaved.  Before 1880, the date of the Burial Amendment Act, cemeteries were owned almost entirely by the Church of England.  No Catholic priest was allowed to officiate.  When a Catholic died, the burial service was recited at the deceased’s home, often by SVP brothers.  The coffin was then taken to the cemetery, where the Anglican service was read.

  From Jarrow in the North-East came a report of 1882, “Brothers make it a practice to attend funerals of the poor, and they have been able to suppress drunkenness at wakes by reciting the Rosary”.


  At about the time of the Jarrow report, we learn of brothers in nearby Felling “helping the clergy of the mission in promoting temperance”!

Helping with food and warmth

  A report from Hull in 1876 said that during that year brothers distributed among the poor of their parish 132 stones of potatoes, 45 stones of flour, 8½ stones of oatmeal, 80 pounds of sugar, 53 pounds of meat, 22 pounds of bread and various amounts of butter, tea, milk, rice, boots, clothing and carts of coal.  40 cart-loads of coke were delivered during 1878.

Setting up a bank

The Yorkshire Penny Bank (now the Yorkshire Bank) c1900 on the right of the photograph, on the corner of Fargate and Surrey Street, Sheffield

In 1872, the Sheffield SVP Conference opened a new branch of the Yorkshire Penny Bank.  The modern equivalent is, perhaps, helping to set up a Credit Union.

Concern for marriage and family life

  In Birmingham numerous cases were noted of brothers helping to legalise common-law “marriages”.  This was one of the early works which Ozanam and other founder-members had undertaken in Paris during the 1830s and, taking their lead from Birmingham, was taken up enthusiastically by conferences around the country.

  This article has given a flavour of the diverse and important work of the SVP as it developed to fulfil its mission in the socio-political context of the 19th century.

  Next month the fifth and final instalment will trace the SVP through the 20th century and up to the present day, looking at it in its current form and considering its future.

  If you have enjoyed reading these articles on the history of the SVP and are interested in finding out more, or even joining, please contact Lance Philpott, SVP Membership Development Officer for the Diocese of Hallam at lancep@svp.org.uk.