Catherine Marsh – Loving the Unloved
Catherine Marsh – Loving the Unloved
In 1853, thousands of men arrived on the quiet Sydenham hills to build an ambitious structure: the Crystal Palace, where Charles Spurgeon later preached to a crowd of 23,654 people. Building such a capable compound, surrounded by gardens and fountains, took an enormous effort.
Most of the builders were a group known as “navvies” (short for “navigators,” since they had built the first navigation canals in the 18th century). Given their reputation for fighting, cursing, and hard drinking, they were typically shunned by the respectable Victorians who had worked hard to keep a quiet neighborhood. A local paper described the navvies as “reckless, desperate, violent characters, who are restrained by no principle from the commission of crime.”
The famous essayist Thomas Carlyle expressed common feelings of disgust when he wrote, “The country is in a great state of derangement. . . and all the roads and lanes overrun with drunken navies. . . I have not in my travels seen anything uglier than that disorganic mass of labourers, sunk three-fold deeper in brutality by the three-fold wages they are getting.”
But when Catherine Marsh looked at the navvies, she saw people in need of Christ.
Catherine Marsh’s Early Life
Catherine Marsh was born on September 15, 1818 in Colchester, the youngest of five children. Her father, William Marsh, was a well-known pastor in the Church of England. He had studied under the famous preacher Charles Simeon, who described him as “that loveliest and most heavenly–minded of men.”
Catherine’s mother, who was very close to her and had been praying for her to come to a deeper knowledge of Christ, died in 1833, when Catherine was not yet 15. The following year, on Catherine’s birthday, William gave her a writing desk with this note: “My darling Katie, I loved you as a babe, I have delighted in you in your youth, and you will be a comfort to me in advancing years. You are amongst the proofs to me that God is Love. Let us daily think of the ineffable joy of a world where love, delight, and comfort will be perfect and durable as eternity. May many a line which you may write from this desk, be the means of leading others also to think of that world; I unite with dearest brother and sisters in giving it to you. I have a double love for you all, now.”
His words came true. She lived with him for the rest of his life, and wrote many lines that led others to think of God’s kingdom – including William’s biography, which she published after his death.
Missionary to the Navvies
In following her father’s moves to different parishes, she arrived in Beckenham around the time when the navvies – about three thousand, according to her estimation – filled the streets. Today, Beckenham is part of London. Back then, it was a quiet country village – quiet, until the navvies arrived. Most people seemed to fear and shun this motley group. Some also resented the building of the Crystal Palace that was bringing such a change to their rural scene.
In her book, English Hearts and English Hands, Catherine gives an account of the Sunday evening when she decided to visit a group of navvies who were staying with a family she knew. When she asked for the owner of the house, she was told that he wasn’t there.
A picture in Catherine’s biography shows her as she might have looked at that time – a slim young woman with lively eyes and sweet features. We can picture her talking to the “tall, strong man in a fustian jacket” who had barely opened a crack in the door. With this image in mind, the exchange that follows sounds particularly charming.
“But I suppose I shall see him if I wait, shall I not?” she said. “I will walk in, if you will allow me.”
To the man’s warning that those inside were “a lot of rough uns,” she calmly replied: “Oh, thank you, I do not mind that; you will be very civil to me, I am sure. Would you get me a chair?”
Once seated, she asked the men around them if they had been to church. When they said they had never thought of it, she proceeded to recount the morning’s sermon and its mention of “a brave, good doctor who had recently died” – a man some of the navvies had come to appreciate.
“Well, ma’am, it’s a beautiful story,” the “intelligent-looking” young man who had provided the chair replied, “but in a measure it passes by me, because I don’t believe the Bible. Because 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,” Catherine said, “I have never read anything of the sort.”
She went on to explain what she meant, and answered more of their questions, emphasizing that, in the end, “The Son of God ... was born into this world for one purpose: to bear the punishment due to our sins.”
“I never thought of Him before but as an angry God,” the young man said. “You make Him out a Friend.”
“And so will you,” she said, “when you read His word.”
He accepted to pray with her, but pointed to another man who “never opens his mouth but to swear.”
“But he will open it to pray now. Will you not, my friend?”
Catherine continued to talk to the navvies about Christ, both that night and throughout the years that followed, until she had to move. She even stopped two of their brawls (one against the police).
She would have happily continued her mission to the navvies if her father had not been called in 1860 to a parish in Beddington, Surrey. There, she continued the same type of work she had started with the navvies, but this time she talked about Christ with other people who were typically shunned by society.
In 1866, when cholera broke out in East London, she obtained admission to the hospital ward that had been set up for the pandemic, and sat by the beds of the sick and dying. She also set up a convalescence hospital for the patients who were recovering.
In the meantime, she wrote. She wrote a biography of her father, who died in 1864. She also wrote a small book on her experience in the Cholera Wards, and a vivid description of her ministry to the navvies, entitled English Hearts and English Hands. Her concern for the many soldiers who had been sent to the Crimean War moved her to write Memorials of Captain Hedley Vicars, a moving novel about a fictional soldier that sold 78,000 copies in its first year of publication.
Today, she is mostly remembered for her positive influence on a respectable society that – on the whole – called itself Christian but feared to bring Christ to those who were hardest to love. She concluded English Hearts and English Hands with a heartfelt exhortation:
“What I now plead with those who are called, and not without reason, ‘the privileged classes’ of this country is: When navvies, or any other labourers either in fields or factories, are within your reach, meet them with a frank and genial friendliness. Alleviate their discomforts as far as lies in your power. Provide some little innocent pleasure - a tea-party, for instance - from time to time, for their hard-worked existence. Above all, seek to secure to them their Sabbaths, and hold forth to them the Word of Life. Give them Bibles or Testaments; and if the navvy's name be written therein, with a few words of friendly dedication, he will starve rather than part with it at any price.
“Above all , O favoured ones , who have the knowledge of the glad tidings of the redemption of the world by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, bringing glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men, God forbid that you should shut up in your own hearts this message of life and peace, instead of giving it in its fulness to every fellow-creature within your reach.”
This she lived and she taught until her death on 12 December 1912. She was 94 years old. At her funeral, her godson read a letter from Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury, who referred to her as “the veteran pioneer of women’s evangelistic forces in the England of today.”
 The Cornwall Royal Gazette, Falmouth Packet and Plymouth Journal 21 March 1845, quoted in History House, Essex, https://historyhouse.co.uk/articles/the_navvy.html
 L. E. O’Rorke, The Life and Friendships of Catherine Marsh, Longman, Green & Co., 1917,16
 Catherine Marsh, English Hearts and English Hands, Edinburgh, Ballantine & Co., 1858, 4. (The following exchange is from the same source).
 Ibid., 354-355.