Names of Capel: Father Richard Wilson

In this article, Graham Rolando presents his personal interpretation of the life of the East End clergyman who followed his parishioners to our parish.

The name of Father Richard Wilson may be familiar to you already. He was known nationally as the 'Hoppers' Parson' through his untiring efforts to provide better standards for his parishioners that came annually to Capel for the hop picking season. He established the Hoppers' Hospital in the centre of Five Oak Green which continues to be used for charitable causes. His name frequently appears in my newspaper research, always during the late summer months of hop picking as you would expect, and across a thirty-year span starting around the late 1890s.

Probing more into those newspaper cuttings and expanding my searches to include his work in his own parish of St Augustines in Stepney, East London, I feel I have uncovered a person that should be recognised as near as we will have to greatness walking in our parish of Capel. I appreciate that is a very bold statement but while Father Wilson lived in his time he was not of his time and for me that is a definition of greatness; someone that rises above their contemporaries, shuns the normal perceptions of how things should be and proceeds to implement actions that firmly belong in the future. Think of Beethoven in music, Turner in painting and Douglas Engelbart in computing (I had to look that up. He invented the mouse).

If you Google 'Father Richard Wilson', the most common image you will encounter is of a man in full clerical dress; a serious but gentle face, staring with avuncular eyes through round glasses in to the camera and topped with a formal four-pointed priest's hat from which wisps of unkempt hair cascade. An image very much of a clergyman of the time but belying the man and the work he was already doing.

Father Wilson first came to Capel in 1899 not as a priest but to work as a hop picker so he could understand the reality of the 'holidays' that his parishioners went on. An extraordinary act for a clergyman at the time but merely reflected his belief that mutual trust and respect were the key elements in gaining the confidence of those who needed help.

In the late-Victorian era in which Father Wilson principally lived, it is also useful to recognise the prevalent perceptions of hoppers in society at the time and the animosity with which they were treated. As the London-based paper, The Daily News, described in a 1901 article, 'An endless feud rages between the 'foreigners', as the hoppers are called, and the villagers of the hop country. There is mutual timidity and dislike. I was solemnly assured in one village near Tonbridge that after the hoppers are gone it is always necessary to search the ditches for dead babies, that every year a number are found, and that it is hopeless to try to trace the parents.'

It was against this background of animosity and mistrust that Father Wilson worked to alter the perception of the hoppers and in his own words, "there are innumerable things in which the hoppers greatly need "help,'' not money, but kindly and sympathetic service, and if this is given it will surely win its reward."

In his own parish of St Augustine's in Stepney, east London his forward-thinking approach was demonstrated by the facilities he and his brother Harry, who preceded his sibling as vicar, provided for the local people. I chose the word 'people' deliberately to convey that the Wilsons did not see their charity as the reward for only the faithful. And help was practical and not monetarily based as the two hostels the brothers established, known locally as the White House and the Red House, proved. A barber was employed to smarten the appearance of the men. Washing facilities enabled them to clean their clothes and tools were provided so that boots could be repaired. All of which combined to make them more presentable to a potential employer and therefore assist on a route out of poverty, homelessness and unemployment. 

Daily Mirror, 8th September 1904
Daily Mirror, 8th September 1904

These novel and alternative ideas were carried forward into the hop picking summers. Aside from providing the hospital and nursing facilities, Father Wilson was acutely aware of the destructive impact that alcohol had on the lives of his congregation and recognised that this was most-often related to the free time hoppers had away from the picking bins. He set about creating an array of social activities as alternatives. A tent was erected on the green which had books and newspapers and provided entertainment events every evening. Lantern lectures (an early version of a slide show and a great technological marvel of the time) were held at many of the local farms. Sing songs and concerts took place in the evenings at various venues around Capel which must have made the parish feel somewhat more like it was hosting the Edinburgh Fringe festival rather than accommodating an influx of farm labourers. In addition, he organised 'coffee barrows' which toured the hop gardens with hot drinks, 'cake and little delicacies at the cheapest possible rates' all designed to tempt hard-earned money away from the normal 'bread and cheese and beer'.

Father Wilson's understanding and grasp of the medium of publicity is something else that sets him apart from his peers. In the summer of 1901, there was an outbreak of smallpox among the hop pickers. This contagious and deadly disease had one of the first vaccines to combat it but the take up of that among a poor, ill-educated and suspicious East End population was very low. Father Wilson's response was to organise a series of 'vaccination concerts' in Five Oak Green where medical teams were pitched in tents next to brass bands and other entertainment. At the first event, Father Wilson very publicly received the vaccination to encourage others to do likewise. What I have found remarkable in those late Victorian times is the articles about this event in Five Oak Green appearing across the country in both national and regional papers; from The Cornish Sentinel to the Bexhill on Sea Observer, from the Hull Daily Mail to The Londonderry Sentinel and Weekly Irish Times to the London Morning Post. And at the end of every mention you will read a gentle nudge of a donation request, '[Father Wilson] will be very grateful for any contributions that may be sent to him at Five Oak Green, near Tonbridge.'

The Hoppers' Parson died on 10th May 1927. His funeral three days later saw the streets of the procession around his beloved St Augustines church lined by thousands. In his address, the Bishop of London spoke of his last conversation with Father Richard when he declared, "I suppose that I am the happiest man that ever lived." The Bishop expressed that to the ordinary man or woman of the world that would seem utterly extraordinary of a man cut off from what they regarded as the amenities of life. The Bishop suggested four reasons for Father Richard's joy of life. First, his love of his Master. Secondly, the tribute of accumulated affection such as few other men had ever received. Thirdly, the knowledge of the number of souls he had helped; and lastly, his abounding sense of fun for, said the Bishop, a merry heart is a sure sign of a pure heart within.

The People - Sunday 15 May 1927


A bishop and twenty clergy were present at the funeral yesterday of the East Ends well-beloved 'Hoppers' Parson', Rev. Father Richard Wilson, of St. Augustines, Stepney. But more significant than that, perhaps, was the presence of the thousands of navvies and costers and dock labourers, who, with their weeping wives and children, came to pay a last token of respect to the spiritual leader and friend whom they sincerely loved. St. Augustine's Church was not half big enough to hold them all, and dense crowds had to wait outside, despite the fact that every inch of standing room in the building was occupied.

"A Merry Heart"

In an address of sympathy, the Bishop of London said that Father Wilson said to him some months ago, "I suppose, Bishop, that I am the happiest man who ever lived." "I should say." remarked the Bishop, "that your late vicar enjoyed more accumulated love and affection than any other individual man. While he lay waiting for the end he treasured the affection of you people. Father Wilson had a bubbling sense of fun, a merry heart, a smiling, happy personality, and these were proof of his purity of heart. Father Wilson had been associated with the parish for 43 years. His interment took place at East London Cemetery.