A heart for the lost
After the death of Catherine Marsh in December 1912 Handley Moule, Bishop of Durham, wrote of the “great gift” it had been “to have known such a Christian woman, and to have seen Christ so magnified in her”. That gift has not been completely withdrawn. Through her writings and through a biography written by her niece, Lucy O’Rorke, The Life and Friendships of Catherine Marsh, readers a hundred years on can get to know her at least a little and see something for themselves of the beauty of Christ in her.
Catherine Marsh was born on the 15th of September 1818. Her father, William Marsh, a minister of the Church of England, was Vicar of St Peter’s Church, Colchester. In the preface to his life-story, written by Catherine herself, she acknowledges that “this biography is no record of stirring events, nor is it connected, excepting by passing allusion, with any public matters. But”, she continues, “it may serve to show what were the doctrines, opinions, and practice of the Evangelical School of the last century; and to prove what a blessing an English clergyman, with his heart full of love to God and man, may be, in his quiet sphere”. It is a treasure.
William Marsh left Colchester in 1829 for St Thomas’s Church in Birmingham. His ten years of ministry there were followed by a further eleven in Leamington Spa. Catherine, who never married, remained with him all through those years. Then in the spring of 1851 Marsh’s son-in-law, the Rev. Frederick Chalmers, became Rector of the Church of England congregation in the village of Beckenham in Kent. At his appeal William Marsh relinquished his Leamington charge (he was in his mid-70s) and he and Catherine came to live in the Beckenham Rectory. It would be Catherine’s home for the next ten years.
In a letter written before leaving Leamington she speaks of her dread of leaving “my old women of my cottage-reading, my hospital, my girls whom I have nourished and brought up in different walks of life, my school-children and so on”. It opens a little window on the range of Christian activities in which she was engaged. When she moved to Beckenham she feared that there would be little for her to do as the parish was already well supplied with district visitors, Sunday school teachers, and other helpers. But doors of opportunity soon began to open up. “There was a small hamlet, Elmers End, which had no visitor of its own”, writes her niece. “She gladly took this lowly work, began to make friends with the few inhabitants, and an old Mrs. Muggeridge soon made her welcome to the use of her parlour for a cottage reading one afternoon in the week”. Beckenham’s proximity to London gave her scope for hospital visiting as well. Eager to do more, however, Catherine prayed that “God would show her any other service for Him that He would allow her to undertake”. That prayer was soon to receive a remarkable answer. “He was going to entrust her”, says her niece, “with a spiritual mission to thousands of working men, navvies, soldiers, sailors and others”. But first there was Mr. Reeve.
One Saturday evening in May 1852 Catherine learned that a Mr. Reeve, a doctor, had come into the neighbourhood. He was dying. Would his wife allow her to see him? Fearing that conversation with a stranger would hasten the end his wife refused. So Catherine sent him a letter instead, with some flowers. That letter proved to be a turning point for him. Not only did it restrain him from taking his life, something he had planned to do that very night; it led to daily visits from Catherine, spiritual conversation, and, eventually, his conversion. On her last visit to him (he survived for ten months) his words to her were, “My peace is full now, Christ is dwelling in my heart”. The whole experience made a huge impact on Catherine herself. In a letter to her father, she says, “Words cannot express what it was to my soul. All the wrestling, rejoicing, fearing, hoping, believing, seeing, and then glorying in the Holy Spirit’s finished work…Now my cry is more, more, such souls for Christ Jesus”. The story of Dr. Reeve’s conversion is related at length in the first of Catherine Marsh’s many books, The Victory Won.
A massive construction project, within sight of Beckenham, got under way in early 1853. Three thousand men were employed to build what was to become known as the Crystal Palace; some two hundred of them came to stay in the village. Catherine’s first contact with these men was on a Sunday evening just a few days after Dr. Reeve’s death. She went to a cottage where several of them were lodging and got into conversation with them. Had any of them been in church that morning? It had never even occurred to them! So she began to tell them about the sermon – and about Dr. Reeves to whose death her brother-in-law the Rector had made reference. They listened attentively. So too to a conversation with one of them, a young man, who made no secret of the fact that he didn’t believe the Bible. So helped was Catherine in speaking to him and so evidently moved were the men by the message of the gospel that at the end they all knelt down while Catherine prayed with them! Not only so, but after she left this young man continued reading the Bible to his companions till late in the evening. And this was only the start. Many of the workers began to attend church whilst Bible classes for them in the cottages were held twice-weekly and on Sunday evenings.
It was in the October of that year that Catherine Marsh first met the young soldier whose story was sketched in a previous article, Captain Hedley Vicars of the 97th Regiment. After his death in Crimea, in March 1855, Catherine was urged by his family to write a biography of him. She agreed to their request with the prayer that it would help toward the fulfilment of a fervent wish of Hedley Vicars himself. In a letter written shortly before his death he had said to Catherine, “I am so longing that every soldier, before he dies, should be told of Jesus, and be made acquainted with all He has done for him”. Catherine’s biographer tells us that “she bent all her energy to writing the book rapidly, for she trusted that by the Holy Spirit’s blessing on the true story of Hedley Vicars’ life, some part at least of his heart’s longing would be fulfilled”.
The book sold in vast numbers, seventy thousand copies in the first year alone. It was later translated into other languages. At the time of the Franco-German war of 1870, for example, twenty-five thousand copies in French and the same number in German were sent to hospitals for the wounded. As late as 1904 we read of three thousand copies being printed at Catherine’s own expense and sent as gifts to different Soldiers’ Homes. Scattered throughout her biography are references to the impact of the book, the latest from the time of her funeral. An elderly man said to someone in the crowd of mourners, “I never set eyes on Miss Marsh in my lifetime; but I have been a schoolmaster, and no book ever came into my school which had such an influence on the boys as Captain Hedley Vicars. So when I saw in The Times the death of Miss Marsh, I felt it my duty to come and attend at her grave, and pay my last mark of respect to her memory”.
The outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 opened the way for another ministry. “Catherine Marsh’s heart”, writes her niece, “was full of anxiety for the soldiers who were to be sent to the seat of war. She thought the best help that could be given to them would be to secure that each man had a New Testament to take with him. She at once set to work to carry out this plan”. Through subscriptions raised by her, “little Testaments” (just the right size for a soldier’s war-kit) were sent out by the thousands. And not just with the soldiers but with the sailors as well. So too with the navvies who were sent to dig trenches and make a light railway at Balaclava. Printed inside was a short prayer. It was one that Catherine had written for Dr. Reeve: “O God, wash me in my Saviour’s Blood, and I shall be whiter than snow, and fill me with the Holy Ghost, for Jesus’ Christ’s sake, Amen”. There are frequent references both in the biography and in the Memorials of Hedley Vicars to that prayer being prayed – and answered.
The opening paragraph of Lucy O’Rorke’s biography describes Catherine Marsh as “destined to be one of the foremost of the goodly band of women philanthropists, of whom the excellent Elizabeth Fry was the forerunner”. We get glimpses of this in her endeavours to help navvies, soldiers, and sailors (which by no means ceased with the ending of the Crimean War). So too, in her work with orphans and the sick. An outbreak of cholera in the east-end of London in the 1860s led to the establishment of an orphanage in Beckenham for the children who had lost their parents. So too to the opening, in Brighton, of the very first Convalescent Home, set up to aid the recovery of cholera survivors. It was called Blackrock Convalescent Hospital. By the time of Catherine’s eighty-third birthday in 1901 it had helped nurse more than nineteen thousand people back to health.
As noted earlier, the title of her biography is The Life and Friendships of Catherine Marsh. From her early days Catherine had a singular talent for making and keeping friends. Much of the biography in fact takes the form of letters to, from, and about these friends, a number of whom were converted through her witness. Leading people to Christ was the great burden of her heart and many is the story of her successful endeavours to do that, especially among young people. One such story must suffice. It concerns a young Anglican ordinand who, after a few days in the Beckenham Rectory said this to her: “I came here utterly miserable, and I am going away very happy, for here I have found the way of peace, through Jesus Christ”.
After many months of weakness occasioned by a stroke Catherine Marsh died on the 12th of December 1912. We end, as we began, with the tribute paid to her by her friend Bishop Moule: “She was good with a goodness wonderfully blent of pure natural affections and of the life of the indwelling Spirit. And there was a greatness always in the goodness, a largeness of heart, a strong and wide-embracing sympathy and fellowship, a power as of one who might have done notable things in other fields, if God had not concentrated her whole thought and will upon the unsearchable riches of Christ”.
 See blog post for April 2023