JAMES W. C. FEGAN, the Boys' Friend, was born April 17, 1852, and brought up in a Christian home in Southampton. His godly training had much to do with the shaping of his future career. His parents entertained Mr. Darby from time to time both in Southampton and in London, and not long before she died, in 1907, Mrs. Fegan told how she remembered Mr. Darby as a clergyman coming down out of his pulpit one Sunday and walking down the street in his black gown to join those who had been in the habit of holding what was virtually a "united communion" or Breaking of Bread each Lord's Day.
In 1865 the family removed to London, and on his thirteenth birthday James entered the City of London School, where he won the approval of that prince of schoolmasters, Dr. E. A. Abbot, to whom he afterwards acknowledged his great indebtedness. Lord Oxford and Dr. Garnett were at the School at the same time. In 1869 he entered business with a firm of Colonial brokers in Mincing Lane.
On leaving school he entered a commercial office in the city, but did not care for city life. His intention was to finish with the smoke and din of London as early as possible, and retire to the country, where he could go in for outdoor life and healthful sports which he loved, and in some of which he excelled, but God had a nobler future in store for him.
Destined to rescue others, he must first be rescued "from the power of Satan to God," and this is how it took place, given in his own words: "I opened my Bible at the Epistle to the Romans, and as I read on, got deeper and deeper in realised sinfulness and helplessness, till 1 came to the twenty-first verse of the third chapter. There God revealed to me how the supreme need of my life that night—fitness for His holy presence—was met in a righteousness of His own providing, 'apart from the law,' 'unto all,' and 'upon all them that believe.' That moment the light of God's salvation flashed into my heart. I looked to His dear Son as my Sinbearer. I trusted God's Word that His righteousness was upon me, a believing sinner. I knew it, because I saw God said it. I lay down that night in 'peace with God.' "
Years afterwards, he added: "I have nothing more now to rest upon for my soul's salvation than I had that night— what my Saviour had done for me on the Cross, and what God had said to me in His Word. "
Immediately after conversion he commenced to work for his new-found Saviour, and within three days had made his first purchase of tracts, which, however, he was too shy to hand personally to individuals, and disposed of them by putting them into letter boxes and under doors.
Unexpectedly called upon one night by Gawin Kirkham of open-air fame, to say a word at an open-air meeting which he happened to pass. "From that night," he said, "I became an open-air preacher. I used to be a martyr to quinsy before, but I have never had an attack since—grand remedy 'the openair cure' for body and soul, and church too, for many ailments with which they are liable to be afflicted. "
He found his life work, however, in the rescue of poor lads. A visit to Deptford Ragged School gave him his first impulse. The sight stirred his young soul, and he commenced to devote his energies and spare time after business hours to this good work.
His next step was to take a cottage in Deptford on his own responsibility, at a rent of five shillings per week, in which he could have the boys in whom he was interested on week nights and all day on Sundays. S. W. Morris, of Coventry; Thos. H. Morris, of Walthamstow, who died in Africa; Alex. Hopkins and Rice T. Hopkins, who pioneered in Australia; Lord Shaftesbury, Charles Inglis, Joshua Poole, Lieut. Mandeville, Arthur Austin, were helpers in early and later days.
In 1872 he opened his first Boys' Home, -with one boy, and by the year 1874 the work had so grown that he was obliged to leave business altogether to devote himself entirely to rescue and evangelistic work. As typical of his methods, and showing that he was the right man for the rescue of boys, we cite a night's adventure.
"After rescuing an arab named Willie, he confided to me that in two large yards, in which a number of railway vans were drawn up for the night, a lot of boys used to sleep; but they had been frightened out of one yard through a ferocious yard-dog, and had been disturbed, and kicked, and cuffed by a fresh watchman, who had not yet fallen into the easygoing laissez-faire habits of his class in the other yard, so that the most venturesome only had just begun to make it their sleeping place again.
"The next night, in company with one of my boys in uniform, I was surveying this latter yard with its boarded fence, perhaps eight feet high, when a policeman on his beat sauntered up and asked if he could be of any service.
"When I told him my quest, he pooh-poohed the idea that any boys could be sleeping out in the vans in that yard at all. 'Watchman always about, sir. Besides, fence too high, couldn't get in, sir.'
"However, I felt perfect confidence in my young informant's good faith, so I said, 'Well, we can soon settle the point. If you don't mind stooping down, constable, I'll put my handkerchief on your coat not to dirty it, just step on your back, and be over the fence in a jiffy.' He smiled good-humouredly, and, bending down, said, 'All right, sir. Over you go!'
From the top of the fence I could step easily to the floor of one of the vans, which almost filled the yard. Presently I could hear the heavy breathing of some boys sleeping under a tarpaulin, and every now and then the convulsive gasping for breath of others not so well protected, as they shuddered with cold in their slumbers.
"I carefully woke up the first boy I discovered, so as not to disturb the others, and gently assuring him of my friendly intentions, led him, as I thought, to the point where I had climbed over, but I had slightly miscalculated the direction in the maze of vans, so that, when I looked over the fence, I had to whistle to the constable, and whisper, 'Halloa! Look out, constable, here's one,' as I gently dropped my quarry into his hands.
"I was soon back with another, and another—till the constable was guarding eleven, ranged with official precision, when I dropped over the fence—without having caught a glimpse of the zealous watchman.
'"Eleven of 'em, sir,' said the constable. 'Well, I'm blowed! What next! How did you boys get in? How did you get over that fence? That's what I want to know.' 'Please, sir,' replied one of them on whom his penetrating gaze had lingered, 'We didn't get over—we got under—round the corner,' and he took us to a spot where part of two boards had been broken away quite close to the ground, leaving an aperture about the size of the entrance to a fowlhouse, through which a boy, by lying flat on the ground, could just wriggle his way into the yard.
"Very soon I had chartered a four-wheeler—eight boys inside, three on the roof. My boy and I sat with the driver. It was a raw night, and I was cold and weary after having had a busy day's work, followed by a preaching engagement afterwards—but I preferred the outside!
This was a most encouraging haul, and after I had got eight of these boys settled down in the Home, and had restored three of them to their relations, I fixed upon a night to explore the other yard, and took with me my superintendent, and, at his urgent request, my protege, Willie."
In 1889 Mr. Fegan was married to Miss Pope, of Plymouth, who helped greatly in the expansion of the work. After some thirty years spent in the Southwark Home, a move was made to Southwark Street, then to "The Red Lamp," Horseferry Road, Westminster, which was opened in 1913.
One of the greatest ventures related to the buildings at Stony Stratford. It also shows how the Lord overruled for the good of the Homes. Looking around for suitable country premises, one of the Council suggested a building at Stony Stratford. It had been designed as a school for the sons of gentlemen, and built at a cost of £40,000. The school was a failure, the Insurance Company had foreclosed on the estate, and the buildings were derelict. A "sporting offer" of £4500 was made, and against all expectation, it was accepted, the purchase being made in 1900.
In this Orphanage at Stony Stratford, Bucks, boys from the age of eight to fourteen are housed and educated. They go on to a training farm at Goudhurst. Here they are trained in every branch of agriculture and are then sent on to the Receiving Home in Toronto to be placed on farms in Canada. Something like £22,000 has been contributed to the work by the boys themselves who have passed through the Homes and have settled in Canada.
Mr. Fegan's work was not only philanthropic,, it was evangelistic. He had ever before him, not merely the care of the body, but the salvation of the soul, and many a one, both young and old, will bless God throughout eternity for having been brought into touch with the Gospel of Jesus Christ by the efforts of our departed friend.
In early days his parents removed from New Cross to Downe in Kent. During the summer of 1880 Mr. Fegan took some of his boys for a camping holiday Before the boys returned to London they visited the home of Charles Darwin, who lived near by, and sang hymns in front of the house. Mr. Darwin expressed his sympathy with the philanthropic work being done, and gave each of the boys sixpence, evoking ringing cheers as they departed. Services were also held in the district in a tent, and when it became too late for tent services, greatly daring, Mr. Fegan asked Mr. Darwin if he would lend him the Reading Room which he had established for the villagers, but which was very slightly frequented. It was, in fact, an old school-room which he rented from Sir John Lubbock (afterwards Lord Avebury) for £10 a year. He lent it with pleasure, and, emboldened by his first success, Fegan wrote again, asking if he might have it for a week's Mission, as it was so seldom used. He received the following answer from the great naturalist:
"Dear Mr. Fegan,—You ought not to have to write to me for permission to use the Reading Room. You have far more right to it than we have, for your services have done more for the village in a few months than all our efforts for many years. We have never been able to reclaim a drunkard, but through your services I do not know that there is a drunkard left in the village. Now may I have the pleasure of handing the Reading Room over to you? Perhaps, if we should want it some night for a special purpose, you will be good enough to let us use it. Yours sincerely, CHARLES DARWIN."
The transfer was made, and in that Reading Room, now called "The Gospel Room," services have been held continuously for half a century. Mr. Fegan has left the following memoranda on the subject, which may perhaps be given here: "The services I held were attended sometimes by members of the Darwin family, and regularly by members of their household. Indeed, when I had a Mission in Downe, the Darwin family were considerate enough to alter their dinner hour so that their household might attend—but this was characteristic of all who served them. At the services, Parslow, the old family butler, whose name is mentioned both by Huxley and Wallace, was converted to God and brought into church membership, also Mrs. Sales, the housekeeper, was brought into the light, and others."
In "Emma Darwin: a Century of Family Letters, 1792-1896," edited by her daughter, Mrs. Litchfield, there is a letter written to her daughter from Downe in February, 1881, in which there is a sentence and a footnote referring to the village blacksmith, a great character. "Hurrah for Mr. Fegan! Old M. was a notable old drunkard, in the village of Downe, converted through Mr. Fegan, 1881."
Space forbids details of other activities, the "Camping Out" of boys which Mr. Fegan originated, the theatre services, the village missions, the visits to Canada, and the Distributing Home at Toronto, the Home Farm on Canadian lines at Great Howden (Goudhurst), including "Fegan's Orchard," all of which continue as he left them. But for his strength of character and determination of will, he never could have accomplished what he did, and yet Mr. Fegan had a heart full of loving kindness and tender sympathy, which won for him, not only the esteem, but the affection of the thousand of boys to whom he acted the part of guide, counsellor, and friend.
He passed away on Dec. 9, 1925, at his home in Blantyre Lodge, Goudhurst, Kent, at the age of 73. May the good work carried on by our departed brother be continued to God's glory for years to come.
There is plenty more information available about him and his work;
Sad to read his widow was killed by a bomb in a second world war air raid.