The origins of the Salesian presence in England dates back to the 1850's with the dream of Dominic Savio which illustrates the vivid impression that reports of the so called 'Second Spring' of the Catholic Church in England had made in contemporary Piedmont. At a political level, the perception of Camillo Benso di Cavour, architect of Italian Unity, was that the expulsion of Austria from Italy and the aggrandisement of Piedmont were dependent on both the British Government's good will and finance from the London Stock Exchange.
Don Bosco's own connection with the English scene was personal, almost familial, in that his friend Canon (later archbishop) Laurence Gastaldi, who had joined the Rosminians and worked in England, preached the retreats at the Oratory while Dominic Savio was there. Dominic's youthful dream of a mission to England took 30 years to realise.
In the meantime, Don Bosco's missionary dreams had made him aware of the importance of English speaking missionaries and he developed his contact with Archbishop Tobias Kirby, the Rector of the Irish College and agent of Cardinal Cullen, the Archbishop of Dublin. Cullen's concern for the Irish Diaspora had led to his working on Roman opinion for the appointment of Irish bishops all over the English-speaking world. Don Bosco's contact with the Irish College led a group of young Irish students for the priesthood to come to Turin (not without incident) and to become Salesians. Among them was Francis Donnellan whose letters home provide a rich source for a contemporary view of the Oratory at Turin seen through Irish eyes. Another of this group was Fr Edward McKiernan who became the first Rector of the Salesians at Battersea.
The foundation at Battersea came via the success of Don Bosco as an international figure in France and in Roman society. The Countess Georgiana de Stacpoole, a notable benefactor of the Salesians in Paris and a believer in direct involvement among the poor of London, invited Don Bosco to take over a parish she had founded in West Battersea, having been disappointed by the response of the diocese to her foundation. A determined old aristocrat, who had been involved in Pius IX's escape from Rome during the Roman Republic of 1849, she was not to be put off by hierarchical sensibilities and pursued the matter with the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith which confirmed her offer. Fr F Dalmazzo was the first Salesian to set foot in England and though he was impressed the vastness of Clapham Junction railway station, couldn't abide the climate or the food, despite the kind welcome he received from Fr Galeran, a neighbouring priest who took him in.
The first group led by Fr E McKiernan, with Fr C B Macey and Bro Rossaro were welcomed by Fr Francis Bourne (later Bishop of Southwark and Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster) and set up house at 26 Trott Street Battersea, with the help of Mrs Pash, a widowed Irish washerwoman, in late 1887. Fr Macey succeeded as Rector after the sudden death of McKiernan from TB in December 1888.
Already at this early stage we can discern the problems that were to dog the early foundation, namely the grinding poverty of the local area and the difficulty of developing the characteristic Salesian works in such a setting. When they first attempted to set up a boys' club it was very quickly taken over by the men of the parish who had no recreational facilities at all.
The Elementary School built by the Countess became a focus for the education of the early Salesians as it offered them positions as teachers' assistants and then entry to the Catholic training college. As soon as they were ordained, however, they could no longer teach in elementary schools. This strengthened the tendency fostered by Fr Macey to see the ordained priests as being above the menial tasks of school teaching. Fr Macey always cultivated the style of a 'clerical gentleman', a model more familiar in the Church of England or the English diocesan clergy. His own background of being a convert Anglican and having spent time with the Benedictines, the most aristocratic of the English religious orders, and his extremely limited Salesian training meant that as the Rector of the first community he seems to have introduced traditions such as calling the clerics and coadjutor confreres, 'brothers' and giving them 'special antique-style religious names'. These combined with the poverty, isolation and insignificance of the social impact of the work to make the community hardly distinguishable from the diocesan clergy round about. The difficulty of transplanting a Salesian charism into what was a predominantly Protestant and often xenophobic culture was immense particularly when the animator was unsure of its significance himself.