I wish to start this morning by talking briefly about two television programmes; one I feel certain you will be aware of and the other I only came across when flitting around the hundreds of channels now available.
The first, “Call The Midwife”, is currently enjoying a re-run on the BBC after the tremendous interest it generated when first shown and already there are plans to come up with a second series about life here in Poplar, as seen through the eyes of a religious order of Nursing Sisters and midwives during those austere years following the war.
One of those midwives was Jennifer Worth, who later wrote three highly successful books on which the television programme was based and she, as well as some of the Nursing Sisters of St John the Divine, played an important part in ensuring the TV version never strayed from the truth. There were some minor changes in detail. For instance, the legendary Anglican priest Father Joe Williamson, who worked in the vice-ridden area of Cable Street where even the police went around in groups of four, was portrayed as a Roman Catholic with an Irish accent.
However, those who know best - the Nursing Sisters themselves - have said changes like that for dramatic reasons in no way affected the authenticity of the programme. Sadly, Jennifer Worth - the inspiration behind the series - died of cancer at the age of 75 shortly before the first programme was televised; but her books live on and the stories they tell form a remarkable picture of life in Poplar within the lifetimes of some of us still here today. It is not a pretty picture and it is at this point that I have to make a confession.
Twenty minutes into watching the first programme I switched to another channel because I could take no more of the image it was creating of the place that was - and still is - so much part of my own life. I did not watch the programme again until it began a rerun a few weeks ago and I will come back to that in a few moments.
The second programme, which I came across by accident, was based on the Festival of Britain of 1951 in which Poplar again figured prominently. One in four homes locally had been demolished during the war and many others were severely damaged. The task of rebuilding was massive and so, too, was the task of rebuilding morale among a nation that had long since forgotten the jubilation at the end of the war and now faced only the awful legacy of a world torn apart by hostility.
Nowhere was that felt more keenly than here in Poplar where the Docks made this a prime target for enemy bombers; and it was a Labour government - led by Clement Attlee, the MP for Limehouse - that came up with the idea of a Festival of Britain. A fun park on the South Bank became the focal point for a tired nation to celebrate together - even if just for a few months – while Poplar’s part in that was designed to have a more practical, lasting effect.
Lansbury Estate was chosen to herald a new, family based form of housing; and a new market was created, vastly different to the original which had stretched the whole length of Chrisp Street. The common denominator between those two television programmes is that they focused on the same period in history when, however welcome any brief respite might have been, the brutal reality of life in the East End was never far away.
The Docks, which provided a vital lifeline of employment, were also the breeding ground of a vice industry that openly and brazenly touted for custom. Father Joe Williamson, who felt called to work among the victims of that vile industry, was himself a Poplar boy, born in 1895 in Arcadia Street. He was three when his father was crushed to death in an accident in East India Dock, leaving Fr Joe’s widowed mother - who could neither read nor write - to bring up eight children on her own. Three others had died in infancy and she flatly refused to see those who survived taken into Langley House - a children’s home in East India Dock Road.
As a young man Father Joe - who, incidentally, went to St Saviour’s School as a child - overcame prejudice and many other obstacles to answer a clear and unequivocal call to the priesthood which he then served in a most remarkable way. Nora Neal, a parish worker, joined him at Church House in Wellclose Square and not long after that so, too, did Daphne Jones – who served this church and its people so loyally for 55 years and who was regarded by some as Poplar’s answer to Mother Theresa.
Fr Joe asked John Eastaugh, who was the Rector here then, if he could borrow Daphne for a short time...but it was not until six years later that she returned to All Saints! Together, Fr Joe, Nora and Daphne rescued many young women from lives of prostitution, despair and callous exploitation.
When I watched Call The Midwife for the first time I switched off at the point that I felt the only image being portrayed of life in Poplar was of ignorance; of people who not only lived in overcrowded, slum conditions, but who also led slum-like lives. My mistake was in judging the programme on just the first twenty minutes; but I know now that there was far more to it than that. You cannot ignore the truth and you cannot rewrite history in a more palatable way simply because it offends your own sensitivity. The brutal truth is that a great many people in Poplar at that time did exist in appalling conditions - far worse than anything we can imagine today.
Between eighty to a hundred children were born each month and the maternity ward at Poplar Hospital had only eight beds, so most came into this world in squalid circumstances. Call The Midwife tells the story of one woman who gave birth to 24 children. She was Spanish and her husband was English. He couldn’t speak Spanish and she couldn’t speak English...but all she needed to do was learn how to say ‘No!’
And, yet, you are left with the unmistakable feeling that all those children were conceived in love, not lust; and the more you probe into the history of that time it is not the prostitution, the inadequate medical resources, the poor housing, the low levels of educational achievement, or any of the other social and welfare issues that jump out at you. It is the moral strength of those who put the welfare of others first. It created a remarkable bond of love which interweaved life and inspired so many acts of selfless service.
In adversity there was a nobility that drew people closer to each other; and in the midst of suffering they found new life and new hope. One nun, who is still alive at 93, said: “I grew to love the people. There was a magic about the East End.” Sadly, after 98 years of peerless service, it took a former Bishop and Archdeacon to do what even the Luftwaffe couldn’t achieve and drive the nuns out of Poplar by raising the rent on their mission house in Follett Street. The Nursing Sisters of St John the Divine are now the Community of St John the Divine in Birmingham. Life has moved on in so many other ways, too.
Clement Attlee saw the Festival of Britain in 1951 as a good way to win public acclaim and ensure the Labour Party was returned to power later that year...but his plan came unstuck and it was the Conservatives who won the General Election. One of the first things Winston Churchill did on returning to Downing Street was order the demolition of the main Festival site. Fortunately, the Royal Festival Hall survived and has recently undergone refurbishment as part of a new South Bank tourist attraction.
Here in Poplar, Chrisp Street Market (of a sort!) still exists and so, too, does the Lansbury Estate, but the brave dream of community based, family homes soon gave way to the tower blocks...and almost everywhere you look now more high rise, soulless buildings are
sprouting up. In many ways, the ministry of churches in the inner city areas was easier to define in that bleak period after the war than it is today.
In those days life in the raw smacked them in the face - day in, day out. However, one thing above all others connects life then with life today: THE NEED WE HAVE TO NEED EACH OTHER.
On Tuesday of this week it was 189 years since this church was dedicated and its place in the developing history of Poplar has been immense. Many of the people I have mentioned this morning came from comfortable, middle-class backgrounds and they could easily have insulated themselves from the kind of lives and experiences they encountered here.
But I feel confident they would have said they needed Poplar as much as Poplar needed them. Sustained by their faith, it was here that they were called to serve and this building, this church, became their spiritual home.
Today we celebrate another milestone in the life of All Saints. Yes, we look back to the past in gratitude; but we look forward to the future in the certain knowledge that, in faith, as long as there are people who care for each other, this will always be a place that radiates the love of God.