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Call the Midwife recalls an East End curacy

08 February 2012


From Canon Michael Butler

Sir, — I was delighted to read “Serial births on a small screen” (Features, 13 January). I came across Jennifer Worth’s fascinating trilogy only a year ago. It brought back vivid mem­ories of Poplar, where I began my first curacy, in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the time, for the formation and training of curates, Poplar and Stepney parish churches were an example of curate warehousing. At Poplar, a clergy house was occupied by six curates, the vicar, a house­keeper, and her dog (or son). It was an uncomfortable place to live, with its points-scoring atmosphere of a seedy officers’ mess. We lived a dif­ferent lifestyle from that of the locals just down the road or in the Peabody tenements with their Canadian names.

Living there were dockers and stevedores belonging to a generation who daily queued up at the dock gates. Whether there was a job going depended on the whims of the super­visors, known to be stroppy, or a well-known member of a union. You could be turned away with nothing to pay bills and feed your family. One elderly docker told me how he hated the clergy because, as a young man, he had had to ask for a note from a curate to get a pair of boots for work.

Church life was vibrant. Especially successful was the South Poplar Youth Club (SPY), held when I arrived in a redundant signal box next to what was to become the new Docklands railway. My first night there on duty was terrifying. Loud music and a near riot with snooker balls constantly heading in one’s direction or smashing windows. At one point, the club leader seemed to be hanging half out of the window as if about to nosedive to the track below. The next morning, I learnt how to repair broken windows, stocking up with putty and glass fixtures for next time.

With the snobby atmosphere of the clergy house and the violence of the club, I felt I must get away. My confidence was further eroded when an East End granny, a formidable local figure, told me: “If we like you, you’ll stay. If not, you’ll soon b***** off.” (I stayed for nine and a half years.) The vicar didn’t help when, after some gaffe, I was taken into his study and told: “If you don’t make a go of your curacy here, your future career in the Church will certainly be jeopardised.”

Thank heavens for the day off when one escaped to stay overnight with the parents of a friend. As the vicar explained, “It gives us a break from you and you from us.” Coming back one day a little earlier than usual, I went into a pub in Fleet Street. I was greeted by a journalist rather the worse for wear. He asked me where I was going. I replied: back to the East End. He rose from his seat, grasped my wrists, and exclaimed: “Nice young man like you shouldn’t have to work among those savages down there. The church authorities ought to know better.”

But I was then far from disenchanted with Poplar: just the opposite. I was involved in the famous Poplar Passion Play, which had a cast of 100 or more local people. I was Pontius Pilate, and eventually became producer. The cast was incredible: some had been doing the same parts for many years. Beefy young stevedores from the SPY club played Roman soldiers. My first recollection is overhearing one sitting in the wings fascinated by the staging of the Last Supper. “This is my body.” Stage whisper: “He’s a bleeding cannibal.”

One outstanding member of the huge team of workers at Poplar was Daphne Jones, who had worked with the legendary Fr Joe Williamson based at Wellclose Square in Stepney, a hostel and drop-in centre for local prostitutes. The present TV presenta­tion doesn’t mention him or her.

All that I have described runs parallel to the work of “Nonnatus House”. The SPY club was round the corner; the day workers on the Poplar parish staff lived in a former vicarage next door. Obviously, in church and about the parish, the Sisters of St John (“Nonnatus House”) met fre­quently. A great social event for the Sisters was their annual Christ­mas Fair. I was more than once Father Christmas in his underwater grotto in the basement of the Sisters’ house.

A much-remembered occasion was when a Sister from another house came to help out. Her task was to prepare and wrap up presents for the children and old people’s lucky dip. Unfortunately, the parcels were wrongly labelled, and the children had great fun with pouches of tobacco and tea. The pensioners didn’t complain about Dinky toys and little dolls. The Sister who had made the mistake had to be calmed down from shock.

I am glad that there is still a chance for this rich and ripe period of church life in east London to be chronicled. For me, and, I am sure, many other clergy, such early rigorous parish training developed us as priests and people whose ministry has never lost its focus on prayer, pastoral care, and love of all kinds of people whom God has set us among subsequently.

Railway Cottage, 2 Buxton Road
Aylsham NR11 6TD

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