‘You turn by this big Catholic Church’, my son told his mother who was to pick him up from the flat he’d been living in over the summer. ‘That’s where I was baptised’, I said. ‘Limehouse’ is on my birth certificate, and you can’t get more East End than that. More East End than Walford, and on a quiet night, you can hear Bow Bells. Is there ever a quiet night?
Mother, aged 18, had joined Dad at Saint Mary and Saint Michael’s parish where he was running the Boys’ Club, and a whole new world was opening before her eyes. Across the street was the Mosque with whom they were on friendly terms; there were many synagogues within walking distance. It was by no means just Jewish people who had landed in this dockland parish from across Europe and around the world.
A Frenchwoman took her under her wing to negotiate the local markets and learn to cook exotic dishes such as Spaghetti Bolognese; yes, this was 1948-50! She experienced great solidarity from the Jewish and Italian traders who understood about beginning a new life in unfamiliar surroundings. Somehow the portions she received from Mrs Guazzelli in her café were that little more generous than the ration books might require. She learned from her friend how to buy wisely on the street market.
Another friend, my Godmother, kept in touch with me and my parents till her death. She was East End English Catholic all the way through.
My parents had to leave Stepney while I was still a toddler, happily watching the largely horse-drawn traffic on Commercial Road. I remember nothing of my time there, but living in the East End opened my parents’ eyes to other, quite different ways of life that good people were following in good faith. Some of their openness has rubbed off onto their children. May we continue to spread it.