ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEWS
A FEW WEEKS AGO one of my long standing house communicants had, finally, to give up her flat and move into a home outside the parish. Coming out of my old friend's room on my first visit, I was surprised and delighted to find a service of hymns and prayers going on in the common room, led by an elderly woman Lay Reader dressed in cassock and surplice. After the service we sat and talked for a while about the pastoral arrangements at the home and my future pattern of Communion visits. Had she, I wondered, been a Lay Reader long? Only a couple of years, it emerged. For nearly forty years previously she had been a Parish Worker but times had changed. The Bishop called her in and informed her that her ministry was “obsolete”. There was no longer a place for the Parish Worker. She could, of course, undertake the Readers Training Course (3 years hard work and 8 major pieces of theological project) but may find it easier, at her time of life, to retire. Being too modest to mention that she still read her Greek New Testament at the Daily Office (and had probably received a considerably more rigorous training than anything afforded my Lord Bishop during his 1960s sojourn at Happy Clappy Hall) she simply went off and completed the eight units in seven weeks and put in for her “Readership”. And here she was - still doing the job God had called her to do all those years ago. It is moments like that that make you want to cheer! Driving home from that encounter I reflected that two of the most remarkable ministries that I had come across, in my time, were parish workers. I determined to make one of them the subject of a future interview. Herewith ...one Daphne Jones. “Daff” is 81, looks a bright-eyed 60 and has the energy of a woman half her age. For the last 55 years she has been Parish Worker at the great East End church of All Saints, Poplar. Her home has been a little flat overlooking the thundering traffic of the East India Dock Road and the lower colon of North London, the Blackwall Tunnel. When I caught up with her she was, for one of the few times in the last half century, not in Poplar but staying with her sister in Fairford, Gloucestershire while her sister completed a course of hospital treatment. This gave me a wonderful excuse for a day out in the country, an opportunity to view the astounding stained glass in the parish church and pay my respects at the grave of Tiddles the church cat - one of the few creatures to achieve solo monumental fame and memorial in an English churchyard.
Starting at “the crack” I was, just after 8.30am, parked in a quiet country lane and being greeted by Pippa (a black and white mongrel and, I suspect, one of the luckiest graduates of Battersea Dogs Home), Daff and her sister, Ruth. Within a few minutes I was seated in a room looking out on the beautiful garden and plied with saucepan sized cups of tea and enough sandwiches for a platoon. If you learn nothing else in Poplar you learn the needs of a constant doorstep trade - sometimes 20 men a day. It is not the place for bone china thimbles of Earl Grey and vol-au-vents. I asked Daphne:
How is Poplar managing without you?
“Oh! quite well I think. The Rector, jokingly told the Mothers' Union that I had come down here to dry out from drink and drugs. So to counter that, I’ve sent up a photo of me holding my latest grand niece in my arms, with the message that I am, in fact, on maternity leave!” You have to get up very early to get one across Daphne.
You’re not a Poplar girl though. Where did you begin?
“Here. In Fairford. My parents lived at Morgan Hall and my grandparents had a vast place in Lechlade which is now a Roman Catholic school. My father looked after the estate after their death. He took his degree at Merton College, Oxford and then lived as a country gentleman on the land.”
How did you fit in to that way of life?
“Well, it was a different world. The age of the calling card. Mother would go and present her card. The new neighbours would return with theirs and only then could we meet and the children mix. Class was part of life. And yet my mother was always most welcoming - everything happened at our house: fetes, Girl Guides, Mothers Union, British Legion meetings. When a tramp walked in to her birthday party she just greeted him and offered the same hospitality as to any other guest. I hated things like the Hunt Ball and loved the Hospital Ball where all sorts of people could come.”
Where did you go to school?
“A little weekly boarder nine miles away then, at 13, to a public school for fifty girls at Bexhill-on-Sea. All four sisters went there. The chapel was the centre of life and it was very much in the Catholic tradition. I learnt a great deal about prayer and the sacramental life there.” Daphne is a daily communicant and starts early in the parish. Mass was at 6.00 or 6.30 in the great dock years. When it slipped to 7.00 in the later years Daphne coped, but when a “reforming” incumbent put it to 9.30 she had to find other places so that half the day wasn’t spent before she could get on with her work.
How did someone of your background get involved with the East End?
“Well, dear, the school did lots of charitable work and we supported a mission, funded by Magdalen, Oxford, in the Euston area. The doss houses were so disgusting that many preferred to sleep out on the streets. Some young men came down from the Mission and made a great impression.” It is not hard to imagine that a group of young men in their twenties would make an impression on a school of 50 girls. But these were different days and it is hard for us to imagine, in our more cynical era, the mixture of idealism and innocence that would spark the romance of an adventure with God that marked out a whole lifetime of sacrifice.
“Fr. Basil Jellicoe, the driving force behind this work, came to our Confirmation. He was determined to change things. It was no good, he said, giving the poor a day out at the seaside, only to return to their squalor. He began, in faith, and with no money, the St Pancras Housing Association and began changing things himself.” (“Daff” still subscribes sixty years on.) “I decided that I would become a District Nurse there. But the war changed that - you went where you were told. I trained at St Thomas's Hospital and, entering my final year, I suddenly found myself with the responsibility of Sister caring for air raid victims and later with a 100 bed unit at St Peter's, Chertsey for battlefield victims. We had casualties from Dunkirk, the Vickers factory bombing and raw off the field: maggots, lice, the lot. Mercifully I’ve little memory of the horror - just of the caring for them once we’d got them cleaned up and into bed.”
Long way from Poplar?
“I’d bought a bike and used to cycle to worship at All Saints, Woodham. We formed a young people’s group and invited a dockland parish to come and spend a day with us away from the terror. Somebody had a link with All Saints', Poplar, so that was it. The Rector, Mark Hodson came and invited us back.” Anyone who had the good fortune to know, Hodson, one of the most remarkable priests of his generation, will understand the impact of that event. Hodson had the ability to focus on the soul and inspire with God’s word, a relentless passion, energy and intelligence and capacity for leadership. He later became successively Bishop of Taunton and then Hereford and remarked, near his death, that when he ceased to be a parish priest, he ceased to be important. It wasn’t true, of course, but there is little doubt that his service (1940 - 1956) in Poplar was one of the great incumbencies of this century.
What happened on the visit?
“I arrived and - it was just like a flash - THIS IS IT! This is where I’m meant to be and I set about getting there.” Daphne’s host was Maud Salmon - still going strong - and with Daphne one of the founding figures of some of the great Poplar institutions - The SPY Club etc. “I had to finish my midwifery, 6 months hospital, 6 months district. I applied to the Nursing Sisters of St John the Divine who had a house in Poplar and one in Deptford and in early 1942 I got a flat over a clinic and began doing home deliveries and visits. When my six months was up I applied to train as a Queen's Nurse with the East London Nursing Society and got it. We covered Chrisp Street to the Tower and Bethnal Green to the Isle of Dogs. That meant 6,000 - 7,000 visits per year.” It is impossible to overstate the sheer scale of visiting by church and health workers at this time. Hodson, for example, sent his curates out after breakfast and didn’t expect then back, except for office, until 9.30pm!"
How did you come on staff?
“The Rector asked me to come on staff but I had to get Government permission to change from a restricted occupation. That came in 1946 and it was funded by a lady who had been a Missionary in India. We met for lunch near Leicester Square and then sat in a little park to talk. A one-legged drunk fell over me and I sorted him out and tidied him up. The lady said, “You seem to be used to this kind of thing” and agreed my allowance. Later on the Diocese agreed to put me on the payroll.”
But before that?
“I’d helped with SPY Club.” South Poplar Youth Club - the members still meet, most married within the Club, scarcely a marriage has broken and the vast majority have gone on to serve and build churches all over the country. It was a remarkable tribute to the enormous spiritual capital that was poured into the youngsters of the parish at that time. “And I also got involved with another ministry.” A meeting at a bus stop with a young Irish girl, heavily pregnant and no hospital bed booked, Daphne went “home” with her. She was living with five Indians over a cafe. It was the beginning of her introduction to the brothels of dockland and a major rescue ministry. Her personal contacts and tremendous experience saw her team up in the 1950’s with the legendary Fr Joe Williamson. Born in Arcadia Street, his father crushed in the docks when Joe was only 4, he had told the vicar he was going to be a priest. “How interesting”, said the Vicar and shut the door. The priest at St Gabriel’s had taken him seriously and, against all the odds, the uneducated slum boy had made it. Now, as his last job, he came to St Paul’s, Dock Street and began the great work of his life. Daphne was loaned to him and Nora Neal from St George in the East came back to help. In the late 1950s another remarkable priest moved into the other bit of Cable Street, Peter Clynick - who, provoked by a fiat from a tiresome liberal bishop, produced the great headline in the Cable Street Chronicle - “Be positive - Say No!” It was a time of great servants and extraordinary works. Hundreds of young girls, aged 13 upwards, were pulled out of the spiral of prostitution and encouraged into decent fulfilled lives. Many are still in touch with Daphne and visit - including the original Irish girl’s baby. And that is the other great theme of her work - continuity.
Have you ever been frightened?
“There have been some strange moments. The night Tony from the Vaseline factory came in dead drunk wielding a carving knife - but I’ve always reckoned you can push drunks over. But there was a man came in the Seaman’s Club and threatened Kathleen with a hatchet. Kept chopping the table and saying, “I’m going to kill somebody”. Just at that moment one of the Frannies (Society of St Francis) appeared and said, “Oh good. I was just going to light a fire , I’ve got plenty of wood but no chopper, I wonder if you could help?” The man went away like a lamb." I forgot to ask if that was the day Daphne decided to join the Franciscan Third Order.
I remember you saying, when I was a young and impatient curate, how important it is to take the long view.
“Yes. Some miracles happen immediately and some take a lifetime and a lot of faithful work. I’ve seen four generations through now. People don’t cover things up - they know that I’ve been around through the bad times as well as the good.” Daphne has just received a call from a man she delivered fifty years ago! Her birthday card ministry of keeping in touch is massive - once on you’re never off her list! She travels all over the country to respond to calls. I remember her once travelling to the Midlands to celebrate with a reformed burglar and his family. The hopeless recidivist had gone straight and all the children were “up and running”. How long had Daphne ministered to them? Nearly forty years. It is an astonishing faithfulness.
You are now on your sixth rector - three of them became bishops. What changes have you seen since you first started?
“Poplar was 100% white - now we are gradually following Newham towards an ethnic majority. The massive post war clearance, rebuilding and council housing left no private rental or purchase for the young or successful to reinvest in their home area. They moved out and the state was left, largely, to cope with the elderly. The shutting of the mental hospitals has created a tremendous need for support in the community. Smoking costs a huge slice of a poor person's income. The single parent family is now a major feature of life here. Large numbers of people are on medication. Docklands has brought great benefit to the area and to the church.”
You never married. Were you tempted?
“No. I simply couldn’t have done the job with a husband and family to look after.”
Would you have been ordained if the opportunity had been there?
“Yes. I probably would have offered myself. It would have given me another piece of equipment - like my medical training. But I was very uneasy about the change going through because of the awful mess it would cause.” Daphne has had nearly 60 curates through her hands and kept in touch. Poplar always had “the pick of the litter” - they came for three years and often stayed for seven. They did not marry either, until they left, and all courting was done outside the parish! There is a lovely story about Fr. John Eastaugh - the much loved successor of Hodson - who fell foul of his own discipline and had to make an undignified use of the Rectory window to escape censure. I must point out that the source of this story is not Daphne but a former curate. “Daff” is most insistent on banning stories, however harmless, that may imply she has breached a confidence. She doesn’t.
Poplar always had a remarkable hospital ministry.
“Yes. Poplar Hospital and St Andrew’s, Bow. Every bed visited, night prayers on every ward, the Sunday afternoon prayers with wards full of visitors. One priest slept in the hospital each night on call.” Nor is this ancient history. Daphne Jones has pursued the same passionate level of commitment to God and other people throughout her ministry. She has moved in every level of English society ministering to all alike with a quiet humility, a nurse’s practicality and a warm spirituality and humour. Her neighbour and colleague for the last 22 years, Sr. Grace Rudman C.A., used to say with a merry laugh, “If someone says “Daff” is off to the Duchess of Devonshire you’re never quite sure whether she’s meeting a needy soul in a local pub or the lady herself. She’s a remarkable person.” “Daff’s” self imposed poverty and simplicity of life and minimal institutional responsibilities have enabled her to become, in her singleness and faithful love, a mother to successive generations of the disadvantaged; helping, encouraging, praying. She is part of thousands of families and to all she has brought hope and joy and the inextinguishable first flickering of the light of Christ growing to full and glorious day. As one grateful Poplar wag remarked to me some years ago. “Daff’s been like a Mother Teresa of the East End. All she needs is a couple of tea towels.” It is a wholly avoidable folly that in the modern ministry’s rush to career plan and management structure that such a ministry should be considered “obsolete”.
Robbie Low is the Vicar of St, Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban's
Return to Home Page of This Issue
Return to Trushare Opening Page