from Our Lady's Mirror, Winter 1953
The Memorable Nights (The War in Retrospect)
by Fr Reggie Kingdon – Priest and Guardian


I am an ancient and obscure East End clergyman, aged 84, living in the country, one of those whom a leading ecclesiastic in the diocese to which I have come described as “Another of these Returned Empties.” I was for 31 years the Vicar of St John the Evangelist, Isle of Dogs, after 25 years at St Augustine’s, Stepney, under Harry and Dick Wilson, “the Hoppers’ Parson,” except for the first world war. At the little church where I still help, I asked a boy of thirteen how he liked “The Young Christian’s Progress” (which I was reading to them) and his answer was “It’s better than Dick Barton.” My words are bound to be sketchy because I kept no notes, and dates (beyond 1066) were never my mark. So here goes . . . . .

1939
This year seems notable chiefly for the evacuation of our 300 children from our Church School, mostly to Swindon, where they were royally treated by all the various parish priests. As we went there a boy next to me was thrilled at the sight of a “funny horse with handlebars on his head.” It was a nerve-racking day as arrangements were by no means complete for their housing, and it was 11 pm before I found the last home. However, early letters were very cheering, one of the first saying “I have been a bridesmaid, made my confession and received Holy Communion.” During all their stay everything possible was done for them by the Head Mistress, Miss M Webb, Mrs Burrowes and their willing helpers. I think the most wonderful thing of that year was the change in people. Some whom I had thought unfriendly – if not even hostile – began saying “Good morning, Father”; but long before the end of the war it was much more wonderful and heartening as well.

The first Sunday at the 11 o’clock Mass the Church was nearly full and about 200 children. Just about the time of the Consecration, there was the sound of firing and several women rushed in to fetch their children. The Churchwarden came up and asked what he should do, and the result was one child left. And then I remember not long after – rows of people kneeling to receive Holy Communion at the 8 o’clock Mass, whilst the bombs were falling and their limbs trembling but not a sound of dismay.

1940
One night in (I think) October we were a merry party of some 16 at supper in the Clergy House, when a land mine quietly descended and flattened out seven streets, killing one person. Sadlers Park shelter full of babes-in-arms and people up to 94 years of age was badly bombed and we had to provide shelter in the Hall and Men’s Club, both not blacked out. In the Club Nurse Kate Wallbank, who recently died in the Hostel of God, did heroic work with the worst wounded, with the aid of one candle. In the Hall four other nurses, with four more candles, helped with the less serious and the rest of the staff made tea from 10 pm until 7am. At intervals we had prayers, hymns and songs. I thought I was capable of dealing with hysterics and asked a boy to bring me brandy or sal volatile. He responded with a bottle which, fortunately, I tasted – it was Dettol! As I stood in Manchester Road directing the Air Wardens to the Hall, two of them helped along an old man, aged 90, totally blind. “Hello Tom,” I said “how are you.” “You saved my life,” was the answer. Some years before I had given his wife who had since died, a very thick tea-cosy. He had taken to wearing it in bed in the attic and when the roof fell, he was unhurt. A few weeks later The Times had a short leading article advising the use of tea-cosies. Better than a night-cap because if large they would combine the purposes of a pillow and ear shield from the noise of the guns as well as act as a head-warmer and a protection from shrapnel. Nurse C Gowans was attending a very bad case and the women offered two hens, a child came to tell me his dog had laid 7 eggs in the hall.

Father Hickin (that noblest of priests, RIP) went round to ask the school for some food for 20 and receiving demur said he would send 50 round for dinner and did so. A policeman I knew was asked to subscribe to a Spitfire fund and replied “No thanks, I’ve married one.” It was I think at this time that the News Chronicle representative came down about an offer of West End homes and published a picture “Are we downhearted?” showing me asking a lot of them about it and I receiving the unanimous answer “we don’t want to leave our homes.” I couldn’t get a tin hat, but Nurse Edith Gowans saw one in an area in Kensington growing geraniums. It had a large hole made by shrapnel and was very rusty. However, Messrs Dunn mended, cleaned and painted and refitted it and it did good service and still hangs in my room. About this time one of my old boys sent me a rhyme fastened on the wall of Government House of the Red Cross at Melbourne.

“Madam! thanks for the socks, they fit,
One for a helmet, one for a mit,
Thank the Lord you are doing your bit,
But why on earth don’t you learn to knit.”

August 11th to November 15th was the Battle of Britain and for 70 days we were practically continually bombed. The German wireless were always telling us they would get our bridge. One night when the Island was a ring of fire I saw Winston Churchill watching in a car (an incident never reported), the first time I had seen him since that wonderful day in Sidney Street. About this time, our congregations at Benediction in the evening increased considerably. It is true I was the proud possessor of a crystal set and always read out the news. The Battle went on and by the end of the year some 200 of our communicants had moved away, but a trusty band persevered. My household (except Father Hickin and Miss Tabor who stuck like postage stamps) including the dog and cat had moved to Cornwall and now consisted of the bombed out and anyone who wanted company. Miss H Booth gave Miss Tabor shelter all through the war. Our first Vicar got the Power House built to pump water out of the Island. One morning a woman said “Did they get the PH?” “Yes” “What – the Power House?” “No, the Public House.” I went to see an evacuee and asked a local, “Does this road lead to ------- village?” “Ah,” was the answer, “you be asking summat. It do in peace time, but I bain’t going to tell ‘ee where it leads to now.”

And now one from a prison camp in Germany:-

“Out of the depths we call to Thee, Our Lord
Out of the depths of our captivity,
And in the prison house a Light is lit,
Thou com’st to us and we all come to Thee;
A simple army biscuit, dregs of wine,
A rough Cross fashioned from two strips of wood,
A drop of water from a khaki flask,
Thy presence and behold Thy flesh and blood.”

During the battle the Rum Quay was set on fire and many teetotallers seemed drunk, and people were not getting away. The PLA lent me a car and driver and we went to the Town Hall to find it closed as an air raid was on and the sentry refused me admittance. But when I said “I want to see the Town Clerk by order of the Privy Seal,” he saluted and took me in. The result was not only a car load of provisions, but that evening 7 buses to take away the bombed out.

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1941? – NO!
I must first say a word about some of the Saints: Father Asher. As a deacon I met him at Ely in 1893 and suggested him coming (he was a priest) to Stepney. He came and for over 50 years was the best friend God ever gave me. I often abused him but there was always forgiveness waiting. He passionately loved his Church and his people. I stood with him and watched St Augustine’s burn on December 27th, 1940. All he said was, “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away – Blessed be the Name of the Lord.” The next day I took him to the train to go with him to Guildford – his home – and never shall I forget his face (understanding still) when I closed the door and said I was not coming. If on October 12th 1946, all the trumpets did not sound for him on the other side there was something wrong with the trumpets.

Father Elton Lury. On the feast of Circumcision after saying Mass he died suddenly. He had been Vicar of St Peter’s, Limehouse. With him the Mass, the Confessional, Our Lady and the Bible always came first.

Father Gordon Hickin. He was my fellow priest for 25 years, the dockers and sailors parson. He died in the Hostel of God on the feast of St Chad – his patron. His whole life was one of self sacrifice to his Master. Everybody loved him.

Arthur Hawker died June 2nd, 1941. For 18 years server, church warden and school keeper. He never missed his daily Mass. And so to finish I cannot withhold my tribute of love and thankfulness to Father Thomas OSB and Father Archer now of St Phillips, Stepney, who both so long bore with me and helped me so loyally.

And so to 1941
The enemy liked Holy Days and it was on St Joseph’s Day, March 19th, that they sent a 500 HE bomb into my sitting room. It entirely destroyed the Clergy House, finished off the School, took off the North roof of the Church for the third time, blew out the West window for the fifth time and generally made a mess of us. Again we were at supper and before “the afters” (rice pudding) I suggested adjourning to the shelter. But one boy wished me to help him put out an incendiary. Having done that and intending to have “a quick one” in my room, he heard another and whilst that was being put out the bomb came. Salvage was quite too amazing! First and foremost our precious Relic of the Blood of St James (the honour of finding fell to a server, George Green), then the Monstrance, very battered, found by the City of London ARP Squad, my Mother’s engagement ring and £40 in notes, 50 yards from the safe they were in (found by Bertie Garner, another server), my office-book, a lot of Father Hickin’s notes of value and some of mine (well, I ask you!). Two hens (all we had) and the kitchen plaster image of Our Lady (unchipped and Mr Harry Wright our Churchwarden and best pal of all in need found it). Doris Warren found a fork, which we all shared for breakfast. Two of my “cosies” (a good omen for the summer), Miss Sheppard’s appeal cards (a work of love for many years), the Bible St Augustine’s gave me when I went to France, a bottle of beer (it’s gone now), and the “Lest we forget” roll of the dead. In the same room where two safes were blown to pieces, a bottle of Walsingham water was unbroken. I lost my eyeglasses and wired to Sammy Newman at Colchester, who replied “coming tomorrow as wife and I thought you wanted a new pair,” and what anyone else couldn’t do, Mr A Davidson, the People’s Warden always did. I had a custom after Mass of biking up to the Council School to see the bombed out and one morning found a rope barring my way. So I pushed the machine under to hear, “Eh, you can’t do that,” and was told an unexploded bomb had fallen in the area. So I went to look at it and after a bit went down and stood on it. The Head Warden arrived and fortunately soon after the removal squad, who agreed with me that there was no bomb, but only a piece of masonry fallen from above. I was just as skeered as usual but common sense prevailed.

1942, 1943 “Time, please”
Considering the large number of direct hits our loss of life was extraordinarily small. Inside our door was a little picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour which had touched the original at Rome, and the same picture was put up in most of our dug-outs and shelters. We very much missed our annual Pilgrimage to Walsingham, but tried to make up for it by holding a Spiritual Pilgrimage. I had a wonderful trip on the Thames when Mr J Rothwell, in charge of photography in the Ministry of Food, brought down Mr R Curthoys, a distinguished Australian journalist, and Inspector Brownfield, River Police, took us in his launch. You may be sure Mr Curthoys heard all about our need of fats, soap, etc.

When the Font was being repaired, I was shown a new piece of marble, the centre one of the inscription to Father Stack (it was a memorial to him) with “One Faith” on it. I asked about the other two pieces, which were quite unreadable, and was told they were not covered by War Damage. So we were to do without “One Lord” or “One Baptism.” Naturally two more pieces of marble were ordered. And I had thoughts of applying for a faculty to prevent pigeons nesting in the roof.

So I can only add that it has often been said how wonderfully well the East Enders behaved in the war. True, but also true that of them all those in the Isle of Dogs behaved best.

“Time! Gentlemen, please.”

PS – We had the last Flying Rocket
PPS – “What? Well, anyway, we have always claimed we did.”

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