St George-in-the-East, 1895

This is part of an account which appeared in various church publications around 1895, including Sunday at Home, East London Sketches of Christian Work and Workers, and The Metropolitan Poor (vol 6).

... A few hundred yards farther east, skirting the London Docks, we are in the heart of the once infamous and even now pitiful yet admirably-missioned Ratcliff Highway. The long and farstretching thoroughfare is a heart-stirring sight. The population (St. George's is the poorest of East London parishes) have apparently all turned out into the street to get, if it may be, a breath of fresh air this sultry summer evening. It is chiefly a district of one-room families. Men, women, and children have left their close quarters in the courts and alleys around to get into the open street dusty and arid as it is, for the freedom and change of society out of doors. The street and its company are their chief holiday enjoyments. They prefer the kerbstone and the door-step even to the leafy and spacious church garden, which, morning and afternoon alike, invites them in vain. The love of trees and grass and sky, which so seldom survives the age of childhood among the very poor, seems to have pressed out of their hard lives, and to have lacked all chance of growth. The Highway, both here and in the no less populous Cable Street hard by, swarms with groups of women and girls of the poorest class, to whom a head-covering is apparently unknown, save perhaps the shawl owned in partnership with fellow-lodgers. Yet the clean white apron, indicating the presence of an industrial class, and itself a tribute to the Sunday, is very generally worn.

The younger people here, as indeed everywhere in London, however untoward the condition of their lives, have the precious gifts of cheerfulness and vivacity.
The men, who are also in social groups, keep their own society. The large number who are well-dressed and quiet in demeanour as they stand together at the doors of humble but respectable lodging-houses, form a remarkably new feature in the district.

The contrast with the Sunday night scenes of twenty-five years since is nothing less than startling. In those evil days and even at a later period, the lowest class of the lawless and the vicious dominated the Highway; to-day they are a comparatively small and manageable minority. Their old domain is broken up with street improvements and new and sanitary buildings and settled with an industrial class of residents. Still more noticeable is the multiplication of religious and philanthropic missions. Board schools, reformatory homes, and refuges, whose handsome buildings have taken the place of low dancing rooms, public houses, and slums of vice and rowdyism, everywhere greet the eye. Where, we ask, as we tread again the once familiar footway after many years of absence, where are the fifteen or more dancing saloons fur unfortunate seamen and their companions which we once passed in this same thoroughfare in a walk of a few hundred yards? Not a single one remains. We can now pass up and down Ratcliff Highway after three o'clock in the afternoon without molestation, and the sight of a drunkard is  a rare occurrence. Both north and south, whole side streets have disappeared to make decent homes for an honest if extremely poor industrial people. Ratclilf Highway is undoubtedly much poorer than in the prosperous times of the two great shipping docks —the London Docks and St. Katherine's—which formerly brought many more thousands of seamen annually to its doors. The transfer of shipping business to other parts of the river has made a great difference.

The beautiful music of St. George's church-bells has been all this time floating over the scene we have witnessed. Flanked by the leafy trees and beautiful greensward and flowers of the most spacious churchyard garden we have yet seen in West or East London, the noble and stately parish church stands in conspicuous contrast with the prevailing meanness and sordidness which reign around. In scale and outward magnificence it suggests rather the wealthy and fashionable West End than the purlieus of Ratcliff Highway. Yet we may find it to be more in touch with the population around than appearances suggest.

Evening service has begun. The grand interior has seats for twelve hundred, and some five hundred persons are present. The congregation is indeed much larger and of a more respectable class than might have been anticipated. As we afterwards learn, they are all working-people. The service is bright and musical, and notwithstanding the stately impressiveness of the building both within and without, the people are evidently at home, entering heartily into the service. The rector notes that out of a population of ten thousand, scarcely half a dozen families keep a domestic servant. The days of the well-to-do resident middle-class and local employers of labour in St. George's are over. The furnaces in the great sugar refineries have long been cold, and the last of the employers in this once prosperous and important industry left the parish some years since.

The Sunday evening congregations in connection with the parish church are to be found elsewhere than at St. George's. There is a very good evening gathering at the sub-parish church of St. Matthew's, Prince's Square. There is a service of a mission character at Tait Street, and another mission-hall in St. George's Street. The simpler and shorter services held here are much appreciated by those who are unable to be absent long from home, or who from any cause find the services at the parish church too long. If we call at the three Sunday schools in the afternoon we shall see them filled with nearly one thousand children. For elder girls, young men, and adult men, poorer girls and mothers, there are five separate Bible classes. Prebendary Turner, the hard-working rector of St. George's, maintains at considerable cost to himself the full working staff of assistant clergy as it existed in more prosperous times, as also an increased number of parish agencies. Of the collateral agencies, both civic and social, which are now working for righteousness by removing the grosser scandals and temptations and the inhuman conditions of the older Ratcliff Highway, and indeed the whole of East London, much might be made of the view in the very midst of the most sordid-looking and crowded areas. Indeed, St. George's, Ratcliff [sic] has an honourable precedence in the history of these welcome and most gracious features of modern East London. It was here, in the gratefully remembered and oft-cited times of the Rev. Harry Jones' pioneer work as rector, that the open churchyard movement was begun ....

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