In this Diocese of Southwark there is a small Community of men known as the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross. It has its Home in a large rambling house in Nunhead, with several detached centres. It follows the aims of St Francis, though in a simplified form, as the members are usually so busy during acts of service to persons in any kind of need, that there is no time to be too “precious”, and what has endeared the Brotherhood to the diocese is its intense humanity and “practicalness”.
This is the community founded by Father George Potter, from the introduction to this lovely little autobiography of a modern-day friar written in stolen moments from a life of service to others.
That is why this story of mine is written in bursts, like those of a machine-gun. I have only been able to explode a few rounds at a time, in between all my other work. (12)
It is a life shaped by poverty and he geographies of South London, and that in turn shaped his city, particularly this little piece of Peckham and the people living within it — and more particularly the homeless children that he gave shelter to.
I wish he were still alive to talk to rather than writing a short book in bursts. He grew up as one of five children in Cavendish Road, Balham, poor and supported only by a working mother after his father died when he was a baby. But who lived across the wall from them? Dan Leno, that’s who, Music Hall entertainer extraordinaire. He was in and out of Music Halls, and his continuing friendships throughout his life with performers kept emerging through offhand remarks — like borrowing that proverbial horse costume where he was the back end and it all went horribly wrong.
He started work at 8 doing odd jobs for a greengrocer on Saturdays, often going with him at 3 am to Covent Garden and Burrough Market. He left school well before 14, worked for a private detective’s agency in Queen Victoria Street, a sugar-broker’s office in Mincing Lane, a stockbroker’s office as a junior clerk.
His journey into the priesthood was a difficult one, not for lack of calling but for lack of money, learning the rudiments of Latin, Greek, the Bible and Church history in the evenings from two volunteer priests, and struggling along through evening classes, finding a scholarship to Kelham. He became the vicar at All Saints in South Wimbledon, after a year as army chaplain in WWI.
Time as army chaplain in WWI seems to have had a profound impact on the priests I most admire, Father Groser also endured it, and also dedicated his life to not just the service of the poorest, but to living among them and working with them to rise from that condition.
This book is a collection of stories, told as you might over tea or a pint, and always with humour but many of them, most of them, are tragic. They are also revealing of the role of the church. When he first came to St Chrysostom’s, Peckham in 1923, there was no vicarage and no vicar had ever lived in the parish. He writes:
The church was closed and the churchyard was simply a rubbish dump.
We eventually found the church-cleaner–a dear old Victorian body–who lived opposite the church. When we got inside we found the place spotlessly clean, though parts of the ceiling were missing and pails and baths rested on some of the pews and in the sanctuary. The clock in the turret proved to be about ten years slow, and there had been no heating in the building for decades. (25)
There was a church hall that also began to serve as vicarage where he lived with his mother, and perhaps my favourite thing about his introduction to the neighbourhood was this:
The hall doors were open, and kettles and saucepans were bubbling on the parish gas-stove. It seemed that some of the neighbouring parishioners found it cheaper and more convenient to use the church’s stove rather than their own. (26)
Community in action right there. It is quite beautiful how they came together to transform that place. Their sanctuary lamp for a while was the lid of a soup toureen, an empty fish paste jar, three yards of chain, and for more important feasts only — some Rowntree’s wine gums to add some colour. Father Potter had a gift.
In 1925 they gave up the fight against the rats in the old church hall, and moved over to a derelict pub called the Eagle. All labour donated.
There’s no one didn’t like the new management sign. It was there that they found the space to take in a few boys then living on the streets — Police courts and bobbies on the beat had also begun to drop of boys at Father Potter’s. Much of his life from then on seems to have been focused on moving to bigger and better quarters to provide room for his sisters and other brothers in the order and continue that work. The pub was retained as club room and Scout headquarters.
1929 they found a building being leased for a factory when in fact it had been an old school. Father Potter writes:
After several trips to the Record Office, trying to trace some Deeds to prove our position, we did not get very far. We felt it best to take possession — which we did. We took down the board on the gate, which bore the words “Shirts and Pyjamas”, and (as we knew no saints of those names–even in the latest Missals) we re-named the old buildings “The Hostel of St Francis”. (46)
I like his style.
The animals of the city were not forgotten either here — people brought them — some unwanted but mostly old and sick and needing to be put down or burial. The RSPCA gave them six ‘lethal boxes’ so they could perform this service when they could not give animals away to a new and good home.
I cannot find it easy to be gentle with bullies either. I am almost ashamed to say that I have found it helped them, at times, to pay them back in their own coin. It sounds un-Christian–but it worked when it was explained to them. (59)
He is humorous about the coshes, knuckle-dusters and razors, understanding about the amount of violence often suffered in their young lives from families or institutions. He admires their intelligence and courage, you believe him when he tells stories of seeing through most of their lies, right down to the stark and terrible realities that lie underneath. He certainly understood key things like this, from a talk he gave to others embarking on similar work:
Don’t lose your temper or shout. If you do, you must not be upset if the boy laughs at you. Remember, he probably has a sense of humour, and we do look funny when we lose our temper.
A boy does not necessarily show respect by standing in your presence, nor by saluting and saying “Sir!” Perhaps he has been brought up in an institution, where he has got so used to doubling up and saying “Yes, sir!” when he wants to say “No. Damn you!” So he finds it hard sometimes to say “No!” to the devil. (71)
If we talk a lot about Jesus Christ, the boy rightly things that we know something about him–and expect us to be something like him. (72)
It’s been fun, he titles a chapter…and the stories that follow prove it.
A boy was serving me at Mass. I waited for the lavabo. Brother Francis shouted to the boy, “Water! water!” He looked up and said, “Lumme! who’s fainted?”
There is the story, tragic and funny, of the most wonderful untamed girl named Liz, who often slept in the church to escape the violence of her father…and anyway, she could not get to sleep until her bed was vacated by her brother who worked night shifts, as it was his bed during the day. Father Potter talks of her drunkenness from the age of 12, at 14 her care for the reputations of married men who gave her the drink, how she once threw a man over a table for propositioning her. How she hated wearing hats. I loved these compassionate and understanding and somewhat heartbroken glimpses into lives lived against all odds and the humour and courage there, despite enduring a level of poverty that has not existed since the post-war settlement.
There are tales of cockneys camping in the country, Peckham during the blitz and letters home from the boys that will make you cry.
It’s a rather little book, but it allows us to remember so many of those whom history and society both would wish to forget. I think, too, it perhaps allows them to be remembered as they might have wished. I happened to start a biography of Dr Bernardo on the same coach trip and the differences are immense, but that is for another blog.
[Potter, The Rev. Canon George (1956) Father Potter of Peckham: A South London Saga. Bungay, Suffolk: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.]