Category Archives: Working

Writing Countryside. Also Farming. Day 1

Days are really long in the countryside, especially when you’re not quite used to this work. They leave your muscles aching at the end of them. It is not yet 8 o’clock and I am thinking about going to bed. I have 3 almost-but-not-quite-yet blisters, I do hope they stay that way.

But it is just my first day.

I missed lambing, which made me sad because I do love lambs. Now they are all four weeks old and still hell of cute but a little skittish. Look at them though:

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These guys were hanging out next to me while I was mucking out the lambing shed through almost the whole of the morning. I think they hoped I might feed them, or they were just hanging out next to the hay.

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I had heard of this mucking out malarky. It is good for instant gratification. Good for your back muscles. Good for bringing out unknown abilities with a pitchfork.

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You feel it afterwards though. It was sunny for a while, grey for a while. Then it rained. I was in the lambing shed

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It hailed. I moved on to weeding a bank of willows, wild garlic, daffodils and bluebells. The hail was large as you can see.

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It snowed a little later on, because hail isn’t slushy, right? But I was eating a delicious sandwich.

Back to work I discovered gloves don’t fully protect you against nettles and those bastards are totally going to win the long-term weeding war given their root systems. Dock is as hard to get out, worms love clay soil, and there are actually tiny centipedes here. Two kinds of ants living secretly underground. Weeding on steep slopes is also no joke. But look at this beauty

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I didn’t mind when it snowed later, I was definitely ready for tea.

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The sun came out, the snow still fell. This place is beautiful though, especially this view down to the old mill.

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A good first day. But hail and snow in April? Hello crazy weather days…

Memories from Beryl Knotts: Meals on Wheels begins and more

[My interview with Beryl Knotts inspired me immensely, especially after so much reading on the East End and writing about Fr John Groser and his work there, so I thought I would repost this blog I did for St Katharine’s]

Beryl Knotts first interviewed for a position at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in November of 1953. It all happened quite by accident too — having left school at sixteen to take care of her mother, Beryl first trained and worked for three years as a secretary in two posts in London and Woking. For her third job, she went to inquire at the Tavistock Appointments Bureau, but unwittingly went into the “graduate” section by mistake! Although she had no degree, the woman behind the desk took the time to help her anyway, and recommended she apply for a secretarial job at the national office of the Training and Personnel Department of the YWCA in Baker Street. Thus she began a lifetime committed to social work, as, in due course, the YWCA staff recommended her to move to the work of the Stepney Old People’s Welfare Association then developing at St Katharine’s to get hands-on experience in community work.

20150714_153339She had never been to the East End before, and remembers the fog and the Dickensian feeling of the place, with St Katharine’s an oasis of warmth and light in the middle of a bombed out city. Cable Street was narrow and grimy then, taking a different route past St Katharine’s than it does now. I’ve found an old map from Fr. John Groser’s history of St Katharine’s distributed at the time. It shows the old buildings that once stood here, and also marks the memory of our local train station as Stepney East.

Beryl worked for the most part with Dorothy Halsall, one of the two sisters living and working here as part of the St Katharine’s community. The other was Ethel Upton. There were also two brothers at the time, Brother Bernard from the ministry in Peckham, and Brother De Jong, a layman. Jean Denford was Fr. John Groser’s Secretary, and also an assistant to Dorothy Halsall.

Apart from the main buildings there was a big yard, and alongside it a cottage where for a while Tom lived, a Canadian worker-priest who had committed his life to serving his vocation through work in the factories. He married Sherry and they lived there together, Sherry becoming a model of generosity for Beryl (and now for myself, this is an ideal I love but hard to reach in this day and age I think). Sherry would always begin cooking the evening meal for say four, but as people dropped by they were always invited to stay until it often became eight or more. No matter how many came they would manage to provide them a meal, though the soup might be a bit watery. What food there was would always be stretched to include everyone.

After commuting from Woking for six months, Beryl moved to Bethnal Green — in those days, the wonderful St Margaret’s Settlement provided not just community services but also rooms for 25 young people, half of them students and half of them working in the East End. As part of their life there, they had to do some social work in the local area. Beryl had the most delightful story of the first time she was sent to visit an elderly lady in a second floor flat. Beryl Knotts knocked and this lady (who had clearly met several social researchers in the area before!) answered with ‘Come in love, and I’ll answer all yer questions’ (even though Beryl was just a ‘visitor’!). This lady always gave her great big mugs of very strong hot tea, and her generous but practiced and humorous answer showed perhaps something of how it was to be in an over-researched area of social deprivation as the East End tended to be in those post-war years.

Even so, both the deep commitment to the work and the warm fellowship that arose between the young people living at St Margaret’s and serving the community emerged clearly through our conversation. So much so that I felt its loss deeply, and wish I might have been part of something like that. Beryl has still kept the sparkling sense of fun.

So the Stepney Old People’s Welfare Association. After the war, the housing in this area that hadn’t been bombed flat was often dangerously weakened, and had been in very poor condition even before the bombing started. For this reason, most of the young families were moved out further east towards Dagenham, leaving a disproportionately large proportion of the older age group suddenly alone and in bad housing, bereft of both the useful roles they might once have held in taking care of children or helping with the home, as well as the support and companionship of their families.

She remembers them very poor, very tough, and very strong. Above all her stories are humorous ones, life made better with laughter rather than tears, and hard times always lightened with a joke.

Across the span of sixty years some of these memories ring very clear. There was Alfie, an old docker whom she met in her very first week at St Katharine’s. His wife had just died, and he didn’t know what to do. Dorothy Halsall helped arrange a pubic health funeral for her, and in those days even such funerals involved a carriage and horses and plumes, the procession that stopped in every location that had been important to the person whose life was being celebrated and death being mourned. Alfie had wanted to buy her some flowers and found an old purse in which his wife had hidden away some £5 worth of savings.

He used all of it to buy daffodils, her favourites. The carriage was absolutely filled with daffodils when it stopped at the Hall at St Katharine’s, where she had found so much enjoyment.

The next week Alfie came in and asked them, ‘do you know a woman who would come and live with me?’

The old hall that once stood here sounds absolutely wonderful. They ran lots of clubs from it as well as elsewhere in the borough, including lunch clubs. Beryl remembered every Monday afternoon it was opened up for the elderly to come and play cards or dominoes, and have their tea and biscuits.

We have too few pictures in the archives, but I have found a couple proofs from the Old People’s Welfare Association Christmas Party of 1957. Although Beryl had left St Katharine’s by the end of 1956, most of the people would have been the same:

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Old People's Welfare Society Christmas 1957

Meals on wheels also got its start here at St Katharine’s, believed to be the first one in the country. They had a specially fitted van that would pick up food from a restaurant in Limehouse and deliver it through a rota of staff and volunteers to the elderly who were housebound Monday through Friday for which they paid three shillings and four pence a week (ten pence a day). These were always hot and fresh meals, meat and veg and lots of gravy, plus a pudding, on china plates that were returned the next day.

They came to realise that there were also a smaller number of Jewish elderly who needed the same services, but of course offered a special challenge because of requiring kosher meals and kosher service. Dorothy contacted the LCC for help, and they put her in touch with the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. Somewhat to the amusement of the St Katharine’s staff, they sent an ex-service lady to discuss the programme. Beryl remembers her as someone who, although out of uniform, gave the decided impression that she was still wearing it! She linked them up with Jewish Board of Guardians, who were able to provide a rota of Jewish volunteers with private cars who would fetch the meals from a kosher restaurant in the area, and then deliver them each day to probably around twelve to fifteen homes.

Miraculously, Beryl didn’t think there had ever been any accidents with those meals, though the food was not nearly so secure as in the van they had for the main delivery. There was only one day where they didn’t have a Jewish volunteer able to come. She rang up the taxi rank at Whitechapel to find a Jewish driver, and with his help they were still able to provide the meals.

Beryl would also often take people’s pensions to them when they could not go for themselves to collect them, and Jean Denford would visit the housebound regularly who were referred (perhaps from the Clubs or local agencies) as having special needs. Beryl remembers the older people were always so very happy to see Jean, and just how dreadfully they missed their families.

It seems a very hard thing to have separated them from their families, hard on both sides and a great lesson to be learned there about how important those ties are to people’s wellbeing. This is especially poignant as we face much the same situation again for very different reasons, as the housing crisis is pushing younger families further and further away into London’s outskirts, leaving their elderly parents lonely and isolated in older neighbourhoods like Stepney, Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse.

Another big issue they provided for here at St Katharine’s was the care of elderly people’s feet. In this very poor and ageing community people often couldn’t manage to take care of their own feet. Most of the people living here, and in the East End more broadly, had always worn second-hand shoes, had seldom had proper nutrition or medical care, and thus had multiple issues with their feet that often threatened their independence and mobility.

Once a week then, St Katharine’s brought in a chiropodist to provide free services — the only requirement for his patients was that everyone first went to the public baths just across the street.

Only last week I was in a meeting of health workers and local champions in Stepney, discussing the realities that with decreased funding available, older people are once again finding it impossible to access care for their feet such as supportive shoes, massage, nail-cutting services and the other things they need to help them stay independent and walk comfortably. Once more, charities serving the elderly as St Katharine’s once did are being asked to find ways to subsidise chiropody services.

Of all the ways that St Katharine’s could honor and revive all that it has done in that past, it is disappointing that we should have to consider anew providing such a service.

There are also, however, collective and the creative ways we could take as inspiration for moving forward that do not invoke a past many hoped we would have left long behind.

Father Groser quite loved acting, so they would put on plays — Beryl remembers once they hosted a performance of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in the open air garden. And of course his son Michael was a wonderful sculptor, another son, Tony, was an actor, and his daughter Gillian very musical, so life here had a very creative feel.

Like many people in our community, Beryl remembers the garden parties held here, and the old people’s parties (though you’d never call them that nowadays, she noted). The elderly often put together musical entertainments in the big hall, with sing-along numbers. There was even someone who would dance the can-can in union jack knickers. Mr Donovan was the M.C. with only one eye and no teeth. He was a proud member of the Queen’s Bays (the 2nd Dragoon Guards) and always wore the badge on his lapel. During the Queen Mother’s visit in November of 1955 (she wore a lovely pale mauve velvet coat, pearls and hat) — as the Bays’ Colonel-in-Chief she quickly recognized the badge and Mr. Donovan was absolutely over the moon, and told the tale for weeks afterwards!

St Katharine’s also followed many of the same patterns from year to year, a massive clean every March/April, where absolutely everything would be taken down, shaken out, and thoroughly cleaned — down to all the curtains taken down and washed and rehung even the great old curtains from the stage in the hall. St Katharine’s day on 25th November was also a very big event, with a service and a special meal cooked by Mrs. Pomfret — old Pom as everyone who worked there used to call her. The kitchen and dining rooms today are of course completely different different to what they once were, though more or less in the same place.

Beryl had found her old diaries, they sat in front of us small and worn, and she had noted down some of the many entries she had made so long ago to jog her memory about all that once happened here. It was marvelous of her to prepare so. There were a number of outings: one was to see the Queen’s homecoming at Westminster Pier after her world tour, there were others to Beaconsfield, Ramsgate, Knebworth Gardens, Southend for jellied eels. They sang all the way home from that one.

One summer evening they had what they called a ‘frail party’, with special transportation arranged by Jean Denford and volunteers from the Soroptimists Club (to which Dorothy Halsall belonged) to help a group of housebound elderly escape their own four walls for an evening. They had parties for the mum’s club, St Katharine’s club, a film night where they showed Isle of Summers.

They had an evening lecture called ‘The Social Consequences of the Present Housing Policy’ given by Arthur Blenkinsop, MP from Hull. Fr John Groser sometimes invited public school boys to debate with the dockers and the point of it was for the boys to hear about life from the dockers’ point of view.

We had a most wonderful session of reminiscing, Beryl and I, on a sofa at Friend’s Meeting House beside Euston Station, as she was only down for the day from Oxford. She only briefly let fall how in 1956 she went on to get her social work qualifications at Edinburgh University and LSE — inspired by, and perhaps also with some gentle pushing from Dorothy Halsall. She would have been quite happy, she said, to continue longer in the East End. With so much discussion of how St Katharine’s used to be, we had little time to talk more about her time in Brazil, and all she did upon her return to England and her work around the world, but I hope that we will meet again to talk more about that.

It was an inspiration to speak with her. It always is to meet people who embody a wonderful curiosity about the world alongside generosity and compassion. Especially those who have devoted their lives to making this world a better place. It is only as I was typing up my copious notes that I thought to look for her online, and found a short bio which she has forgiven me for including:

Beryl KnottsBeryl was brought up in a Congregational family and had early experience with the Surrey Congregational Youth Council. She trained and worked as a social worker in the UK and from 1966 to 1969 served as a UNA volunteer in Brazil. This led to 10 years international social work experience in Peru, Nigeria, South Sudan and Geneva, followed by 11 years with Oxfam, latterly in international human resources, until retirement in 1991. She was a URC Racial Justice Advocate, an avowed ecumenist and was a local Church Secretary from 1997 until 2011.

I had a lovely and inspiring time hearing all of her stories, and hope to hear more…

 

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Cleaning Regent’s Canal

We were all hoping for treasure I think. Things lost in the thick black muck; its smell still permeates my room from the pile of clothes in the corner. A bad day to run out of laundry detergent. Worth it, though, canals are a national treasure. The year I lived in Bow I could always escape down to the Regent’s Canal. It felt like, no it was, a bit of the wild running through the city. I still cross the river from South London to walk there sometimes.

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Not as wild as the Thames, I love the river for being the only London place you can feel the world open out the way the desert does. Space. Power. Nature being bigger than we are, which I miss so much in a city where you can’t see the stars. Of course this requires standing on a bridge. I do love bridges, but cold. You can escape down to the bits of beach you can find, but my heart hurts at the kinds of development running along the banks these days.

We built canals, these beautiful threads of water that open up the city but also tie it together in ways so different from streets, that provide homes for so many creatures other than ourselves, that represent such enormous collective effort and advances in engineering. I love all of that. Especially this bit of the Regents Canal not yet ruined by developers. The Canal River and Trust had funds to drain a section of it, fix up the walls. Not to clean it though. Unemployment as it is, people should have been paid well to do this hard work that improves the canals for all of us who love them as well as their wildlife.

With our society’s priorities all wrong, the massive effort to clean the canal while it sat drained depended on volunteers under the direction of the brilliant Lower Regents Coalition (with a shout out to Katie and Alfie from Moo Canoes who were there til the end, and run days when you can canoe for free if you do some litter picking). They provided the kit. The Canal & River Trust are filling in the canal today, so it was the last chance to get the rubbish out, we fanned out:

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We pulled out materials dumped by builders, numerous prams and assorted metal ‘things’ and horrible sections of shag carpet and cans upon cans and bottles and plastic bags. We wrestled them all from the mud that clung to them fiercely, and with tired muscles piled them high on the canal banks.

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I wanted to have been the one who found the old second world war ordinance or the rotting rifle or the goblets or the animal skull. But I didn’t mind so terribly that I wasn’t. I got to enjoy other people’s discoveries:

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The end of the day was loading up what seemed like endless truck runs from bank to barge:

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Because it was the last day, the push was intense to get as much as we could, and I was a bit ashamed of myself that I had to leave before we were quite done because it’s those last few loads that really counted. The last cold fighting with rubbish in the darkness, all that collecting of boots and gloves and washing them down and the things that keep you from the mulled wine and hot mince pies that were our reward.

I was exhausted even without deserving the honour of that last push, but I recognised the justice of the friendly laughing from the canal workers repairing the banks as a few of us left off before they stopped working. They had started before us, did this every day.

Still, it left me with a bit of a high as I made my way back to Brixton. I thought buying a special little something for supper from Marks & Spencers with a dirty face (all over filthy really) and smelling like the canal might be another highlight of the day, but honestly, the hot shower was one of the best I have ever enjoyed.

Days like this, spent with people like this, make me feel so good.

Postscript: Walking on my way to do some work it’s clear they’re still working on the canal. Also, walking? Oof. I won’t say it’s age but shit, I think it might be age.

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Gardening at Leigham Court

Leigham Court is a beautiful ‘modernist gem’ of a sheltered housing estate, sitting high up on a hill in Streatham and designed by celebrated Architect Kate Macintosh. This is from a Housing Activists press release on what is happening there:

Lambeth Council and Lambeth Living are planning to close the Leigham Court Sheltered Housing scheme. Senior residents have been informed that their homes will be demolished and the land sold off to pay for a mixture of extended care and private accommodation.

A recent Guardian article by Oliver Wainwright celebrating the architecture also includes some great quotes from residents and the reasons for the sell-off:

Over the last few months, the residents of 269 Leigham Court Road in Lambeth have come together to campaign against the “disposal” of their community, which the council plans to sell to fund the construction of “extra care” housing elsewhere in the borough.

“They call it ‘extra care’ because it’s more like being in hospital,” says Joyce James, 89. “We live here like a family; we don’t want to be separated from one another. And the buildings are spectacular – it would be like pulling down Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey. It’s criminal.”

The drastic cut-backs in the national budget have set Lambeth Council scrambling rather than fighting, or even just effectively holding the dented shield and preserving as much as possible until there is a political change. So they have started selling off homes and public assets to finance services, evicting long term tenants causing incalculable pain, destroying the remaining footholds of current community members in rapidly developing and gentrifying neighbourhoods, and losing land forever to speculation and private interests. The so-called ‘Short-Life’ housing cooperatives that are now decades old, Cressingham Gardens (and more here), the Guinness Trust Estate, and Myatt’s Field regeneration plans are all additional examples of how much social housing is at risk or already lost.

Perhaps this is because Labour’s position no longer seems to be much different on these issues, which is criminal, especially given the vision of both architects and the Labour government that built this housing in the first place. I realise writing this I need to do a lot more exploration of Blair and Brown’s housing legacy, and really read the new housing report being used by Labour to develop new policy.  But on Lambeth’s own website, you can see that after the Leigham Court tenants voted to remain council owned rather than be transferred to social landlords, the council pledged to find funds for the renovation and upkeep of the estate. That was 2007, so what happened?

Now with Leigham Court on the chopping block, they have stopped maintaining the grounds as they should — a tried and true tactic of running down an estate and then using its poor condition to serve as an excuse for getting rid of it. So we did this:

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I love the above picture showing how beautiful the garden once was, and should be — and kicking myself for not getting a good picture from this view. It is a little different now, and shameful that our elders should live in housing that is not cared for. The work we did on Saturday was not to take the place of gardeners and caretakers paid wages by the council — as they keep pushing for with their cooperative council ideas that replace jobs with volunteer work when our borough desperately needs good jobs.  It was to do basic maintenance for the interim well-being of Leigham Court’s residents, and show what needs to be done. Cold and wet work, but we went to it with a will. The biggest need was simply rubbish collection:

IMG_9814 IMG_9816 IMG_9817But we raked leaves and planted some bulbs as well:

IMG_9839 IMG_9833There were at least fifteen of us over the course of the morning along with local resident Valentine Walker, who can perfectly break down for you the council’s future plans, their reasoning, and the deadly conflict between community need and profit.

You can get a sense of how lovely an interior communal space exists here from this shot, taken from the main entrance through the doors to the gardeners collecting for the group photo, and into the covered patio running through the gardens:

IMG_9808There may be more gardening to come in Spring, hopefully not, hopefully the council will work to save Leigham Court rather than sell it off, or redevelop it with market rate housing. Walking there from Brixton Hill you get a feeling of just why this property is so valuable, especially given the view over South London from the other side of the road. Beautiful, even on a damp, grey, miserable day:

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I’ll be writing more about Leigham Court as I’m fascinated by this period of the mass building of social housing, this incredible commitment to creating a more just and integrated society, this utopian strain within architecture, building around people’s needs. This is, in fact, one of the key estates within this movement, with a fight on to get it listed by Docomomo.

Apart from the Guardian article, the architect has also recently spoken on Resonance FM about the work to save the estate, and Leigham Court features in a documentary called Utopia London (directed by Tom Cordell), which I bought immediately and is sitting on my shelf as yet unwatched — even though a majority of the estates it looks at seem to be in Lambeth. So after getting to that I will be returning to this estate in more architectural and utopian detail.

More articles on Leigham Court can be found on the websites for Save Leigham Court and the Lambeth Housing Activists.

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