[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.
She 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:
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 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…