A Tale of two Churches
Sunday Mornings in the London suburbs during the 1930s
In 1928, our family moved to 13 Coniston Gardens, located in the new housing estates off Woodford Avenue, which was part of London’s North Circular arterial highway. Here the neighbourhood children could enjoy a pleasant sub-suburban recreational environment. This because though on the fringes of one of the largest cities on earth, we were also on the fringes of green and semi-wild spaces.
This part of north Ilford bordered on Woodford and Wanstead, then Conservative boroughs once noted for being the parliamentary constituency of Winston Churchill. This was the newer part of Ilford, built up after the the First World War, and was mainly a suburban dormitory area for people who travelled up to the City of London to their work and businesses each day. Living here and being three miles from SS Peter & Paul’s School meant that I also had a daily commute and took a penny ride, at first on the double-deckers belonging to the old Pirate and General private bus companies and later on those of the London Passenger Transport Board. Our school was in the older part of the borough, midway along Ilford High Road, between Ilford Broadway and Seven Kings.
Of course there were several newer, more local schools, which most of my friends attended, but my mother was a Catholic and so I and some of my siblings were destined for mandatory indoctrination into the mysticism of Rome.
However, because my father was an indeterminate non-practising Protestant, we thankfully had a fairly relaxed religious home life, apart from the bother of having to trudge churchward each Sunday.
But even this was lightened by my usually going with my older brother, to the very late mass at the new modernistic church in Wanstead, where the large number of fine motor cars shiny and sparkling in the parking lot bespoke the affluence of so many of the faithful.
Inside the Wanstead church, from high up in his fashionable and contemporary light-oak pulpit, pink, clean-shaven, pragmatic, somewhat portly Father Booker, looking as though he was the Governor of the Bank of England during the week and just dressed up in surplice and cassock on Sundays, would hold forth discreetly on a little highbrow theology and then allow his cultured choir to sing several of the more sophisticated hymns in their repertoire. With those regulation formalities of the mass accorded their due time slot, he would follow up with plenty of businesslike discourse on how improved the church, and the manse, would look with yet another designer-aisle or other appropriate addition and enlargement. Then he would stress how God and he, as usual absolutely unanimous in these matters, expected all their well-heeled parishioners to be prompt and generous in contributing to its financing. And so it was. And so it became. And not much later, as was to be expected with all that immaculate new stonework and all those expensive and glistening Humbers, Jaguars and Wolseleys outside, Father Booker became Canon Booker.
Going to mass at Wanstead, instead of to the big, gloomy, musty church attached to our school in Ilford, ensured that none of my school teachers was likely to be among the congregation and, therefore, there was little chance of my receiving lectured disapproval for not attending one of the early morning services. Also, at Wanstead, my similarly easy living brother and I could invariably arrive quite late and leave quite early thus cutting down on the tedium of the lengthy service. Canon Booker didn’t seem to mind our sudden disappearances after the general blessing. He probably suspected that our contribution to the church building fund, if any, would hardly compensate for our somewhat off-putting presence in the parking lot gawking at the limousines as they floated off smoothly and importantly from the hallowed grounds.
Walking to and from Wanstead church meant a mile or more of wending our way through the housing estates’ well-kept, modern homes, then down a leafy lane to a footbridge over the River Roding.
Then we followed a path running beside the river, which was full of sticklebacks and other small fish and frogs for my interest, while on the other side of the path, for my older brother’s interest, it passed a large group of tennis courts full of bouncing, leggy, young ladies in very short, frilly tennis skirts. Then we passed up into part of the old Wanstead village.
Along the way was a strange, very small shop owned by a wizened little old lady left over from mid-Victorian times, or even earlier. Through a small display window of thick bubbled glass containing a most weird collection of curious items, the interior of the dark shop hinted at secreting even more eerie oddments inside. Among those bizarre novelties I remember most clearly several bowls filled with glass eyes of varying sizes and colours. Probably wounded veterans of the Crimean war, or maybe even older pensioned-off sea pirates, contemplating discarding the black eye-patch covering an empty socket, had once riffled and fingered through those ancient bowls looking for a comfortable colour match for their one remaining organ of sight.
But dimly, upon repeatedly clicking on my brain’s Search and Find option, I can conjure up half-hidden memories of other oddments in that little shop. Malevolent and ugly Punch-and-Judy puppets, intricate handmade and hand-painted toys made of wood and tin, a horse-coachman’s whip and post-horn, roughly carved false hands and hooks, and children’s tops that when spun at a certain speed spelled out a special word of endearment or curse. And surely it was there that I saw a dressmaker’s busty and panty-waisted dummy figure. It was an old and rare dummy, complete with a dummy head and face. And incongruously, in that place of all places—a dummy with one eye missing!
The several times my older brother took me inside that musty place (Sunday shopping in the thirties), the old lady with her ancient, spiralled tin hearing-trumpet and her close-up intense scrutiny of my face, plus the odour of darkness and antiquity, all combined to unnerve me. So much so that I was quite happy for once to get to Canon Booker’s no-nonsense, matter-of-fact, easy on the incense, bright and airy, modern-day house of worship to which he graciously bestowed residential privileges to his well-behaved and sophisticated God.
To me, this was all in pleasant contrast to SS Peter & Paul’s sombre church where God measured about four acres in extent and hovered like a dense storm cloud just ten feet above the massive, cavernous, roof. Actually, this murky cloud was pierced, a little way to the westward, and for older worshippers only, by one bright hundred-foot-square hole. This hole in the thick cloud allowed some rays of sunshine to fall in on a hall where the gallant Knights of Columbus had a cosy private pub.
There, after the ten o’clock mass they had just attended, those churchgoers so inclined could have a beer or whisky even before the half-past-eleven mass had commenced. Not too many dismal Presbyterian faces in there.
In this large church, old Canon Palmer, all craggy features, thick spiky eyebrows covering lurking piercing eyes, was the undisputed pious and revered leader. Old enough to be the slightly younger brother of the ancient Victorian lady in the shop at Wanstead, Canon Palmer had already been sainted by most of his vast congregation. His church was packed to overflowing and standing-room-only five times every Sunday morning and twice in the evening, as well as several times during the week. His choir alone appeared to equal the total attendance of one of Wanstead Canon Booker’s early low mass congregations. They were certainly much noisier.
Of course this observation is hearsay on my part. I never went to early low mass at Wanstead. Always late High Mass. When I performed my obligatory once-a-year early morning communion, I wanted to gain full credit for it in the eyes of my teachers. So suitably pious, I went to SS. Peter & Paul’s that one Sunday in the year I was forced to fulfil my mandatory Catholic obligation.
It proved to be just about the end of my future church going.