The Refugee Tales reunion recently took place in Wapping and Christina found from her research that very close to the Hurtado Centre is St Peter’s Mission Church.
The docks were regarded as mission territory in the Victorian times. They started with a small tin tabernacle and then built the church. They wrote reports to their wealthy patrons, who funded the mission.
This is a description from the report of 1877:
‘My friends, you cannot imagine, it is impossible adequately to picture for you, this ruin-haunted poverty-stricken slum of our great city. It is not so much the tumble-town hovels, the broken windows stuffed with rags, the filth and stench of the narrow courts and alleys, the half naked little children fighting and quarrelling in the streets, their famine-pinched wizen-faces so prematurely old, the horrid sores of their poor little bodies, their eyes corrupted with opthalmia – it is not that you have to tread on offal and stinking fish, or what is worse, have your ears defiled with obscene language and your eye-sight shocked – it is not all this the material part of ruin, but what impresses you as the cursed characteristic of the place, and weighs down your heart with a bitter memory, is the lifeless, hopeless despondency of the degraded people.’
They ran night classes for the boys (quite difficult as their pals were often calling from outside encouraging them to leave their studies and come out to play), a drum and fife band and mothers groups. They had to be resilient as they were called to break up disputes, sometimes having to put themselves between the warring parties and often intervened in street rows. They mention the terrible workhouse and going to visit the sick and dying. Here is one description is of an outing to the countryside:
‘One word must be said about our Annual Excursions to the country. A most important factor in the result of humanising my dear lads. I found that they had a craving to see the country. Some of the lads had never been in the country. I remember our first expedition was to Beckenham; and as soon as we got out of the railway station, they caracolled up and down the road, to the horror of the proper grooms and coachmen, who happened to be waiting. A bunch of withered last year’s evergreens lying in the road seemed to them a treasure all too beautiful.; they divided the leaves fairly, and decorated themselves with joy. But when we came into the veritable country lanes, they could not contain themselves – each lad tore up a small tree (pace Fossey); festoons and garlands were made; by a lucky chance, one lad discovered in his pocket a lump of red ochre; they at once painted their faces, and gave themselves up to the delightful abandonment of savage life – a la Robinson Crusoe.’