Thursday 24 January 2008

The Red Church, Bethnal Green, London

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Although the church still looks the same, naturally the surroundings have changed over the years. Horsedrawn carriages have been replaced by the No. 8 London bus and the small businesses, although still there, have been altered and changed hands and you are today more likely to find an Indian restaurant or clothing shops selling the latest fashion in saris than a printers. Also the street gas lighting is full modern electricity and the people dress differently. The stallholders are still there and Bethnal Green market still exists, selling fruit and vegetables.

Why the red church? Well if you just walk down the street next to the church and make a turn to the left you come to a small park, which once contained about 70 houses, each with their own small garden and each attached to the next, which was where I grew up. Quite a modern thing actually, as there was no through traffic so we kids had a choice of playing on the debris from the bombed out houses left after the war (sort of adventure playground) or playing down the street. According if mum had a eye on what you were doing, you played in the street. If she was indoors with the door shut, then a risky visit to the bombed out houses was quite fun.

Back to the Red Church. It is called red church, because it was built of red bricks some time in the 19th century, its official name being St. James the Great. When I was a kid, my parents found a bit of religion did no harm so I was sent to Sunday school at this church with some street colleagues. They even had a group of nuns attached to the church and they were our Sunday school teachers. One would play piano and we all sang our hymns. It is so-called Church of England, but actually in England known as "high-church" sort of catholic without the Roman bit, although for my mum and dad church was just church (as long as the name of England stood there). I remember the services had a bit of incense thrown in and around Easter we did a big thing every evening for a week in the church with the nuns. They showed us around and each evening was a picture of the Easter story and they explained everything. Today I havn't got a clue what the explanations were, but it kept us youngsters off the streets and it was our sort of "youth club". We had a card, and each time we went the nuns would stamp the card with a star.

It was in this Red Church that my mum was christened, as well as her brother and two sisters, and also got married there when my dad came home from the war. It is a natural conclusion that I was also christened in the church. When I first arrived in Switzerland I would go back for a couple of weeks each year to see my parents who still lived in our house in Bethnal Green. The church was the first homecoming building I saw as I walked down the road from Bethnal Green Tube Station where I arrived from London Airport. There was no train connection from London Heathrow at that time, and I had to take the airport bus to Victoria where I could get on the train.

After many years my parents moved out to Dagenham, my mother died and my visits were fewer to London as I had a growing family to look after. When my family at last were standing on their own feet (although I am still not sure today if they are), I visited London a bit more and now and again made a visit to the East End, Bethnal Green. Imagine my surprise when I saw the Red Church again after many years. In the meanwhile the church was no longer a church. I found this little bit of information on Rootsweb

"St James The Great was known locally as the "Red Church" because it
was built with red bricks. In 1997, the building is still standing in
Bethnal Green Road, but has now been converted into Flats.
It's once famous Reverend E.F.Coke married couples without fees.
'Penny Weddings' were common in the East End of London during the
19th and early 20th century. He married approx 1500 couples per year,
for a total of 23,500 in his lifetime. This in a parish that only had
about 5000 people, paying lip service to the residential requirement
for calling the Banns. People came from miles away to get married

By the way the explaination about the penny weddings in the text was a true historical fact. People couldn't really afford a wedding in the earlier days so a kind priest made it financially easier for the population. So the church had its religion taken away and had been transformed into flats. Instead of stained glass windows there were curtains on the windows. It looks quite strange. Perhaps in a way a landmark has been preserved. The nuns went a long time ago. There was even a new extension built onto the church for youngsters - table tennis and meeting room. This new extension only survived a few years. I remember seeing the windows broken after a few years so this idea was also given up.

My mother was quite a church goer in earlier years, but she told me there was nothing else. You had your social life at the church as a youngster. All her friends in the neighbourhood would meet there before the war. The church survived the second world war, but I think it was no longer the centre that it was before the war. Here is a photo of the church today

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