I’m slowly getting to know Poplar. I love the fact that Tower Hamlets captures in its name the way it is a burrough of small villages, but even so it surprises you just how different each one feels. This despite the fact that they now run together, with no separation in the urban fabric, unless you perhaps count the enormous roads that break up the east end cruelly with snarling lines of traffic. Planners always put roads, interchanges, major arteries right down through the poorer neighbourhoods and here you can only imagine what used to be when you come across the small pockets of emptiness dead-ending into these thoroughfares.
But back to Poplar…exiting the DLR you can see The City in the distance, the original centre of banking might:
But its new cluster at Canary Wharf looms high above you to your left
Part of me responds to this landscape — my love of trains and altitude and contrasts between new buildings and old are all at work here. But it is only this little section that I find appealing, the rest is an uninspired towering of metal and glass with no distinction. I was once, after a long day spent on coaches and trains that were all severely delayed, trapped in Canary Wharf in the rain. If you don’t know it, it is almost impossible to escape on foot, and one of the most alienating landscapes I could imagine. But I will look at that later.
I failed to take a picture of the community centre and football fields — only later in the day did I learn how hard the community had to fight to get them and keep them. There is a long passage bringing you to Poplar High Street, full of the young students from Tower Hamlets College. I really like this high street:
But the church — St Matthias Old Church, was an even more wonderful surprise. You can see its spire from all of Poplar, walking down the high street you come to a turn off that carries you to the church itself, removes you from the city
It is beautiful here, you enter this green space and automatically take a great breath, relax your shoulders, smile:
Looking up the church itself I found its lovely website with a long and detailed history, just an excerpt:
St Matthias, Poplar is one of London’s most surprising buildings. Externally it is Victorian, but inside its stone-clad walls is a rare example of a mid-seventeeth century classical church which has survived in surprisingly unaltered form. It is the oldest building in Docklands.
Originally known as Poplar Chapel, it had two purposes: it served as a chapel for the inhabitants of the hamlets of Poplar and Blackwall, who had previously been obliged to travel several miles to the overcrowded parish church of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, and desired a more local place of worship; secondly, it served as the chapel for the East India Company, which had an almshouse and a dockyard hard by. It is their coat of arms that is carved upon the ceiling boss inside the church, and their history that is central to the story of the Poplar Chapel.
I love old churchyards, and it is nice that this one retains its gravestones where they lie. I found the one above curious, because it is all women, a grandmother and two little girls and no clear relationship between the first two and the last. There is a story here, of women’s lives in the mid 1800s, but no other hints.
More of the church, I may hate the East India Company, but I love what they have built:
Turning away from the church, however, you understand the psychological impact of Canary Wharf as it stares down at Poplar, inescapable in its looming over a landscape both more human and more natural.
I was more than happy to find that this was actually my destination, the church now known as St Matthias Community Centre, to talk to Sister Christine Frost who is even more of a treasure to Poplar than this place. She is part of South Poplar and Limehouse Action for Secure Housing (SPLASH) and knows everything there is to know, I think, about Poplar and the challenges it is facing.
Leaving St Matthias after a lovely discussion of struggle and future possibilities I went for a bit of a wander — after reading Ann Stafford’s book on the dock strike I wanted to find Shirbutt Street where Will Crooks was born. It was just around the corner, the new estate bearing his name sitting right on Poplar High Street:
Community garden plots fill much of the space around the estate’s edges, I cannot tell you how happy they made me…
On Will Crooks, a pivotal figure in the docker’s strike of 1889, and his talks at the gates of the East India Company:
He did not only talk about their grievances–a subject of which they never tired–he started them thinking about all the good things that they wanted, public libraries, technical institutes, even a tunnel under the Thames…Crooks’ College, Poplar people called these meetings, and Crooks’ College went on Sunday after Sunday, year after year, almost without interruption, even when Will was elected to the London County Council, served on the Board of Guardians, became Mayor of Poplar, and in 1903 was returned to Parliament as Labour M.P. for Woolwich (47-48).
Hale street remembers another key radical figure from Poplar, George Lansbury:
More about him in later posts, but I love this mural.
And a little further down you get a full sense of St Matthias and the open space here — and did I mention the public bowling green on the corner? I don’t think I did, but it made me happy too.
It’s a good comparison to this, the oldest drawing of the church
I continued down to East India Dock Road
To find the Queen Victoria’s Seamen’s Rest, another place I had heard a great deal about:
QVSR started life as the Seamen’s Mission of the Methodist Church in 1843. Known originally as the Wesleyan Seamen’s Mission, the aim was to minister to the spiritual needs and promote the social and morale welfare of seafarers and their families in the vicinity of the Port of London.
Over time a need arose for a meeting place of some kind in the new sailor town that had sprung up at Poplar. Right opposite the ‘seamen’s entrance’ of the local Board of Trade Office on the East India Dock Road in Jeremiah Street stood a small public house called The Magnet. In 1887, the license of The Magnet was withdrawn, providing the Mission an opportunity to rent the public house and it was transformed into a Seamen’s Rest.
What it once looked like:
And what it looks like now, expanded far beyond it’s humble beginnings though I am so glad they’ve kept the original lovely facade:
Continuing West you come to the Manor Arms:
I am almost certain that this was mentioned as one of the pubs where striking dockers were able to get breakfast, the Irish woman who owned it supporting the strike.
I turned left here, with only time for a quick circle. Again you feel Canary Wharf looking over you, on the right is a Catholic school dwarfed by corporate wealth (they have managed to make even the Catholic church look small).