Gilbert Shaw and The Sidney

Father Gilbert Shaw came to Poplar in July 1932 to work among the unemployed, he came because of his conviction that he was called to commit himself to work among the unemployed in East London. His aim was to discover what the Church might do in a poor area beset by unemployment in a time of increasing economic and political crisis, a time when the Church was being increasingly disregarded by the people of East London. He was not a theorist seeking to make a sociological study, his desire was to become personally involved.

Gilbert had sought the help of the then Bishop of London who twenty years before had officiated at his marriage. Educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, Gilbert was a barrister, married and the father of three children. As a schoolboy he had had the opportunity of spending some time in East London at the Eton College Mission House in Hackney. and he was greatly shocked by what he had seen. After leaving school he had had spent the summer of 1905 in Hackney working for a charity organisation concerned with testing for T.B. those who wished to emigrate to Canada. He was horrified to discover that the disease was rife in the area and that children were dying for the want of basic medical care. Gilbert was injured during army service in the Great War, was seriously ill for many months as a result, and was invalided discharged as unfit for further service.

When in the summer of 1932, Gilbert who had been ordained in 1925 approached the Bishop of London, he asked for nothing more than the Bishop’s blessing upon his desire to be a Christian presence among the unemployed of the East End. Despite the ill defined nature of what he wished to do, the Bishop gave Gilbert his blessing. Bishop Arthur Winnington Ingram had himself worked in East London in Bethnal Green, as Head of Oxford House and then as Rector of Bethnal Green.

Gilbert was licensed in a vague and unspecific way to the Parish of All Saints, Poplar. The incumbent was far from welcoming and made it clear that he did not regard him as a member of his parochial staff. Father Moline the Rector no doubt considered Gilbert to be unorthodox and in no way had he chosen him as a colleague. The relationship between the two men was an unhappy one from the start. Some other local parish priests were equally unwelcoming, a notable exception was Father St.John Grocer the outstanding and radical Vicar of Christ Church, Watney Street. There is no doubt that Gilbert was treated by many of his fellow Anglican Clergy with very real suspicion.

He began his work from a single basement room in a house in Woodstock Terrace owned by Father Essex a retired priest It did not take him long to get to work or to discover what form his work should take. His single room was soon filled with boots, shoes and clothes, and men in need of them. Providing for such needs was, he realised, essential for men who often tramped miles each day in search for work and he appealed far and wide for boots and shoes. The basement room became multi-purpose, serving as a canteen in which simple food and drink could be served to those in need. At night it often served as a dormitory with several men sharing the floor space with their host. This basement room imposed great limitations on the work that Gilbert could do and he began to search for alternative accommodation. He was fortunate in finding some disused school rooms which, with the help of parties of unemployed men he began to clean and paint. An appeal in the Church Times raised £100 and in January 1933 he opened the rooms as the Poplar Deanery Unemployed Centre. The choice of name was due to Gilbert’s desire and determination, that the work should be seen not as a purely personal enterprise but as an expression of concern by the whole Church.

In a very short time the centre had a membership of more than two hundred. It had a canteen where cheap and nourishing food was available ( three courses for fourpence halfpenny). Boot-repairing, carpentry, reading and physical recreation facilities were provided. The members were encouraged to become involved in the daily running of the centre.

The running of the centre was not without problems. Facilities for the unemployed in Poplar were virtually non existent until Gilbert began his work. Groups of idle men standing around on street corners were easy prey for the recruitment agents of extreme political groups. Some of these groups were potential trouble makers, R. D. Hacking in his biography notes that “from time to time rival gangs managed to secure an entrance and more than once the police had to be brought in to restore order, though it was soon discovered that one of the most effective deterrents to trouble was the sight of the hefty Gilbert in his cassock standing in the doorway.”

Although no longer a practising barrister, Gilbert’s legal training came in useful when he represented families before The Public Assistance Committee. This work in particular made him realise the limitations of first-aid work and reinforced his belief that deep rooted social change was needed. From the very beginning of this work, Gilbert was determined that the Centre should not be used for proselytism or the holding of services. The Centre was to be an expression of a practical love and concern which asked for no commitment to the Church or a political party.

The work continued to expand, his basement room in the house of Father Essex was inadequate as a location for interviews and the Centre was overflowing with people. Someone suggested that he might be interested in The Sidney a disused pub at 6 Woolmore Street. Gilbert immediately realised its potential for his work, but the cost was beyond his available resources. He set to work writing to contacts from his previous work seeking their help. Within a short time the necessary funds were provided and in February 1935, The Sidney was re-opened! The facilities it provided being somewhat different to those offered in its previous working life. The day to day running of the new Centre was in the hands of Bill, an ex-police sergeant who was also a Borough Councillor.

The legal work of The Sidney was an expansion of what had been carried on from the old premises and several local campaigns about housing and education were run from there. In Gilberts view three of the four local schools provided little more than “child minding facilities”. He did everything he could to draw public attention to the appalling state of affairs that he was uncovering. A weekly ‘Poor Mans Lawyer” session was provided.

Gilbert was a life member of The Athenaeum, the West End Club. Its members included many who were influential in Church and State and many such were invited to visit The Sidney. At this time it was estimated that twenty percent of the population of the Borough of Poplar were living below the official basic poverty level of bare subsistence.

The local housing stock was in an appalling condition and serious overcrowding was common place. To help those suffering from the activities of unscrupulous landlords Gilbert and Father Grocer set up a Tenants Defence Association. In Poplar the association recovered over £2000 from bad landlords. Such success of course increased the demand for its services. Gilbert played a leading part in the Hanbury Street rent strike of 1939. Gilbert together with a young social worker Jack Barker led a two month long struggle and secured an outstanding victory in the County Court. Barker wrote, “To Hanbury Mansions came the Reverend Fr.Shaw to take charge of the strike. To him was owed the successful outcome. His eloquence in the witness box on behalf of the defaulting tenants undoubtedly swayed County Court Judge Thompson, who granted a stay of all rent due and for the following eighteen months”. Barker elsewhere commented that “the high church Anglicans and the Communists were the only active people in the East End”.

Gilbert would have been among the first to acknowledge how little he and his associates achieved in the limited field of their endeavours; however in Poplar they were a major influence for good and some hundreds of unemployed men and their families had good cause to be grateful for the work based on The Sidney.

His critics accused Gilbert of being over concerned with social and political questions. However mission work was not neglected. He was quite clear that the work of ‘The Sidney ’and its predecessor was only a first step towards the important work of evangelism….. “the work of compassion is an evidence of true religion.” He did not allow the unemployment centre to be used for evangelism, but he did himself engage in direct mission work and open air preaching. In 1937 Gilbert wrote to Father Ashcroft the Rural Dean of Poplar and Vicar of St.Michael and All Angels, suggesting the formation of an Evangelistic Committee.

In 1938 the Bishop asked him to take charge of the church of St.Nicholas Blackwall stairs in Yabsley Street, five minutes walk from The Sidney. This lofty redbrick building built in 1902 was a Mission Church of All Saints. In view of the tension that continued between himself and the Parish Church he was glad to accept this appointment, but he never lived in the Church House in Prestons Road. Built in 1900 to provide for a population that was expanding as a result of the Blackwall Tunnel scheme, it was described in the 1920s as a struggling mission church with but a few keen communicants. In 1964 an elderly communicant who had lived in Blackwall Way all her life, averred that when she was a girl, “anybody who was anybody went to All Saints, if you weren't anybody you went to St. Nicholas”.

The coming of the war brought Gilbert’s ministry in Poplar to a close. St. Nicholas church was badly damaged in September 1940, and was never to be restored, the evacuation of children and some mothers had taken place and the unemployment that had brought him to the East End had virtually disappeared. There was he felt, nothing to keep him in Poplar and he left at the beginning of October 1940. His departure was in part due to the advice of his doctor.

In 1984 the G.L.C. mounted an exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall featuring various ‘makers of modern history’ in London, a stand being devoted to the part played by Gilbert in the rent strike of 1939.

I find it strange and sad that Gilbert Shaw’s pioneer work undertaken at great personal cost is rarely mentioned in post war studies of East London.

Arthur Royall. May 2000.

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