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Whilst looking through some archival material about Charlton I came across this strange account of the Husbands’ Hostel in Picture Post December 1940. It did strike me as bizarre, a home for men left alone when their wives and children had been evacuated. It was opened by two sisters Mrs Davie and Nurse Conway who thought of the idea whilst sheltering from an air raid. Men and boys who were in reserve occupations needed practical support. They came up with the idea of providing board and lodgings for them. John West, a docker, was there with his 13 year old son who was a tea boy on the docks. Cyril Chambers a munitions worker at the Royal Arsenal moved into the home when his wife and baby were evacuated to Northampton.
The home catered for 24 men and was in a Large Georgian House 233 Charlton Lane. Close to Woolwich it was ideal for munitions workers and dockers who would walk through the foot tunnel. The house is no longer there.
John Davis, a rigger of heavy tackle on the docks described his journey into the home:
“When my missus went, her father cooked for me. The poor old boy did his best, but it wasn’t like the wife. Now I’ve had him looked after and I came on here.”
The service included a comfortable bed, hot breakfast, packed lunch plus bread, cheese and cocoa for supper. The cost was 24/6d (twelve pence) per week. It made me think how difficult it would be for lone men working in the docks or the Royal Arsenal. First, they worked very long hours and shift work. There were no take-aways, fridges or microwaves so cooking a meal after a long back breaking shift would be a dismal prospect. Standard shopping hours (9 until 5) would also present a challenge as would the long queues created by rationing. So perhaps not as bizarre as I first thought.
The Hostel was supported by the Red Cross and Greenwich Council. Mrs Davie who was much appreciated by the men for her fine needlework skills particularly darning socks had this to say:
“What I can’t understand is why there aren’t more places like this”
This remained the only one in the country and clearly appreciated by the men who lived there.
I have a fascination for St Barnabas Church because it has been moved and rebuilt then bombed and rebuilt. It’s such a powerful symbol of resilience. With the decline of the Woolwich Royal Dockyard its Chapel fell into disuse from 1923. The Royal Arsenal workers who lived on the new Garden City Estate (later re-named the Progress Estate) had erected a wooden hut (1917) in Arbroath Road to use for church services. In 1932 it was decided to take the Dockyard Church building down and to re-erect it in a reduced form as the local church for the Progress Estate. It was reconsecrated as the Church of St Barnabas. During a bombing raid, March 1944, it was seriously damaged and only the walls were left standing. The church was repaired and re-dedicated in June 1957.
Now whilst I’m a fan I’ve been frustrated that the church has been closed when I visited. Well all that changed recently;there was a sandwich board outside the church inviting passers by in. I was greeted by Rev Steve Cook who on finding out about my interest in the church told me more.
The Church was designed by George Gilbert Scot who commissioned Skidmore of Coventry to do the ironwork. The cast iron columns were highly decorative with foliage patterns and topped with gilt edged capitals. Columns with this spiral shaft were known as Solomonic as legend has it that columns like these ornamented the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The St Barnabas columns were damaged in the bombing raid and have since been concealed all that is exposed is the capitals. The angels were a much later addition.
The apse of the church was painted by Hans Fiebusch who fled Jewish Persecution in Nazi Germany 1933 and settled in England. He became a member of the London Group in 1934 and regularly exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy. In 1944 he was commissioned to do a mural for the New Methodist Hall in Colliers Wood and this led to a long association with the Church of England. After the war he was commissioned by the Diocese of Southwark to undertake work in churches that had been damaged. The painting in St Barnabas has a central figure of God which is illuminated in an eerie light which reinforces the apocalyptic aspect of the scene. My visit reinforced my view that St Barnabas is a real Victorian Gothic gem in this part of London.
I thought I knew Faversham quite well so was really surprised when I stumbled across The Abbey Physic Community Garden; and what a delight it was. There is a walled pathway that runs from the Parish Church of St Mary of Charity along the side of Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School which I have walked several times before.
I had noticed a door in the wall but this time it was open with a sign welcoming visitors into the Abbey Community Gardens. Set in the heart of Faversham it is a large walled garden teeming with people, wildlife, beds of herbs, vegetables and flowers.
King Stephen and his queen Maud founded the abbey of St Saviour, Faversham in C12th and it remained open until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in C16th. Physic Gardens were a useful asset to a monastery infirmary and the monks would grow plants for their medicinal properties. Today, the charity that manage the site emphasise the therapeutic nature of the gardens. It is a Land Learning Centre with the Permaculture Association. Bill Mollison who first used the term permaculture describes it:
“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system”.
Looking around the garden you can sense this underlying philosophy. Its mission is to relieve the needs of disadvantaged groups by informal learning, meeting new friends or just enjoying the garden.
The space of the garden is contained within ancient walls but with Tudor rooftops peaking above increasing the sense of a calmer period. This piece of sacred land has endured and is still providing healing to people who enter its walls.