I know little about my dad’s family but a lot about my mum’s. The photograph is of St. Martins-in-the-Field, a very famous edifice on one corner of Trafalgar Square (the National Gallery is just to the left, out of camera shot). My mother’s parents were married there and my mum and her brother were both christened there. One set of great-grandparents were married there too. Mum was born a couple of hundred of yards away, in a house close to Charing Cross Station that still exists, just below The Strand. For readers who don’t know London this is the very heart of the city, not far from Buckingham Palace and Big Ben.
This was my maternal grandmother’s stomping ground. My great-grandmother had lived in the area, was widowed and became a housekeeper there. I think my mum was born there so my great-grandmother could assist with the birth. I naturally feel a great attachment to the area and I drop into the church when I go to London. The crypt is well-known and used for charitable work.
My maternal grandmother’s family were churchgoers and my mum and uncle went to Sunday school as kids (in Bermondsey). That was about the extent of the religious observance in our family. By the end of the 19th century the national church, the Anglican Church or Church of England, was in steep decline. There were many reasons for it, many of them of the church’s own making. It had become a church of ritual, very much like the Catholic Church, and for centuries many priests had chosen the cloth as a profession, not a vocation.
I had no contact with religion as a small child. Visits to church were only for christenings, weddings and funerals. The one Christian influence I had was the family doctor, Dr. Oxford. She ran a medical mission in our neighborhood whose interior I can still see and smell to this day. Missions sprung up in most poor districts in the 19th century but were dying out when I grew up. The Welfare State was providing a safety net and organizations like the Salvation Army seemed very outdated. My dad did tell me once that the Salvation Army were a great blessing to his family, who had a very rough time during the Depression and the War.
Dr. Oxford was the most English of women. Her diction and manner were straight out of an Agatha Christie movie, she was all tweed jackets and skirts and thick stockings. But as a doctor, she took a sincere personal interest in her patients’ welfare.