The passing of a pioneer

We have just buried Poppett (Mrs Lawrence to you).

Poppett was, if I can put it like that, our ‘Windrush person’. Neither Mrs Lawrence nor John her husband actually came on the Windrush. But Poppett was the first black person regularly to attend St Stephen’s, which is now a largely black church. So she was, and remains, an important part of our history.

When she arrived, St Stephen’s was already well into decline. The glory days of packed, non-communicating High Masses and regular visits from the Kensites were over. It was a small, staid, elderly congregation which did not take to change which Poppett joined. Always a Wood-in-the-Phryg, Darke-in-F sort of Anglican, she quite liked that. What she did not like was the coldness of the reception which a young black nurse received from those well-starched whiteys.

But Poppett was determined not to be cold-shouldered. (‘It was my church, Father,’ she told me on one occasion. ‘I was going to let them know that it was as much mine as theirs.’) So through one long, cold, wet winter after another, Poppett stuck it out – faithful every Sunday, and seldom missing the 7 o’clock on Thursday mornings as she came off night duty.

The first break-through was the wedding. John arrived from Jamaica and the courtship which had begun in the shores of the Caribbean ended up as love in a cold climate. They married in full West Indies style, with bridesmaids in bright dresses and groomsmen in white gloves. What the starched ladies of the Flower Guild made of it all is not recorded. And in any case they are long dead.

Poppett was beginning to tie herself to her parish church with bonds of affection and family reminiscence which would last all her life. Conroy and Andrew were baptized at St Stephen’s, and when Andrew, at first a sickly child, was in need of life-threatening heart surgery the starched white congregation turned out in as much force as they could muster for all-night vigils of prayer until the danger was passed. It was a breakthrough – cultural barriers swept away out of concern for a little child fighting for his life.

As more and more black people (West Indians at first, West Africans more recently) came to St Stephen’s and the congregation grew, Poppett’s role as counsellor to the community, provider of good advice and hot dinners to the clergy, and sidesperson extraordinaire, seemed to develop naturally and inevitably. When the time came, she was an obvious churchwarden (to her equally obvious pride and satisfaction): attentive to detail and ever the pastor and friend.

Her house in Algernon Road was marvellously full of crocheted and starched doilies in electric colours, mementoes of trips to the Caribbean, good white rum and even better company – the chatter of conversation from the front sitting room and the clack of dominoes from the back.

She was, like so many of the other ‘Windrush persons’, a nurse. That was her pride and joy, and in the end, perhaps her downfall. In the days before a mixture of good sense and political correctness outlawed it, she manhandled people twice her size in and out of bath or bed with uncomplaining gusto. And as Poppett herself grew to be twice her size, that took its toll on her physically. Why the hernia was not treated earlier is a mystery best not examined too forensically here. But when the operation came, it was clearly going to be life-threatening.

I was privileged to be with her when she recovered consciousness and praised God through the oxygen mask. But the courage he gave her in the face of overwhelming pain could not also, of itself, fight the cancer which was simultaneously discovered. She died six weeks after the surgery, during which period she ministered to many visitors. To those who came to her (afraid, as the young are nowadays, equally of sickness and of death) she poured out quiet wisdom and a serenity which belied the agonies she suffered.

Over six hundred people attended a funeral Mass concelebrated by four priests. The choir gave us Darke-in-F (what else?) – on this occasion I fear, somewhat in the style of Guiseppe Verdi. There was Baristow (Nunc Dimittis), Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, and the Russian Contakion.

As the coffin left what was now indisputably her church, I think I was not alone in feeling that this was in its small way a piece of history.

‘It will be like the Queen Mother’s funeral,’ I had said when I rang the police station to warn them that they would need additional officers for traffic duty on the High Street. No one was sent – or at least, no one came. And there was chaos. She would have loved it!

 

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, in the Diocese of Southwark.

 

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