Friday, 31 July 2015

Starting Over

Starting Over

London 1892
The long train journey had left Andrew exhausted but he had no time for self-pity if he was to make to his new place of work before dark. ‘Evening Guvnor’ smiled the porter, his broad London accent so different from harsh Glaswegian brogue Andrew was used to hearing. ‘You look a might lost?’ Andrew smiled, ‘I need to get to Spitalfields, what’s the fastest way from here?’ The man’s face changed, ‘Now what’s a nice gent like you wantin’ to go down there for? Nuffin but Jews and Irish down there and they’d cut your throat for a shilling.’ Andrew maintained his smile, thinking his Irish accent must have softened during his many years in Scotland. ‘I’ll be starting work there on Monday morning, I’m a teacher.’ The Porter looked at him, ‘Well good luck teaching them heathens down there. I’ll show you where you can hire a cab.’ Andrew followed the man out of the station into the bustling streets of London. The Porter beckoned a horse drawn cab which left its berth on the opposite side of the busy road and halted by the kerb beside Andrew. ‘This nice Scotch chap wants to get to Spittalfields,’ the porter called to the bearded driver who was perched in his seat, whip in hand. ‘See that he gets there in one piece Charlie and watch out for them gutter wolves.’  The Porter loaded Andrew’s two cases into the cab and touched his cap as Andrew slipped a shilling into his hand. ‘Much obliged Guvnor and good luck to you now.’ Andrew slammed the door and sat in the cab before calling to the driver, ‘St Anne’s Church in Buxton Street, please.’ The man nodded, ‘Right you are Guv and might I suggest you close the blind as the beggars down that way are cheeky blighters?’

The horse moved off and the cab swayed and creaked its way through the bustling canyons of that prosperous London the unknowing visitor saw. Andrew’s trained eye could see even here among the wealth the beggars, barefoot children, the drunkards and prostitutes. Glasgow had taken so much out of him in the years he had been there and he wondered if he had the energy at 52 to start over again in a new city but his order had asked him to take over the running of the school in Spitalfields and he would obey. The cab travelled down Whitechapel Road, famous in the more sensational press for the unsolved Ripper killings which had occurred around the time Andrew and his friends were founding their football club in Glasgow. He could see the poverty here was every bit as bad as that he had seen in Glasgow. Groups of street urchins ran about barefoot, lost in their games. ‘Give us a happe’ny Mister,’ a ragged boy of about 6 called to Andrew as the cab passed him. Before he could respond the cab driver shouted at the child, ‘Be off with you or I’ll ave the law on you.’ As the cab turned onto Commercial Street the driver muttered to Andrew, ‘You give a coin to one and they’ll all be on you like flies on a dead dog. Best ignore them, Guvnor.’ Andrew said nothing. The cab turned right onto Buxton Street and stopped outside an imposing, brick built Church. ‘St Anne’s church Guv, that’ll be five Bob.’ Andrew waited as the driver unloaded his cases. The man watched the curious children in the street around him like a hawk. ‘Thieving as soon as they can walk Guv, you mind how you go around ere.’ Andrew paid him and watched as the horse drawn carriage clip clopped away from him. He walked to the door of the church and pushed it open. For good or ill this was to be his home now.

The following morning the Parish Priest, Father Young, led Andrew on a tour of the district which was to be his home for the foreseeable future. The two men were of similar age and Andrew had liked tall Dubliner immediately upon meeting him the night before. He was clearly committed to education and bettering the lot of his impoverished parishioners. ‘We have thousands of our people here, Andrew’ he said as they walked along Brick Lane, ‘Many of the children avoid school and spend their days scavenging or stealing.’ Andrew listened carefully to his more knowledgeable companion. ‘Most of our men try to work when they can but there’s seldom enough to go round. Some choose live off crime and it shames me to say that they will prey on their own community to make money. We have at least 30 brothels in this area and many of them will use our young girls. There is much drunkenness and violence and a sort of despair among many.’ Andrew nodded, ‘I have seen that despair in Ireland and also in Glasgow and it shames a civilised country that people are forced to live that way.’ The Priest nodded, ‘We curse the darkness where crime and vice thrive but we seldom curse those who cause that darkness.’ He led Andrew along Whitechapel Road, pointing out the illegal drinking dens, the decrepit boarding houses which slept 10 to a room and the many shops selling cheap alcohol. ‘The Police are seldom interested in events here unless someone of ‘better class’ has been robbed. The police take money to look the other way when the local toughs settle their disputes with clubs or knives. Even our Jewish neighbours have to pay the toughs to leave their homes and synagogues unmolested’ Andrew spent 2 hours wandering the warren of streets in Spitalfields seeing so much of the same poverty and squalor he had witnessed during his many years Glasgow. Father Young stopped outside St Anne’s Primary school. ‘This is your school Andrew, the Brothers are waiting to hear from you. I’m sure they will have heard of your fine work in Glasgow.’ Andrew shook Father Young by the hand, ‘There is much to be done, Father,’ The grey haired Priest nodded sagely, ‘The harvest is great but the labourers few.’ Andrew nodded and they parted. He looked at St Anne’s Primary School, quiet and still on a Saturday morning. It reminded him of his own little school in the east end of Glasgow. He knew he’d miss Sacred Heart and all the dear children there but that part of his life was now over. He turned and entered St Anne’s for the first time.

Over the next few years Andrew Kerins threw himself into his work in the back streets of London. His organisational skills and persuasive way got things done. He ensured his school set a high standard and got as many children as possible enrolled. He organised football matches to raise funds to feed the children and the elderly just as he had in Glasgow many years before. He made sure the local Catholic community were represented on school boards and began a boys club which kept many away from the temptations and dangers of the streets. The poverty around him was the match of anything he had seen in Glasgow and at times he felt as if he was like King Canute trying to hold back the tide but when he saw some of children gain employment and climb out of poverty because they could read and write well, he knew he and the other Brothers were doing a worthwhile job.

One of his great pleasures was to receive news from his old friends in Glasgow. Tom and Willie Maley wrote occasionally to him and kept him informed of events and goings on in Glasgow, especially how his team was doing. His work in England kept him busy and years of hard work took its toll on him physically. As well as his years in Spitalfields, he was charged with setting up the new Marist College in Kent after the anti-clerical French government had ordered them to disband in France. He had passed his seventieth year but still continued to work.

In 1911 he heard that the much lauded ‘Six in a row’ Celtic team were passing through London after a successful European Tour which took in Dresden, Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Paris. His old friend Willie Maley had built what some said was the finest side in the world and his brother Tom was covering the tour as a sports reporter. It would be perhaps one last opportunity for Brother Walfrid to meet and talk with some of the men he remembered from his Glasgow days. So many of his closest friends had passed away but a few were still with Celtic. Tom Maley recorded the words Brother Walfrid spoke to the few Celtic men left from the founding days of 1887…

“Well, well, time has brought changes.  Outside ourselves there are few left of the old brigade.  I know none of these present players but they are under the old colours and quartered in the dear old quarters and that suffices. It’s good to see you all so well and I feel younger with the meeting.  Goodbye, God bless you.”
Brother Walfrid had given so much of his life to the service of others and it had taken a heavy toll on his health. He had taken ill just a year after meeting his old friends from Celtic and when he was well enough to travel, he returned to the Marist House in Dumfries. He passed away there on in April 1915. Tom Maley wrote of him after his death…

‘Through the organising genius, the wonderful persuasive powers, and the personality of Brother Walfrid the Celtic club was established.  His men carried out his every wish and idea.  They knew and trusted their leader, and in the knowledge that he, like them, wanted the club for the most laudable objects – charity, and as a recreation for his beloved east enders – they persevered.’

Today his ‘beloved east enders’ and many others from various places and walks of life, pass his statue every time they go to Celtic Park.  The good Brother smiles down on them and he might be repeating those words he said to the Celtic party he met in London in 1911…

It’s good to see you all so well and I feel younger with the meeting.  Goodbye, God bless you.”

God bless you too Brother and thank you.




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