Colin Grainger

A love story that captured the nation’s heart – 77 years ago

It’s the time of year when romance is in the air. And so it seemed appropriate to bring back into focus one of the love stories of the century.

The wedding that not only captured the nation’s heart but made worldwide news.

And it happened Back In The Day in the centre of the community in East Ham, 77 years ago. I’ve written all about it in the latest edition of EastEdge magazine, details of which feature below. My website gives me the chance to include some more images. Anyway, back to the story…

It was a wedding that summed up the spirit of The Blitz. … and showed how even Hitler’s Luftwaffe could not disrupt the Cockney way of life.
On April 20th, 1941, the morning after 150 incendiary bombs had gutted St. Bartholomew’s, East Ham a bride and groom arrived at the wrecked church.

Charred timbers and ravaged walls were all that was left of the church where they were to be married that day.
But Helen Fowler, 20 of Caledon Road, East Ham and her Canadian soldier sweetheart, Cpl. Christopher Morrison, aged 21 of the 48th Highlanders stood proudly amid the ruins of the bombed-out church and made their wedding vows.

  • The wedding

 

The coupled pledged their allegiance to one another in a secluded porch, while fireman played their hoses on the wooden beams which were still smouldering.
The Rev. Albon Rabson, the church curate, conducted the ceremony “with all the dignity of a normal occasion”, a church spokesman said at the time.

The couple did not kneel because of the debris and a table was brought in for the marriage registers, relatives stood on the stone steps.
I was lucky enough to recall the occasion in a special supplement for the Newham Recorder, where I news editor at the time. It marked the rebuilding of the new St Bart’s church to create what serves our community today.

Back in 1941, tears of pride and anger filled their eyes. But the spirit was not broken. The ARP Warden for East Ham was quoted as saying “We can still sing. There is no yielding in the fight to bring about the downfall of the Nazism.”
The wedding of the corporal from the 48th Highlanders and the Dagenham Girl Piper made front page news in Britain and Canada. Local papers of the time were not allowed to reveal it was St. Bart’s that had been wrecked by fire until months afterwards. News blackouts were in force to keep information from the enemy, and in some cases the public.

Also married on that Sunday after the church was bombed the night before were Arthur Oxford and Georgina Wright, of nearby Barking Road.
Helen, who joined the Dagenham girl Pipers at the age of 12, went with the Pipers, who accompanied the King and Queen when they visited Canada in 1939. She met her husband-to-be in Toronto. When she arrived home in England ten weeks after the war had been declared, Helen continued writing across the Atlantic and later, when Cpl. Morrison arrived in England with the Canadian forces they arranged to be married.
When I spoke to them back in 1983 they said they remembered the day they wed as if it was yesterday. “He was nearly an hour-and-a-half late” said Helen.
“Ah but I did have an excuse dear,” said Chris. “A few bombs had fallen the night before.” Chris was staying at a special serviceman’s hostel in the City and left with plenty of time to spare with his best man but Hitler’s bombers had severely hit London during the night.

  • The couple pictured in 1983

“There were holes in buildings everywhere, it was an unbelievable sight,” he recalled. “It was like hell’s half acre. We were on the train and suddenly we were ordered off at Aldgate East. It took ages to get to the church by a mixture of hard walking and bus rides. Helen and her family were distraught. They were driving round in the car for ages.”
Helen added: “The Church was in ruins but nothing was going to stop our big day. But the driver said that he had another wedding to go to so he couldn’t wait much longer.”
Finally one of Helen’s relatives stationed near the Town Hall saw the lads. And all was right.
“I clearly remember the firemen playing their hoses on the burning wood. It was an incredible moment in our lives,” said Helen.
They lived just a stone’s throw from where they were married in Greatfield Avenue, East Ham where they raised six children Lee, Christopher, Laurie, Stuart, Judith and Andrew.

Chris, who won numerous rifle shooting awards was a member of the Queens 100 – the 100 best shots in the Commonwealth Empire.  After he left the Army he did a variety of jobs including bus conductor, rigger, docker and Ford worker.

Back 77 years ago, the wedding made headlines in his home town paper, The Pink Telegraph. There was even a cartoon in which Helen was called The Lady of The Lamp.

The night before the bombers struck at 10.40pm. The incident is recorded in the bomb book of the time as incident 1,101.

It was the one direct hit on the church roof that caused all the damage.

The outer walls proved they were made of stern stuff as they survived- and that proved to be the case in 1980 when a giant concrete wrecking ball ‘bounced’ off the walls they should have demolished for the church rebuild. Stronger demolition equipment had to be brought in.

But it was the never say die spirit and romance of that day back in April 1941 that will remain in our hearts forever.

The church itself still has the picture of the service hanging in their reception area and is reproduced here.

And though the Stratford Express of the time did not mention the wedding – and was not allowed to show the picture of it or the the bomb damage, they were allowed to carry a front page picture of the King and Queen visiting the area.

When a voice shouted: ”Are you downhearted?” the answer from locals was a resounding: “No.” And this, it was reported, brought a smile from “their Majesties.”

  • The church as it is today

 

  • This article appears in the latest edition of the EastEdge magazine, published every other month in East Ham and edited by Karen Ay. To be part of this great magazine please contact hello@eastedgemag.com or contact Karen on 07590 609557. Advertise your local East London business and reach a great audience by getting in touch.
  • The magazine has its ownwebsite, which can be found at https://www.eastedgemag.com/about.html
  • It is also on Twitter : https://twitter.com/EastEdgeMag

 

Picture Credits:

St Bart’s Church and Centre; Colin Grainger; Newham Archives and Local Studies Library

 

 

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This article was written on 05 Feb 2018, and is filed under Christopher Morrison, EastEdge Mag, St Bartholomews Church.

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