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Hosten Garraway, Verger of Spitalfields

October 22, 2010
by the gentle author

Hosten Garraway, Verger of Christ Church is a well known and widely respected figure in Spitalfields. With a natural gravitas and a warm sympathetic nature, you will find Hosten busy most days around Nicholas Hawksmoor’s magnificent eighteenth century church, the building that has been his charge for many years now. It was Hosten who had the job of reopening the church when it had been shut, over twenty years ago, and he has stayed around through all the restoration and building work to become the esteemed custodian who knows it better than anyone today. One quiet morning recently, Hosten and I sat down together in the deserted church, in a pool of Autumn sunlight, and he told me the story of how he came to be here in Spitalfields as Verger. It is a journey that began far away.

“I left Carriacou, an island off Grenada in the Caribbean, when I was eighteen. My mother came to England first and for a couple of years I lived with my uncle who had a small farm, until she sent for me. One day he said to me, “Would you like to go to England?” And straightaway I said, “Yes!” but I remember my uncle was quite concerned for me. We were travelling by boat, not planes then, and there were other lads on the boat that I knew, some who were coming to study, and we stopped off at other islands along the way to pick up passengers. I came from a family that had sailing boats, schooners, so I had sailed with my uncles, but many people became seasick. I went round getting cups of tea for them until a passenger told me to get him a cup of tea – he thought it was my job – so I had to explain that I was not being paid to do it. The voyage was exciting, I felt were all travelling to the same destination even if our goals were not the same. It was a beautiful trip, in which I saw schools of dolphins for the first time, they were racing the boat.

We landed at Southampton and when I got to Waterloo, there was my mother and a few of her  friends and relatives to greet me. I think I must have slept for two days, I was so exhausted. We stayed in Old Montague St, Spitalfields, in one of the houses there, on the very top floor. (They were similar to the houses in Fournier St) It gave you a wonderful view of the rooftops. That was September 1962.

I quickly made friends with others in the neighbourhood, some were Irish, Scots, Welsh and some from other islands of the Caribbean, mostly from Jamaica. It was a closely-knit community with all the different peoples. I made friends with a Jewish family who had a shop, and as the years went by I used to help Sam in his little corner grocer shop in Old Montague St.

Sometimes Sam and I would drive down to Kent to deliver supplies to farms in remote areas. And on one occasion, Sam said, “Can you deliver the goods and collect the money?” and I said “OK.” There was a little child aged six or thereabouts with a basket, and I gave her the eggs and bread, but she did not give me the money so I followed her into the farm to get it. The farmer came out and said, “You don’t have to come in here! Who are you?” I explained that I was delivering the order and collecting the money. He said, “I’m not sure I would want you to come back here again.”

Looking at it now, I’m not sure if it was because I followed his daughter, or the idea of a total stranger on his property, or if it may have been the very first time he came into contact with a non-white person, so he may have been surprised. I don’t know. Sam went and explained the situation to the farmer. I don’t know how many years Sam had been delivering to him, but he wasn’t sure the farmer would want him to deliver goods again. “Next time we come, I’ll let you stay in the van,” said Sam. “That’s wise,” I thought.

Being a Jew, Sam asked me to come to his house and meet his wife and son every weekend. Around six o’clock, he would ask me to switch the light on and light the fire, so I thought, “OK, we’re friends.” But Sam hadn’t explained it to his neighbours who were suspicious when they saw me with a key, “Who are you? What are you doing?” they asked, and I explained, “I’ve come to light the fire.” So this went on quite a while,  switching the light on and lighting the fire every Saturday. So eventually, I asked Sam, “Why can’t you switch the light on yourself?” and it was then he explained to me a little bit about Jewish culture and the Sabbath. I thought about it afterwards, “Did we become friends because he needed someone to light the fire?” but I think it was more that he asked me to light the fire because we became friends.

I used to go to Evening Classes in the Hanbury Hall, in the days when Christ Church Spitalfields was out of use. Eddy Stride was the Rector then and I started going to Sunday Service and we got talking from time to time and I got married and had two sons and I asked if he would christen them and he said, “Yes.” I was working as a Class A Welder at the time, but then in 1988 I had an accident whereby I was off work for a couple of years. I still attended church regularly and I began visiting some of the people who were not at church that week, as I was not working. Some people thought it was odd because I never chose whose door I would knock on, and the people who attended Christ Church were of mixed background, among those who were more affluent were those thought it “most strange.” I could tell by the looks on their faces. But I still visited  and the news got back to Eddy. So he said to me one day, “I hear you have been visiting people, so I’ll give you a list of people to visit.” It took me up to Bethnal Green and as far as Stepney Green.

Then one day, the builders were doing work in Christ Church and a couple of the parish workers asked, “Can we open the church?” But they had no-one to open it, so I volunteered and Eddy Stride took me on one side and said “How would you like to work for the church?” and that frightened me a bit. He said, “You’ll be able to do the same things, but you’ll have to be more reliable. I want you to turn up for prayers on Monday at eight o’clock. You’ll be opening the church for months to come.” I felt nervous, but then he said, “You can talk to people who come into the church,” and then I became even more nervous. I thought, “What can I say to them?” Then I realised, “I’ll give them a tour of the building.” I’d seen Dan Cruickshank talk and seen how he speaks with hands, so he inspired me, and that’s how I got involved with Christ Church. It was very sad when Eddy retired. I used to think, “How will the church tick over in his absence?” but then it worked out quite well. A lay reader named Hugh Shelburn was here for a while. Part of his encouragement to me was to give this advice, “Thank God, look people in the eye, and just love them.”

With these words Hosten completed his story and looked at me. Raising his benign yet unsentimental gaze to meet mine, he humbled me with his plain testimony of a magnanimous soul who has retained an openness of nature – reconciling himself to all the varied experiences of humanity that he has encountered between Carriacou and Spitalfields. From the first incident on the boat, when Hosten described serving cups of tea to seasick passengers, it was apparent to me that he is an independent thinker who possesses a personal moral sense and a strength of character that will not be discouraged. Hosten is a slightly built man and yet he demonstrates an undeniable stature. There is a remarkable quality of stillness in Christ Church, Spitalfields when it is empty of crowds, and Hosten is at peace there in his spiritual home.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. October 23, 2010

    I’ve seen Hosten many times in Spitalfields and know his family. His warm smile has always helped me on my way. Thanks for giving us more background to this lovely person.

  2. jeannette permalink
    October 26, 2010

    thank god, look people in the eye, and just love them.

    oh do give mr. hosten our regards.

  3. January 16, 2011

    a very moving story, showing up the absurdity of some religious practices and the reason why democracy simply cant work (because it generally doesnt suit us)

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