At the Strangers’ Rest Mission
Pastor Gerald Daley
The Strangers’ Rest Mission is a plain brick building that drivers do not notice as they speed along the Highway through Wapping, in a neighbourhood where the deafening roar of the traffic never ceases and few people are to be seen upon the pavement. Yet the Mission has been here since 1877 when this was dockland, teeming with seafarers and others attracted “like flies to fresh meat” – as Gerald Daley puts it – who came to exploit the possibilities. In such circumstances, the Mission offered a refuge where a hearty welcome was extended to lonely sailors otherwise at the mercy of those who sought to separate them from their wages.
Pastor Gerald Daley came from Wales to the Strangers’ Rest in 1981 and has lived all these years with his wife Marion in the small flat attached to the chapel. Now at seventy-eight, he is due for retirement and awaiting a replacement, but in the meantime he spared me a couple of hours of reflection upon his time here and the history of the Mission itself. “I was born at the end of 1932, and my father was a union man who marched to London for jobs and he knew how much men suffered working in the docks, both at home in Swansea and in London,” explained Gerald, outlining all he knew of the East End before he came.
A self-declared evangelist and open-hearted preacher with natural rhetorical style and an eager nature, Gerald was converted when he was twenty-eight and working as an engineer. A fortuitous redundancy gave him the money to go to bible college and he was almost forty when he came to the Strangers’ Rest. With the docks had closed by then, the mission’s work had shifted towards those in need who lived in the vicinity.
“My concern was to serve the people,” Gerald said, “I used to go out and visit old people’s homes, and I used to go into schools and teach Religious Instruction and I would speak of the glorious benefits of the bible. Up until 1981, a lot of churches were being told about the poverty of the East End and sending clothes, which we distributed to people who wanted them, and we gave out food parcels at Christmas. We used to take people on trips to Felixstowe, it certainly made life more interesting.”
The Strangers’ Rest has more than six hundred supporters worldwide who send donations and all the correspondence keeps Gerald busy in his tiny crowded office until ten thirty each night, where he keeps some magnificent model boats and a stash of books of Giles cartoons to bring him light relief. “The goal is to have enough supporters to be self sufficient… “ Gerald admitted to me with a shrug, revealing that he struggles to balance the accounts, “but it’s what the good Lord has done and it gives us great purpose.”
Possessing a kind of holy innocence, Gerald is a target for conmen who come to the Strangers’ Rest with elaborate stories of distress designed to extricate money, which Gerald often gives. “It doesn’t harden you, but it wearies you,” he said to me with a wry smile, “you have to listen to a catalogue of catastrophes and woes. And we even had the offering stolen one Sunday morning.” Yet Gerald’s faith permits him to interpret these criminal interventions as divine agency. “God is not simply making us righteous,” Gerald told me with self-acknowledged pathos,“he is making us more holy by the challenges he sends to our self-righteousness.”
In his absolute belief, Gerald embodies the spirit that has sustained the Strangers’ Rest as the last mission of all those once associated with the docks. He carries the tale of Mrs Dagmar Andre, the Swedish millionairess who was not converted by chaplains upon the cruise ships she frequented, but by Gerald’s predecessor Bob Hutchinson – who ran the Mission for thirty-six years from 1935 until 1971, and rebuilt it after it was bombed with the largesse of Mrs Andre, in order that the good works might continue. And today Gerald has a small but committed congregation of older people who come for the weekly Sunday service followed by free lunch - “open to all,” he asked me to emphasise.
“When I preach I believe in total sincerity,” he asserted, his eyes shining with emotion – a statement he qualified later by declaring, ” Yet I may not be as excellent as I should be.” and mitigated unexpectedly, saying, “But you can always apologise if you are wrong.” And then he gave me selection of pamphlets and a bag of sweeties to take with me – before sending me off with a warm handshake, suggesting it was God’s providence that had sent me to him.
The Highway is one of the bleakest corners of the East End, and yet it is the location that has captivated Pastor Gerald Daley for nearly forty years. “I don’t go in for holidays a good deal, ” he said, as we sat in the empty prayer room with the traffic thundering outside, “I’m not against holidays, but I’m very happy where I am. It’s a work of delight.”
Sailors may write their letters – Read or rest, nothing to pay.
Ladies’ gathering, nineteen fifties.
Ladies’ outing to the seaside, nineteen fifties.
Childrens’ outing to Felixstowe.
Ladies’ outing to Windsor, 1961.
A visit by Mrs Armsby, the first woman to be mayor of Tower Hamlets.
Millionairess patron Mrs Dagmar Andre & Mr Bob Hutchinson cut the cake.
A visit to Bob Hutchinson, ex-superintendent of Strangers’ Rest Mission, at Pilgrims Care Home, 1987.
A walk from the Strangers’ Rest around sites of spiritual enlightenment in the East End – seen here at the statue of General Booth, Salvation Army Founder in the Mile End Rd.
Pastor Gerald & Mrs Marion Daley