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Christmas At The Whitechapel Mission

December 28, 2014
by the gentle author

Before dawn on Christmas Eve, Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I ventured out in a rainstorm to visit our friends down at the Whitechapel Mission – established in 1876, which opens every day of the year to offer breakfasts, showers, clothes and access to mail and telephones, for those who are homeless or in need.

Many of those who come here are too scared to sleep rough but walk or ride public transport all night, arriving in Whitechapel at six in the morning when the Mission opens. We found the atmosphere subdued on Christmas Eve on account of the rain and the season. People were weary and shaken up by the traumatic experience of the night, and overcome with relief to be safe in the warm and dry. Feeling the soothing effect of a hot shower and breakfast, they sat immobile and withdrawn. For those shut out from family and social events which are the focus of festivities for the rest of us, and facing the onset of winter temperatures, this is the toughest time of the year.

Unlike most other hostels and day centres, Whitechapel Mission does not shut during Christmas. Tony Miller, who has run the Mission and lived and brought up his family in this building over the last thirty-five years, had summoned his three grown-up children out of bed at five that morning to cover in the kitchen when the day’s volunteers failed to show. Although his staff take a break over Christmas which means he and his wife Sue and their family have to pick up the slack, it is a moment in the year that Tony relishes. “40% of our successful reconnections happen at Christmas,” he explained enthusiastically, passionate to seize the opportunity to get people off the street, “If I can persuade someone to make the Christmas phone call home …”

Tony estimates there are around three thousand people living rough in London at present, whom he accounts as follows – approximately 15% Eastern Europeans, 15% Africans and 5% from the rest of the world, another 15% are ex-army while 30%, the largest proportion, are people who grew up in care and have never been able to establish a secure life for themselves.

Among those I spoke with on Christmas Eve were those who had homes but were dispossessed in other ways. There were several vulnerable people who lived alone and had no family, and were grateful for a place where they could come for breakfast and speak with others. Here in the Mission, I recognised a collective sense of refuge from the challenges of existence and the rigours of the weather outside, and it engendered a tacit human solidarity. “This is going to be the best Christmas of my life,” Andrew, an energetic skinny guy who I met for the first time that morning, assured me, “because it’s my first one free of drugs.” We shook hands and agreed this was something to celebrate.

Tony took Colin & me upstairs to show us the pile of non-perishable food donations that the Mission had received and explained that on Christmas Day each visitor  would be given a gift of  a pair of socks, a woollen hat, a scarf and pair of gloves, with a bar of chocolate wrapped inside. Tony told me that on Christmas Day he and his family always have a meal together, but his wife Sue also invites a dozen waifs and strays – so I asked him how he felt about the lack of privacy. “My kids were born here,” he replied with a shrug and a smile and an astonishing generosity of spirit, “after thirty years, I don’t have a problem with it.”

Food donations

Photographs copyright Colin O’Brien

Click here to donate to the work of the Whitechapel Mission

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. December 28, 2014

    What Tony and his co-workers and family do is really priceless. Thank God for those who help others in need. Valerie

  2. December 28, 2014

    Thank you dearest Gentle Author for bringing The Whitechapel Mission into our home this morning . We sit about stuffed full of Christmas food, in the company of loving family interrupted by visits from treasured friends. Our bodies and minds well rested from deep sleep in comfy beds and a few days away from work. It is important to never assume this will always be the case and your posting today brings feelings of gratitude but also sorrow that millions across the world have a far from happy Christmas .

  3. December 28, 2014

    Believe it or not: those missions become more and more necessary in Germany too! “Thanks” to the filthy capitalism and the damned Euro…! — Keep the British Pound alive as long as possible!!

    Men like Tony Miller do an very important work nowadays!

    Love & Peace

  4. Jane permalink
    December 28, 2014

    Every picture here telling a story.

  5. cynthia booker permalink
    December 29, 2014

    I am so glad to see that most have warm jackets/coats. There is a quiet dignity in several of the photos, so there is hope. In 100 years, these pictures will be looked at as we looked at the recently posted pictures of the poor children.

  6. December 29, 2014

    Wonderful photos, and wonderful to see that the work of the Mission goes on. My great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb (1851 – 1934) was housekeeper at the Wesleyan East End Mission in Whitechapel in the 1890s:

  7. Sue permalink
    January 16, 2015

    It makes me want to cry to know that so many people live with such little creature comfort. This kind of poverty should have ended by now, and they don’t even have the community the Victorian poor enjoyed in their slums, except for a while in the morning thanks to the Mission.

    I’ve just bought your book in order to show a foreigner friend of mine, who has criticised our welfare state, just how important it is as long as vast inequalities in wellbeing still exist.
    He comes from South Africa and the images in Spitalfied Nippers could be from there these days, with only a change in skin colour. There is no safety net of welfare in S.A. and people suffer.
    The welfare state is not necessarily the best state, but it’s better than nothing.

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