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A Sikh At Christ Church

December 13, 2018
by Suresh Singh

This Saturday 15th December at noon, Suresh Singh & I will be signing copies of our books A MODEST LIVING and THE LIFE & TIMES OF MR PUSSY at The Broadway Bookshop, Broadway Market, E8 4QJ. Please come along and say hello.

Today, Suresh Singh, author of A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of Cockney Sikh, recalls his days at Christ Church Spitalfields, when Rector Eddy Stride was chairman of Nationwide Festival of Light and Lord Longford, Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Cliff Richard came regularly to Fournier St.

Suresh Singh & Jagir Kaur at 38 Princelet St this summer (photo by Patricia Niven)

The old sign preserved in the outside toilet in Princelet St (photo by Patricia Niven)

There were no Sikh temples in Spitalfields, so Dad sent us to the Christ Church Sunday School instead. He said to us, ‘You need moral purpose.’ I went every week for eleven years and I loved it. Sunday School was held in the Hanbury Hall because the church was derelict at that time. Mavis Bullwinkle, Fay Watson, Mrs Price and Mrs Hilda Foskett ran it. They were great teachers and, thanks to them, I know my Bible pretty well.

Dad used to bow down and touch the floor to pay his respects outside holy places, but he never went into any church or synagogue. He sent me inside because he believed that all religions were equal, although he did not realise that the congregation of Christ Church were strongly evangelical. He always gave me the penny for Sunday School and respected the teachings of Jesus. We used to come home and talk to him about what we had learnt. I remember Mavis and Hilda used to tell us captivating tales like ‘Noah’s Ark’ and ‘Jonah & the Whale.’ They were beautiful stories and I loved them. We enjoyed going there and singing hymns. They would have liked me to have become a born-again Christian but I never did because I already had a belief in what Dad told me. Yet I did find a sense of moral purpose there. It taught me to be kind.

Dad became friends with Eddy Stride, the rector of Christ Church. Dad told me Eddy was a ‘Sikh’ rector, and they enjoyed a long friendship drawn together by their shared belief in selflessness and service to others. Later, I got to know Eddy myself and visited the rectory at 2 Fournier St. He gave me the run of the house. I fed the rabbits and ducks in the back garden, and I jumped over the garden wall into the adventure playground.

As I was growing up, I found I spent more and more time on the other side of Brick Lane. There was a different atmosphere among the eighteenth-century houses with their canopied doors, old sash windows and little yards at the rear backing onto my school. I suppose there were always more people around on our side of Brick Lane and the far side was a strange place to me, both scary and friendly at the same time. I used to find the crypt of Christ Church especially alien. The dirty smelly steps led down to a shelter for alcoholics. It was like an underground prison, and the cabbagey smell of the stodgy food made me sick. When you went inside and spoke to the men, they were lovely, and had beautiful sad stories of their family breakups and how they came from Scotland or wherever.

There was Ken Noble, who used to carry a book of Robert Burns and sang the poems at the top of his voice when he got drunk. He was banned from the shelter because he would not give up drink and he used to stand at the back of the services at Hanbury Hall, drowning out the congregation singing hymns. Eddy had a bee in his bonnet about alcohol. Every Christmas, he used to receive a bottle of expensive whisky from Truman’s brewery and pour it down the drain, saying ‘These people can’t handle it.’ He refused to meet face-to-face with the brewery people, because he saw the misery it caused to people’s lives. He made it his mission to rid the disease of alcohol from Spitalfields.

Eddy Stride was chairman of the Nationwide Festival of Light who campaigned to raise morals by cleaning up television and stopping pornography. They held their meetings at the rectory. When Mrs Stride made the sandwiches in the kitchen, I used to help her. I was shocked to see Lord Longford, Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Cliff Richard coming regularly to Fournier Street. Lord Longford stored stacks of his book, ‘The Pornography Report,’ in the church. Mary Whitehouse’s son Richard was a silversmith, he used to repair my flute.

One day, I met Eddy and the curate coming back from Liverpool St station in long raincoats and flat caps, which was unusual, as if they were in disguise. Eddy always wore his dog collar but on this occasion he did not have it. Later I found out they had been visiting newsagents to see how they were displaying their pornographic magazines and check they were not breaking laws of indecency. I heard they also went in disguise to cinemas in Soho.

Eddy kept giving me carpentry and joinery work at the church, the crypt, the school, the Hanbury Hall and the rectory. ‘You’ve got a good eye for architecture, Suresh,’ he said one day. It was very kind of Eddy. He was always looking out for me, like a guardian angel.

All these jobs were opening my eyes. ‘You’ve got to study architecture,’ Eddy kept saying. He helped me apply and was my referee for the Polytechnic of Central London School of Architecture which was the place to be at the time because it was in the spirit of an École Polytechnique – which meant it was more engineering-based than a university – and because it was close to the Royal Institute of British Architects.

At my interview, when they asked me what I did, I told them, ‘I am a self-employed carpenter and joiner. I do bits and bobs in Hawksmoor’s church in Spitalfields.’ They all stood up. ‘I’ve got to go back now because I’ve got to put casters on the communion table,’ I continued, ‘I’ve got work to do.’ They said, ‘You’re in now.’

Eddy was frustrated with how the church was being restored. The architect thought this was the opportunity to restore it as closely as possible to Hawksmoor’s original design. Eddy wanted handrails for the elderly, a lift for disabled access and wheelchair ramps but this did not coincide with how the architect believed Hawksmoor wanted the church. I made wooden ramps and put the communion table, lectern and pulpit on casters. Eddy stood his ground with the neo-Georgians who bought eighteenth-century houses. It helped that he lived in the best one in Spitalfields, designed by Hawksmoor.

Eddy Stride, Rector of Christ Church and Chairman of the Nationwide Festival of Light

Suresh Singh’s photograph of Christ Church

Suresh Singh’s photograph of a down-and-out on the steps of the rectory


“a timely reminder of all that modern Britishness encompasses” – The Observer

In this first London Sikh biography, Suresh Singh tells the candid and sometimes surprising story of his father Joginder Singh who came to Spitalfields in 1949.

Joginder sacrificed a life in the Punjab to work in Britain and send money home, yet he found himself in his element living among the mishmash of people who inhabited the streets around Brick Lane.

Born and bred in London, his son Suresh became the first Punjabi punk, playing drums for Spizzenergi and touring with Siouxsie & the Banshees.

Chapters of biography are alternated with Punjabi recipes by Jagir Kaur.


Click here to order a copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20



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At 38 Princelet St

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Laura Williamson permalink
    December 13, 2018

    Suresh, your Dad sounds like such a fine man. Thank you for sharing your recollections of him.

  2. Derek Cox OBE permalink
    December 16, 2018

    I will get hold of a copy of the book.

    Suresh and his family were important and resourceful members of the Brick Lane community and they made a major contribution by being successfully woven into a vibrant indigenous environment.

    I met Suresh many times over the years and it was always a pleasure to do so

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