Today we set off to join a procession that made its way through the streets of the eastern City and into the East End of London in 1905.
Our guide for this sojourn is The Westminster Gazette, which published the following detailed look at the procession in its edition of Monday the 11th of September, 1905:-
A WINDOW IN WHITECHAPEL
It is a great day in Whitechapel. The street outside my window is thronged with a sedate holiday crowd attired in its Sunday garb. An unusual number of policemen and persons in uniform are present, apparently to keep order; but beyond an endeavour to clear the middle of the road for the better progress of the procession their presence seems scarcely needed.
Today being the Sunday in the Octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of the largest Catholic processions in her honour tags place, starting from the Church of the English Martyrs and wending its way to the site of the old scaffold on Tower-hill, where More, Fisher, and others suffered martyrdom for their faith.
THE PROCESSION SETS OFF
The long procession troops slowly out of church and files down the little grey street paved with clumsy cobble-stones.
The priests lead the way, bearing a statue of Our Lady, and the crowds follow in swift, orderly succession.
Very charming are the Children of Mary in their white frocks and veils, blue ribbons, and graceful wreaths. The altar-boys, in vivid red, strike a note of brilliant colour.
The gay draperies of a group of Tamil women, who hold their small heads superbly erect, excite considerable comment; they are not a common sight in the East End, and their dark imperturbable faces, adorned with gold nose-rings, render them unusually striking among the sickly-white, pinched faces that surround them.
Each sodality and confraternity is accompanied by its own banner, borne aloft by some stalwart member. The wind plays sad tricks with these banners, which are oddly unwieldy to hold and heavy to carry, though they add considerably to the beauty of the procession.
The “Ransomers” (men and women) form no unimportant part, and come, we notice, from far afield – from Canning Town and Woodford and other outlying places in the London district.
A POPULOUS NEIGHBOURHOOD
The streets through which we pass belong to that populous neighbourhood where the City impinges upon Whitechapel and are rich in historic memories.
Down Leman-street into Royal Mint-street, past the Mint, standing on the site of a famous monastery – the Abbey of Our Lady of Graces, built in Edward the Third’s time – the procession arrives at last at the open space – now a garden – on Tower-hill, where More and Fisher and others were beheaded.
It is a tranquil spot now, though one may conjure up ghosts enough if so disposed; and on the spreading plane-trees the first touch of autumn lies goldenly.
One pauses to admire the brilliant effect produced by the gleaming colours of the various sodalities against the sombre greyness of the Tower walls.
ONWARDS AND FORWARDS
Then on, past the Church of All Hallows at Barking, where a blackened but beautiful statue of Our Lady watches this latest procession in her honour with mildly benign eyes.
Down Mark-lane and through Crutched Friars, where the famous Trinitarians of old had their monastery, the long procession passes into the Minories, so called from the Poor Clare nuns “Sorores Minores,” who were established there in the thirteenth century.
And all this time the crowd on the pavement thickens. It is a typically East End crowd on its very best behaviour – orderly, sympathetic one would say, and, above all things, reverent.
The bands – they are many and somewhat discordant but laudably in earnest – play the well known Catholic hymn “Faith of our Fathers,” and hundreds of voices join heartily in the singing of it. “Star of the Sea” – another favourite – follows.
THROUGH THE POOREST PARTS
And as we pass through some of the poorest parts – mere dens, perhaps, that one wonders can so long have escaped the vigilance of the sanitary authorities – we notice that many a touching little shrine has been erected in honour of Our Lady.
In one instance blue silk draperies show in sharp, almost pathetic contrast against the smoke-blackened brickwork and frame a tiny shrine where a statue of the Blessed Virgin is surrounded by flowers, and lighted candles that flicker as the gusty wind catches them.
These little shrines are reminiscent of Italy, where few houses are destitute of some such pious symbol.
THE FINAL SERVICE
And as the throng halts outside the church wherein the final service of Benediction takes place the strains of the familiar hymn echo with a mournful pathos: “Mother of Christ, Star of the Sea, Pray for the wanderer, pray for me.”
Then the crowd disperses and the little grey street is once more mapped in its accustomed quiet – the fourteenth annual procession in honour of Our Blessed Lady is over. It has occupied from start to finish about two hours, and many of the little feet that marched bravely the whole distance are doubtless beginning to feel weary.