Moonlight on the Stairs:
A North London Story
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 31 AUGUST 2020
You may recall meeting Richard Rowe in two of our recent articles, namely Lighting up the Lives of Londoners and Castles in the Air. Rowe was the Methodist minister who worked amongst the poor of London in the later years of the nineteenth century and left us an affectionate portrait of Hoppety Bob, a man he clearly admired.
Elsewhere Rowe wrote down his impressions of Saturday nights in the narrow side streets of the capital. Here he conveys brilliantly a sense of emptiness, describing a world of shadows in which the warehouses and offices are as ‘dark and voiceless’ as sealed pyramids, and in which the neighbourhood tavern ‘with its gas half turned down’ has transformed itself into a sort of sepulchre. You might have encountered a policeman rattling doors and shutters to see that they were locked, or old men or women beating dusty mats outside the gates of an ancient church. Otherwise, silence. And solitude.
In a dusky old church
And it was on a Saturday night, and in a quiet street of the kind he describes, that Rowe stopped outside a church, its door open, to listen to the sound of the playing of its organ. Falling under the spell of the music he went in, tiptoeing along the shadowy aisles and up the moonlit stairs to the organ loft. He sat in a pew and gazed at this
island of brightness in the dusky old church. A broad slant of moonlight through a side window burnished the heavy organ-case, and its swollen cheeked cherubs and tarnished gilt pipes; shot with silvery tissue the faded folds of the curtains of the loft; and transmuted like an alchymist the greasy brass rods and rings from which they hung.
An old man with grey hair and grey beard, identified by Rowe simply as ‘John — ’, was playing the organ. Nearby, sitting on a hassock, a girl with long curls and with what Rowe thought of as an ‘old-fashioned’ face was watching the organist. She was his granddaughter and her name was Rosie.
The journey begins
This is a North London story. Specifically, the setting is the north and east of the capital: Hackney, Homerton and Clapton. Edward Walford, writing at about the same time as Rowe, commented that Hackney still had some of the character of a village, but signs of modernisation were everywhere. New villas were being built across the fields and orchards in Dalston, and the Great Eastern Railway had swept away an asylum, and a hospital, and a number of other old buildings. Hackney Marshes, lying at the southern end of the River Lea valley, had become a development area for manufacturing industries.
On the old maps of London, such as Cary’s of 1837, Homerton and Clapton open out into the fields east and north of Hackney. Here there were fewer buildings, scattered along the roads that began the great journeys out of and away from the capital. Urban development and all that came with it would arrive later in the century.
Dalston, further to the west, underwent a similar experience of urbanisation as the century wore on. Where on Cary’s map we see the spreading acres of a nursery garden — Smith’s — on later maps these have been built over. Dalston is of particular significance, because it was here that John and Rosie lived, in lodgings, at the time when they fell in with Rowe. And when John set off home, after he had finished playing the organ, his granddaughter would hold his hand, or maybe link arms, in order to guide his steps. Rowe observed that Rosie was protective as well as affectionate, and the reason was that poor John was blind.
Do something well!
But he had not always been, and the sad fact is that his affliction was the consequence of a tragic accident that befell him one Guy Fawkes Night. He was ten years old at the time, and he was with a group of other boys on Hackney Downs when a Jack-in-the box exploded in his face. The firework was refusing to ignite, and he had knelt down to blow the spark on the blue paper.
When John arrived home, led by one of his friends, his mother was distraught. His father was angry — the boy had been allowed out without his knowledge — but he too was upset. He went to fetch a medical man, who bathed John’s eyes. But it was no good, and even after proper treatment the little boy’s sight did not return. The eye specialist who gave the final diagnosis was a sympathetic man. ‘Make up your mind to be able to do something well,’ he said, ‘though you can’t see.’
Learning to cope
John’s parents and siblings — his brother Tom and his sister Sissy — did their best for him. In the evenings Tom would read to him from his school books, and his father taught him to write legibly, using his pen with infinite patience. But it was the violin that his father bought in a pawnshop for his eleventh birthday — John had always been musical — that gave him a new lease of life.
He discovered in himself a true sense of purpose, and, mindful of the doctor’s well-intentioned advice, he learnt to string the fruit-nets that his father, a garden labourer, brought home from the nurseries in Homerton. He would walk with Tom and Sissy across the open spaces of Hackney and Clapton, learning to feel his way along the routes, to know an area by its distinctive smell, to be guided by human voices and by the sounds of omnibuses and carts.
A beautiful face
But Rowe makes it painfully clear that John’s world was turned upside down again when he was thirteen. Scarlet fever swept through Hackney, laying him low and putting him in the workhouse infirmary. He recovered, only to learn that both his parents had contracted the disease, as had his brother and sister. All four had died, leaving the youngster alone in the world. But a kind neighbour brought him his violin, and, when the workhouse guardians realised that he was talented, they kitted him out in new clothes and sent him off to survive as best he could.
For a while he busked in Hackney, living with a friend of the family. But the more he was seen, the less he was given. He moved on to other areas, residing in lodging houses. He thought often of his parents and siblings and visited the churchyard in Tottenham where they were buried, finding their graves by feeling for the markers he had once put in place — a piece of tile for his mother and father and an oyster shell for Tom and Sissy.
Jane and Jack
In these difficult times John had two vital supports. One was his music: he made himself as familiar with the keyboard of a church organ as with the fingerboard of his violin. The other was his relationship with the woman he married when he was thirty and she twenty-five. Her name was Jane. He could tell Jane was beautiful by running his hand, made sensitive by music, over her face. ‘To touch hers was like playing,’ he told Rowe.
They had a son, Jack. When Jack was six his mother died, and when he was twelve he got into bad company and ran away from his father. Now in his forties, John was alone in the world once again.
Although the story of John’s life has one further chapter, it is worth saying here that Rowe is a fine memorialist. He captures accurately the sound of John’s voice and the distinctive quality of his musings and utterances. He steers a course between dispassionate observation and imaginative engagement with a fellow creature’s experiences. Tragedy is leavened by moments of tender significance.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the final bitter-sweet episode. By now John had moved south of the river to work alongside an organist acquaintance, blowing the bellows for him when he played. But he had returned to busking, and, as chance would have it, he was spotted by Jack. Five years had passed since Jack had run off. Although he had never married, he had a child. He was penniless and too ashamed to greet his father. He was also desperately ill.
One night, playing in the Old Kent Road, John was approached by a woman. ‘You must come with me,’ she said, ‘for your son wants you, and he’s a-dying.’ She led him to a room in a lodging house, where he recognised Jack by the sound of his voice. ‘Oh, father,’ Jack said, ‘I’ve come to no good.’ John reached out to him. As he did so, he found himself touching a child, who was clinging to the dying man’s neck. ‘There’s no one to look after my poor Rosie,’ said Jack, ‘if you won’t.’ And these were the last words he said.
John buried his son in the cemetery at Nunhead. He took care of Rosie, and, although they lived through hard times, they came through in the end. John was finally able to put his unhappy past behind him.
He was appointed organist of a church, and it was there that Rowe first saw him, at the top of the moonlit stairs, with his curly-headed granddaughter at his side. One can understand why Rowe was moved.
Rosie went to a good school. In the winter evenings she would sit by the fire with her grandfather, talking and reading to him and playing the piano very prettily. Sometimes they would walk arm in arm where John had once walked with Tom and Sissy. Although he had lost so much over the years, he considered himself blessed in the love of his granddaughter, and Rowe’s beautiful account of the life of the blind organist is in the end suffused with happiness. ‘It is like a little heaven below,’ John said of his time with Rosie, ‘to a lonely old man.’
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